Archive for the ‘ Art ’ Category

The Objects of Matisse

“Matisse in the Studio”
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
and Royal Academy of Arts, London

1. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table by Henri Matisse. 1947. Oil on canvas. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. All illustrations are of items currently exhibited by the MFA, unless otherwise stated. Click on any picture to enlarge.

One floor down from the Botticelli Exhibition, the Museum of Fine Arts is presenting a large exhibition of Matisse paintings and sculpture, Matisse in the Studio, through July 9. (The exhibition will continue, with slightly different objects, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from August 9, 2007 to July 9, 2018.) Taking in these two MFA shows on the same visit forces one to contemplate how vastly different the place art occupies today (or at least 75–100 years ago) from what it did half a millennium before that. From questions of who viewed it and where, to who prescribed the content and style, to how tradition and experimentation interacted and the space for each, to the importance of our understanding the artist’s intention, the social position and the aesthetic principles of art are nearly antipodal. There are certainly similarities. For example, over time both progressively dropped conventions that designed to make the canvas (or panel) simulate a window on a visibly “real” world. (Matisse, of course, began with fewer conventions and dropped more of them.) But I think in one respect the artists shared a point of departure—the relationship between the thing seen and the thing imagined. Botticelli imagined a scene and assembled the elements from memories. Matisse, by contrast, assembled things he could see in order the create a work of imagination. This was the result of a consequence of the conditions that prevented Botticelli from escaping the control of his patron, while Matisse, living in altogether different conditions, requires his viewer to see his art by first understanding the aesthetic rules of his own devising.

This may seem a fairly mundane (and perhaps forced) observation, but at least the second half of that dichotomy is the principal lesson drawn from the Boston Matisse show; namely, how grounded in a view of material reality Matisse’s paintings are. Or at least that’s how how he conceptualized his work. This seems to have been true throughout his career. This may be a surprising lesson for those of us who believe that Matisse’s approach was highly imaginative and fanciful, more like design than representation. The conclusion that he was a designer (or illustrator)  might be said not only of the late work (such as the cut-outs) but also such earlier work as Dance (I) (1909), and it would gain support by considering his side projects, such as his stage designs and his book illustrations. But, on the other hand, it is notable that Matisse never went in for pure abstraction; all of his work are based on things from the visible world, however refracted by Matisse’s imagination. This includes the late cut-outs, which are simply highly styled representations; even those so abstracted that we can see no likeness to their purported subjects, such as The Snail (1953), can be traced back though successive stages to a “seen” object.

The primacy of visual rather than cerebral stimulus for inspiration was noted early in Matisse’s career, and French cubist and art theorist André Lhote saw this as the main difference between Matisse on the one hand and Picasso, Braque (after abandoning Fauvism) and their followers on the other: “Matisse proceeds from sensation to idea, the cubists proceed from idea to sensation.” (Quoted in Flam (1986), p. 21).

Turquoise vase

2. Turquoise vase. (Bohemian? Turkish?) 19th century. Opaque glass. Musée Matisse, Nice. (Used in #1.)

Matisse himself agreed with this assessment. In fact, he went further. His intent was to copy nature as it exists. In a 1925 interview, long after his Fauvist period and after the period of his extreme abstractions (1913–17), both of which were disapproved of by traditionalists and academic art instructors and therefore ridiculed by newspaper reviewers, he asserted: “I copy nature, and I make myself even put the time  of day in the painting” (Flam (1995(, p. 81). Notwithstanding adding a seemingly “realistic” detail, the question of course lies in what it means to “copy nature.” Even the 19th century French Realists, however much they wished to present verisimilitude, had the problem of translating the view of a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional canvas. Even so, Matisse held that it was the painter’s duty to “copy nature” on to the arbitrary substrate: “An artist must recognize, when he gets reasoning, that his picture is an artifice, but when he is painting, he should feel that he has copied nature. And even when he departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is only to interpret her more fully” (Flam (1995), p. 42).

It is in this last part where the rub is. For so long as critics and reporters from the popular press felt the line to be drawn at “representational art,” Matisse consistently held that he was copying nature. But to him “copy” and “interpret” was different from “document” and “represent.” In response to George Besson in 1908 Matisse said that the role of photography to be “objective” and “give us documents.” Three years later in an interview with a Russian correspondent he said: “In my view the artist should not represent nature as it is in reality. We have photography for that” (Flam (1995), p. 44).  The distinction between “copying” nature (which he claimed he did) and “documenting” it depended on Matisse’s metaphysics which starkly differed from the almost all those involved in the modernist enterprise especially the predominant avant-garde in painting (but also in poetry, novels and music). Examinong how he treated “objective reality” allows the viewer to understand that metaphysical bias and see why the most advanced of his rivals always considered him a dottering conservative at best and a reactionary at worst.

The MFA show attempts a close study of what Matisse was looking at and how he translated it into art by placing against his works the very objects he was looking at or which inspired his apporoach to that work.  It begins with a selection of his early still lifes.

Embroidered textile

3. Embroidered textile. Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th century. Raffia plainweave embroidered with raffia. Musée Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis. (Cf. red surface in 1.)

Actors in the Studio

It was not until 1890, when he was 20, that Matisse first began painting. Till then he was a clerk in a law office in Saint-Quentin, in North France, placed there at the urging of his respectable bourgeois father. His dreamed of escape from that life had been music (he was a violinist), but during a long hospital stay following a collapse in 1889, he became interested in the hobby of his neighbor in the next bed, painting an oil reproduction of a chromo-lithograph illustration. His mother bought him a paint box with his own chromo illustration to copy and he found his career. His training, first part time in St. Quentin, then at the Académie Julian to prepare for the entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts, was stultifying, requiring him to  undergo the traditional approach of copying then-approved academic painters and cast models. Although he failed his entrance examination to the Beaux-Arts school (he would pass on his second attempt three years later), Matisse was able (through a plan devised by a friend) to attract the attention of its one forward-looking professors, Gustave Moreau, who invited Matisse to join his studio, which then included, among others, Georges Rouault and Albert Marquet, who would become Matisse’s life-long friend. From Moreau Matisse received not only solid grounding in technique (particularly metière—brushwork and touch), but also personal and professional encouragement. From his studio would come a group that would early exhibit with Matisse and also those who would form the nucleus of the fauves.

Moreau also firmly grounded Matisse in the masters.  This was no small favor, for the Beaux-Arts instructors preferred conservative mannerists to profoundly important figures no matter from how long ago. Matisse told Jacques Guenne in 1925: “Moreau knew how to distinguish and how to show us who were the greatest painters, whereas [Adolphe-William] Bouguereaux [France’s most successful academic painter and a teacher at the Académie Julian] invited us to admire Julio Romano” (Flam (1995), p. 80).

Chocolate Pot

4. Chocolate pot. French. 19th–early 20th century. Silver and wood. Private collection.

When Matisse began painting independently he was deeply steeped in the Dutch tradition. As Schneider points out, in both their vocabulary (books, oysters, lemons, crockery) and their syntax (perspective, modeling) the works of Matisse were oriented towards the Netherlands. And the first works we see in the Boston exhibition are his early still lifes together with one of the earliest items from his studio collection, a silver chocolate pot (#4).

It was not unusual for a 19th-century artist to collect objects for his studio. In fact, the very galleries of the MFA which are housing the current Matisse exhibit last year showed the works of William Merritt Chase (reviewed here). Chase himself was an extravagant collector, and his studio was a flamboyant showcase for his art as well as the subject of it. By contrast, Matisse, whose father tried to invest him with petite bourgeois values and who experienced privation in his early art career in Paris, resented collectors and avoided collecting studio objects; instead he used the Louvre as his studio (McBreen & Burnham, p. 16). When he finally began painting objects in his own studio, he used relatively inexpensive items. His collection was made up of tableware, vases, bowls, pots, jugs, small figurines and the like. Making a virtue of necessity, he employed the same object in numerous paintings. He later began collecting African, Islamic and Asian arts, ornaments and fabrics. Later in life he filled his studio with large plants as well as cages with numerous live birds. By the end he had become the ostentatious collector that he had not deigned becoming at the beginning.

When his collection was small and mostly domestic items, he developed a somewhat mystical relation with it. He took it with him wherever he went, even temporarily. He often wrote home requesting that additional items be sent. He explained this behavior (in a 1941 interview) as based on the need for his feelings to be “hooked” by the object. “To express that feeling you really do have to render the object” (Courthion, p. 145). In the middle of the 1890s he had become aware of modernist movements in painting, and he was beginning to respond to it in his own work. Evidently, the lesson he drew from his early encounters with Impressionists and Post-Impressionists was that the artist was to capture some inner truth of the objects (nature) he represented. Matisse seemed to believe that that truth communicated itself to the artist (or perhaps the artist was able to tease it out of the object) by some sort of non-visual relationship with the object which he described as “emotion” or “feeling.” In 1913 when his works were gaining slow acceptance (or perhaps, more accurately, a foothold) in American opinion through the Armory Show on Lexington Avenue in New York, this “[m]uch ridiculed man” explained to a patently dubious art reporter for the New York Times Magazine what he was doing in his work. He gave the example that if he painted a table he would “not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produced on me” (MacChesen, p. 12).

Matisse, Still Life with a Chocolate Pot

5. Still Life with a Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. ca. 1900. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Emotion” is probably not the right term for what Matisse was trying to express. “Affect” or “non-conscious response” might have been better choices. But he used the term regularly with his students. Gertrude’s sister-in-law Sarah Stein recorded him as telling his students in 1908: “To copy the objects in a still-life is nothing, one must render the emotion they awaken in him” (Flam (1995), p. 51), and “he showed them how tenderly he himself felt towards the taut compact volumes of an African wood carving, the generous roundness of a copper pot, the swelling tear-shaped body of a slender vase” (Spurling (2005), p. 21). It reminds me of the physical reactions of mid-century existentialists towards objects, best expressed by the Nausea of Antoine Roquentin: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” The realization produced physical revulsion. The underlying metaphysics of that emotion is entirely unlike Matisse’s; the existentialist believes that what-you-see-is-what-you get. That essential materialism undergirded almost all of Modernism from the Imagist poets, to the reaction against Pre-Raphaelites, to the Cubists and Futurists, to the Naturalist novelists and even their successors.

Joyce examined much the same problem Matisse was dealing with. What do we know exists based on what can be learned from the portals of our eyes? Joyce, through Dedalus, tenatively answered that there is nothing but the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” What-you-see-is-all-there-is. This sets Dedalus off on the theory of light of Aristotle, maestro di color che sanno, not Plato the the Idealist, who says what we see is merely shadows on a cave wall of things that exit outside. Dedalus says that what we see is real, not an illusion of our visual sense: “Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure.” This is not Matisse’s view, or at least not the view he wants his own viewers to understand.

(Years later Matisse would literally imprint his own very different metaphysics on that very novel. In 1935 publisher George Macy obtained Joyce’s permission to have a limited edition of Ulysses illustrated with line drawings by Matisse. Joyce sent Matisse details so that he could capture the “Irishness” of the episodes. Matisse, however, illustrated nothing in the novel, instead drawing scenes from the Odyssey, the Ideal for which Ulysses was only the image (Aragon, I:191). Two of his drawings concerned scenes of the Odyseey not even recapitulated in Ulysees. And the book was sold with Matisse’s autograph, not Joyce’s. The Idealist, at least in this one case, prevailed over the Materialist.)

Matisse, Still Life with Chocolate Pot (ink)

6. Still Life with Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1900. Ink on paper. Musée Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis.

Matisse’s early still lifes show none of the contradictions among reality—visual impression—artistic expression that he was grappling to explain in 1908. In the 1890s he was assimilating the influence of the artists promoted by Moreau. His first still lifes was strongly influenced by Chardin, who was in turn himself influenced by the Dutch masters of the previous century (compare Matisse’s Still Life with Peaches (#9) with Chardin’s Still Life with Glass Flask and Fruit (ca. 1728)). Matisse had made four copies of Chardin’s work at the Louvre and never lost his admiration for his work. All of the early still lifes are studies of various textures and reflective surfaces using much of the visual language of Chardin.

During the years 1895–1902 Matisse began absorbing, and tentatively expressing, lessons from various advanced and modernist approaches. He travelled to Brittany where he experimented with seascapes that remind one of late Turner (seee.g.Seascape at Goulphar (1896) and Large Gray Seascape (1896)), but Matisse had yet to see any of Turner’s works. When he did in 1898 (but not the late Turner works which had not yet been exhibited), the response was an explosive use of color as in Sunset at Corsica (1898). His Notre Dame in the Late Afternoon (1902) seems to comment on the approach of Monet in the early 1890s in his series of paintings on the Rouen Cathedral, in that it ignores the church’s details in order to see it in relation to the light around and that it reflects. Instead of detailing the intricacies of light on the building’s surface, however, Matisse substituted flat planes of color. Moreover, he experimented with Neo-Impressionism (seee.g.Small Door of the Old Mill (1898)). But the most important figure he would confront was Cézanne.

At first Matisse explored the more obvious discoveries of Cézanne: how he deformed objects, violated norms of color harmony and changed approaches to facture and representation of volume. These can be seen in the 1900–04 sculpture The Serf and the 1900 oil Male Model, which plainly reveal how Matisse understood Cézanne and also that his engagement with him was deeper and years the Cubists would take up his influence. But, according to Flam, the most important breakthrough of Cézanne, the one on which would eventually influence Matisse’s approach to his work most deeply and for the rest of his career, was the creation of “non-denominative space” (Flam (1986), p. 20). With this discovery, the canvas (or whatever substrate) was no longer solely a window to a “real” scene. It was a place where pictured objects interact with each other and the viewer.

According to Flam, Cézanne reconsidered what painting was “about”:

In Cézanne’s paintings, especially after 1885, plastic elements begin to take precedence not only over description but also over denomination. Form is given to that which cannot be named. The spaces between entities are given weight and substance, yet the precise nature of the spaces remains ambiguous. They are not entities but forces. In order to permit these forces to function freely, Cézanne keeps the space in which they act open and “breathing.” The amorphous whiteness of blank canvas is used as the field of force in which the drawn and colored forces set down by the painter will act (Flam (1986), p. 20).

It would take many years for the implications of this to unspool in Matisse’s work, but once it gained a grip on his imagination, it would allow Matisse to attain new breakthroughs at an increasingly rapid rate. But none of this is apparent in the early still lifes selected for the Boston exhibition.

Matisse, Still Life and Heron Studies

7. Still Life and Heron Studies by Henri Matisse. ca. 1900. Watercolor and ink on paper. Private collection.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that by pairing objects from the studio with the works they appear in or influence we can understand what Matisse “saw” and compare it with how he “expressed” it. And the first of the experiments the curators propose is with the handful of still lifes Matisse painted (just as he was absorbing lessons of divergent modernists), all of them involving a silver chocolate pot. That pot, which was a gift at his wedding to Amélie Parayre in January 1898 is part of the exhibition. (#4).

It is difficult to understand what the actual item adds to our appreciation of the works. An ordinary item painted by Matisse in a quite straightforward manner in the works shown, it differs not at all from what one would have imagined it looked like just from the paintings themselves. The two most frequently heard questions from hostile museum goers in the modern art section are: What is this? And why is it made that way? (A question more polite viewers ask themselves quietly.) But when what is painted is obvious, seeing it really does not add anything. And with Matisse, unlike the Cubists or the Futurists or the Symbolists, except for the periods of extreme abstraction, say, the year 1916 or during his period of “plastic writing” or at the very end of his life when his paper cut-outs became mere symbols, it was usually obvious what he was painting. From 1905 onward the question usually was why he as painting it that way.

Matisse, Still Life with Chocolate Pot

8. Still Life with Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1900–02. Oil on canvas. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

The still lifes selected for the exhibit, however, do not even present a question about the manner of expression. Matisse was probably the first and still most important painter who requires a viewer to understand him, not on the basis of some prescribed aesthetic, but rather by intuition informed solely by our knowledge of his own development. But these paintings require no such knowledge. And perhaps that is what the curators intend for us to learn. In these paintings he is not using a language he developed, but rather borrowing from an existing grammar—the accepted “rules” commonly set out by the academy and used by the most successful painters of a time going back decades. Indeed, the paintings are so impersonal that the curators show us a painting by Matisse’s friend Albert Marquet (who would join him in the Fauvist wars and world remain a life-long friend), The Coffee Pot (1902), remarkably like Matisse’s early chocolate pot still lifes, not only in subject matter, but also in setting, lighting and color. It is not unlikely that they intentionally painted similar scenes to compare notes, especially if, as Grammont supposes, Marquet was the one who made the Matisses a present of the chocolate pot in 1898 (Grammont, p. 48). Or perhaps Marquet’s 1902 painting was an homage to or study of an earlier painting by Matisse also shown at the MFA exhibition, Still Life with Peaces, painted in 1895 (#9), using another pot. (Matisse did yet not have the chocolate pot.)

Whatever the circumstances of the creation of these early works, it’s hard to see how they differ from traditional still lifes of the 19th century. Nor do they show much of Cézanne’s innovations, except perhaps the still life owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (#5), which has the “unfinished” background that some Cézanne still lifes have, although this is is not a major part of Cézanne’s legacy.

Still Life with Chocolate Pot (#5) also shows how Matisse was expanding his palette at the time and using a wider range and brighter colors. But it is not representative of Matisse’s growth, even in still lifes, for others, not exhibited at the MFA, for example, First Orange Still Life (1899) (which, incidentally, also includes the chocolate pot), document his evolution more completely. It is true that his experiments at the time are most clearly seen in his landscapes and other outdoor scenes (even scenes outside the studio window). This seems true of each one of Matisse’s major breakthroughs, including his Fauvism of 1905, the extreme abstractions of 1913–17, and the beginning of the Early Nice period and the portrayal of luxury starting in 1918. Only his gradual return to the avant-garde, around 1930, began primarily with studio works. This means that the premise of the exhibition by definition deprives us of seeing his more revolutionary and influential works.

Matisse, Still Life with Peaches

9. Still Life with Peaches by Henri Matisse. 1895. Oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art. (Not shown at MFA exhibition.)

What other still lifes of the time that are not exhibited here show more clearly than the ones that are is how he used objects in his collection to produce little dramas (in which he called the objects “actors”) by their arrangement. This can be seen in those works like  First Orange Still Life, Sideboard and Table (1899) and Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1902–04). All of these use a larger number of objects to produce an interplay among themselves, the thing one first observes about the works. Whether this is owing to Matisse’s beginning to internalize of Cézanne’s  “non-denominative space” or simply another attribute of Matisse’s study of Chardin, who often used numerous objects in his still lifes to create a set of rhythmic lines as part of the composition is debatable But the question probably should be considered in light of Matisse’s comments about how his objects were “actors.” Matisse had first explored the interplay of table objects in his grandly conceived student piece, The Dinner Table (1897), which Moreau praised for the realism of the objects. That painting showed the influence of Monet and the academics who ran the school’s show deemed it Impressionist so gave it no prominence in their student exhibition (Gowing, p. 18). The later still lifes would show the waning influence of Monet, the growing elements of Cézanne and Matisse’s own approach to his breakthrough—Fauvism.

So while it seems an unprofitable line of inquiry to examine his still lifes separately from his other work at the time, and especially to isolate the chocolate pot works from the other still lifes to see how it “spoke” to him, for sake of completeness I will mention one thing that is noticeable in these works: the odd placement of objects in the early still lifes. In both ## 5 and 8 the pot is placed on top of a book which sits on a chair or stool. The handle is in a different position in the two paintings as is the book. Both have a lemon on top of the book next to the pot. The 1895 still life (#9) also seems to have a lemon, although the predominant fruit are peaches. The setting of the pot in this the earliest of these three paintings is on a table, rather than a book, and the table has a glass of water with a spoon (to make lemon juice?). The objects in the two later paintings (##5 & 8) are arranged to draw attention to themselves. To what end is unclear. Is there some point to the stool and book rather than a table? Is this a private symbol? Is this what Matisse meant when he said the objects were “actors” as in a play? If so, it is a play whose narrative is known only to the author. The two drawings, Still Life with Chocolate Pot (#6) and Still Life and Heron Studies (#7), both have the pot among a trio of objects closely set. In the latter Matisse sketched a scene of the chocolate pot, a bowl and a cup and saucer repeatedly so that he could experiment with daubs of color on the page. The sketches seem as though mechanically produced in their regularity. Interspersed are two large sketches of wading birds. It is of course unfair to draw any kind of conclusions from a study beyond noting what elements the artist was working on. The most I can infer is that he was trying to brighten his palette on these conventional still lifes, a goal that he seems working towards in his Still Life with Chocolate Pot of 1900–02 (#8) and which seems to have finally achieved (at least within the conventional framework he set for himself in this period) in Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot (#10), when he repurposed the pot into a vase for flowers.

This last painting was evidently “advanced” enough to have attracted the attention of Picasso, sufficiently that he purchased it. While the pot’s use has been changed and its orientation different from the earlier ones (its handle points outward toward the viewer) it is not the use of the pot that makes this painting a departure but rather a re-imagining of how to present it. That one object dominates the canvas but the flowers pour forth a profusion of colors that accent the swirling wall and the solid reddish-brown table top. It is the development of his sense of how to use color is what makes this still life notable. By 1905 Matisse would take compositional approach one step further in Parrot Tulips (II). There we view a similar reflective container from a higher vantage. (The container is cylindrical, not jug-like as is the chocolate pot.) Orange and yellow impatiens bend outward around erect daisies. The shape and posture of the impatiens give the impression of motion, as though they are animals craning their necks to see out from the vessel. The feeling of motion is intensified by the surrounding ambiance: blue and green short brushstrokes encircle the object and flowers (the container reflecting them). It is not the disturbing swirls of impasto van Gogh used in the years after 1885. Rather it gives the sensation of excited euphoria. But we can’t be sure, although it is fairly certain that Matisse’s mode of expression here is a way of explaining how the things are as mediated by Matisse’s own intuition on one hand and his developing personal iconography on the other. We see in that painting (of which Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot is only the forerunner) the origins of the artist who, more than any other, turned painting and sculpture from media of communication where artist and viewer shared the basics of a common language and means of understanding, to a solipsistic endeavor to convey the unique inner life of the artist, using symbols and emblems and signs, which can be interpreted, if only vaguely, by tracing the artist’s use of them over his career and then engaging in amateur psychoanalysis or uncertain semiotics. Matisse would usher in the wave of self-referential painters the way Stéphane Mallarmé ushered in the wave of self-referential poets.

Matisse, Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot

10. Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1902. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris.

While the still lifes in the first part of the exhibit seem to reach a dead end, in fact they continue to participate in Matisse’s experimentations in the Proto-Fauvist period. It is the purro and not the chocolate pot that seems the preferred “actor,” however. Between 1904 and 1905 Matisse executed two still lifes with purro  that document his growing confidence and the giant steps he was taking. The first, Still Life with Purro (I) (1904), was painted in Saint-Tropez and while it is made up of slightly more varied colors, the real direction it is point is towards reducing the three dimensional objects on the table to a flattened design, almost as though they were a pattern on the wall. They are in fact lined in a row, rather than as “actors” on a table. It is only a brightly colored cloth partly hanging from the edge of the table that reminds the viewer that the objects are in three dimensions. The second painting, Still Life with a Purro (II) (1904–05), painted from that same summer to sometime the following spring, shows the same objects in the same ordered arrangement, but the effect is completely different, for Matisse sprays the entire picture with splotches of wild colors which are reflected in the silvery objects (but not the cloth or the fruit). Matisse was on the verge of Fauvism, but the objects are still outlined and somewhat modeled.

Matisse’s migration to brighter and warmer colors is noticeable in all his paintings in the years leading up to 1905. But the breakthrough would come in landscapes and figure paintings at Collioure during his summer with André Derain. When he returned to Paris that autumn he refined the approach with a series of seminal portraits. These (and paintings of his fellow experimenters Maurice Vlamink and Henri Manguin) were exhibited in October at the Salon d’Automne and caused a sensation. (It has always surprised me how the first reaction of Parisians, during the time that Paris was the undisputed cultural capital of the world, to any new artistic innovation was to become unhinged and yet proto-Fascist and antisemitic innovations like the Action Française seem to have met with no significant public outrage and only grew in strength.) A critic wrote that the works must have been made by fauves—wild beasts—and a movement, complete with name, was born.

For Matisse, who unlike Picasso was unwilling to head up an organized artistic programme complete with followers and disciples, his formal participation in the movement was short lived. What he discovered in the summer of 1905, however, would guide him for the rest of his career; namely, that color could serve not just an element of composition; it could provide

the basis for it. It was no longer necessary to outline an object, fill it in with color and model the object by use of tonality. The object itself could be built by color, and the color could be pure and bright. Moreover, the brushwork need not be designed to smooth out the colors. It could be made up of short strokes or arabesque lines. And colors need not be mixed. That process can be left to the viewer if the painter uses short strokes or event points of pure different colors properly interspersed.

Matisse, Interior with Young Girl Reading

11. Interior with Young Girl Reading by Henri Matisse. 1905–06. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Because the genres that made up Matisse’s Fauvism period are mostly outside the scope of the MFA’s show, we see almost none of them. But there is the canvas Interior with Young Girl Reading (#11), which escaped exclusion by the presence in it of the same chocolate pot that we know from the early still lifes. The girl at the heart of the work is Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, who sits at a table with a fruit bowl and individual pieces of fruit on the table. The table is covered with a patterned cloth with dots or blotches of red that look something like rose petals. Behind the fruit bowl is the chocolate pot, and behind it is an unrecognizable pink-red object (perhaps a cup?) lying on the table.The girl is intently reading a book lying on top of a larger book on the table. Behind the table are what look like fences: on the right side of the canvas it looks like a metal fence, while on the right, behind the girl there appears to be a wooden fence. But we can see that there is a wall behind those objects with paintings hung on it and to the left there is what appears to be a table with vases and flowers. By resolving the left side of the canvas, what appeared to be a wood fence seems to be the side of the table, perhaps covered with a fluted cloth. The picture is thus divided into two spaces. In the front there is a relatively recognizable scene, one of domestic tranquility (to which the chocolate pot, and all its extra-visual connotations, adds a touch of winsomeness), and the other an ill defined space with partially recognizable objects in the midst of what looks like a pyrotechnical display of colors which renders it all indeterminate.  In all the previous fauvist paintings, Matisse used color (however unconventionally applied) to define form. Here the outburst of color is used to obscure space.

Matisse, The Large Woodcut

12. The Large Woodcut by Henri Matisse. Woodcut. 1906. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The obscuring of space around objects (or possibly the charging of it with energy in an analogous way to Cézanne’s treatment of space as the mediator of the force exerted between objects) that Matisse introduced at this time did not depend entirely on color, although color was the most dramatic way to accomplish it. The Large Woodcut (#12) was one of three sets of prints he made the year following his Fauvist innovations. (Although Matisse engaged in various forms of printmaking from 1900 through the rest of his career, his largest outputs were during the years when his outlook was radically changing—1906, 1914 and 1929. He made his prints by himself in his studio. He turned to printmaking, he said, for relaxation.) The figure in the print appears at first crumbled, and although after resolving the figure closely we see she is in fact sitting on a chair, perhaps a porch chair or beach chair with padding or a cloth over it, the impression of a woman cringing in something like a fetal position remains in the back our mind. The chair covering is indicated by dots (like the tablecloth in Young Girl Reading). The woman’s body and the chair divide the space into three zones behind her. What is below the chair is marked off with widely spaced radiating lines. Behind her head and above the chair is a small space filled with closely spaced horizontal lines. Above her body is a space that is marked by lines that outline her body until they reach the upper left corner where they converge into something like a starburst. The marking out of a surface by dots and the converging of lines in an area just behind the focal point of the subject place  the work in term of Matisse’s  progression squarely with in his immediate post-Fauvist period. Curator Helen Burnham selected this work from the museum’s holdings to show Matisse’s African influences (discussed in the next section). Her case is unconvincing:

The dots tighten and converge along the back, buttocks, and thigh of the model … while the staccato lines above her chest and stomach reverberate in waves of distilled force into the space around her. The use of a graphic vocabulary in this way, to provide meaning through innovative combinations rather than mimesis, was one of the things that Matisse and his contemporaries most admired in African art (Burnham, p. 78).

She offers no example for such graphic language in the African art in Matisse’s collection or elsewhere. Gauguin would have been a better example. But in fact this work seems to draw inspiration from the logic of Matisse’s current work with colors, the elimination of outline and the consequences they produce (or allow) for the treatment of space.

Matisse, Still Life with Plastic Figure

13. Still Life with Plaster Figure by Henri Matisse. 1906. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

The Boston show has one more piece from this Fauvism stage (aside from the famous self portrait (#18) which we’ll look at in the next section.) This is another still life placed within an interior with several objects, one dominating them all—Still Life with Plaster Figure (#13). On the table which joins the bottom of the canvas is a patterned tablecloth on which are set a variety of fruits and bowls as well as a white figure. Behind the figure is a version of Matisse’s own Flowers of the same year. The painting within the painting takes up all of the background except for a small strip of pale paint on the right side above the table. That strip is similar to the pale strip on the right side of the painting Flowers itself. It is at this stage that Matisse begins the development of his self-referential universe. To be fully equipped to decode work the viewer must be familiar with the evolving body of Matisse’s work. For example, if a viewer were unfamiliar with Flowers it would be difficult to make heads or tails of the backdrop of the still life. There are no overt signals that the background is another picture. even the strip of brown on the left side, which might indicate either a frame or at least a separation of the painting from what lay behind does not completely form a border with the picture but rather tapers out before it reaches the table and then disappears behind a bowl. Without the knowledge of what is behind the still life the entire picture is indecipherable, especially since Flowers itself is somewhat abstracted and the most representational part of the painting within a painting is obscured by the plaster figure in the later work. For those unfamiliar with the painting the background to the still life is undefined space with colors and streaks of light appearing without meaning. By contrast, the still life itself is visually straightforward. The fruits are not unusual, but the plaster figure is out of place. It is starkly white in a field of vibrant colors. It is looking away from the viewer as though out of modesty. (The figure is a rendering for The Standing Nude (#20) modeled by Matisse’s own 13-year-old daughter Marguerite (Flam (1986), p. 179; Burnham, p. 81). Its placement among the fruit and representation of flowers is the second aspect of Matisse’s beginning self-referential universe—his private iconography. Earlier in 1906 Matisse painted Still Life with Geranium Plant, a deceptively naturalistic looking still life with Cézanne-like brushwork and passage more advanced than what Picasso and Braque would be doing for two years (Flam (1986), p. 178). But what is important for the Plaster Figure painting is that the still life has two items that are unusual for a still life. In addition to the potted plant, jug, ceramic (?) object (the figure of a cat? this is where seeing the object painted would help) and four pink onions, the painting shows a terra cotta copy of Matisse’s own statue, the 1905 Woman Leaning on her Hands. The symbolism of the arrangement is layered: the female figure, though inanimate, is introduced to show the source of fertility of the living things in this nature morte. The life-giving figure is one that was created by Matisse as is also the composition he is expressing. The naturalism of the conception is no more or less real than Matisse’s expression of the female or his representation of the female he created within this composition he created. In the same way the plaster figure in the later painting animates the fruit and flowers that surround it, even though the flowers were a creation of Matisse. After all, the female figure that animates them was an artistic creation of Matisse, just as the model was a biological one. We are closer now to understanding the “emotion” that Matisse had with the objects he “copied.”

Matisse, Still Life with Lemons

14. Still Life with Lemons by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvas. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.

Let us jump ahead for a moment to close out the role of the chocolate pot (and a similar looking container that takes its place) in Matisse’s still lifes. Plaster Figure and Geranium Plant show Matisse’s interest in clay modeling at the time. Matisse told Courthion many decades later that he generally took up modeling only when he ran out his thinking in painting along a certain line:

“I did sculpture because what interested me in painting was to bring some order to my brain. It was a change of means. I took to clay as a break from painting at the time I’d done absolutely everything I could in panting. Which means it was still about organizing. It was to put my sensations in order and look for a message that really suited me. When I found it in sculpture, I used it for painting. To come into possession of my own brain that was always the goal, a sort of hierarchy of all my sensations, so that I could reach a conclusion” (Matisse & Courthion, pp. 85–85).

The sculpture he was doing in 1906 was a sign that he was interested in leaving strict Fauvism for a new direction. When he painted the sculpted figures, he saw that painting was nearly the opposite of rendering in three dimensions because not only were painted figures and portraits flattened, space itself was rendered entirely ambiguous. This progress toward collapsing space into a flattened view coincided with a trip Matisse and his wife made in July and August 1907, where he saw the works of Giotto and the early Renaissance painters in Florence, Sienna, Arezzo, Ravena, Padua and Venice. The stylized treatment of perspective by the Italian painters of this period reinforced Matisse’s determination to proceed with his new experimentally acquired knowledge. A still life with the chocolate pot, one not on exhibit at the MFA, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909), was one of the first results of the new thinking. Matisse covers almost all of that work with a blue patterned fabric. Except for two features it would have been impossible to know that it was a fabric rather a simple design or to see on what shapes the fabric was lying. The three items on the fabric (chocolate pot, fruit bowl and vase) show the fabric must be lying flat. But since it covers the background higher those items, it must also fold upwards somewhere. That can only be seen in the outline of the chair on the right side showing that the fabric in fact covers a surface nearly at a right angle. Nothing else in the painting (shadow, creases, clear distortions in the patterning) exists to give us that information. Space has become entirely amorphous.

Matisse, Woman on a High Stool

15. Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvass. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Matisse’s Still Life with Lemons (#14), completed five years later, carries this innovation much farther. Our brain automatically turns these images into a three dimensional space when we first see the painting. But when we consider the relatios of the object to each other we find either that it is an impossible space or we are reconstructing the objects inaccurately. The drawing must be hanging on a wall, we assume. The lemons and the bowl of lemons must be resting on a table of sorts. But what is the significance of the red triangle and the blue background to the bowl? Is “tapis” (carpet) a joke or is it really set on the ground? If so, how does the ground become the wall holding the drawing? There are no cues for us to determine how the space is organized. The solid panels and geometric shapes of colors obliterate perspective and three-dimensional space itself. One is tempted to think of “tapis” as a multi-lingual pun. (In England, “on the tapis” meant “under construction”), but that is probably unlikely the intent. But there is another sort of visual pun—the picture itself is a picture of, among other things, a table container, but also of a picture of a table container. The picture of the vase is based on a drawing by Matisse’s 14 year-old son, Pierre (Flam (1986), p. 376). The same drawing shows up again in Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) (#15) done around the same time. By including the representation of the drawing, is Matisse commenting on how his own composition employs childlike techniques for representation? Or was he commenting on the approach of the Cubists with their geometrical impositions on visually perceived space? Indeed the word “tapis,” though written in a childlike hand, corresponds to the Cubists’ penchant for including printed words in their works. Matisse even showed his Still Life with Lemons to cubists Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger and asked for their evaluation. This was at a time when the war waged by the Cubists against him (urged on by Gertrude Stein who felt she could not champion Picasso without denigrating Matisse) would only get more heated (although Picasso and Matisse had met each other in 1906 with as cordial a detente as two opposite, and competing, personalities could muster). So Gris and Metzinger did not give their opinion until years later when they remarked on a feature that only cubists would notice—the “extraordinary concordance between shapes of the vase and of the fruit” (Barr, p. 187).

Woman on a High Stool again appears in The Piano Lesson (1916) (not in the show), again showing the way in which Matisse’s work comments on itself and his life. In the later painting Woman on a High Stool becomes the pcture hanging on the wall to the right, but it does not have Pierre’s drawing of the vase. Instead, Pierre himself is seen practicing, dwarfed by the piano and the two works of Matisse and gated off from the garden his father would not let him play in for fear that he would hurt his hand and be unable to play the violin. Matisse made his son practice for two hours every morning starting at 6 a.m. Pierre’s expression conveys his fixed attention to this ordeal that he dreaded. This grim routine, sternly enforced by his father, took place (and was painted) while French troops were being sacrificed in the stalemate at Verdun 160 miles away (Spurling, pp. 183–85).And yet Matisse was making pictures containing pictures the original of which contained pictures, in an endless regression back into Matisse’s art and life. It is now easier to see what Matisse meant when he said he was expressing his emotions towards the objects he painted. Those emotions would not be revealed by looking at those objects so much as by studying the things that Matisse was mostly emotional about—his own work.

Seated figure

16. Seated figure. Loanga, Vili Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Returning now to the end of the Fauvism period: There are several other works in the exhibit which compare an object from Matisse’s collection and his still lifes, but of the most interest are the “exotic” pieces he collected beginning in the early 1900s. Painters of Matisse’s generation, beginning shortly after the turn of the century, began seeking inspiration and spiritual energy for their art in non-Western traditions. The general Western European malaise of the time, the lack of belief in liberal self-government, contempt for bourgeois values and the hope that something new would grow up where something was torn down, common in all fields of art (and also frequently pronounced by both radical and reactionary demagogues as well) lead to a search for examples in places where these traditional Western values were not held. Many believed that African, Islamic and Asian cultures, “uncontaminated” by the enervated principles of the asthenic West, were where guidance and inspiration could be found. These cultures were thought “pure” in the “primitiveness.” This belief was the seemingly benign side of the West’s dealings with these cultures, which had spent nearly a century intervening and disrupting them in all respects that did not directly lead to their own self-interest. (As Tayeb Salih pithily put it in Season of Migration to the North: “They taught us English so we could say ‘yes’ in their language.’) And instead of representing “purity” or “primitiveness” the arts of the colonies were influenced by their contacts with the West just as their economies were. And dealers did their part to create a false primitiveness. Selecting only items that would appeal to Westerners, they often also changed them to more comply with Western prejudices. For example, they took the fabric dresses from the female figurines to sell them naked, because Westerners were sure of the “immorality” of the “primitive.”

Matisse, always attuned to the “new,” also became interested in the exotic. He began his collection of non-European art in 1906. He was considerably ahead of Picasso at this time in facing East and South. In fact, it was Matisse who drew Picasso’s attention to it. Gertrude Stein opined that when they first began to incorporate elements of African art into their works, they did so for opposite reasons:

Matisse, Still Life with African Statuette

17. Still Life with African Statuette by Henri Matisse. 1907. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

The effect of this african art upon Matisse and Picasso was entirely different. Matisse through it was affected more in his imagination than in his vision. Picasso more in his vision than in his imagination. Strangely enough it is only very much later in his life that this influence has affected his imagination and that may be through its having been re-enforced by the Orientalism of the russians when he came in contact with that through Diaghilev and the russian ballet (Stein, Chapter 3).

(Matisse anticipated Picasso in being influenced by “the Orientalism of the russians” through his first major patron, Sergei Shchukin, and his visit to Moscow in 1911. Picasso would not collaborate with Sergei Diaghilev until the 1917 production of Parade in Paris.)

The effect on his art was from African works at first, then Russian, Islamic and Asian art would help produce another breakthrough in Matisse’s development. But it did not happen right away. In fact, African was used at first, as the objects we have seen so far, simply as an element to form a grouping of things as traditional European painters had done for years. In Still Life with African Statuette (#17) Matisse used a seated figure he had bought (#16) and dropped it into a group of more familiar tabletop objects without much concern for its meaning, the art tradition it came from or any other consideration of what made the work a piece of art in its own historical and aesthetic context. It was used merely as a gadget, taken, as it so happens, from Africa, like any number of products taken by Europeans and repurposed for their own use.

We could speculate about the iconographical meanings the grouping held for Matisse; perhaps it was simply a notice that his art was about to go in a new direction, less concerned with traditional Western aesthetics. But there is something more interesting in the painting: the group is entirely suspended in space. Matisse fully achieved the “non-denominative” space of Cézanne. So long as it was used to frame  a comforting (because traditional) still life, it was not a particular threat, even if an African figure were dropped in the midst. Matisse had no intention to use this technique without integrating it into  changes heralded by the African figure. (As for the “non-denominative” space itself, years later Matisse met the widow Cézanne at a gathering in Nice. He asked about the works she still held, but she told him they could not be worth much because they were “unfinished.” Matisse allowed  that she was a bit dimwitted.)

Objects as Refractors

The time before his Fauvism breakthrough on the Mediterranean in the summer of 1905 was one of limited experiments and cautious deviations from the very tradition for which Matisse had a fundamental ambivalence. That summer he finally found a solution to what had troubled him for a long time—how to avoid making works by brushwork alone. The solution he decided on, however, unleashed a greater freedom and a more fundamental principle for him: that color was the principle element of composition. But even that discovery was minor compared to the inference to be drawn from all this; namely, that he could make fundamental departures from accepted practice solely guided by his own instinct and considered aesthetic choice. From then on each painting could be considered as a new departure, and Matisse threw himself into each one with a kind of emotional and sometimes physical abandon that left him emotionally depleted.

Matisse, Self-Portrait (1906)

18. Self Portrait by Henri Matisse. 1906. Oil on canvas. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

During the period from the summer of 1905 until he published his Notes of a Painter (Flam (1995), pp.  30–43, & (French at pp. 237–41)) in December 1908 Matisse sorted through his thoughts until he was able to confidently announce a manifesto stating how he personally viewed his approach to art. He was uninterested in presenting the fleeting moment, as the Impressionists aimed for. He aimed, rather, at the Essence of his subject (something that could not be expressed in words, only in his work). Essence was neither the passions displayed by a subject nor its movements; it was something deeper and more permanent. To express this Essence, he had to eliminate everything that was superfluous, for, as he said, an unnecessary detail distracted the viewer from a necessary one. So he was looking to achieve a work with the most economic of means to achieve a distillation of impressions (“condensation des sensations qui fait le tableau“). And we can see during this period and beyond how Matisse radically reduced every detail in his works. This process reached its logical end about 1916 with paintings such as The Moroccans, painted in his suburban Paris studio during the war, based on memories he had of his trips to North Africa in 1912 and 1913. Details, not only objects but also features of the objects that remain, have been so ruthlessly eliminated that the final work is nearly impossible to understand without guidance.

Head of Apostle

19. Head of Apostle (James?). French? ca. 13th–14th century. Limestone. Musée Matisse, Nice.

While Matisse explained why he eliminated details, he never fully explained how he saw what was the Essence he was trying to reveal, probably because he saw that process as outside verbal description. When Matisse began this process of radical economizing, he started with the human figure and portraits. And here can be seen what elements he emphasized and how he selected them by comparing these works with objects from his collection, Without knowing when Matisse acquired particular objects, it is impossible to say whether he “based” a particular work on a particular object (rather than selecting an object which illustrated a pre-conceived approach). But Matisse freely admitted that he studied and incorporated the influences of others. (“One would have to be very foolish not to notice the direction in which others work. … I have accepted influences but I think I have always known how to dominate them” (Guenne interview 1925 in Flam (1995), p. 81).) There is thus no reason to suppose that he was not influenced by the objects he owned, particularly when the object and a corresponding work shows such striking parallels as the Medieval head of an apostle (#19) and his famous self-portrait of 1906 (#18). The two works share similar poses and expressions. The deep wells in which their eyes were sunk, the resulting contrast provided by the cheek bones and the downward slope of the faces from the nose down caused by the frowning mouth are nearly identical in each. Matisse even surrounds the top of his own head with a blue background which corresponds, and provides similar effect, as the cap on the apostle’s head.

Matisse wrote that his work on figures and portraits had two stages. The first was the careful observation of the physical features of the subject. The second allowing  the “subtleties of observation” to take expressive form subconsciously—as he put it, such subtleties “rise up from fermentation within, like bubbles in a pond” (Flam (1995), p. 223). Matisse’s instructions to his students in 1908, before he wrote Notes of a Painter, show that he thought in terms of visual analogy, breaking the body down into forms like other physical objects. Sarah Steins notes have him saying:

This pelvis fits into the thighs and suggests an amphora. Fit your parts into one another and build up your figure as a carpenter does a house. Everything must be constructed—built up of parts that make a unit: a tree like a human body, a human body like a cathedral (Flam (1995), p. 47).

Matisse, Standing Nude

20. Standing Nude by Henri Matisse. 1906–07. Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.

He sometimes sounded mystical or like an esoteric engineer: “The mechanics of construction is the establishment of oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions” (id.) What comes through is that what he can visualize in a subject (himself as in #18) is

visually analogous to aspects of another object (as in #19).

With the introduction of African art into his repertoire of objects, he was able to conceive other visual analogies for aspects of a model or sitter. An early and famous example of this is the controversial Standing Nude (#20). There was no model for this work. Rather, Matisse based it on a photograph of a European (French woman), “evoking the idea of surprise or modesty,” published in the October 10, 1906 issue of Mes Modéles (shown as Fig. 50 of McBreen & Burnham, p. 70). Matisse used the pose, the general dimensions of the model in the photo and the towel. But another aesthetic was used in close modeling. Indeed, there is no hint of the modesty that the magazine claimed the photo embodied.

Although no figurine in Matisse’s collection directly corresponds to the treatment of Standing Nude, curator Helen Burnham says that the painting reflects the overall lessons of African art:

Divination figure

21. Divination figure. Senufo region, Côte d’Ivoire. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Elements derived from African sculpture combine to lend her a more complex presence. These include the exaggerated treatment of the body, with dark black outlines reminiscent of cavings in the world, conical breasts, the huge jutting head, and the sharp transitions between forms—shoulder to upper arm, shoulder blade, and buttocks—which emphasize her sexuality as well as her powerful physique and lend her an impressive monumental solidity (Burnham, p. 70).

This seems to me unconvincing; the rather banal (and Eurocentric) generalization of African sculpture seems a case of special pleading—an attempt to force (nonexistent) evidence to support a conclusion about what must have influenced Matisse. But there is a figurine from the Ivory Coast (#21), once in Matisse’s possession, that might support the claim. The emphasized features, the treatment of the body in blocks and “the establishment of oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions” as Matisse put it, all seem to match Standing Nude, except the features are much more exaggerated in the African figure. But it is likely that Matisse did not acquire the figure until several years after he painted Standing Nude, given the existence of a drawing he made of it (possibly at the time he purchased it?), dated ca. 1909–10. But if Matisse did draw inspiration from this figure, it shows that he only borrowed the superficial aspects of the work, ignoring its indigenous cultural significance. Among the Senufo people, such figures, known as tyles, are used by a secret society, the Sando, to intervene in the spirit world. They are said to be inhabited by ancestral spirits (madabeles) of the tribe, including the sacred primordial couple who generated them. Without any attention to the different principles behind non-Western art Matisse appropriated it simply for decorative purposes. But that is not surprising for a man who modeled his own portrait on a saint’s head.

Female ancestral figurine

22. Reliquary guardian figure. Gabon or Equatorial Guinea. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

It is with another ancestral figure, this one of the Fang people of the rain forests of central west Africa (#22), that the limits of inferring the influence of objects in Matisse’s collection on specific works, especially with only visual similarities to go on, is reached (and exceeded). The object is part of the rituals of Fang (and related peoples in the region) to maintain contact with a family’s ancestors and other esteemed among the dead. Families of these migratory people keep bark cylindrical containers to carry remains of their ancestors (usually a part of the skull). Atop the box is placed the guardian figure (eyema bieri). The figure itself is carved to resemble the ancestor whose goodwill the votaries seek. They usually have crests and holes where hair plugs or metallic adornments could be anchored (both seen on Matisse’s figurine). The figure is squatting with hands clasped showing both reverence for the ancestral remains and readiness to spring to their defense.

The curators see this figure as something of a model for two paintings Matisse completed in 1914 before war broke out. The first of these is of a prostitute, Seated figure in Violet Stockings (#23). Burnham rightly notes that artists of the time believed that “primitive art,” that is, the art of the places Europeans had colonized, revealed a primal simplicity because of their failure to develop as European societies had. (The rationale for viewing the art as “simple” and “primitive,” of course, was the same that Europeans used to colonize the same people.) She implies that Matisse viewed the African art he collected in a similar way (although he seems to have made no such statement). She quotes a statement by Apollinare, the apostle of “primitivism,” during an interview he had with Matisse: “African negro statuettes [were] proportioned in accord with the passions that inspired them” (Burnham, p. 74, quoting an article by Apollinaire in La Phalange, December 15, 1907). Europeans understood the “passions” of the “African negro” in purely hypersexual terms. Burnham thus sees it natural for Matisse to use such an object to visualize a model posing as a modern sexual being.

Matisse, Seated Figure with Violet Stockings

23. Seated figure in Violet Stockings by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvas. Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation Collection.

Burnham describes the visual similarities betweeen the Fang figure and the painting: “her rigid posture, elongated torso, and ovoid face–qualities that have been identified by Jack Flam as ‘the most direct use that Matisse ever made of African forms in his painting—are remarkably similar to those of the Fang reliquary figure in Matisse’s personal collection, lending her the imposing stature and abstract features associated by Matisse’s contemporaries with hierattic figures and idols” (Burnham, p.75). Of course the painting’s subject also participates in the modern with stockings and high heels and a modern chair.  Burnham concludes from these observations that Matisse intended “conflicting messages to coexist: prostitute and deity, intimate and stranger.” But even if Matisse intended to impose such a “literary” meaning or totemic quality to this painting (and he always denied doing any such thing), it would have been extraordinary for him to use this Fang object for that purpose. If you look carefully at the image from top to bottom (double-clicking on the image will produce a very large version), you see the following: The ovoid face is the result of a very large forehead, which the model in the painting does not have. The forehead of the statue has a hole for a helmet or hairpiece. The features of the face (allowing for the absence of the large stones for eyes that are typical for this kind of work) are complete with hatchings for eyebrows which join to form the nose. There are decorative incisings along the shoulders, but no “conical breasts” (which Burnham suggested was a feature of African art). As you scan lower you see that the hands are clasped and rather than sitting, the figure is squatting. But the most prominent feature is the male genitalia. So the figure is a man, not a sexualized female id. It would have been hard for a close observer like Matisse to miss such a detail (particularly, as we saw above, since it occurs at one of the junctions he taught painters to concern themselves with—the juncture of pelvis and thighs).

Bambara seated figure

24. Bambara seated figure, Mali. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection. (Not exhibited at the MFA show.)

This is not to say that Matisse did not use the overall body plan of this figure (or one like it) as a model for his paintings. Indeed, Woman on a High Stool (#15) seems much more like the figurine than the Steated Figure (#23) does, because the the facial features are delineated like the carved figure, her vase-like body (commented on by Pierre Matisse’s drawing on the wall over the table) is like his, the hair of both are pulled back and both are clasping their hands. But there is no hint of sexualization in the portrait of Germaine Rayal, just as there is no hint of sexuality in the statuette. That this second painting has none of the totemic significance ascribed to the first one by Burnham is some proof that the wooden object had no such significance to Matisse. Indeed, if there were a visual and connotative inspiration for the Seated Nude among Matisse’s African statuary collection, it is more likely to have been the Seated Figure from Mali (#24) (not in the exhibition) than the Fang piece. After all, the wooden figure is seated and it is a woman. It has the stiff upright posture that  was noted by both Burnham and Flam. It has the “conical breasts” claimed by Burnham to be typical of African representations of women, and therefore corresponds to the bare-breasted prostitute painted by Matisse. Plus there is more of a similarity in the extension of their arms.

My point is this:  Inferring the visual stimulus for a work based entirely on perceived similarities (and opportunity to copy) is an imprecise endeavor. To then import the “meaning” of the stimulus into the later work makes the entire enterprise more reliant on the intuition of the critic than the artist. Matisse, who invented more visual styles than any other artist in history, was essentially a machine for converting visual stimuli into works that prompted viewers to experience the world differently. He took cues from everything and everywhere. For instance, at Issy he studied the arabesques of the branches and limbs of the two lime trees he could see while he lingered in bed. More than likely that study showed up on one or more works, but we cannot say which, given how completely Matisse refracted vision through a spectrum of imagination, by means of physical objects (in the broadest sense). It may be interesting to compare one object to a work, but really the endeavor rises to no higher level.

For Matisse theAfrican art had a different purpose than either providing a new method of painting the figure or supplying a new “meaning” to his figures. It was more subtle and a more profound. Here is how Matisse described the effect it had on him when he first encountered African figurines at a curiosity shop on rue de Rennes:

I was startled just to see how it was constructed, I mean in terms of sculpture language—how close it was to the Egyptians. In other words, compared to European sculpture, which is always about muscles – because of the emphasis on describing the object – in the African statues the medium dictated the form, while the shapes and proportions were invented (Mattisse & Courthion, pp. 72—73).

The subtlety in which he applied this freedom is seen from what he took from African masks.

The Mask as Window to the Soul

The two major stylistic periods of Matisse’s career between 1906 and the end of World War I involved (i) highly fanciful and stylized mythical figures (like nymphs and satyrs) culminating in the famous Dance II and Music (both in 1910) and and the representation of those works as studio items; and (ii) the highly analytical and abstracting phase during the war. The first is not represented at all in the Boston show and the second only with a few items. There are a number of reasons: many are now located in the Hermitage which evidently still is not lending to the United States, most involve outdoor scenes and almost all involve subjects for which there was  no physical referent capable of being now displayed. But in among these two major stylistic innovations Matisse made portraits many of which suggest the influence of African masks and a representative number are included in the show.

The year 1907 represented a fork in the road in the development of modernism. Fauvism had essentially been played out. Many Fauvists, such as Derain and Braque, were moving toward what would later be called Cubism under the influence of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and began dividing the forms of their composition into overlapping planes giving the illusion of modeling in space. Picasso himself focused on ways of modeling the figure, while Matisse approached a composition as a unity with the figure rendered more abstractly and related to the rest of the work with more attention to formal concerns than yo those of three dimensionality. Indeed, Matisse’s figures were becoming flatter and colored with purer colors (straight out of the tube, as he told Courthion)..

Matisse, Portrait of Marguerite

25. Portrait of Marguerite by Henri Matisse. 1906–07. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris.

In 1907 the rvialtry between Picasso and Matisse beyecame overt, each producing works seemingly commenting on the works of the other. Picasso’s younger acolytes (many of whom were more attracted to Picasso’s bohemian lifestyle and provocative and usually impromptu  verbal manifestos than his technical and aesthetic development) saw the professional rivalry in more personal terms than Picasso did. Nevertheless, the two masters agreed to an exchange of pictures. Picasso selected Matisse’s portrait of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Marguerite (#25). The picture itself is quite unlike anything Picasso was exploring at the time. It has an immature quality to it, something like the mannered work of those purposely affecting naiveté. The childlike title reinforces that perspective. But a closer look shows a departure for Matisse. If you look carefully at the brushwork (which you can do by clicking on the picture until you reach maximum enlargement), you will see that Matisse has abandoned his short quick strokes in favor of longer brushstrokes that tend to give the color a calmer, more sedate look. Moreover, the figure is outlined, and the figure is formally posed, looking outward rather than occupied in some activity unrelated to the portraiture.

At the end of 1907 Matisse gave his first published interview to Apollinaire and in that Apollinaire (possibly at Matisse’s prompting) writes that Matisse had processed the art of Egypt, Greece, Asia, pre-Columbia America and Africa into his own synthesis (Apollinaire, “Henri Matisse: (1907), translated in Barr, p. 102). There is little in the Marguerite portrait to justify that sweeping claim. But there is something decidedly mask-like in the portrayal of her face, and Picasso evidently felt that as well. Picasso’s use of masks in his work was entirely different from Matisse’s. For example, in Demoiselles d’Avignon he uses the mask as a substitute for the face (two of the prostitutes are “Africanized” by means of such masks—expressing the ethnocentric European view that the “primitive” was hyper-sexualized).  Matisse, by contrast, used masks to help him analyze features of the face or the face as a whole. Picasso must have felt this because he paired the painting on the wall with a strikingly similar Mukadj mask from the Punu region of Gabon (see 1910 photo of Picasso in his studio in McBreen & Burnham, p. 98). This pairing ought to have put to rest that Picasso acquired the work in order to ridicule Matisse’s talent as well as Spurling’s story that Picasso’s acolytes used the painting as target practice for their suction cup darts (Spurling (1998), pp. 379–80).

Matisse’s transformation of the face into a mask is brought to its extreme conclusion in the remarkable Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913), which unfortunately is not part of the exhibition. The pursed lips, semicircular eyebrows over black eyes the pale complexion and nose with what seems a metaliic tip all sit under a tight cap and atop a body derssed in conservative but fasionalbe suit. The seated figure is surrounded by the blue and green that make up her attire. The atmosphere punctuated by the mask-like face gives the impression that Matisse is expressing one of the many difficult periods in his marriage.

Matisse, Portrait of Sergei Shchukin

26. Portrait of Sergei Shchukin by Henri Matisse. 1912. Charcoal on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A different use of the mask is found in his drawing of his great patron Sergei Shchukin. Shchukin was the first and probably most important of Matisse’s buyers. A Russian textile magnate he developed a taste for modern art that would become insatiable. He had collected Picasso but soon came to believe that Matisse was the most important artist of the 20th century. Shchukin came to Matisse’s rescue at a time when he needed income to support his growing family. At fist the Russian would visit Matisse’s studio and buy the pick of Matisse’s new crop, sometimes, Matisse would complain, when the paint was still wet. Later he commissioned Matisse for large projects.  (Dance (II) and Music were the result of one such commission.) Shchukin pushed Matisse towards portraits and figure painting. In 1911 he brought Matisse to Moscow to see his house so that Matisse could plan paintings for him personally. Matisse was introduced to the cream of pre-Revolutionary Russia’s aristocracy. And Matisse used the occasion to make close inspections of the best collections of Russian ikons, which he woud incorporate into his own work (seee.g.Zorah Debout (1912)). He sustained Matisse in periods of self-doubt and continued buying work and having Matisse ship them to Moscow until the war ended the possibility of such shipments.

In 1912 Matisse made a drawing of his patron (#26) which was to form the basis of an oil portrait, which never came about. The drawing captures Shchukin’s ample and carefully combed hair, large forehead and nose and high prominent cheekbones. (For comparison, see Dmitry Melnikov’s portrait (1915).) The subtle distortions, however, have been traced by the curators to Gelede mask in Matisse’s collection (#27). The principal feature of the mask is that the skull is elogated ventrally toward the area around the mouth. This causes Shchukin’s prominent forehead to appear to recede and makes his lips appear to extend outward. The wide but compressed crescent eyes (shared with eh mask) seem sunken, also as a result. The mask also has diamond-shaped chiseling under the cheek bone which is reflected in the shadowing in the drawing to represent the hollowing of Shchukin’s cheeks. It is impossible to say how this study would have been used in the portrait but it is not much of a stretch to speculate that Matisse intended to give Shchukin a “non-European” look because Shchukin was a champion of his when the European art establishment looked on in disbelief and the press ridiculed him, but also because Shchukin supported Matisse’s quest to incorporate non-Western influences into his art, both expressly and more subtly.

Gelede Mask

27. Gelede mask. Yoruba region, Benin or Nigeria. 19th–early 20th century. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Shchukin’s collection (and his mansion) were confiscated after the Revolution, which became a public museum to show the works. Stalin eventually shuttered this repository of bourgeois art. After de-Stalinization, the works were divided between the Pushkin and Hermitage Museums. Shchukin was able to escape Russian to Paris, but by that time Matisse had become a more-or-less permanent resident of Nice.

The most important works influenced, however much indirectly and generally, by African art are the five sculptures of the model Jeanne Vaderin, known as Jeannette I through Jeannette V (#28). While Matisse admitted that he only worked in clay to organize his visual thinking as an aid to painting and while he rarely discussed his sculptures publicly, these five sculptures represent a progression that illustrates his own thinking about form and ended with probably the most profound sculpture of the pre-War 20th century, Picasso notwithstanding.  The first two were modeled from Jean Vaderin herself; the later three were based on the earlier sculptures. These five sculptures depart from conventional sculpture as practiced in the West since the Renaissance in two respects. First, although it is three dimensional art, sculpture in the Western tradition is designed to be viewed from one vantage point. Matisse’s five Jeannettes, on the other hand, are mean to be seen entirely around. It is not simply that the heads are modeled completely so that one can see the front, sides and back. Rather they are designed so that the thing represented looks radically different as you see it from different sides. Jeannette V seen from different sides gives astonishingly different impressions of what the head should look like. Second, Western art until then had been designed to allow the viewer to understand volume and surface texture by how the light reflected from it. Courthion put to Matisse a maxim from da Vinci to the effect that sculpture was inferior to painting because light, in sculpture, defines volume rather than the sculpture. Matisse replied: “My sculpture isn’t made for light as such. Nor is my painting, it’s made for a light that that I create by my own means, a light equivalent to the model that inspires it” (Matisse & Courthion, p. 51). None of the Jeannette heads reflect light in the way that a Donatello sculpture does; nor a Rodin, for that matter. And so they draw you in so that you examine the intricacies of the modeling. And when you are close enough you see that Jeannette V has been splayed before you: without hair, skull partially removed, one eye hollowed out. While Picasso was building a form from the ground up, using planes and angles and geometric principles to analyze what is volume, Matisse tears it down, eliminates the surface and bores to the interior. In the process Matisse lets us see a completely naked human, one without bodily integrity, and yet she retains her dignity, the Essence that Matisse was chasing while Picasso was exploring the Material.

Matisse, Jeannette I – V

28. (l–r): Jeannette I, modeled 1910, cast 1953; Jeannette II, modeled 1910, cast 1952; Jeannette III, modeled 1911, cast 1966; Jeannette IV, modeled 1911, cast 1954; Jeannette V, modeled 1913, cast 1954. Bronze. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Jeannettes would also play their role in the self-referential documentation of Matisse’s oeuvreJeannete III (or at least a plastic cast of the sculpture) appeared in the monumental Red Studio (1911), a seminal work for its compositional innovations, its iconagraphic importance, and for its promotion of the view that an artist’s world must be explored mainly in terms of his own psychological/aesthetic/historical experiences. Jeannette V can be found in Still Life with Plastic Bust (1916).

As for the reason these works appear in the Boston show, Flam suggests that the Bambara seated figure (#24) in Matisse’s possession (Flam (1986) p, 420) provided a source, or at least a way of uderstanding Jeannette V. Whatever the source of inspiration (and it seems rather obvious that it was the logic of the rules that Matisse had laid down for himself beginning with Jeannette III dictated the outcome), the result was an iconic, perhaps even prophetic, moment in 20th century art.

Door lintel

29. Door lintel of the treasure house, eastern Pende region, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Tinted hardwood,. Musée Matisse, Paris.

Two more notes from the show are in order. Matisse never really stopped treating the face as a mask or even using the mask as a frame, a portal, to the model’s face. Over time the ability to translate the principles of a mask onto the face of a model with the intent and effect of “only to interpret her more fully” became nearly automatic. Consider a lintel he acquired sometime after his early years in Nice (#29).

Now look how effortlessly the essence of the mask-like object informs the face of his last important model, Lydia Delectorskaya.

Matisse, Reclining Nude

30. Reclining Nude by Henri Matisse. 1949. Charcoal on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It must be more than the practiced hand of an eighty-year-old artist that can conflate an ancient eye mask into a drawing of a modern face. It seems to me the combination of two things: the ability to process visual stimuli into a variety of expressions and the ability to see a subject as made up of parts that are analogous to things one has encountered before.

Matisse, Large Face (Mask)

31. Large Face (Mask) by Henri Matisse. 1952. Ink on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As for masks, at the end of his life, he stripped them of everything but their essence: a few lines that suggest features, not hide them. The function of a mask is to reveal the true nature of the wearer, while at the same time hiding the external identity of the wearer. They can be used, just as robes, costumes, cosmetics, or other forms of masking, for nefarious purposes. Or they can be used to reveal the true identity of the wearer. It takes either an artist or a shaman to see the difference, and by the end Matisse thought he was both. However used, masks, like representations of faces, need only a few features. In his 80s Matisse had learned to strip everything but the essential from a mask/face (#21).

Objects as Props

Even before the end of  the war, Matisse began visiting Nice. The French Riviera in general had been a resort for over a century by that point and when Matisse came in 1917 it must have offered a welcome relief from the deprivation, fear and ennui of wartime Paris. Matisse’s yearly visits became longer and eventually he took up more or less permanent residence there for the rest of his life. For a painter the place offered bright sun, sparkling sea, scenic landscapes (Renoir, who lived nearby, said that the olive tees there sparkled like diamonds in the sun), frequent visitors, and even (at least to the mid-1920s) proximity to the center of French cinema production, which offered unexpected advantages (availability of textiles, fabrics and props from sellers who sprung up to service the industry and models which could be found among the hopeful actresses). The effect on Matisse surprised everyone (probably including Matisse himself). His art became flashy, emphasizing decorative effects as well as luxurious settings and eventually included a series of make-believe harem scenes with faux Turkish scenery and an eroticized “odalique” (chambermaid) usually posed at least partially nude. This art was at best pandering to a certain audience and at worst reactionary. The proof was that the 1920s became his most commercially successful period. Marcel Sembat, a government bureaucrat who spent his hard earned dollars on the avant-garde pieces to help keep Matisse afloat, was disgusted when Matisse had produced a work so retrograde, Odalisque in Red Culottes (1922), that the French government did not disdain to purchase it. Roger Fry, long-time defender of Matisse, attributed the popularity of his works in the 20s to their appeal to the wealthy (without directly saying that Matisse had sold out): “In their delight at such an etherialised expression of their own aspirations, the more cultured rich succumbed at last to his spell” (Fry, p. 11). To drive home the unstated point, Fry expressed a desire to see what new departure Matisse would have in the future.

The Boston exhibition has a larger sampling of this period than others, mainly, I suppose, because they include large numbers of objects that can be displayed next to them. But the most interesting work from this part of the show by far, it is quite arresting, is a portrait near the end of this phase, Woman with a Veil (#32).

Matisse, Woman with Veil

32. Woman with a Veil by Henri Matisse. 1927. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

With head propped on her hand and arm anchored on her knee, the model stares at the viewer with an emotional directness that almost all Matisse portraits lack. It is as though she is attempting to express something personal plainly; not as in most portraits where it is Matisse attempting to express something aesthetically. Her expression conveys a feeling deeply felt, one difficult to convey in words.

The model was Henriette Darricarrère. Matisse had spotted her in 1920 in the lot of Studio de la Victorine (the French Hollywood set up by Charles Pathé in 1919), where she was an extra. She had a dignified bearing and a neck that widened at the shoulders (something of a fetish of his, Matisse admitted). Though Matisse already had a regular model (Antoinette), he hired Henrietta for several engagements that year, and in 1921 she became his full-time model. Henriette was athletic and lithe but not delicately chic like nineteen-year-old Antoinette. John Klein (p. 226) says that she gave gravity to the artificial scenes Matisse created and sometime even introduced melancholy; “compared to Antoinette Arnoud, Henriette is more of an anchor than a balloon.”

Matisse and Model

33. Matisse and Henrietta Darricàrrere. ca. 1920. (Aragon, I:88.) Not in MFA exhibition.

Matisse had drifted into portrait painting back in Paris not long after he came to the end of his severely analytical and highly abstract period in 1916 with such works as The Moroccans and Bathers by a River (a painting he first began in 1909, took up again in 1913 and again in 1916–17). Beginning that same year Matisse began painting portraits of friends (notable among these is The Portrait of Sarah Stein). Soon he hired professional models to sit for him. The Boston show has the well known picture, now owned by the Guggenheim in New York, of his first favorite, Lorette, The Italian Woman. His work with her began in November 1916 and lasted nearly a year. While The Italian Woman continued (though less severely) the abstracting trend, stripping out anything thought superficial to the concept (Lorette even wore an inappropriately skimpy outfit for the winter in Paris), over time his work with her became more naturalistic, or at least more traditional. This can be seen in Lorette with a Cup of Coffee (#34), which is included because the curators were able to obtain the the table in Matisse’s collection which holds the cup. Matisse painted Lorette 50 times in the course of one year.

Matisse, Lorette with a Cup of Coffee

34. Lorette with a Cup of Coffee by Henri Matisse. 1917. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago.

Of Matisse’s first regular model in Nice, Antoinette, the MFA has no examples. But for the period from 1917 to 1921, two trends can be identified. First, Matisse was gravitating towards a less severe approach and one more attuned to popular conceptions of fashionable living. This was evident in the costume design he carried out for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe‘s production of Song of the Nightingale in 1920. (Stravinski’s opera was produced as a ballet for this London performance.) That trend would continue to an almost absurd degree in the 1920s in Nice. Second, Matisse left domestic scenes behind and took up the female model once again. This female, however, was a modern woman, not the traditional embodiment of male desire. She was painted mostly clothed and with a new 20th century importance. Women had done their part to win the war, and they felt their growing self-regard. Society also became more open to female poaitions outside the domestic sphere. Matisse often pictured the new woman with bobbed hair, smart (rather than “elegant”) clothes and high heels. He had no difficulty in fitting Henriette into the “new woman” roles because she was not simply a body. She was an accomplished violinist (she would perform a concerto for a regional orchestra which Matisse not only attended but also had given her encouragement and steeled her against her stage fright) and was competent at the piano. She and Matisse would perform duets (Matisse on his violin) for his amusement. (His stays in Nice became longer, and his wife’s reasons not to join him multiplied.)

Matisse, Moorish Screen

35. Moorish Screen by Henri Matisse. 1921. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ending his fifth decade of life, Matisse seems to have been revitalized by the young models he hired.  Aragon, who spent much time listening to him reminisce, heard him give many explanations for how he chose his models. One was as though he were a Romantic poet: “It’s always love at first sight for his models” (I:8). Another, quoting Matisse, the imperious genius: “The model is a springboard for me—it’s a door which I must break down to reach the garden in which I am alone and so happy—even the model exists only for the sake of the use I can make of it” (I:235). But from his conduct and his treatment of Henriette in oil (and ink) this recollection seems the most apt: “He choses his model with particular care. Of one girl, he made as many drawings as there are stars in the sky, and commented regretfully that when she left he would be deprived of one whole source of inspiration” (I:27–72). But she was more than just a source of inspiration (although for Matisse  that was nearly all that was important); she was part of the family.

In the summer of 1921 Marguerite visited her father. She became a fast friend of the amiable model. Matisse had them both take part in scenes for him.  The most famous, Moorish Screen (#35), had Henriette standing before a fireplace talking to Marguerite who sat before her in a chair. Beneath both their feet is a Persian carpet and behind them a North African haiti screens (of which the exhibition has several examples from Matisse’s collection) which add intricate ornamentation. These props together with the patterned carpet to the right and the decorated wall paper suffuse the interior with a vibrant emotion. Only those things associated with recognizable persons, the white dresses of Henriette and Marguerite and Matisse’s open violin case, do not participate in the shimmering of the opulent visual surroundings. They, oddly, represent the structural elements of the image, the things of no imortance. Opulent design was the thing of interest. Aside from their working together as models, Matisse delighted in their company, driving them along the coast to see sight or to take them to entertainments.

Matisse got to know her family, and her brothers became part of Matisse domestic interiors. It was as if they supplied a need that he had now that his children had left and his wife was too sick or too indisposed to live with or visit him in Nice. It was not a sexual desire she fulfilled but rather a familial one. The paintings that she and her brothers appeared in were similar to the ones he painted of his own family. She appeared playing the piano alone (Henriette Playing the Piano (1923)). In another she is teaching one brother the piano (The Piano Lesson (1924) while the other reads a book next to them, perhaps an oblique reference to the painting in which his son Pierre trapped behind an enormous piano, appears like a prisoner while his discharges his required daily piano practice (The Piano Lesson (1916)). And there was one in which the brothers played checkers (Pianist and Checker Players (1924)), much like his own children did in the family portrait requested by Shchukin (The Family of the Artist((1911)).

Matisse, Odalisque with Green Sash

36. Odalisque with Green Sash by Henri Matisse. 1926. Oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art.

But above all, Henriette was the one who allowed Matisse to paint his series of staged odalisque paintings. Antoinette had posed in turbans and even Marguerite had tried them on for her father. But it was Henriette who could appear sultry in the silk pants and unfastened or see-through blouses with a sensuous nonchalance. Just as some actresses are said to be loved by the camera, Henriette was loved by the brush, at least Matisse’s. She was elegant and lithe with an expressive face and a body that captured and reflected light in ways that intrigued Matisse. And the harem scenes not only made Matisse relevant among art buyers again, they made him more popular than he had ever been.

Brasero and Tray

37. Brasero and tray. Ottoman region (Turkey or Syria). 19th century. Painted copper, brass and wood. Musée Matisse, Nice. (Used as a prop in ## 36 & 38.)

Although there was precedent for this kind of work in the French pictorial canon—Ingres, for example, painted Grande Odalisque in 1814, and it was a significant work for it marked his break with Neo-Classism. But it is more probable that the source for the idea was inspired by the filming of La sultane de l’amour nearby, a film became France’s first movie hit. As is customary in the commercial film-making industry, a success  spawns countless offspring and soon the Studio de las Victorine was set up with Moorish palaces and prospective actresses lining up to join the celluloid harem. France’s Hollywood even attracted film makers from abroad including Rex Ingram, who made the blockbuster Garden of Allah (1927) there (Spurling (2005), p. 243). Matisse was intrigued by the make-believe that the film industry produced and even set up his own “theatrical” studio where his Turkish seraglio tableaux vivants would take place. He filled that theater/studio with fabrics, rugs, curtains, pillows, brass and copper containers of all sorts. He even rigged a pulley system that allowed for rapid “scene change, although it is unclear to me why that would ever be necessary for an oil painter. Matisse paid considerable attention to the details of all the plots, and the pictures were firmly set in the “real world,” not the non-determinative space he once used. Whatever the outside world thought, Matisse believed that each of these paintings were experiments in color and design, not a retreat from the formal advances he had staked out in Paris and Issy.

Aragon looking back believed that Matisse’s paintings of both Antoinette in 1917 and the Odalisques of Henriette, especially Nude on a Blue Cushion (1924), reflected a different, possibly unknown to Mattisse, aesthetic drive; namely, the motivation to conquer Innes’s 1814 Portrait of Madame de Senonnes (Aragon II: 110). It is true that Matisse tends to make the faces of these two models much more ovoid over time, but you, of course, can compare for yourself. For what it is worth, Aragon submitted drafts and proofs of his “novel” to Matisse, who evidently did not contradict this observation. And Matisse always admitted his early and continued fascination in this particular work by Innes. But the fact was that Matisse is on an altogether different project, one that he attempted before and one in which Henriette with her physical abilities and attributes were essential, and one that would have astounded his friends and enemies alike.

Matisse, Reclining Nude, Back View

38. Reclining Nude, Back View by Henri Matisse. 1927. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (To be shown only in the London installation of this exhibition.)

Matisse’s white whale was to create a modern recreation of Night, one of the two large allegorical figures on Michelangelo’s Tomb of Guiliano de Medici. Given how Matisse worked with clay, the project would involve many, long and painful sittings given the physical contortions required to mimic Michelangelo’s original. This was not solely attributable to Matisse’s notorious habit of repeatedly remolding clay before he settled on a final structure. The deeper problem was Matisse’s opposition to the Renaissance aesthetic. Matisse held that the masters of the High Renaissance sculpture, derived their idea of form from a deep understanding of anatomy. Matisse, on the other hand. claimed that he would work to understand anatomy, but once he understood it, he discarded the rules and proceeded only on the basis of his feeling (Aragon, I:81). As he said: “The model, for other people, is a source of information. For me, it’s something that arrests me” (Aragon, I;85). But this rather glib analysis does not explain how he would use a model to show him the anatomy of a Renaissance original (based on its creator’s own understanding of anatomy) and from what source the “emotion” would come. After all, the original would have to be part of any appreciation of the work; Matisse could not retreat to his own solipsistic defense of the final work (however much it differed from Michelangelo’s) or else why use a model at all?

In the end it took four years after he began the project in earnest in 1925 to complete it, two of those years after Henriette left. The result, Large Seated Nude, was another masterpiece of 20th century sculture, probably Matisse’s best. But along the way he and Henriette created another masterpiece out of the Odalisque paintings: Decorative Figure on Ornamental Ground (1926). Because the work is not part of the exhibition I will not analyze it here, except to note that in it Matisse resolves several problems for the last time: how to render solidity in two dimensions, how to anchor a figure in a decorative field, and how to relate two dimension decoration in the same work as a three dimensional object.

Mboom mask (Kuba)

39. Mboom mask, Kuba Kingdom. Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Wood, textile, shell, pearls, seeds, copper, and mixed media. Musée Matisse, Nice.

So returning to Woman with a Veil (#32), can we make a pausible guess at what Henriette is trying to convey?  Spurling speculates that her only bespeaking her physical exhaustion (which is why she is propping her head with her hand). In Spurling’s credit account, Henriette had collapsed the previous year while modeling, perhaps for Night. On the debit side, the unique combination of elements for Matisse seems hardly called for to paint a tired model.  Schneider notices the similarities to the rendering of Michelangelo’s other Medici tomb—that of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. In the sculpture of the Duke himself, the figure has his forearm on his knee, his hand to his mouth, a pensive pose and a shadow on his forehead from his hemet (Schneider, p. 528). The curators of this exhibition see the portrait as heavily influenced by an African head in his collection, the the Mboom mask from the Congo (#39). In favor of that interpretation are: the veil-like band covering the figure’s eyes, the headpiece and the white streaks trailing from Henriette’s neck which possibly invoke the patch hanging from the mask’s necklace. It seems to me, however, a much too fraught occasion for the foregoing explanations to fully account for the image. If the expression were not enough, she is wearing a veil which could merely be a part of her Turkish costume, but never was before and her posture and direct gaze is hardly the pose of someone simulating the modesty the veil would suggest, so I think we are warranted in considering the connotations of a veil in the West. I therefore conclude (or would like to think in any event) that both were grieved by their parting, knowing that they had not only formed a familial bond, but also made some unusual pictures together, and two masterpieces. I tend to agree with Flam that Matisse  employed  something like Picasso’s language to treat this final portrait. Not Picasso’s vocabulary, because Matisse was not familiar enough with it, but perhaps the phonemes of some words of that vocabulary. These include: the direct engagement between the subject and the artist/viewer. The passive setting of the figure within the space of the canvas. The cross-hatching of the shawl, suggesting a nod towards an analytical approach to the figure. The fracturing of the face into planes by the veil over the eyes. “It is almost as if, from the expression of such intense sorrow Matisse instinctively turned towards the vocabulary of Picasso, the better to express an emotion that was common to Picasso’s art but so foreign to his own” (Flam (2003, p. 148).

After Henriette left him, he tried to continue his theater art, but he quit it not long after his wife joined him in Nice. Soon he left for Tahiti, with no real purpose. He only engaged a full time assistant (who would reluctantly become a model later) in the mid-1930s. That engagement lead to a crisis in Matisse’s marriage, not, however, because she believed that Matisse was sexually unfaithful to her, but because the assistant had assumed the role of manager of Matisse’s studio (a role that Amélie had considered her own since their marriage more than 25 years earlier). Matisse fired the assistant, but Amélie left him for good anyway. Fleeing the Nazis Lydia Delectorskaya returned to Matisse because she had no place else to go. Lydia, who had escaped the Russian Revolution before first coming to Matisse, experienced her second world-changing upheaval with Matisse. She would remain his companion, studio manager and nurse for the rest of his life.

Objects and their Metamorphoses

Pewter jug

40. Pewter jug. Northern France. Late 18th century. Engraved pewter. Musée Matisse, Nice.

What followed Matisse’s decade long engagement with his conservative staged pieces, Matisse gradually returned to exploration of the frontiers of modern art beginning around 1931. For the first decade he experimented with the abstract realations between a figure and the field. After that (the demarcation can be set at 1941 when a series of operations left his bedridden) his art became increasingly preoccupied by the use of lines themselves. The development during this period was not as rapid as at the early part of Matisse’s work, but it involved many individual pieces and many variations on the basic theme he was develping. Instead of tracing it, let me focus on one aspect that becomes apparent given how the exhibition isolates its selection to those related to referents they are able to display: In the last two decades of his life, Matisse developed the visual acuity to see the variety of ways an object could be visually transformed and the technical competence (mainly through the fluent use of brush or blade to made graceful lines) to fit that transformation into an overriding design of the work. I’ll give three examples.

Pewter Jug

41. Pewter Jug by Henri Matisse. 1917. Oil on wood. Private collection.

At the transition between Matisse’s severe period and his early Nice period Matisse executed a still life (#41) which featured a pewter jug (#40). The composition used the curves of the belly of the jug to emphasize its volume. But those curves also carried over to the folds of the cloth drooping on the table (which looks something like long fingers). We can see the jug partially, as diffracted by the glass (and the water in the glass). The curves also provide a visual cue for us to look at the plate containing the glass as well as two pieces of fruit. The fluted edge of the plate is a flattened version of the pattern of the grooved jug and the folded cloth. Although this contributes to the decorative effect of the composition, the forms are modeled and we see them in three dimensions.

When Matisse took up this jug again, he used it as an accessory in two highly decorative and very stylized portraits of a woman in a chair next to a small table that holds the jug which now functions as a flower pot. In the MFA show the portrait is Purple Robe and Anemones (from the Baltlmore Museum of Art); at the London show the portrait will be Yellow Odalisque (#42).

Matissse, Yellow Odalisque

41. Yellow Odalisque by Henri Matisse. 1937. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (At the London show only.)

In these two pictures (which share the same elements and approach to composition), the figures are considerably flattened consistent with the tendency of his works at the time. Both pictures are a riot of boldly renderded decorative effects, with the emphasis on lines whether (nearly) straight or curved. The thickness of the lines as well as the pure (untinted or modeled) colors make the effect jump out at the viewer, although the treatment of the figures makes them two dimensional. This is almost the reversal of the functions of line, color and modeling of Matisse’s early still lifes.

The show collects a handful of the drawings Matisse made of this jug as either part of a still life, a prop to a figure or studies of the [arts of the jug al leading up to his 1941 oil Still Life with Magnolias, which unfortunately is not shown at the exhibition. But these stages show how Matisse was able to progressively re-conceptualize his use of the jug from the 1910s to his migration towards design in the late 1930s and early 1949s.

Matisse Chair

42. One of the photographs Matisse sent Aragon showing the Baroque chair that “bowled” him over set among various of the other items we find in his paintings. (This photograph is not at the show, although the actual chair is.)

The second example involves a highly ornate Baroque chair that Matisse bought in 1942. He immediately wrote to Aragon about his excitement over the purchase. “I have at last found the object for which I’ve been longing for a whole year. It’s a Venetian baroque chair, silver gilt with tinted varnish, like a piece of enamel. You’ve probably seen something like it. When I found it in an antique shop, a few weeks ago, I was quite bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it. I am going to bounce on it gently when I come back in the summer from Switzerland” (Matisse to Aragon, 20/4/42 together with a sketch of the chair). The chair is highly decorative. The seat and back are made up of two halves of a cockleshell. (Remember the chapter in Ulysees where Dedalus contemplates the “modality of the visible”? The women with dog he encountered then are “Cocklepickers.”) The arms were snakelike animals with their head resting on the seat. The legs were also highly wrought. Matisse was so excited for the chair, and how it interacted with the other highly decorative items in his flat at Cimiez that he sent Aragon eight photographs of the seat in different settings (e.g., #42).

Matisse, Interior in Yellow and Blue

43. Interior in Yellow and Blue by Henri Matisse. 1946. Oil on canvas. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

Whatever excited Matisse about this object he did not explain. Perhaps it was a symbol of luxury and comfort that existed before the Nazi occupation of France. It seems entirely unlike any of the art he was exploring them (or even at any time before in its career). It violated his basic rule of art: that it should be stripped of everything that was not important. This chair is nothing if not an object in unnecessary detail. Nevertheless, it became a subject for a series of drawings (four of which are in the show) where the chair dominates the paper. In two, he draws the chair facing forward holding a vase of flowers, and the long stems combine with the lines of the back of the chair to make it look as though the flowers are exploding out of a the shell that is the chair. In another the chair sits slightly behind the ornate table we see in his photgraph (#42). The table holds a large vase without flowers. A stool behind the chair holds a vase of flowers.

That drawing was the basis for the painting Interior in Yellow and Blue (#43). The scene is not entirely flattened, but the perspective employed is quite “primitive.” And the figures themselves are only represented by outline. The canvas is divided into three fields: two solid blue and one solid yellow. The bottom blue field (a tabletop?) has lemons, a plate and a glass. The fruit is colored as is the glass; the plate is white and outlined. The only other objects colored are the leaves of the flowers in the vase on the stool. The work is a prime example of his increasingly “empty” figures set in fields that that are merely color panels.

Matisse, Rocaille Chair

44. Rocaille Chair by Henri Matisse. 1946. Oil on canvas. Musée Matisse, Nice.

All of the foregoing become mere preludes to his Rocaelle Chair (#44). The chair is no longer an object acting with other objects or acting as a prop to a model. It has become the subject and indeed occupies the entire canvas by itself except for a small bouquet of flowers on its seat. The cockleshell seat and back is ignored and the carved design of the leg reduced to a functional component; the only “ornamental” aspect of either the chair or of the painting are the snake arms, although the snakeheads are not fully delineated. If one did not know what the chair looked like, it is possible that the reptilian nature of the appendages would go unnoticed. They do provide, however, the arabesques running from the bottom left side to the right top half which are the principal design feature of he work. Aside from white, there are only three colors: the green of the arms (and leaves of the flowers), the golden yellow of the seat and back and the dark red of the background. This chair has undergone a complete metamorphosis from a rather tasteless rococo armchair, to an object in a setting, to a subject in its own right.. And not simply a subject, but a monumental one, so much so that it cannot be fitted into the canvas. It is as though Matisse had concluded, by using the methods he formerly did of human models, with multiple canvases until he discovered the “correct” pose, that he finally reached the essential artistic core of this object.

Calligraphy panel

45. Calligraphy panel. Chine, Qing dynasty. 19th century. Lacquered wood with gilding. Musée Matisse, Nice.

The final metamorphosis I will note is in reality more of a general transmogrification of  his means of communication. It is immediately apparent from the first viewing of any of his very late works (whether cut-outs or drawn figures) that Matisse had decided to so radically reduce his means of expression that it became solely the outline of the objects he placed on the field. All expression by the artist would be by color and the line.


46. Acrobat by Henri Matisse. 1952. Ink on paper. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

When you compare the wooden panel with the panel Chinese ideograms which he mounted on the wall above the head of his bed or the Arabic script contained on a wall hanging in his studio with one of the simple line drawings which converted an athletic pose into an ideogram itself (#46), it is clear that he saw, at the end of his life, that his works should have the directness of writing and like writing dispense with all lines that are unconnected with the most economical form of intellectual communication. Matisse had traveled so far in this direction that it requires the written word, the title of the piece, to allow us to decode it at all. But once we know the subject, we see that all of the information that was intended to be conveyed is present. In the end, he happened on the most parsimonious definition of art: intellectual communication. All the attributes (style, grace, beauty) have to be derived from the information the artist communicates. It is no longer a question of the artist mediating between an external reality (however conceived) and the expression of the intellectual content he intends to convey. This not only is the most radical version of modernism possible, but it also contradicts much of what Matisse said he was trying to achieve from 1908 forward.

The response to any concern over seeing that Matisse eventually betrayed his earlier manifesto is something Aragon declared in his edition years after Matisse died (and therefore had no ability to comment on): “When a great painter speaks,  we must retain much of what he says. But also, when he judges himself, we must know how to close our ears to his words firmly though respectfully” (Aragon I:75).

Final Thoughts about the Installation

The career of Matisse is far too diverse to adequately explore it in a single exhibition unless it is the size of the 1992 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA attempts to find an organizing principle that allows one to see the entire range of his career on a much smaller scale. The theme selected, Matisse’s studio works or practices, is almost absurdly overly broad because Matisse was essentially a studio painter his entire career (except, curiously enough, for his seminal break-through during the summer of 1905; and his Morocco trips). Even in Tahiti he painted indoors. But whether indoors or just outside his home, he made everything a studio:

“Every place the family ever lived in—cramped Paris flats, disused convents, borrowed houses in Bohain and less Lesquielles, seaside lodgings in St-Tropez, Colliuure and Cavalière—became primarily a studio. At Issy Matisse regularly produced nature works in the garden, the living room and upstairs in his bedroom (his wife’s dressing table with its hatpin stand and ring saucer was the subject of a majestic dual response to Cézanne and Cubism, The Blue Window)” (Spurling, (2005), p. 176).

It doesn’t particularly help to try to restrict that universe to those paintings for which the curators were able to find studio referents (for reasons that I mentioned throughout the review).

Nevertheless the sheer number of items included and its sampling from each stage of his career ensure that the exhibition justifies (and indeed requires) several viewings. Matisse showed us so many different ways of seeing things, and carefully studying them gives us many different ways of seeing Matisse and modern art in general.


Aragon, [Louis], Henri Matisse: A Novel trans. by Jean Stewart (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). 2 volumes.

Barr, Alfred H., Jr., Matisse, his Art and his Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951).

Bock-Weiss, Catherine, Henri Matisse: Modernist against the Grain (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).

Burnham. Helen, “African Art and the Nude” in Matisse in the Studio ed. by Ellen McBreen & Helen Burnham (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), pp. 67–93.

Carlson, Eric Gustav, “‘Still Life with Statuette’ by Henri Matisse,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 1967), pp. 4-13. (JSTOR)

Elderfield, John, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). (Internet Archive)

Flam, Jack D., Matisse, The Man and his Art, 1869-1918 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

Flam, Jack D., Matisse on Art (Rev. ed.: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Flam, Jack D., Matisse and Picasso: The Story of their Rivalry and Friendship (Cambridge, Mass: Ion Edition/Westview Press, 2003).

Fry, Roger, Henri-Matisse (Paris, Editions des Chroniques du jour; New-York: E. Weyhe, 1930).

Grammont, Claudine, “The Object as Actor” in  Matisse in the Studio ed. by Ellen McBreen & Helen Burnham (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), pp. 45–65.

Gowing, Lawrence, Matisse ((New York: Oxford University Press, 1979

Klein, John, Matisse Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001).

Kramer, Hilton, “Matisse as a Sculptor,” Boston Museum Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 336 (1966), pp. 48-65. (JSTOR)

MacChesen, Clara T., “A Talk with Matisse, Leader of Post-Impressionists,” New York Times Magazine, March 9, 1913, p. 12. (NY Times) (ProQuest)

McBreen, Ellen & Helen Burnham (eds.), Matisse in the Studio (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017).

Matisse, Henri & Pierre Courthion, Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview edited by Serge Guilbaut; translation by Chris Miller (Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, 2013).

Rubin, William, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern  (New York  Museum of Modern Art, 1994).

Schneider, Pierre, Matisse (New York: Rizzoli, 1984).

Spurling, Hilary, “How Matisse Became a Painter,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1084 (July 1993), pp. 463-70. (JSTOR)

Spurling, Hilary, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869–1908 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

Spurling, Hilary, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005).

Stein, Gertrude, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (©1933). (Online edition by University of Adelaide)


Botticelli and the Crisis of Humanism in Renaissance Florence

“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine”
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

School of Botticelli, Altar Piece, Montelupo

1. Enthroned Virgin and Child with St. Sebastian, St Lawrence, St John the Evangelist and St. Roch by student of Botticelli. Tempera on Panel (Altar Piece). ca. 1495–1500. Pieve di San Giovanni Evangelista, Montelupo, Italy. All numbered illustrations are of pieces shown at MFA exhibition. Click to enlarge any picture.

Fifteenth century Florence experienced one of the more remarkable periods of Western cultural history. Politically, if any place saw the West emerge from corrupt theocratic feudalism it was Florence. Florence was a republic, a form of government rare enough over the past millennia and a half, but it became the center of a useful trade, textiles, which united, at least commercially, most of Europe and less directly the much more enlightened Muslim world and places further east. With Dante (who was a soldier in the political struggles of the time) Florence became a (arguably the) center of post-medieval literature. In the 15th century (the early Renaissance proper) he was followed by Florentine writers such as Boccaccio, a pioneer of the novel form, and Machiavelli, a pioneer of political theory. And in between Florence was a center of Neoplatonic research. As for sculpture, Florence produced, among others, Donatello, who seems to have channelled the Hellenistic approach to produce works, virtually without immediate precedent, which we recognize as vital and startling even today. And of course a century later Florence would produce Michelangelo, who would define High Renaissance sculpture and painting in the 15th century, both of which remain a standard by which Western visual art is measured. Leonardo da Vinci was also born in the Florentine Republic and began his career there, and Raphael spent significant time there. Indeed, before the Renaissance, Giotto, the most innovative painter until that time, lived and worked in Florence.

But there is no denying that paintings during the period between Giotto and Michelangelo leave us early 21st century nonspecialists completely cold, and perhaps not only us. Even art historians who try to engage us with the paintings of this period, urge us to make allowances. Mather, for instance (p. 157), tells us that even the more famous of these artists, such as Fra Filippo Lippi or Ghirlandaio, are “by no means great artists” and that while their importance to the history of art is “slight,” they are “very important” in the history of taste. Even the frequently over-the-top booster Bernard Berenson cautions us (II:1) that painting “offers but a partial and not always the most adequate manifestation” of the personalities of these Florentine painters, because in addition to painting, often they were sculptors, architects, poets and scientists as well.

There are a number of reasons for the emotional distance we have with these painters—a distance we do not have when experiencing great art of cultures we have almost no understanding of (say, the cave paintings of Lascaux or the sculptures of early Hindu and Buddhist votaries in Southeast Asia). The typical work shown in museums are tempera painted panels. Whatever this may look like in natural Tuscan sunlight, in a museum these works have an annoying glare that make them nearly impossible to see as a whole (and this is the case in the MFA exhibit I am going to discuss, which used harsh overhead halogen lights). A more significant problem from our point of view is that these artists had not entirely mastered all the techniques to make what we consider a harmonious composition. It is unfair to blame them, because they were essentially inventing things like 2-dimensional perspective, compositional settings, color harmony, and so forth, since, unlike sculpture, the Greeks did not leave behind two-dimensional pictorial art for the “re-born” artists to follow. It is nevertheless something that bothers our sensibilities. But the overriding objection we instinctively have is that the subject matter of 15th century (the Quattrocento, as the cognoscenti call it) Florentine painting of this period is largely confined to a very few number of types, repeated endlessly: virgin seated with child, adoration of the Magi, and so forth. Portraits, generally from the shoulders up, show people who although wearing much more interesting costumes (Florence was, after all, the center of European textile trade), have expressions and postures almost as unapproachable as that in early New England portraiture, an art form that solidified the reputation of New England Puritans as among the more forbidding people ever. And historical or mythical paintings (and even religious ones) contain iconography teaming with such esoteric symbolism that we cannot hope to understand it and have little interest to try.

Botticelli, Three Graces

The Three Graces, a detail of Primavera by Sandro Boticelli. ca. 1482. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. (Not in MFA exhibition.)

But all of the foregoing notwithstanding, there are two images from 15th century Florence, parts of two different paintings, that connect with modern viewers: the Three Graces in the painting Primavera (shown left) and the Venus figure in The Birth of Venus. The Graces may be the very first important nudes in Western art, but independent of that their pose expresses a dance of such spontaneous lissomeness that we immediately see them as the personifications of “grace.” The Venus figure expresses a kind of wistfulness so resonant that it has been used in the logo of a software company, among other desecrations. The paintings from which these figures come were fashioned by the same artist: Sandro Botticelli. And so the exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” which runs until July 9, gives us an entry into this representative of Quattrocento painting in Florence and allows us to examine our own, and Florence’s, attitudes about what makes art.

The Boston show contains neither The Birth of Venus nor Primavera (they are by far the most popular possessions of the Uffizi and therefore probably travel rarely) but the MFA is now showing one of the two solo Venus paintings (probably by Botticelli’s workshop) and another famous mythological work as part of its small but representative collection of Botticelli’s career which includes a handful of significant masterpieces. The exhibition is organized around Botticelli’s vision of what constitutes the “divine,” from the earliest of his works through the period when liberal Florence encountered the singular Hell-preaching demagogue and reformer, Girolamo Savonarola. Representative works from each stage of his development are shown, but to consider them with appropriate grounding we should probably first trace the highlights of his life.

Brief Biography of Botticelli

Very little is known of the public life of Botticelli, and essentially nothing of his inner life (except his paintings to the extent they are a reliable guide). He left behind no memoir or correspondence and his contemporaries recorded next to nothing about his sayings or doings. Over a half century after his death, Marsilio Vasili gathered together such stories and sayings about Botticelli that were handed down and added to them plausible fictions designed to make certain moral, aesthetic and political points in his collection of The Lives of the Painters (first published in 1568). As a courtier to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Vasari had great antipathy for Botticelli, whom he believed had gone over to the opposition when the Medici were driven from Florence in 1494. Although Vasari acknowledged Botticelli’s importance as a painter, it is obvious that he minimizes his work and fabricates unflattering stories. Nevertheless, much of what he says is still uncritically passed on because there really is not anything much else to offer.

From tax filings by his father we know that Botticelli was born ca. 1444. His father, Mariano di Vanni d’Amedeo Filipepi, was a tanner, and the family lived in the Ognissanti parish of Florence. Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Botticelli was the youngest of four boys to survive childhood. The name “Botticello” was first applied to his oldest brother, the pawnbroker Giovanni, evidently based on his appearance (“little barrel”), The first record of its application to Sandro is a 1470 document referring to Sandro Mariano Botticello.

Giovanni’s upward mobility allowed the family to move to larger quarters in the same parish in 1464 on the Via Nuova, and Giovanni would inherit that house. Botticelli, who remained a bachelor his entire life, never left that home.

It was probably when he was around 14 that Botticelli was apprenticed. If so, he had a considerably longer liberal arts education than most youths destined for a craft (and painting was also considered a craft). Vasari says that Sandro was apprenticed to a goldsmith. This might have been his own brother Antonio (who may have been in business with their father acting as the beater of gold leaf). Vasari says that Sandro came into contact with painters in that position (painters used gold leaf in their paintings for wealthy merchants and bankers) and decided on a career in that field. Possibly with the assistance of influential figures in the neighborhood (the Vespucci lived there and later commissioned Botticelli for work at the Ognissanti church), Sandro’s father arranged for him to be placed in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi no later than 1460. In 1469 when Fra Filippo died, his son Filippino Lippi joined Botticelli’s workshop. The activities of Botticelli between 1460 and 1469 are not documented, but many, based on the differences between Botticelli’s work in the 1470s and Fra Filippi’s own work, have speculated (with no documentary support) that Botticelli studied with both Antonio Pollaiolo and Andrea del Verrocchio. These latter two artists are supposed to have taught Botticelli how to give his figures more “volume” as well at the rudiments of anatomy.

Botticelli, Portrait of Young Man Wearing Mazzocchio

2. Portrait of a Young Man Wearing a Mazzochio by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1480. Tempera on wood. Galleria Palatina, Florence.

In 1470 Botticelli finished his first dated work, Fortitude, commissioned by the Tribunale dell’Are della Mercanzia, the important tribunal of the association of merchants of Florence. The work hung among others painted by Pollaiolo, which indicated Boticelli’s growing reputation. During the 1470s Botticelli must have attracted the notice of the inner circle of the Medici because after the aborted 1478 Pazzi conspiracy (in which a merchant faction attempted to overthrow the Medici interests which ruled Florence and nearly resulted in the assassination of Lorenzo de’ Medici), Botticelli was commissioned to paint the effigies of the executed conspirators. (This wall painting no longer exists.) Before then Botticelli executed portraits for the Medici circle, and after that time he painted historical works and devotional pieces which his workshop became famous for. Botticelli’s portraits (e.g., #2), were unlike the traditional approach to that genre. Rather than paint idealized version of the subject, he painted them true to life, making them seem harsh to some. When he placed real figures into historical, mythological or religious settings, he continued that approach. For example, in the Birth of Venus we can speculate that the two flying “wind” deities must be based on real models because they are so individualized.

Botticelli’s reputation had grown to such an extent that he was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to paint several frescos in the new Sistine Chapel. During that long-term engagement he worked out a solution to issues presented by the visual narrative, a form he would explore in a number of ways in the future. When he returned to Florence in 1482 (never to leave again), his reputation secured, he became a Medici favorite in the 1480s. This, of course, was helped by the fact that his major competitors had moved out of Florence: Leonardo da Vinci had moved to Milan in 1482, not to return until 1500; in 1484 the Pollaiolos left for Rome and in 1489 Verrocchio removed to Venice. The last three never returned to Florence. It was during this period that Botticelli painted the four pioneering works of Renaissance humanism: PrimaveraBirth of VenusPallas and the Centaur and Venus and Mars.

Vasari wrote that on his return from Rome, Botticelli made a close study of Dante and began his long project of illustrating the Commedia, and he added this rather odd assessment of the value of the project:

[Upon completion of the paintings in the Vatican] he returned immediately to Florence, where, being a man of inquiring mind, he made a commentary on part of Dante, illustrated the Inferno, and printed it; on which he wasted much of his time, bringing infinite disorder into his life by neglecting his work. He also printed many of the drawings that he had made, but in a bad manner, for the engraving was poorly done.

Boticelli continued devotional paintings in the 1480s refining his approach to Virgin-and-Child work to such an extent that it was copied throughout Italy and beyond. His fresco of St. Augustine for his parish church, commissioned by his neighbors the Vespucci, was completed in the early part of the decade. By the end of that decade he began experimenting with stylistic distortions that would anticipate Mannerism by decades.  Those experiments would continue, and his works would become increasingly stylized, symbolic and expressionistic for the rest of his life.

In 1494 a combination of the French invasion, a popular uprising over Medici mishandling of it, and clamor for more wide-based sovereignty led to the exile of the Medici and the rise of a firebrand, puritanical reformer and apocalyptic preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. This one-time Dominican monk soon dominated all of Florence’s religious and political life. He led a movement that not only democratized the republic but also entirely reversed its cultural orientation, substituting severe piety and an ascetic view of morality. As a result Botticelli no longer had a market for humanistic works and his output was restricted to religious paintings, but not the celebratory works of the past. Rather, they took on a mournful, austere look and were filled with symbolism relating to suffering (of Christ, of the Virgin and John the Baptist, of the saints, of Florence and mankind in general). At the same time he continued his movement towards a kind of expressionism that rejected the tendency of the art of the past quarter century to emphasize space, perspective and natural approaches to subjects in favor of a mannered and in some cases severely exaggerated stylization, together with esoteric references and symbolism, this time to religion rather than the humanistic teachings of the scholars in the Medici circle.

His brother Simone’s diary entry for November 1499 says that the followers of the overthrown (and executed) Savonarola used Botticelli’s studio for their clandestine meetings, and from this (and Vasari’s accusations) many have concluded that Botticelli himself was a follower of Savonarola during his last years. But Botticelli’s name was not among the signatories of the petition of Florentine citizens to the Pope to lift the ban on the friar’s preachings, and even during the height of the enthusiasm for the friar anti-Savonarolans visited Botticelli openly.

Among Botticelli’s last works was a 1496 fresco for a convent just outside the city of St. Jerome, which was destroyed in 1529. The very oddly symbolic and pensive Mystic Nativity, the only signed and dated work of all existing Botticellis, was painted in 1500. By the beginning of the 16th century Botticelli’s works (both his earlier ones and his new expressionistic ones) fell out of favor and attention was turned to the new High Renaissance style of the other Florentines, former citizens and residents da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. So precipitous and deep was the plunge of Botticelli’s reputation that it was not until the mid-19th century that a revival began (mostly of his early highly decorative works) and not till the turn of the century, when another full-scale crisis of European liberalism acted out, that reappraisal began.

Botticelli’s Influences and his Early Devotional Works

The Boston exhibition begins with a half dozen works by Botticelli’s master, Filippo Lippi, a Carmelite friar who quit the monastery (although not released from his vows), became, among other things, the chaplain of a nunnery in Florence. During an engagement for the cathedral in Prato the former monk violated his vows (and other things) with a novitiate of the cathedral, whose union produced a son, Filippino Lippi, who would become an apprentice of Botticelli (thus squaring a circle I guess). The works illustrate all the reasons we find 15th century Florentine painting off-putting, which I sketched above. One painting illustrates an even more  fundamental reason—we view the function of an artist entirely differently than they did.

Filippo Lippi, Virgin with Angels and Saints

3. Virgin and Child with Saints, Angels and Donor by Filippo Lippi. ca. 1430s. Tempera on panel. Venice, Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

In Fra Filippo’s early work Madonna and Child with Saints, etc. (#3) has all the (lack of) immediacy, but none of the heuristic value of a piece from the High Middle Ages. Perhaps the linear perspective is a bit better, but the use of it does not enhance the picture. The figures are oddly shaped, strangely grouped and their faces have no expression. The angels playing the musical instruments show no joy; indeed, they look pained. But the painting highlights a contemporary figure in the foreground—the patron of the painting, and this illustrates the most important difference between painting of that time and the painting we are most familiar with: the role of the artist.

In the 19th century Romanticism introduced the conviction that artists (in all arts) were the creative agents of their works, motivated by some ill-divined inspiration-producing force. But before then, artistic inspiration was something that was unheard of in post-classical times in Europe. And while Greek poets (and their Roman imitators) ritualistically sought the aid of the Muses (see, for example, the first lines of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid), no one really wanted in-spiring, which meant divine possession, and almost always resulted in madness, for example, what happened to Ajax in the play by Sophocles.

In the Middle Ages artists were merely craftsman, as Thomas Aquinas makes clear in the typical circular manner that scholastic writers’ thoughts ran. In a gloss on Aristotle Aquinas wrote: “Art does not require rectitude of appetite.” You can explore in detail the thinking behind this conclusion by reading Singleton’s essay (cited in the Sources below), but here is the abbreviated version: Aquinas divided human activity into two mutually exclusive categories: making (facere) and doing (agere). Practicing art, he rather laboriously explains, is making, and is judged by the good of an external thing (bona exteriora). Doing (which he illustrates by such things as thinking, willing, hoping, seeing), however, is evaluated by the subjective intention of the doer (humana bona) and therefore requires prudence. Art, however, does not because it is simply a mechanical task. not an expression of the subjective intent of the artist.

Filippo Lippi, Virgin and Child, Medici Riccardi

4. Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi. ca. 1466–69. Palazzo Medici Riccardo, Florence.

Baxandall, by citing numerous example, has shown (pp. 3–27), that the analysis of Aquinas would continue to be valid in the early Renaissance, not because of Aristotle but based of a commercial fact: Unlike the market for art that we are familiar with, paintings of the 15th century Italy were largely designed, not by the artist, but by the customer. (In Aquinas’s day, art was commissioned by the Court or Church almost exclusively.) Of course the buyer generally could not come up with an entirely new pictorial composition, but repeated tropes could be used (virgin and child, adoration of Magi, annunciation, etc.) with variation. The customer could specify who would be added, what color their costumes, how much of the expensive pigment or gold flakes would be used, and so forth. All of this would be reduced to a written contract, and sometimes the artist would provide a sketch of the composition to be appended. On occasions a third-party arbitrator would be appointed to certify progress of completion or when payment was due or even whether the final work was of sufficient quality to comply with the contract (perhaps something like our merchant contracts which require a “warranty of merchantability”). As Baxandall put it (p. 3), “in the fifteenth century painting was still too important to be left to the painters.” Of course, what it was important for was also important: private devotional use, furniture decoration, gifts to business partners, political figures, churches, public aggrandizement, etc. In one respect, however, there is a similarity: both contemporary patrons and and those 600 years ago commissioned portraits. Early Renaissance ones may not have had the variety or flair of modern ones, but they yoked artist and patron in much the same way.

Botticelli, Madonna of the Loggia

5. Madonna of the Loggia by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1467. Tempera on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The commercial customs in which the artist had to operate greatly restricted much of what we consider the artist’s purpose—to create an individual work that expresses the artist’s personal vision. The talent of the artist, and indeed his individuality, was not to be seen in the overall work but rather in subtle handling of details. This way of experiencing visual art does not allow us to experience large emotions like the grandeur we feel on seeing a Greek or Hellenistic frieze, the power of a Caravaggio, or the wonder of new ways of seeing things that Picasso showed us. But we can, if we spend enough time, appreciate the development of artistic sensibilities over time. In all respects, for example, the late 1460s Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi (#4) is in almost every respect a vast improvement over his effort in the 1430s (#3). Staying with this same visual trope we can see how Botticelli emerged from Fra Filipo’s studio to develop his own more lyrical style—the thing we notice in the Venus or the Three Graces.

Skipping over the works in the show that might be attributed to Botticelli from Fra Filippo’s studio, Botticelli’s earliest independent works exhibit a more mature concept of composition, a more realistic modeling of the figures and an attention to the emotional life of the figures that his master’s works lack. The infant’s eyes gaze lovingly at his mother, while the virgin emanates contentment and devotion.  The Madonna of the Loggia (#5) is a private devotional work in the mother-child tradition, and the arcane iconography we avoid (there is a dove representing the Holy Spirit among the clouds) is minimized. And while the architecture surrounding the figures gives off a sense of claustrophobia, the abstracted landscape with the river which outlines the back of the child gives the composition a gracefully (not artificially) abstracted look.

Botticelli, Madonna of the Book

6. Madonna of the Book by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1479. Tempera on panel. Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan.

Botticelli would become a master of this visual trope, which he (and his studio) elaborated in a number of ways. The Madonna of the Book (#6) shows the Virgin teaching the child to read. The book she is reading (the Horae beatae mariae) contains phrases from Isaiah 7:14 & 15, the so-called prophesy of the virgin birth (Lightbown II:40). Her hand rests on the book and the child touches it in a very lifelike manner. The tenderness of that touch is matched by the child’s gaze into the virgin’s eyes. The emotional connection is quite realistically enhanced by the attention to detail to the surroundings, such as the bowl of fruit behind the child, the tassel that drapes over the child’s lap and onto the virgin’s leg and the veil that covers her head. What I particularly noticed in this show is that the virgin in several paintings (and Venus) have a remarkable resemblance, as though they are based on the same model—the shape of her nose, the placement of the cheek bones and especially the color and texture of her hair. In this painting the hair on her right side dangles with the same body as does that of the Venus in the show and the one in Birth of Venus as it droops down the side. The intimacy of the relationship is enhanced by the overall composition. The figures take up most of the work, and the color organization unites the work. The central flesh tone colors are surrounded by the virgin’s cerulean blue robe on one side and the dark corner of the room on the other. Behind the robe is a window showing the light blue sky. The haloes above the heads are subtly rendered, giving only a slight gold touch to the overall color palette.

The symbolism is as lightly inserted as the haloes. The cherries in the bowl represent Paradise, the insignia on the virgin’s left shoulder is an unknown (at least to me) emblem and the crown of thorns around the child’s left arm of course foreshadows the crucifixion. The gruesomeness of the last association is not apparent until after close inspection and reflection; it could easily on superficial examination be seen as a bracelet. In short, the dogmatic Catholic associations are subordinated to a view that could easily be a domestic genre setting.

The figures in that painting and others of the same time have a natural three-dimensional roundness entirely absent from Fra Filippo’s works. Credit for this “advance” in Botticelli’;s style is often given to Antonio del Pollaiolo. Some believe Botticelli worked in the studio of Pollaiolo after leaving Fra Filippo, although this view seems to be based on inferences from stylistic development in Botticelli’s work. Another more plausible suggestion is that Botticelli must have studied Pollaiolo’s work around 1470, at the time he was commissioned to add one of the Virtues (Fortitude) to a series of seven originally to be completed by Pollaiolo and his brother. Visiting the Pollaiolos’ studio was probably necessary so that Botticelli could create a work similar to that of the others in the Sala Tribunale dei Sei. This last point is quite likely but one has to wonder how drastically and fundamentally one’s style can be altered no matter how long one simply studies another’s work. The MFA exhibition has two works by Pallaiolo to allow us to make comparison. The first is one of the existing prints of the only known engraving by the artist from the MFA’s own collection, The Battle of the Nudes, which has two sets of five nude men fighting each other with swords, axes, dirks and a bow and arrow, all having thrown down their shields.  Vasari, writing in the next century, assures us that Pollaiolo’s treatment of the male nude was superior to all his predecessors because he had actually dissected corpses and knew how to define muscles.

However Pollaiolo stacks up against predecessors and contemporaries in treatment of nudes, it is clear that it had little effect in that regard at least on Botticelli, who rarely portrayed male nudity. When he did, it was nothing like the way Pollaiolo did. One need only compare Pollaiolo’s Martyrdom of St. Anthony, with its careful treatment of the saint’s contorted body and tortured expression, with Botticelli’s own treatment of the same scene with the saint’s body in essentially the same position. Botticelli makes no effort to show the physical effect of the torture on his body; in fact, the saint looks uncommonly serene and unharmed (except, of course, for the arrows piercing his body).

Pollaiolo, St Michael Killing Dragon

7. Saint Michael Killing the Dragon by Antonio del Pollaiolo. 1465 or before. Oil on canvas. Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence.

The MFA show has one other Pollaiolo, Saint Michael Killing the Dragon (#7). The work shows the saint in action; indeed, he has much the same posture as one of the warriors in the foreground of his Battle of the Nudes. Fully clothed and with armored leg-wear, the archangel strikes a pose that Botticelli never tries to recreate. Moreover, his battle-wear is unlike the elaborate (or at least lavish) costumes of the characters in Botticelli’s works. The latter’s figures very often have robes or other wraps which allow Botticelli to concentrate on the rendering of flowing fabric, trimming and occasionally embroidered patterns. But the main difference between this work and Botticelli’s is the subject. Botticelli never portrayed struggle and conflict of a physical sort. Even his two-panel portrayal of Judith and the beheading of Holofernes does not show the act itself, although it depicts the grisly aftermath and Judith’s maid carrying off the severed head. In the latter of those two scenes Judith walks, sword still in hand, seemingly unruffled by her act or the battle that is taking place in the distant background.

Botticelli’s choice of subjects had to do with the clientele he had developed, and it was the cream of Florentine society—the Medici. And the Medici of Botticelli’s generation were more interested in transcendent emotions than war.

Botticelli and Medici Humanism

The Medici dominated 15th century Florence financially, politically and culturally. Cosimo (1389–1464) turned his father’s bank (which started as a local money-lending operation and became an important pan-Italian business) into an international financial organization with offices in the major cities of Europe. That financial reach and Cosimo’s strategic alliance with Cardinal Baldassare Cossa (later Pope and then Antipope John XXIII) allowed it to become the preferred financial institution for the Holy See giving the Church’s vast army of collecting agents a place of deposit and supplying the Vatican’s monetary needs by means of its lending facilities and material needs with its associated trading businesses. The bank’s association with [anti-]Pope John XXIII first gave it great ascendency, then threatened its existence when John XXIII was arrested by the Emperor (eventually freed by Medici money). But the bank survived, and Cosimo emerged a wealthy enough man to control Florentine politics without ever having an office. He did so though his control over the men who did. Despite its formal nature, the Florentine republic was an oligarchy but one dominated by Cosimo. Like all oligarchies, Florence was subject to jealousies and political instabilities, and in 1433 Cosimo fell into a trap which resulted in his exile. But the precipitous drain of merchant capital that resulted from the absence of Cosimo and his capitalist followers soon had the Florentini calling for his return, and when he came back in 1434 he secured a power that would not be disturbed until his death in 1464.

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes

Judith and Holofernes by Donatello. ca. 1457–64. Bronze (and originally gilded). Copy in Palazzo Vecchio of original in Sala dei Gigli, Florence. (Not in MFA show.)

During the last 30 years of his life Cosimo used his vast fortune to promote one of the most outstanding flowerings of art and culture since Athens. He guided public works which acted as guides for future Renaissance architecture and the Duomo di Firenze, engineered by Brunelleschi, a project that might as well have been a monument to Cosimo. He commissioned some of Donatello’s most daring sculptures as well as painters, including Fra Filippo. but his deepest influence may have been literary. Cosimo was the builder of libraries and the collector of books. He subsidized the translations of ancient texts. And significantly promoted a new form of Platonic study when he founded the Platonic Academy in 1445.

That academy, which was really more of a loose association of classically inclined scholars who met informally and once a year held symposia, was under the direction of Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), who would become the leader of the form of humanism associated with the Medici and their literary and artistic clients.

At ease in a villa granted him by Cosimo in 1463, Ficino translated the entire corpus of Plato into Latin for the first time. But his lasting imprint on Renaissance thought was the introduction of a kind of humanism based on a watered-down version of the Neoplatonism of the 3rd century (C.E.) metaphysician Plotinus. (Ficino of course stripped the teaching of the thorny gnostic concept of demiurge and all the anti-orthodoxy that implied.) Contrary to later popular characterizations of Renaissance humanism, Ficino did not turn away from Christian theology toward some naturalistic view of the world. Indeed, he attempted to combine Platonic thought with Christian teachings in such a way that the ancients were not viewed as pagans but rather as precursors to the revelations of Jesus. This conclusion was not new (Aquinas held to it), but Ficino did reject the method of evaluating philosophical arguments employed by the scholastics (who were the semi-official intellectuals of the Church during the Middle Ages) in favor of an approach that included what passed for science in his time. His explorations of astrology got him accused of magic by the Church and his last works flirted with heresy.

Jacopo de S ellaio, Psyche

8. The Story of Psyche by Jacopo da Sellaio. ca. 1480. Tempera and oil on panel. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ficino’s contributions (I here follow Kristeller) can be grouped into: 1. Ontology and its relation to epistemology; and 2. the implications of the foregoing to human morals, psychology and aesthetics. As for the first (I summarize with broad brush and much omission): all material things exist in a receptacle called “prime matter” (materia prima), that this abstraction, while existing outside the human mind (contra the scholastics), can never be directly understood by humans, but certain attributes can be comprehended, that its existence is the basis for the immortality of the human soul and that approaching it organizes human morality. The One (as in all Neoplatnism since Plotinus) has emitted a series of emanations, the first being Nous (the Mind), then Psyche (the Soul), which contains all individual souls. At the farthest reaches of the universe is the material realm, and humans participate both in the material and the spiritual worlds. The purpose of human life, according to Ficino, is to transcend the material to the spiritual realm. That men can do this, by contemplation, demonstrates the existence of the immortal soul. Moreover, that men can actually contemplate the divine is shown by their apprehension of Beauty, one of the attributes of the One. Complete transcendence requires the exercise of Platonic Love (a term invented by Ficino). Finally, that Ficino’s thinking was not pagan and opposed to Christian teachings is shown by his teachings that the aim of morality is to “separate the soul from the passion of the body” and to remove the “dirt and filth of the body.” (Kristeller, pp. 301, 332).

Ficino was not simply the beneficiary of Cosimo’s patronage, he was the tutor of Cosimo’s grandson Lorzenzo the Magnificent (1449–92), and the two remained lifelong friends. Il Magnifico assumed the role of magnate of Florence on the death of his father in 1469, and he skillfully guided Medici-connected interests for more than two decades, aided at least once by luck when he escaped an assassination attempt. But Lorenzo’s fame rests on his promotion of Florentine letters, building, sculpture and painting during Florence’s Golden Age. Lorenzo himself embodied what it was to be a Renaissance man by his activities as political puppeteer and diplomat, by his encouragement and support of the arts and by his own poetic writings. He and his circle championed the use of Italian in literature, and his friend, the poet, philologist and scholar Poliziano, helped lead a revival of interest in classical literature by translating portions of The Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Plutarch’s Eroticus and Plato’s Charmides, among other classics, into the Tuscan dialect. The advent of printing helped disburse works of literature and scholarship, and soon mythological stories became subjects of paintings (e.g., ##8 & 9).

Botticelli, Judgment of Paris

9. The Judgment of Paris by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. ca. 1485–88. Tempera on panel. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Galleria di Palazzo, Venice.

It is not known whether Botticelli himself subscribed to the Neoplatonism of Lorenzo’s circle. On the one hand, his formal education could not have extended beyond his 13th year and so navigating the various elements of Neoplatonism that assumed knowledge of a variety of classical writings probably would have been daunting. But his keen interest in Dante, shown by his detailed illustrations published in 1481 (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s copy is shown in the MFA exhibition), and continued later (and his “commentary” if Vasari was right that Botticelli wrote one), suggests that he had an interest in literature. Whether Botticelli himself was steeped in Ficino’s Neoplatonic thought or whether he took directions from Lorenzo or someone close to him, in the early 1489s Botticelli produced four remarkable allegories which fairly drip of Neoplatonic symbolism. I referred to two of them above: Primavera (1481–82) and The Birth of Venus (1484). The other two were Venus and Mars (1483) and Pallas and the Centaur (1482–83).

Botticelli, Turin Venus

10. Venus by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. 1484–90. tempera on wood. Galleria Sabauda, Turin.

The MFA show has a relic of The Birth of Venus in the form of one of the two large-scale Venus portraits produced by Botticelli and/or his studio. The MFA is showing the so-called “Turin Venus” (#10). The pose of Venus in this picture is the same as that in The Birth of Venus. It is based on a Hellenistic marble copy of a Greek bronze (in the manner of Praxiteles) which Botticelli possibly saw during his period in Rome. The statue, known as the Venus de Medici, is now found at the Uffizi in Florence. At its base is a dolphin, implying that she is stepping out of the ocean, just as she is in Botticelli’s larger work. That work contains several other figures, including Zephyr and Chloris, two wind deities whose breath propels Venus to the shore and Horus, one of the seasons, who, standing in an orange grove, is welcoming Venus ashore with a mantel to cover her.  Venus is riding a shell on the top of the water, an image that has no certain known antecedent.

Whatever Neoplatonic iconography The Birth of Venus contains (which I will omit commenting on except to note that Venus, the center of the painting, represents love in classical mythology and undoubtedly Platonic Love in Ficino’s version of Plotinus), the figure of Venus itself took on an iconic status among patrons in Florence. It is not hard to see why (and why we still find this a more compelling image than the multitude of religious and devotional art that was overwhelmingly produced). The image is made up of gracefully flowing lines beginning with her posture with both her torso and legs slightly bent. Her arms accent these lines as does her red hair, although it is shorter in this version than in either The Birth of Venus or the “Berlin Venus.” Her expression conveys an ethereal reverie. The face itself is one that Botticelli had settled on for his version of modest, but fertile, womanhood (which can be seen in his later Madonnas): sloping nose, high cheek bones, sensuous mouth, thin, rounded eyebrows and high forehead. These features (though generalized) are so similar that it struck me that they might all have been painted from the same model (although I have no knowledge of how modeling worked at the time and I have not read about it anywhere). What is engaging about the figure (and this can be said as well about the Three Graces from Primavera) is that while it is fully modeled, there was no effort made to place it in three-dimensional scene. The figures obey principles of design rather than principles of scene placement. Probably in Botticelli’s time design was a function of narrative (whether it was the biblical stories he depicted in the Vatican or the symbolic stories he produced for the Medici). Nowadays we accord greater importance to design, composition and visual narrative as essential elements. So while we appreciate the same aspects, we and and 15th century viewers do so for different reasons. The other “Neoplatonic” painting in the MFA shows where we differ.

Botticelli, Pallas and Centaur

11. Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1482. Tempera on canvas. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Pallas and the Centaur (#11) is a composition that seems designed not to illustrate Platonic Love but rather another Neoplatonic theme dear to the Medici heart: the conquest by reason of unbridled passion. This seemed to be a favorite them of Cosimo (witness his commissions of Donatello’s David as well as Botticelli’s own Judith and Holofernes (discussed above)). That these two themes are not mutually exclusive is shown by the fact that the Pallas painting was hung in the same room as the Judith and Holeofernes panels at the palace on Via Larga of Lorenzo and Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousins of Il Magnifico. According to a 1498 inventory the Pallas painting was hung above a door, and it has been suggested that it was planned for that location, which would explain what looks like the sotto in su foreshortening of Pallas’s face (Arasse & De Vecchi, p. 122). If this is so, it seems to me that a viewer from below looking at a certain angle would see the face of the centaur looking directly at him quite naturally, rather than unnatural bending of the head we see when looking at the painting straight on. The MFA show mounts the picture at eye level so there no way to determine if I am right on this. (My own bourgeois scruples prevented me from lying on the floor to get the right distance, but I invite less inhibited readers who view the exhibition to report the results of such an experiment.) But Florentine artists had a long experience of accommodating the viewers’ experience to the setting of the work. Donatello may have been the first to solve the problem of viewing a work from below, as was shown m the sculptures from the Duomo brought to New York and exhibited at the now shuttered Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan (February to June 2015). Donatello’s sculpture of John the Evangelist was designed to be placed in a niche 10 feet above the ground. Donatello devised a reverse system of spatial perspective that involved distorting features that were further away from the viewer following linear geometrical rules. The features were also heavily incised so they they seemed “normal” when viewed from below. Looking directly at eye level, the piece looked deformed and somewhat primitive. But when placed at its proper level from the human eye, it looked quite lifelike. (For a detailed description of Donatello’s technique, which he pursued again in a sculpture of St. Mark, see the article by Munman generally and Zolli at pp. 53–61, both cited in the Sources below.)

The iconography of the painting is quite obscure and because Neoplatonism is esoteric (not to mention the other classical sources drawn on by the circle around Il Magnifico), it is probably impossible to understand all the symbolism. There is even a dispute as to who the female in the figure is. She was identified as Pallas in the late 19th century (after the British Pre-Raphaelites and those with similar affinities revived the long buried reputation of Botticelli) by a scholar who incorrectly connected this painting to another described by Vasari. The name Pallas stuck, however, even though she is not wearing the helmet or carrying the aegis or kind of shield normally associated with her in ancient portrayals. It has since been suggested that she is Camilla from the Aeneid (XI:532–43, 570ff), the virgin votary-warrior of Diana, but the text more closely associates her with a spear than the halberd carried by the female in the picture. Lightbown (I:82–85) suggests she is Chastity victorious over Pride. It is reasonably clear, however, that she represents Medici ideals because the three diamond-pointed balls that form a pattern on her diaphanous gown are a commercial/professional symbol of the Medici, although of the Cosimo–Lorenzo branch, not the Pierfrancesco one and the latter branch owned the painting (Arasse & De Vecchi, p. 124). There is more, but we have undoubtedly passed the point that those not interested in scholarly disputations avoid. Perhaps all that need be assumed is that the female represents something the Medici considered “good” and has vanquished something they considered “bad”: whether it is the human intellect defeating earthly passions on the way toward salvation, the rational rule of the Medici-interests over the rabble or some other religious, philosophical or political point really no longer helps us appreciate the painting,

Botticelli, St Augustine (Ognissanti)

12. Saint Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1480. Detached fresco. Ognissanti (Church of All Saints), Florence.

One final humanist painting in the exhibition was one not painted for the Medici but rather a church—St. Augustine in his Study (#12). Vasari tells us that this work was originally commissioned by the Vespucci family for the Ognissanti church and that Botticelli set about to use the commission to outdo all his contemporaries in the painting of saints, particularly Dominico Ghirlandaio, whose painting of St. Jerome was on the wall opposite Botticelli’s. (Vasari is notorious for allowing his speculation to get ahead of his documentary sources, and one of his literary tropes is to set painters against one another. It is true, however, that Botticelli’s painting is superior to Ghirlandaio’s in composition and emotional content.)

The painting celebrates Augustine’s life of learning and scholarship (as did Ghirlandaio’s painting of Jerome) and is filled with the paraphernalia of 15th century science, including an astrolabe. The emphasis on this learning probably was the result of the recent acceptance by the church’s monastic order of Bemedict’s rule, which emphasized the importance of learning (Basta, p. 104). There is a curious sentence in the open book behind the saint’s head (the one with geometric figures or proofs in the margins) related to this brotherhood (first noticed in 1984) which in translation says: “Where is Fra Martino? He has run away. And where has he gone? He is outside the Prato gate.” This is another instance of art of the time being used to communicate something known only to the patron-insiders.

Botticelli, Augustine in Study (detail)

13. Detail of Saint Augustine in his Study (#12).

Whatever the mysteries that the surrounding objects intend to convey, there is no doubt that the overall composition is very effective. The predominant orange is well set off by the blue-green background. This color harmony remains even though the colors seem to have greatly faded over time. The field is dominated by the figure of Augustine, and it is designed to draw attention to his rapt contemplation and the dramatic gesture of his right hand. The clock behind the saint sets the time as after sunset, but there is light streaming in from the left. Helen Roberts (see Sources) first explained this, as well as the connection between the paintings of Augustine and Jerome in the church: A letter of Augustine (now known to be spurious) tells of his seeing a flood of light at a specific time (the very time that is on the clock in the painting) and hearing the voice of Jerome. Only later did he learn that that was the moment of Jerome’s death. (This explanation is nearly universally accepted, but Stapleford (1994) argues that the moment captured is the conversion of Augustine. That Augusine’s bishop’s mitre is lying next to his arm suggests to me that the scene depicted must be of a time several years after his conversion.) The explanation that Augustine is hearing from Jerome accounts for the intense expression on Augustine’s face which reveals something of a psychological insight; namely, that in such a circumstance, the saint would have experienced both awe and pain. The portrait is perhaps the most subtly expressive portrayals ever attempted by Botticelli. It also is consistent with the fact that the fresco was originally intended to face the painting of St. Jerome in the choir of the church. (If one is so inclined, he can also see how Botticelli “topped” Ghirlandaio by showing that Augustine not only lived beyond Jerome, but was the person who Jerome called out to in extremis.)

Savonarolla and the End of Medici Humanism

Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492 and the reins of Medici influence were turned over to his son Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1471–1503). His unfitness for the role, and the disaster that came to Medici interests under his leadership, is summarized by the epithet that became affixed to his name: Il Sfortunato, “the Unfortunate.” Two factors conspired that would have made it difficult for even a man with the political and diplomatic acumen of his father to preserve Medici dominance of Florence. The most serious was the ambition of French King Charles VIII who, egged on by the short-sighted (and self-interested) offer by Pope Innocent VIII, began a military invasion of Italy amidst the disintegration of the tenuous Italian peace. The second factor, more obscure but for all that probably more destructive of Medici influence, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

Machiavelli watched Savonarola up close in Florence and later concluded (in The Prince) that he was destined to fail, being an unarmed prophet. But for a while the times were right. The belief was taking hold that the dawn of the year 1500 would usher in some sort of prophesied end of things. Savonarola was a product and became an inciter of this anxiety. In 1475 he took vows at the Dominican convent in Bologna. He was assigned as a lecturer to the Convent of San Marco in Florence in 1482, but soon left and began the life of an itinerant preacher whose sermons gradually became more like jeremiads against the corruption of Italian society. In 1490 he returned to the Florence convent at the instigation of humanist and church-reform philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who lived under the protection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Savonarola soon began delivering sermons denouncing tyranny in government, immorality in culture and corruption in the church. Lorenzo attempted without success to moderate the priest who was becoming a firebrand. When Il Sfortunato took control of Medici interests the external affairs were ominous and he lacked the finesse of his father at dealing with domestic unrest. Savonarola began prophesying that Charles VIII would soon attack Florence and become the scourge for the needed divine chastisement of the city-state. In November 1494 Charles indeed was nearing Florence and asked for leave to pass through on his march to Naples. Piero made the mistake of denying it and instead tried to muster forces to oppose the French. General panic swept through Florence when Piero’s forces were defeated and Piero and the Medici allies fled the city.

Botticelli, Painted Crucifix

14. Painted Crucifix by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1496–97. Tempera on cut wood panel. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Prato.

Savonarola assisted in negotiating a relatively humane peace with Charles and that together with the fulfillment of his prophesies of Florence’s defeat greatly enhanced the priest’s prestige. Florence was declared a democracy, but for the next four years Savonarola led a campaign against luxury, immorality and church corruption in his attempt to make Florence into the New Jerusalem. Anti-Savonarolans emerged in competing pulpits and in city politics. The Arrabbiati party joined forces with the Duke of Milan and Pope Alexander IV, but against such overwhelming opposition Savonarola mustered enough popular support to stave off destruction for a remarkably long time. During that period a large swath of Florence subscribed to a severe form of pietism demonstrated notably by the “Bonfire of the Vanities” on February 7, 1497, when much of Florence at great cost proved their devotion by offering up jewelry, fineries, luxuries, and some books and art. Savonarola’s party passed anti-“vice” laws which punished sodomy, public drunkenness, adultery and the like. Vigilante groups organized to enforce this new morality. But Savonarola’s base among the artisans could not outlast the combined and determined opposition of the oligarchs in and outside of Italy who had the enthusiastic backing of the corrupt pope. When Savonarola’s preaching became increasingly directed at the Church, the pope ordered him to appear in Rome. Rightly suspecting a trap,the friar declined for health reasons, and the Pope issued a ban against his preaching. Savonarola could not long abide such an order and excommunication soon resulted as well as the threat of interdiction of Florence should the citizens support him. The mounting pressure reached its climax in a most bizarre manner. A Franciscan preacher challenged the friar to a trial by fire. Savonarola evidently declined but a surrogate took up the gauntlet. On the much anticipated day, the event was postponed several times until a storm forced the cancelation. A mob took this as a sign of Savonarola’s disfavor and attacked the San Marco convent. In May 1498 Savonrola and two colleagues were arrested and tortured until they confessed. On May 23 the three were executed by hanging and their bodies consumed in a fire beneath them.

Though outlawed the teachings of Savonarola galvanized a group of radical followers, the Piagnoni (the “Weepers” or “Mourners”), who remained a potent underground force in Florence, claiming miracles, fulfilled prophesies and urging that his death was an apocalyptic event. Savonarola in life and death was an enigma: a demagogue who supported a broad-based republican rule, supported by the middle class against oligarchs, but who also insisted on a puritanical and narrow view of morality.  (But of course the middle class always supports a sterner view of morality based on self-discipline on which their economic survival rests than the wealthy, who can afford extravagance and self-indulgence without much fear of their immediate impoverishment.) The Piagnoni remained republican and anti-Medici. (One of Ficino’s last works was a denunciation of the Piagnoni.) When the Medici returned in 1512, the Paagnoni remained organized and eventually drove them out again by a revolt in 1527–30. They were eventually defeated by the Medici pope, Clement VII, and the Emperor, who turned Florence into a hereditary duchy.

It would have been difficult for any artist to remain unaffected by the tumult of the Savonarola period and its aftermath. But Vasari makes a very specific claim about Botticelli and

Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara, of whose sect he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone [Mourner, or Weeper] (as the members of the sect were then called), he abandoned his work; wherefore he ended in his old age by finding himself so poor, that if Lorenzo de’ Medici, for whom, besides many other things, he had done some work at the little hospital in the district of Volterra, had not succoured him the while that he lived, as did afterwards his friends and many excellent men who loved him for his talent, he would have almost died of hunger.

Vasari is demonstrably wrong that Botticelli abandoned painting after the death of Savonarola, because The Mystical Nativity was signed by Botticelli who dated it 1500 (after Savonarola’s death). The rest of it also seems implausible.

Botticelli, Modonna and Child

15. Madonna and Child by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Oil on panel. Museo Stibbert. Florence.

But there is at least something that might indicate that Botticelli’s will was bent in the direction of the demagogue. Botticelli must have represented the very kind of art that Savonarola had in his sites. Not only was Botticelli a client of the Medici, he essentially invented the humanist art of the classical mythological scene, particularly in his use of (indeed creation of) the nymph. The Three Graces of Primavera may be the first of what we call the modern “nude.” Kenneth Clark (p. 150) calls the group “one of the most personal and memorable evocations of beauty in the history of art”; one that had no immediate antecedent. (The female nude was not depicted in classical Greece, although it became common in the Hellenistic period after Alexander.) As for Botticelli’s Venus pictures, all fully nude, and while stationary, yet expressing vibrant motion by the very curves of the lines that define her, they produce a shocking challenge to any Catholic puritan in that her face is the very face that Botticelli uses in his Madonnas. As to this fact, Clark wrote (p. 155): “That the head of our Christian goddess, with all her tender apprehension and scrupulous inner life, can be set on a naked body without a shadow of discord is the supreme triumph of the Celestial Venus.”

We don’t have to speculate on Savonarola’s views because he expressed them directly. As Dempsey (p. 30) puts it:

Savonarola … not only urged Florentines to cast into the bonfire of the vanities paintings of indecent nudes (like the Birth of Venus), together with the worldly poems in Petrachan Conzonieri and the ribald tales of Boccaccian Decameron, but also, in a sermon in 1946, excoriated the women of Florence who “put their daughters on display and dress them so that they appear to be nymphs.” He went further, claiming that these nymphs impiously served as the models for the paintings of the Virgin and female saints placed on the altars of the churches. “These are your idols, which you have placed in my temple. The images of your gods are the images and likenesses of the bodily forms you cause to be painted in the churches, so that young men go about saying of one woman or another, ‘She is the Magdalene,’ and ‘Behold, she is the Virgin.’ For you have had bodily forms painted in the churches in the likeness of this woman or another […] Do you believe the Virgin Mary went out dressed the way you have painted her? I tell you she dressed like a poor girl, simply, and covered so that her face could scarcely be seen. So too did Saint Elizabeth go out simply dressed. […] You have made the Virgin appear dressed like a whore.”

Not remarkably, coming from the mouth of a man who could inspire a Bonfire of the Vanities, these words had effects. For Botticelli there would be no more nudes or anything reeking of the teachings of Ficino. And his paintings of the Virgin changed drastically. Before he painted her, as his patrons wished, dressed in the finest contemporary raiment (e.g., ## 5 & 6). Now she was dressed as Savonarola dictated. In the Stibbert Modonna and Child (#15) her dress is matronly, nearly drab with the trimming only offering variety. The background is no longer an inviting setting (as in #5) or a harmonious setting to enhance the intimacy of the mother and child (as in #6) but rather an undistinguished urban setting which adds to the somberness of the scene. Indeed the virgin is no longer the young mother whose attention is absorbed by her young child. She seems weighed down by care, burdened by the future. It is as if the picture is not celebrating a Christmas story—the arrival of the Prince of Peace, but rather the beginning of a long and painfully eventful story, one in which joy is banished. This conclusion is seen in other religious scenes.

Botticellil, Adoration of the Magi

16. Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The 1500 Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli (#16) was his fourth and last version of this scene. It was a popular subject among 15th century patrons and was painted by many artists, including Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo.  Florence every five years put on a pageant in which the leading citizens, merchants, manufacturers and bankers, dressed up as Magi and paraded through the town. One year even Lorenzo the Magnificent joined them. The story of the eastern kings allowed these gentlemen to display their wealth, possessions and taste for all to see. The paintings that were commissioned of the Biblical scene also involved large numbers of Magi, all dressed elegantly and the paintings were usually quite sumptuous, lavishly using expensive pigment and gilding. Botticelli’s three earlier paintings follow this pattern. The first two are held by the National Gallery. The first one is a fairly conventional narrative version with a long train of Magi approaching the child who is seated on the right side of the piece. The second has the Virgin and child in the center under the ruins of an interesting building with the Magi forming groups on both sides. The third, at the Uffizi, has the holy family on an elevated platform among stone ruins. All three show the Magi as contemporary patricians would like to see themselves. In fact, the third one contains portraits of three Medici, including Cosimo, and perhaps even Botticelli himself, as Magi (Paolucci, pp. 70–71). The final one, shown in the MFA exhibition (#16), is entirely different. With the exception of a courtier in the foreground (the patron?), the Magi are all modestly attired (as are Mary and Joseph). There is no celebration of wealth, and indeed the setting has the superficial appearance of a desert. Perhaps more significant is the attitude of the devotees. Unlike in the three previous paintings the Magi are humble, devout and self-deprecating. They are members of a pietistic faith rather than participants in a pageant.

Is this difference in subject matter, composition and costumes enough to suggest that Botticelli was a devotee of Savonarola? I think we have to return to the fundamental economic fact that a great many of the attributes of paintings of the period were largely dictated by the buyer. And to the extent that Savonarola had impact on the subject matter and compositional manner of painting, he probably did so through his influence over the buyers. Now, of course, there were anti-Savonarolans who existed in Florence during the same period, so why does the change in Botticelli’s work seem to point only in one direction? I think it is probably not difficult to imagine that once the Medici were driven from Florence, there no longer would have been any commissions for ostentatious humanistic works that emphasized non-Christian themes because there would be no protector for such a vision. And even those remaining Florentines who entirely rejected the pietism of Savonarola would have been reluctant to buck an emotional tide that was powerful enough to cause citizens to burn their own expensive possessions as a public display of piety.

Botticelli, St Augustine in his Study (2)

17. Saint Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1490–94. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

There is one additional consideration that might shed light on the stylistic change. It seems to have begun before the advent of Savonarola. For example, in the early 1490s Botticelli painted a second version of Saint Augustine in his Study (#17), this one much smaller. But the size difference does not account for the entirely different conception. Humanism is no longer celebrated in this painting. The saint is in a bare study, surrounded not by the tools of contemporary science but by icons of religion (the Madonna and child appear as relief under the lunette behind him). His diligence is demonstrated by the crumpled papers and discarded quills under his fee—as though he is so intensely dedicated to his writing that he cannot stop to properly discard prior drafts. There is no luxury in the setting. His robe and the curtain are quite simple and the rest is in a lifeless monochrome. And most noticeable is the lack of emotional expressiveness in the smaller work. It is as though Botticelli were attempting to show aestheticism merely by eliminating elements that made his humanist paintings interesting.

Returning to the late Madonnas, there is a tendency during the Savarolan period to emphasize Mary as Queen, as in the Enthroned Madonna with Saints in Montelupo (#1). In that picture the Virgin is the largest figure and dominates the composition, at the same time she seems devoid of emotion altogether. In an even more exaggerated way the Virgin in Madonna with Child and the Young Saint John (#18) dominates the picture. In fact, the three figures squeeze out all background except the rose bush (roses are traditionally associated with the Virgin) and John the Baptist’s reed cross (in Matthew 11:7 Jesus is quoted as calling John a “reed swayed by the wind”). John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence so the painting might symbolize the Republic’s embracing of the Savior. Once again the overall mood of the piece is one of deep melancholy, the knowledge that the crucifixion lay ahead thus eliminates all joy from the beginning.

Botticelli, Madonna with Child and Young John the Baptist

18. Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera on canvas. Galleria Palatina, Florence.

The greatly elongated figure of Mary is a striking stylistic departure for Botticelli. To our eyes it is decidedly “modern,” but it is the same tendency of reducing a symbolic figure into a “flattened” design element that he used (with different emotional content) in The Birth of Venus and the other two Venus pictures by his studio. The same technique can be scene in the body of Mary as well as the head of the donkey in the late 1490s picture The Flight into Egypt. The donkey’s head in this painting is so strikingly original that it remained me of Chagall or Franz Marc. Kroegel argues (pp. 62–64) that the elongation of Mary to the point that she towers over other the other figures in a picture does not necessarily result from the influence of Savonarola because Botticelli’s drawings of Beatrice for his illustrations of Dante’s Paradiso have the same tendency (although to a lesser extent) and those drawings began before Savonarola returned to Florence. Whether or not, however, Savonarola was the cause, there can be little doubt that Botticelli engaged in extreme stylistic experiments late in life and the most notable ones took place in pietistic paintings.

A recent discovery in Prato shows an unusual work for Botticelli, a crucifixion designed for use in a religious procession (#14). The painting is on a board cut to the outline of the figure and cross. In no other work did Botticelli prepare the substrate to accommodate or illustrate the work, much less prepare a silhouette to paint on. It seems to me that it is significant that this departure was for a work to be used as a prop in a religious procession, and one that involves ritual lamentation. A second example of an extreme departure is the famous Mystical Nativity, a work not exhibited by the MFA. The piece at first looks highly decorative with angels dancing above the stable and embracing shepherds (?) in the foreground.  The same elongation of the donkey’s head as in Flight into Egypt occurs with the donkey next to Mary looking into the infant’s face. Those around the stable are in positions of humble devotion. Only a few years before Michelangelo left Florence to found the High Renaissance style by his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli had not only not developed in the same direction (Botticelli even refused for the most part to paint with oils), he was decidedly moving backwards towards a Gothic conception of art. Perhaps the most extreme example of that tendency is seen in his Mystic Crucifixion (#19).

Botticelli, Mystic Crucifixion

19. The Mystic Crucifixion (Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross or Crucifixion with the Penitent Magdalene and Angel) by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera and oil on canvas (transferred from panel). Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The painting is the visual representation of an apocalyptic vision. The crucified Christ is the center, and the cross he is on divides the picture into two fields. The body of Christ is the only “rounded,” modeled figure, as if this Ideal figure is the only reality; everything else (including the cross itself) has been “flattened,” rendered into two-dimensional design elements. The Christ body and the cross appear to be the model for (or modeled after) the processional crucifix we just encountered (Lightbown, II;94). The scenes on the two sides of the cross are starkly different. On the right is a scene of violence and retribution with a menacing sky from which projectiles and demons are falling. On the left side the sky is calm, clear blue and filled by shields with red crosses. In the top left God sits among cherubim, and below him the placid city of Florence can be recognized by Giotto’s Campanile, the Duomo, etc. At the foot of the painting are two figures. One, prostrate, is the common figure of a penitent Magdalene holding the base of the cross. An animal, likely a wolf, runs from her garment. To the right is an angel, holding an animal, probably a lion, which she is about to strike with a sword. It appears she has already lashed the animal once for a ring of blood can be seen on the animal’s neck.

The symbolism of this painting has universally been considered Savonarolan (Steinberg, pp. 69–77, Lightbown, I:130–33; Ettlinger & Ettlinger, pp. 103-05; Hatfield, pp. 91 & 93), but the exact referents of particular symbols are disputed. For instance, the shields with the red cross are identified by some as the small red crosses given out to participants in the children’s penitential procession on March 27, 1496, while others see them as the symbols of the populo which were ordered to replace Medici insignia throughout the city in May 1497 as a sign of the Signoria of Florence, commemorating the establishment of a “people’s government” under the guidance of Savonarola (in place of the Medici rule and the narrow oligarchic rule that briefly followed the expulsion of the Medici). Another example is the search for Savonarolan meaning in the lion and the wolf, when, it seems to me, a source more familiar to Botticelli would have been Dante, where a she-wolf and lion are two of the three ferocious animals that confront him in the first Canto of the Inferno (Ciardi translation). (In the Inferno the she-wolf represents the corrupt church. The corruption of Pope Alexander IV and his Curia had to have been obvious to all in Florence, even the anti-Savorolans, who would later make truck with him temporarily to rid themselves of the pious demagogue).

Regardless of the details the meaning seems quite clear in broad strokes. Magdalene, who represents Florence, seeks forgiveness of sins and as a result the corruption (the animal running from her garments leaves her, and she is saved from the retribution that had begun (the invasion of Charles VIII, takeover of the government by the merchant oligarchs—both of which Savonarola had an important role in), and as a result peace returns to the city. In fact, by its location within sight of the cross on Calvary, Florence must be the New Jerusalem (the Paradise that Savonarola preached would result if the Florentines would repent their sin, corruption and vanities), which escaped the chastisement inflicted on her by the angel (a lion was the adopted symbol of the Florentine Republic). But granting all the Savonarolan imagery, the work is not conclusive in showing that Botticelli, rather than the patron who commissioned the work, was a Piagnoni. In the end it is probably irrelevant. Even if he became an enthusiast or follower, it hardly means that he had thrown over Medicean humanism. Michelangelo, after all, was a follower of the friar, and he went on, into the belly of the beast, to create works that form the cornerstone of Italian humanism.

What goes unremarked about the piece is its astonishing expressionism. In his last decade or so Botticelli had struck out in a direction apart from where the mainstream of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were headed. At the time Botticelli’s late work was attributed to his decline in ability. That together with the change of taste in the 16th century caused Botticelli’s reputation to to be eclipsed for over three centuries until it was revived in the mid 19th century by English dilettantes and the pre-Raphaelites. Even today modern art historians refer to Botticelli’s late works as “rough” or products of his dotage. As to the last point let me show one more work, one not found at the MFA show, but it can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, St. Zenobius Healing the Sick and Raising the Dead, one of four related panels (three of which are held by the Met).

Botticelli, St. Zenobius Raises Dead

Saint Zenobius Heals the Sick and Raises the Dead by Sandro Botticelli 1500–10. Tempera on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

If you view art history like positivists or progressive historians view human history, as a succession in some ordained or preferred way, then this work is decidedly retrograde, for it dispenses with almost every innovation (some pioneered by Botticelli himself) of the 15th century. The figures are simplified to the extent of nearly being cartoons. The perspective is hyper-geometrical. The buildings are stylized beyond anything we would consider realistic. It decidedly partakes more of the spirit of the Gothic than of the High Renaissance that was just dawning. But I cannot fail to see hints of 20th century modernism in these works. Modernism, after all, returned to the “primitive” in order to find its way. “Radical,” in its origins, simply is a search for roots (radix, pl. radices). This feeling will probably be scoffed at by those who see the past as explained by self-contained boxes, but frankly we can only bring out own experiences, points of reference and prejudices to any view of the past. And if we are to see any commonality between out time and the Quattrocento we cannot pretend we know nothing of the future that they knew nothing of. But perhaps Botticelli could see a little bit of things to come, maybe through a glass darkly. After all the same man who turned the Virgin into Venus might also have been able to see the chaos in the outwardly orderly. In any event, Botticelli, unlike almost all his contemporaries, is able to reach us, even if we do not (and cannot) learn the same lessons he was commissioned to teach. We can enjoy the Venuses without steeping ourself in Neoplatonism, and so why can we not enjoy the late works without steeping ourselves with a kind of apocalyptic puritanism that we are unfamiliar with? Perhaps it is enough that we can see our own apocalyptic forebodings (of a different sort) in his.


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Boyle, Marjorie O’Rourke, “Gracious Laughter: Marsilio Ficino’s Anthropology,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Autumn 1999), pp. 712-741. (JSTOR) (DOI: 10.2307/2901916)

Cheney, Liana, Quattrocento Neoplatonism and Medici Humanism in Botticelli’s Mythological Paintings (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985).

Clark, Kenneth, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1956).

Crawford, William H., Girolamo Savonarola: A Prophet of Righteousness (Cincinnati, Ohio: Jennnigs & Graham, 1907. (Google Books)

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Edelheit,  Amos, Ficino, Pico and Savonarola: The Evolution of Humanist Theology 1461/2–1498 (Leiden: Brill, 2008)

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“Do not try to paint the grandiose thing …”

William Merritt Chase: Gilded Age Rebel, Aesthete, Dandy, Conservative.
Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1. Ready for the Ride. Oil on canvas. 1877. Museum of Fine Art, Boston. (All illustrations in this post are of works in exhibit and can be enlarged by clicking.)

On March 1898 a New York Times writer mused about the nature of artistic cycles.1 The immediate subject was the opening of the Society of American Artists’ annual exhibition in the Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street in New York City. But he also looked back to the beginning of the Society, twenty years earlier, when a “small band” of art students returning from Europe, called the “Munich men” (because they studied in that city rather than Paris) upended the American art world (such as it then was) with their new sensibilities by revolting against the “antiquated rules” of the National Academy of Design. The Society was created to escape the doctrinaire hold on on big time arts shows and its use of its power to squeeze out any new comers. The inaugural show of the Society was designed to provide an alternate venue. The “Munich men” took over that show, and provided quality works that pointed the way to an American art more attuned to the times. The group was headed by William Merritt Chase and his associates, James Carroll Beckwith, John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, principally:

“These bold and brave young artists scarcely realized themselves at the time what their revolt and their new move meant to the cause of American art, nor how it wrote the doom of the well-termed Hudson River school of painting in this country, and the beginning of a new use of broader methods and more liberal ideas, which within a few years affected the old Academy itself.”

The Times writer proceeded to compare their debut to the then present when those very New Men had become the Academy. And in a world that moved much faster than they thought, most, including (and especially) Chase, would be left behind. But we’ll get to that later. For now let’s look at the beginning of the career of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), a career on full display in the marvelous retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: William Merritt Chase, an exhibition running until January 16, 2017. The exhibition is a travelling show co-sponsored in addition to the MFA by the Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia and the Terra Foundation for American Art of Chicago. The exhibition opened at The Phillips Collection (June 4–September 11) before traveling to the MFA (October 9, 2016–January 16, 2017), and next year it will travel to the International Gallery of Modern Art, in Venice, Italy (February 10–May 28, 2017). The MFA show (which I will call it for ease, and because I saw it there) exhibits nearly 80 paintings, and gives justice to every aspect of Chase’s career. Indeed, nearly every one of the paintings one could hope to view is on display.2 The exhibition contains quite a few surprises, and it is a powerful proof that Chase deserves wider recognition. (This is the first major show in nearly thirty years.3) The surprises begin with his student years.

Student Works

2. Boy Smoking (The Aprrentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

2. Boy Smoking (The Apprentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Chase made his first stir in the American art world even before he returned from studies in Munich. The entrance to the MFA gallery devoted to his student day confronts the viewer with Ready for the Ride (#1), a painting which Chase sold to New York art dealer Samuel P. Avery. Avery was well plugged into American collectors and routinely visited Europe to scout out likely works for them. He had been in Munich in 1875, and knew Karl von Piloty, a genre and historical painter who dominated the Munich art scene at the time. It was probably through Piloty, who was then teaching Chase in a master class, that Avery heard of Chase and purchased the work in 1877. (He would resell it to the Union League Club in New York City.) In 1878 Ready for the Ride was one of three works of Chase loaned to the Society of American Artists (SAA) exhibition (together with Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) and The Wounded Poacher). On the basis of this show, an art critic writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle singled Chase out as “one of the most promising of younger American artists” and used Ready for the Ride as proof:

“Ready for the Ride” is a very strongly treated picture, the coloring and drawing being remarkable. He seems to have aimed at a Rembrandt effect in this work, and the old Dutch school is plainly visible in both the figure and the dark, shadowy background. … [it] is the certainly the finest work he has yet sent home.”4

It is indeed true that the Dutch masters’ dark background makes Chase’s subject appear nearly three dimensional. The collar and “Puritan-like” hat also suggest his Dutch models. But what strikes the viewer today is how starkly “modern” the pose and attitude of the woman is. She is seen from nearly her back, and she turns to look at the artist/viewer. Her manner of putting on her glove shows complete assurance as does her confident gaze. The size of the work (53½ x 33½”) makes it more imposing and emphasizes the “equality” of the modern woman. It is a work that also underscores the elegance of the modern upper middle class at the beginning of the Gilded Age in America, a theme that Chase would perfect for his commissioned (and other) portraits. It would make him a well-to-do artist.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) shows a path that Chase could have pursued, but ultimately did not. Together with Impudence (The Leader) (1875, now at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts), the canvas consists of a sympathetic portrayal of a young working class teenager, not very much different from Chase himself not even a decade before, when he clerked for his father at a shoe store in Indianapolis. Much like the woman in Ready for the Ride, the Boy Smoking shows a person of (perhaps misplaced) confidence, and no attempt is made to patronize him, even though it is clear that he comes from an entirely different world than the one Chase now aspired to. Of particular interest are the soiled hands of the boy, one holding a cigar, the other a clay jug. They are the hands destined for a lifetime of work, unlike the gloved hands of the woman in Ready for the Ride. But unlike the peasants in the paintings of the contemporary Barbizon school, Chase’s young worker is neither bowed over nor humble. Perhaps this is a particularly American view. But Chase was more concerned about new art for America than making any kind of political or sociological statements.

Chase never pursued portraits of commoners beyond his student days. It seems he only painted the likes of Boy Smoking because he was working with models together with fellow American student Frank Duveneck, with whom he shared a studio in Munich and who would become a noted American figure painter in his own right. The two often split the cost of a young model and his costumes and painted the same figure. The most famous of their joint sessions produced Chase’s Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page) (#3). With that painting Chase showed not only that he fully learned the lessons in technique that the Munich Royal Academy stressed but also that he was moving beyond its preferred dark palette. It captures a surprising moment when the (stuffed?) cockatoo lands on a bowl of grapes which spill onto the carpet covering the legs of the boy. The picture combines a variety of surfaces from the fabrics of the carpet and background screen, the feathers of the bird’s wings and crest, the skin of the boy (both torso and feet bottoms) and the metal neck chain on the boy and the chain binding the parrot’s feet to the metal ringed perch. Various shades of red dominate the scene from the darker red of his cap and slippers, to the lighter carpet to the pink tinge of the bird. These reds are offset by the dark bluish green of the background curtain. But what makes the picture memorable is how it seems to capture a fleeting moment, not only by the outspread wings of the cockatoo but also by the posture of the boy.


4. “Keying Up”—The Court Jester. Oil on canvas. 1875. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The student picture, however, that brought Chase his first fame in America was earlier than either Ready for the Ride or Unexpected Intrusion, and like the latter traded in the exotic and even more than Unexpected Intrusion is drenched in red. The painting display a humorous sensibility that would rarely be seen after Chase’s student days. The diminutive jester pours himself a glass of spirits while his look-alike puppet watches. Both sport the telltale alcoholic red on their long noses and prominent cheeks. Both are similarly dressed, and Chase pays especial attention to the caps with their bells. The curved mustaches on both add to their humorous appearance. Like all Chase portraits, and indeed almost all Chase works, the painting elaborately renders surfaces from the polished wood of the gargoyle-like head carvings on the dark wooden cabinet behind him to the different fabrics of his costume and slippers, to the glass bottle he holds.

“Keying Up” was entered in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and won a gold medal. In many ways it was that show that marked the turning point in American art. The celebration of the second century of the country emphasized urbanization, mechanization and technological and social change. The art show featured works from American students from Paris and Munich, and the styles of both fundamentally subverted the underlying assumptions of prevailing American art. That art was mostly expressed by the Hudson River School. (For a sample of this style, see this post on Albert Bierstadt.) The paintings were largely of outdoor scenes, usually of breathtaking scope and often of monumental landscape features (mountains, waterfalls, lakes). The works were not so subtly “patriotic,” depicting a view of America involving a destiny conjoined with the land, rural and wild. (Sometimes the works were more or less explicitly political, as in the works lending support to the Union cause.) This vision of destiny had moral undertones, and so the art dedicated to it was awe-inspiring, reverential and, frankly, static as a result. And most characteristic of all, people had very little place in these works. When they were portrayed, they appeared small, in the distance and overwhelmed by the landscape. American students educated in either Paris or Munich could not help but reject all the underlying assumptions of the Hudson River artists. This was particularly true of those who were influenced by the anti-academic movements in Paris. (Chase saw these influences indirectly through the Leibl-Kreis.) As for the American art-consuming public, located east of the Mississippi and north of the old confederacy and becoming predominantly urban and wealthier than ever before, the rural and awe-inspiring nature no longer held their attention. Money was being made in cities and in industry, and the intellectuals who thrived during the Gilded Age would emphasize individualism, secular optimism and the possibilities of change. Chase and his fellow “rebels” had the attitude and technique to replace the prevailing style whose rules had become calcified into the rules of the academy. The critics were quick to extol Chase, and the popular press echoed the encomiums.5

New York Studio Artist

10. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

5. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When Chase burst upon the New York scene in 1878 (he was 29 at the time), he had fixed ideas of how he was to make an impact—his flamboyant art was to be part of a flamboyant life. For six years Chase had immersed himself in pure aesthetic devotion, and, cut off from America, he had become something unknown on these shores: a practicing aesthete, and an evangelical one at that. Nothing could be further from his his upbringing in a Midwestern family desperately trying to claw its way into an economically secure and respectable status. None of this would have come about but for Chase’s time abroad.

Chase ended up studying in Munich by a series of contingencies. His father wanted him to remain in Indianapolis to help him in his barely profitable shoe store.6 But to mollify a disinterested young “Will,” his father paid for lessons from a local portrait and still life painter. Chase, however, was so restless that he ran away and joined the navy. It didn’t take long for him to regret the decision, and he had his father travel to Annapolis to secure his release from service. Chase returned to Indianapolis, where he clerked and again studied, this time being given a studio to work in. Soon, however, Chase was able to persuade his father, with the help of another local artist who counseled him, that he had serious prospects as an artist if he could study in New York. In 1869 20 year-old Chase travelled to New York and enrolled in the National Academy of Design (where J. Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder would be his classmates). The following year his father’s business closed, and Chase’s funds ran out. So he returned to his family, who had then moved to St. Louis. It was there that he developed sufficiently as an artist that a group of local businessmen struck a deal to underwrite two years of study in Europe in exchange for a painting by Chase for each one and services as an agent to procure likely European art for them. This offer changed his life. He was acutely aware of how significant training in the world’s best painting centers would be to his career, and his response to the offer was “My God! I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven!”

When Chase arrived in Europe he selected Munich rather than Paris for study, not only because he knew Americans who studied there, but also (possibly because of the Midwestern work ethic instilled in him) to avoid the distractions that Paris would offer. Germany was in the first flush of its race to European cultural legitimacy following its overwhelming defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war. In Munich Chase would room with, first, Walter Shirlaw and later with Duveneck. When the funds from his St. Louis deal ran out, Piloty commissioned him to paint his children and assisted him in selling certain canvases. With the funds he received he travelled to Venice with Duveneck and Thwachtman. It was during this time that Chase developed the habit of living beyond his means. As his funds ran out, he continued buying art and various objects that he intended to fill a studio with. He became a compulsive aesthete, convincing himself that “beauty” was the most important objective. Fortunately his friends financed his basic needs until until he was able to return to New York. He had accepted (tamping down his strong ambivalence) a teaching position in New York at the Art Students League, a decision that allowed him to set up a first class studio.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

Back in New York Chase believed his most important task was to secure a prestigious studio. He was able to rent a small studio (15′ x 20′) in the famous Tenth Street Studio, the first commercial building designed to house artists, located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, which housed studios of America’s most prominent artists. Chase, however, had his eyes on the large two-story studio, originally designed as an exhibition space, but recently occupied by Albert Bierstadt. To the annoyance of the more established artists, who believed their greater fame and longer residence entitled them to priority, Chase obtained the studio and symbolically replaced arguably the most famous Hudson River School painter in America.

The large studio would become the place where Chase worked, a subject of numerous paintings and the center of his self-promotional energies. During his student days Chase concentrated on works in which he could paint a model costumed elaborately and surrounded by visually interesting objects. Chase therefore filled his studio with objets d’art, bric-à-brac and other decorations. The studio itself became the background in many works. Tenth Street Studio (#5), begun in the early 1880s and completed some three decades later, not only shows how he used the studio in his paintings but also symbolically reveals his view of art itself. The painting has two visitors inspecting a painting in the middle of a long wall of the studio filled with paintings and other objects including a large stuffed swan. Two others are seated on the left looking at sketches on a table. But none of the four figures are completed, and their faces are obscure. In fact, it is only the paintings and other artistic objects that are clearly rendered in detail. Although schooled in European realism, Chase makes the point that it is art that is “real.” Indeed, in all his early studio paintings Chase drives home the idea that art is valuable in itself, and that he himself is a prophet of that belief.

The Inner Studio (#6) shows another art devotee, this one perhaps more serious than the visitors in the later Tenth Street Studio (#5). Like a temple with its inner sanctum, Chase’s studio has an Inner Studio, and here the model, back to us, closely studies a framed painting, while a matted picture lays on the floor to her left. There is a gold bowl to her right. The things surrounding her represent the tools of this priestcraft, things prepare the soul to enter the mysteries of the world of artistic beauty.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum. St. Louis, Missouri.

The 1880 Tenth Street Studio (#7) makes a somewhat different point. Beauty and luxury and elegance are, for Chase, intimately related. This is true for the artist as well as the art patron. Chase could not fail to understand the interrelations of these qualities is what attracted the wealthy patrons that were his market. The studio itself was something of a gallery in which he could display his works to the select public (e.g., #5). The more attractive and engaging the space, the more of a luxurious atmosphere it surrounded the visitor with, the more likely it was that the visitor would wish to purchase a painting or commission a portrait. But it was probably was not entirely a marketing ploy; “art atmosphere” meant something to him. Yet his beliefs mereged with a kind branding that came natural to Chase, who was not hesitant to make decisions that might enhance his fame and marketability. He joined all the important artistic associations in New York and founded others in order to associate himself with energetic and like-minded artists. He became a friend of most of the important intermediaries in the art world, first the publishers of art journals and books and later the curators of the major galleries and museums. The studio provided space for social and cultural events he sponsored. He held open houses on Saturdays. And he frequently had his students to his studio for a variety of lessons, not the least of which was to inculcate them with his view of the place of art in society and how to approach it. The studio accommodated every part of Chase’s life, and Chase’s life was consumed by the quest for elegance, style and beauty. He became almost a caricature of the new artists, who could only exist in this new, urban and increasingly prosperous America. And while he courted the New York elite, he did so to draw them into his own world, a world where everything was involved with art, a world entirely like the old, rural, pre-industrial America.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

For Chase the studio was where art was made.That statement seems unremarkable now, but in the late 1870s it marked a new kind of artist and also drastically different subjects for art. Aside from portraits (mostly uninspired likenesses designed as mere memorial keepsakes), American art American art was about Nature, often wild and untamed, but sometimes in harmony with frontier and rural folk who have barely tamed it. American artists worshipped at the altar of Nature; painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. To properly capture the essence of Nature, artists painted outdoors. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through representational (if overly romantic) pictures.

Unlike the artists who occupied the field of American art before those of Chase’s generation returned from Europe, Chase believed that art itself is what the painter owed his allegiance to. The previous generation worshipped Nature and believed art celebrated it: painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through realistic (if romantic) pictures.

Chase, above all his generation in America, promoted the new European view that Art existed for its own sake, not to represent a higher ideal. Nature was not the exclusive, or even primary object of Art, and artists did not have to commune with it for experience. In fact, in the early 1880s he told his fellow aesthetes at the Tile Club that even if one painted landscapes it should be done in the studio:

“The proper way to paint a landscape is in the studio, far from the thing itself. You must simply look at a scene you are going to paint, observe the detail, saturate yourself with it. Then you have the spirit within you and can paint it later under ideal conditions, taking plenty of time to work it up to perfection.”7

Indeed for Chase, the studio was the center of art-making. It not only provided the props for works and a convenient place for models to pose or patrons to be painted, it also, and more importantly, generated the inspiration for his work. And for that reason it had to be filled with beautiful objects. In a 1906 lecture at the New York School of Art Chase ascribed to their studios the inspiration that the Old Masters displayed: “the secret of the success of the old masters … was their environments—and it was this influence that helped to produce their great works. It is really that in art that counts and it was this kind of art atmosphere that was of importance.”8 This belief drove Chase’s need to acquire “beautiful things,” and that in turn drove him to live beyond his means, a habit he never really conquered even once he had a large family to support. His first biographer Katherine Roof (at 254) said, “No man ever lived more completely in the atmosphere and the idea of art than Chase did.”

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

That Chase justified his need for an “art atmosphere” by reference to the Old Masters was not simply rationalization. His view of beauty was deeply rooted in the tradition of Western Art that went back to the Baroque. His two points of reference throughout his career were the Northern European (particularly Dutch) art of the seventeenth century and the collection of the Prado, especially Velázquez. Chase saw his own art as part of that tradition and often harkened back to the originators in his composition, treatment of light, posing of models and so forth. Although he could not articulate it clearly, Chase’s view of “beauty,” what it constituted, what objects possessed it, how to show it, was not a mere solipsism, but rather a view supported by deep study of the past. And often in his works he made allusion to that past. The early work In the Studio (#9), for example, is another picture of a richly clad devotee of beauty studying art while surrounded by objects selected and arranged by Chase. In nearly the very center of the painting is a framed etching of “Malle Babbe” by the Dutch master (or student of) Frans Hals, one of Chase’s favorites. The reference has interest beyond the mere statement that Chase’s art is part of that traditon, for the painting by Hals is of a subject not conventionally beautiful. Its inclusion states that the beauty in art is in the technique and execution, not the subject.

By surrounding himself with his version of beauty Chase made his studio nationally famous. It became the emblem of eccentric artistic genius and regularly appeared (and sometimes was satirized) in fiction, such as Esther by Henry Adams, The Coast of Bohemia by William Dean Howells, The Third Violet by Stephen Crane, The Other Fellow and Tile Club Stories by F. Hopkinson Smith, and even after his death in The “Genius” by Theodore Dreiser. And it frequently was discussed in the art journals. It was said to be a place that aspiring artists and artists of all sorts from outside of New York City made a pilgrimage. All of this gave Chase an added layer of celebrity, and in trying to enhance it, his religion of aestheticism led him into foppery, dandyism and, frankly, embarrassing and offensive behavior. Not only did he fill his office with pottery, elaborate furniture, Japanese umbrellas, old books, fabrics, fans, tapestries, brass pots, glazed glass objects, costumes and the like, he kept a cockatoo, 10 macaws and a Russian wolfhound and another dog. He forced his African-American servant Daniel to dress in exotic outfits when serving guests, and he often would strut through Manhattan with ridiculous affectation:

“He walked down Fifth Avenue dressed as an elegant Parisian art student with his Russian wolfhound and Daniel in tow wearing his Nubian costume. Chase wore a narrow, flat-brimmed French silk hat and a soft tie, both highly unconventional, as well as several rings from his growing collection. Chase ‘the cosmopolitan’ appeared sophisticated and cultured to the rich and the well-born.” (Bryant, at 68.)9

In the end, however, the affectations did not pay for the show, or perhaps Chase’s excesses were too much for the revenue of his patrons. While he maintained the studio through 1895, when he auctioned its contents (including many of his own paintings) in January 1896 he received only a fraction of their purchase price (Bryant, at 173). Although he would maintain more modest studios thereafter for portrait commissions, he had transitioned from nineteenth century hipster to establishment academician by that point. Before then Chase would make his mark on American art in a couple of other ways.

Portrait Artist Extraordinaire

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl.). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

Chase’s principal claim to early fame and his most reliable source of income from his art came by way of his portrait paintings. Not long after he returned to New York City from Munich, he was regularly given official commissions for prestige portrait projects.10 By and large Chase’s portraits of men intended to promote their official or institutional capacity (including formal family roles like pater familias) and seem stiffly formal or out-of-date today. Many of Chase’s paintings of women, by contrast, reveal personality while also conveying a sense of style and elegance. Chase’s interest in figure painting, of course, went back to his original interest in art in Indiana, and his studies in Munich concentrated on figures (as well as still lifes). Even during his first stay in New York in 1869-70, while studying at the National Academy of Design, Chase was accomplished enough to obtain commissions for portraits. But over his career his portraits of girls and women seemed to have gained strength mainly by his interest in composition and the poses of the subject in addition to his mastery of the textures of clothing and accessories.

From his student days (e.g., ##1–2) Chase had a flair for discovering poses that illustrated an attitude. That talent only improved when he began his annual trips to Europe to meet with contemporary artists and study unfamiliar old masters beginning in 1881. That particular summer proved highly influential to Chase’s career, for he met arguably Europe’s three most prominent painters of women of high society and began a close study of the golden age artist who would inform his portrait technique. During two weeks in Paris in the early summer fellow Art Students League teacher James Carroll Beckwith introduced him to his teacher Carolus-Duran and arranged a lunch with American expatriate John Singer Sargent. Returning to Paris in September he met Belgian impressionist Alfred Stevens at his studio. That meeting had a substantial effect on Chase. Stevens had seen Chase’s The Smoker (his portrait of Duvaneck, an etching of which preceded the first Van Rensselaer article [linked below]), which had received honorable mention at the Paris Salon that year. Stevens advised Chase to lighten his palette from the dark values preferred by the Munich school. He also urged Chase to strike off on his own and not attempt to recapture the forms and techniques of the old masters. Chase seems to have almost immediately followed the former advice (as can be seen by comparing #9 with #7 among the “studio” piictures). But Chase had more difficulty with the second recommendation, especially because he had spent the time between his two trips to Paris that year in Madrid and he fell under the influence of Velázquez. He would spend five weeks again in Madrid with his friend Robert Blum (producing drawings for Scribner’s) the following year, and Velázquez remained under the Spaniard’s thrall for the rest of career as a portrait painter. (In 1894 he named his fifth daughter Helen Velasquez.)

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Chase’s reliance on old masters, particularly in his portraits, probably served a number of purposes. In the first place, Chase undoubtedly saw it as an homage, and perhaps also a way to influence American art to incorporate and become part of the broad European art tradition. Quite frequently he would borrow poses from the masters. Chase’s intriguing picture of his wife, Portrait of Mrs. C. (#11), is an example, for it is clearly based on Van Dyck’s portrait of the one-armed Flemish artist The Painter Martin Ryckaert (ca. 1631, Prado, Madrid). Not only is the composition nearly identical in both (with the seated figure occupying nearly the entire frame), but their postures in the chair are also strikingly similar. Moreover, Chase costumed his wife in a way to recall the earlier picture, with a heavy coat amd fur lining. They both even sport unusual and colorful caps. But the uncanny treatment is how Chase had her throw the left arm of the coat over her side to mimic the empty sleeve of the one-armed artist. And finally the subjects in both portraits stare directly forward. What makes both portraits fascinating is how the ambiguous expression of both requires the viewer to ponder what the subject is thinking and to decide to what extent he will participate in that contemplation.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on cavas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

Chase turned to Van Dyck again for the pose of his student, who acted as model in Lydia Field Emmet (#12). Left arm akimbo, she looks over her shoulder from a reverse, three-quarter view just as does the younger brother in Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (ca. 1638, National Gallery, London). The subdued palette of the composition probably was under the influence of Whistler, who Chase grew to greatly admire. In fact, the scheme as well as the overall composition is similar to Whistler’s Arrangement in Black & Brown: The Fur Jacket (ca. 1876, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts). It is the dress’s trimmings and the long ribbon that flows down her back onto the floor that makes Chase’s work distinct from that of Whistler, who was not aiming to achieve the effect of “eloquence” which was Chase’s main goal.

On another occasion Chase subverted one of Whistler’s experiments in An Idle Moment (#10). The work Chase played off of was Whistler’s most famous compositional  experiment, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother (1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Chase starts with the basic compositional framework of Whistler, a nonsymmetrical view of a woman in a chair facing perpendicular to the viewer. He then subverts most of the other elements. In the first place Chase’s sitter is very young, whereas Whistler’s is old. Whistler’s mother sits very formally and rigidly, whereas Chase’s lounges to relax. Whistler’s mother wears an old-fashioned cap, but Chase’s model’s hair pours out in a very modern manner. It is the color scheme, however, where the greatest divergence is noticed. Whistler employs his customary and restricted palette, emphasizing darker values. Chase, by contrast, employs flamboyant reds to envelop the velvety black dress the model is wearing. The combination turns Whistler’s staid formal “arrangement” into a lively expression of youthful luxury.

13, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

13. James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Whistler would remain a fascination for Chase for the rest of his life. In his last two decades Chase gave talks on Whistler, much to the latter’s annoyance. He wrote (in “The Two Whistler’s” linked below) that his fascination took hold while at the Prado: “Every Velasquez seemed to suggest Whistler … .” So he resolved to meet him, but it took several failed attempts before he gathered the nerve to introduce himself to the notoriously caustic and unpredictable egoist. To his surprise upon meeting him in the summer of 1885, Whistler was charming and solicitous of Chase’s regard. Eventually, however, Whistler became smothering and grew increasingly annoying, and Chase sought to escape his grip. So avoid losing Chase Whistler proposed that they each paint the other. Whistler painted Chase in his plodding meticulous fashion, causing Chase to stand well into the evening for many days. That painting has since disappeared. Chase’s painting of Whistler, however, is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (but now in the Chase exhibition at the MFA).

Chase portrayed the “public” Whistler, who he characterized as “the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain, and careless idler …” (and this was written by a painter who had his “man” dress as a “Nubian” on Fifth Avenue). Emphasizing his proportionately too large walking stick, Chase painted him as he described him: “a dainty, sprightly little man, immaculate in spotless linen and perfect-fitting broadcloth. He wore yellow gloves and carried his wand lightly in his hand. He seemed inordinately proud of his small feet and slender waist; his slight imperial and black mustache were carefully waxed; his monocle was indispensable.” As for his personality: “He took no one and nothing seriously; he was sublimely egotistical, and seemed to delight in parading his conceit. He was trivial, careless, brilliantly and smilingly careless.” Chase even painted the small shock of white hair which Whistler carefully ironed and curled at a mirror before presenting himself to the public. Of course, Chase had a dramatically different view of the artist Whistler, who he admired and defended the rest of his life.  But the painting was of the public Whister. And Whistler saw only maliciousness in the portrait. He complained to The World (October 15, 1886): “How dared he, Chase, do this wicked thing?—and I who was charming and made him beautiful on canvas—the Masher of the Avenues.” The two never reconciled.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

15. Portrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl). Oil on canvas. 1893. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Constraints of space (and your patience) prevent comments on the many highlights of the gallery containing the Chase portraits. I will even skip over the one that Chase himself regarded as his best portrait: Portrait of Lady C. (Lady with a White Shawl) (#15). Instead I will treat an earlier portrait, one that deserves especial note, because it marked such a turning point in Chase’s career, and it too had a connection with Whistler. The painting is Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (#14). The work is one of his first major portraits, and one that Chase evidently designed for exhibition, for it was not commissioned nor even painted in his own studio. Dora Wheeler was Chase’s first private student in New York and a pioneer as a woman in fine art. Her mother founded Associated Artists, a firm of women who produced high quality needlework and decorative textiles for the same strata of patrons that Chase was looking to see oils. Dora’s mother realized the limitations a woman artist of the time labored under without instruction, so she sent her for instruction to Chase (who taught her along with Lydia Emmet (#12)), then to the Art Students League and finally for two years to the Académie Julian in Paris.

Chase was unusually progressive in supporting women in fine arts. He not only taught them the same way he taught men (including with nude models), but he also bought their paintings. He considered Wheeler talented enough that he made a concerted effort to support her. The portrait, painted in her own studio, is of an artist, not a mere prop in a studio full of fineries. He gives her the seriousness of a professional rather than an idealized figure, a fact that the American reviewer for Magazine of Art highly objected to: “The first necessity of a portrait from the point of view of art is, of course, not that it should be resemblance, but that it should be agreeable, and agreeable this portrait certainly is not.” But of course “agreeableness” is in the eye of the beholder, and Chase was ahead of his time in in his view of the proper role of women, at least in art. Unlike Chase’s earlier studio paintings (e.g., ##6, 7, 9), Wheeler is not a mere decoration; she is fully the center of attention and dominates the scenery. Nor is she painted as a figure of “elegance.” Her face is serious, but she makes no effort to display her hands or even slippered feet in a graceful manner:

“Miss Wheeler may be the most forceful, dispassionate study of personality Chase would ever produce; her closest affinities are with the penetrating psychology of Thomas Eakins’ female portraits of the late 1880s rather than with the fluffy inconsequence of debutantes at the 10th Street Studio. Intelligent eyes, frank in confrontation beneath vast, careless brows; a long, distinctive nose; an angular chin, wispy curls low on the forehead, refusing the discipline of elegant coiffure—these are not the attributes of conventional beauty. Even the placement of the feet and hands bespeaks a woman whose demand for recognition is premised upon individual qualities.” (Marlin, at 47.)

16. I Think I am Ready Now (The Mirror, The Pink Dress). Oil on canvas. ca. 1883. Private collection.

The rest of the composition surrounds and supports her with the kind of eloquence that Chase (and Wheeler) believed comported with Gilded Age aesthetics. Her English revival chair and the taboret to her right allow Chase to show his ability to represent carved and polished wood. Meanwhile the vase provides the reflective surface that Chase liked to depict. The color scheme of the work uses hues of the three primary colors, with the vase and her dress dominated by blue, the carpet red and the background drapery and daffodils yellow. (Oddly, Chase once admitted that he had difficulty with flowers, and in fact he rarely painted them.) It is with that background hanging that Chase lets loose his bravura brush strokes, producing swirling yellow background around the flowers and throughout. The curtain sports an oriental effect with its waterfowl, dragonflies, butterflies and the cat within a swirl of yellow. The butterfly and the cat, perhaps performing the function of a colophon, may be tributes to Whistler.

Chase entered the Wheeler painting in the Internationale Kunstaustellung in Munich, and despite the reaction of the American reviewer was awarded a gold medal by the jury. After that the work was hung in the Paris Salon, the same one that saw Whistler’s Arrangement/Portrait of his mother. William Milliken has opined that the Wheeler portrait is the principal basis for Chase’s European fame.

It was in his portraits, especially in the commissioned ones, that Chase continued to freely indulge his belief that art was, in essence, simply technique, something he already showed in his studio genre works. The portraits, however, were less populated with objects on which Chase could lavish his brushwork. Nevertheless, Chase always dressed his subjects in finely worked fabrics and furs often with other accessories. Chase could then concentrate on rendering lace, ribbons, stitching and texture with intricate care. Despite criticisms he received that his attention to surface at the expense of story or theme or concept made his art superficial, he maintained as late as an interview in 1899 that technique is the eloquence of art and that “[w]hatever success I may have attained comes from my love of art for art’s sake only” (Brant, at 126 & 128). So, to the extent that the Wheeler portrait represented a turning point, the turn came not so much in portraits (which, after all, depended on client patronage) but in his new field, impressionism-influenced outdoor paintings.

Outdoors: From Europe to New York Parks

 Chase had almost no formal training in landscapes. While studying in Munich, however, Duveneck discovered a picturesque retreat in the Bavarian Alps in a town named Polling about 25 miles to the south. In 1875 he, Shirlaw and Chase rented an abandoned monastery there, where they could paint pictures of country life. The students hired peasants to pose, and they had access to sheep and cattle for their work. Chase’s few paintings there were heavily influenced by Corot (whose work he was familiar with from his annual visits to Paris and the French art periodicals he acquired in Munich) and the atmospheric effects of Currier (the American landscape painter who was a fellow student at the time). Like all of Chase’s work at the time, the paintings were technically accomplished, but unlike his figure paintings, showed little originality.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma city Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma City Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

In 1877  Chase spent nearly a year with Duveneck and Twachtman in Venice. But he doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of the light, water, buildings and subtropical effects of the city and environs to an optimum extent. Many of the works, such as Venice (#17), seem to have been painted from inside his apartment. This may have been owing to the serious illness (perhaps malaria) he contracted while there. Nevertheless, Chase began exploring outdoor subjects and effects. Venice is a careful treatment of the effect of sunlight on mineral and stone surfaces. The composition places the flower pots on the balcony at the center of our attention, and they, together with the brightness of the reflection, almost make us miss the woman leaning out of the window in the upper left corner.

Chase’s small outdoor painting In Venice (#18) is somewhat remarkable given that the composition prefigured later work by Sargent and Renoir in Venice. The painting, though relatively small (8 x 13″), allowed Chase to capture differing effects of sunlight on the two sides of buildings as well as on the water before them. The restricted and muted color palette is broken with an exclamation point of red on the hat of the gondola rider in the center. All of this is done with the same easy brushstroke that he employed in Venice and that was commonplace in his figure paintings. It was thus a step forward from his work in Polling.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

After Chase returned to New York City in 1878, he not only neglected landscapes, he also actively promoted the idea that the artist’s proper role was in the studio, as we saw. This was all part of his effort to replace the Hudson River School with his view of Art for Art’s Sake vision of American art. But his views on outdoor painting began to change when he started his annual summer trips to Europe to inform himself of new developments. In the sumer of 1882, during his stay in Madrid he began outdoor painting again, perhaps attracted to the very bright Madrid sun. (No example of this work is in the MFA exhibition.) It was in 1883 that Chase began the transformation that turned him into a master landscape painter of the new school.

19. A Bit of Holland MNeadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum.

19. A Bit of Holland Meadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York.

Chase’s work in Holland in 1883 was connected the  proposed exhibition of the Society of Painters in Pastel, an organization he founded in 1882 with Blum and Beckwith. The medium had become “legitimized” by such European artists as Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Whistler. Chase undoubtedly familiarized himself with their works before working with the medium in Holland. One such painting is included in the MFA exhibit, A Bit of Holland Meadows (#18). The color is remarkably bold for a Chase landscape at the time. It is as much a turning point for Chase as was the Wheeler portrait (#14) completed the same year. As with the portrait, in the pastel landscape Chase began conceiving of composition as something more than a way for him to display treatment of unusual and different surfaces. Indeed much of A Bit of Holland Meadows is occupied with relatively undifferentiated surface. This too may be traced to Chase’s principal influence in the Wheeler portrait—Whistler. Pisano (1993, at 6) notes the similarity between Chase’s Holland pastel and Whistler’s 1866 seascape Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean (Frick Collection, New York), particularly the “sparseness of detail the asymmetrical composition, and the flat decorative patterning … .” The paintings even have similar leaf designs on the right; Whistler’s comes from the bottom, presumably from a bush on the land above the shore where the viewer is standing, while Chase’s comes from the top from a tree. In Whistler’s work of the time the leafy branch acted as something of a colophon derived from Japanese prints. Both works also involve a high horizon line and vast expanses of green, although Whistler’s is much paler than Chase’s. The brushwork in Chase’s midground (where no individual clumps of grass can be seen) is very much like a watercolor, and it may have been influenced by the Hague School watercolorists, which Chase must have seen at the time. Another Whistler that may ave informed Chase’s approach, one closer in time to Chase’s composition and also in pastel, is San Biagio: Flesh Colour and Grey (1880, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia), painted in Venice, which could have been of especial interest to Chase. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to discover the similarities and differences.

20. At the Shore. OIL on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

20. At the Shore. Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

By the following summer Chase’s approach to landscapes was undergoing a remarkable change. While more attention was paid to composition, at the same time, Chase was simplifying the other elements. A good starting point is At the Shore (#20), painted sometime between 1882 and 1884. The work is very bright for Chase in this period, and this perhaps is the lingering effect of his Madrid experience. The brushwork has become as assured, bordering on bravura (especially with the ocean foam, sand, flags and canvas tops), as his studio work. His rapid sketching of persons gives the impression of a casual glance, and while the work contains quite a few people, the composition does not look crowded, largely owing to how the shore divides the composition in two and the structures recede into the background (along a line perpendicular to the shoreline). What is striking about the work, however, is the large area devoted to a sky with striking blue mixed with clouds. The horizon (on which we see steam ships adding to the mix of the sky) curves upward much like the curve of the canvas atop the boat in the foreground. The composition is cleverly designed but not as simplified as it would soon become.

21. Coast of Holland. Oil on canvas. 1884. Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington.

When Chase painted in Holland in the summer of 1884, he produced two major works which pointed toward his future direction, both are in the exhibition. One, Sunlight and Shadow (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), experiments with dappled sunlight and compositionally resembles the later family genre painting Open Air Breakfast (ca. 1886, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio). Both those exhibited works are fairly famous, so I will leave it to the links if you wish further comment.11

The painting that most clearly shows Chase’s future direction is Coast of Holland (#21). Like A Bit of Holland MeadowsCoast of Holland has a large expanse of “empty” space in the fore- and midground as well as a high horizon. A line of posts supporting a wire fence leads the eye in a curved fashion from the left edge towards the matter of interest in the background (in this case a sea churned by the strong winds, evidenced by the three flags along the water’s edge). Two heavily clad figures can be seen on the left, but what they are doing is not clear. In fact, their presence is somewhat superfluous. The general plan of composition as well as the green and brown color scheme of the land will be seen in the landscapes Chase would paint at Shinnecock about seven years later.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

After his return to New York Chase tried a seaside picture, and once again by using pastel he created an astonishing composition, perhaps the most clever work he ever created, considered solely from that point of view, End of the Season (#22). Once again a sandy green-brown land occupies much of the bottom of the small picture (13¾ x 17¾”). The sea then makes a very high horizon. In this case, however, the expanse of sandy grass and scrub vegetation is not empty; rather, the field is filled with empty tables with their chairs turned on them. The line of tables and chairs (which form an interesting cross-hatch pattern) curve around to the place where the last vacationing visitor is looking–towards men grappling with a sailboat. The end of summer is indicated not only by the upended chairs but also by the coat worn by the visitor. A calm sense of wistfulness is conveyed by the painting at the same time that it is pleasantly (if conventionally) colorful.

It is curious that so many of Chase’s experiments, like End of the Season, took place in pastel. Perhaps the nature of the medium restricted his easy brushwork and required more concentration. Perhaps because it did not allow him to dwell on intricate surface detail, he devoted his attention to other elements. Or perhaps because the lighter palette it brought suggested to him different subjects and artistic models. The latter has some support when we look at his cityscapes with their impressionistic influence and lighter colors.

23. A City Park. Oil on canbas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

23. A City Park. Oil on canvas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

From the late eighties to the early nineties Chase embarked on a genre that was new to America: outdoor scenes of city parks. American landscapes before this time were of course mainly of rural and wild settings. Urban metropolises were just arising in America, and the public park movement was only in its infancy. Frederick Law Olmsted had only designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn in 1865, Chase began painting urban park scenes around the time of his marriage in 1886, when he stopped his summer European travels to care for his young family. Many of the scenes involved his wife and first child, Alice (“Cosy”) Dieudonnée. There was thus practical reasons for him to turn his attention to landscapes near his new home. But there was an artistic incentive as well: In April 1886 a large exhibition of French Impressionism was mounted in New York City.

The French Impressionism show at the American Art Association, which opened on April 10, 1886, was a startling event for the staid and conservative art world of New York. Some American painters had engaged for some time in an informal version of Impressionism, without the strict attention to the underlying principles of the French movement. The American Art Association exhibition, however, was the real thing, with 300 items, including numerous paintings by Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Seurat. Those reviewers most closely connected with the conservatives of the National Academy of Design roundly condemned the foreign painters. The New York Times chose supercilious condemnation:

“The 300 oil and pastel pictures ‘by the Impressionists of Paris’ belong to the category of art for art’s sake, which rouses in the public more mirth than a desire to possess it. Coming suddenly upon the crude colors and disdain of drawing, which are traits positive and negative in the works of Renoir and Pissarro, one is likely to catch the breath with surprise. Is this art? Surely a third-rate Scotch artist far behind Faed or Cameron would be ashamed of No. 178, ‘Fisherman’s Children,’ but his style would resemble that. Helpless American painters of the old Hudson River school might blush, if they could not model human figures better than Seurat in No. 170, ‘Bathing.’ Weak imitators of Holman Hunt would be truer in color than Flameng in his clouds, No. 285, ‘Wrecks at Bordeaux.’ The first feeling about such works as these is, what extraordinary impertinence on the part of the artists! It is like turning the wrong side of the stage flies to the audience; it is offering to the public work which has been prepared up to a certain point only. No wonder that people are indignant.  No wonder that artists who are not in sympathy with the undaunted band of Impressionists affirm, sometimes not without a round expletive, that they can turn out several such canvases every day in the week!”12

24. Thompkins Park, Brooklyn. Oil on canvas. 1887. Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle simply heaped ridicule and contempt on the art: “As a mark for ridicule the impressionist display has been a conspicuous success. Few have regarded it as other than a display of monstrosities and crankisms, and one artist writes to me that he went home from the show and proceeded to have a nightmare as soon as he had fallen asleep.”13 The more forward looking artists of Chase’s circle, however, greatly admired the works. Many of them already referred to some of their work as impressionistic, but they had not seen, until the New York show, the full extent to which the underlying principles of French impressionism could be taken. American impressionists would never fully employ the advances of the French artists in the exhibition. Chase, for example, did not believe in the “scientific” approach to light that some impressionists showed. Chase felt that such an analytical violated the principle of artistic inspiration, relying instead on a set of rules. Moreover, the approach of most French impressionists to brushwork was entirely inconsistent with the broad strokes that Chase had worked more than a decade to make effortless. Nevertheless, although Chase’s reaction to the show does not seem to have been recorded, it is clear that he rejected the blanket condemnations of the conservative press. In 1883 when Chase and Beckwith organized the Barholdi “Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition” (to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty), Chase was instrumental in bringing Manet and Degas painting to the event.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To whatever extent the Impressionism show influenced Chase, it is clear that his park paintings represented a new and separate departure for him. Just in terms of the elements of the works, a novel and fairly consistent combination had taken hold. Chase framed views of small sections of well-maintained public spaces. Lawns and ornamental plants cover most of the space with buildings, if shown at all, off in the distance.  Figures inhabit the scenes but are almost never the focus of attention. These people are well-t0-do, expensively dressed Brooklynites or New Yorkers at leisure, often with their children. The compositions frequently emphasize lines that not only lead toward a vanishing point but also divide the picture into geometrically designed segments that are dominated by a particular color. The lines direct the eye to quickly survey the scene, which adds to the effect of a fleeting impression which the brushwork aims for.

Chase began this series of paintings in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, near his then home. After several years working there, in the spring of 1890 he was barred from painting in the Park by order of the Brooklyn Parks superintendent, much to the outrage of the local press.14 Chase unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a license that summer, so he chose to paint in New York’s Central Park thereafter. Some of his paintings in the Manhattan show recognizable man-made monuments or other enhancements. Four of these paintings were featured in an article in Harper’s Weekly in 1891.15 Some focus on common features in recognizable locations, such as Park Bench (#25). This last painting emphasizes the inert bench which dominates both the young woman sitting on it and the two sparrows she is watching.

Chase did not follow the French impressionists either in their experiments with light or with their experiments with colors. Moreover, Chase did not veer at all from realistic representation of figures and things. And Chase’s impressionism-influenced park paintings did not treat any of the grittier city scenes, but instead painted the city from a distance in its semi-natural parks. Nevertheless, the paintings were still attacked by conservative critics. The reviewer for the Art Amateur of an exhibition at the American Art Galleries praised Chase’s portraits but had little regard for the parkscapes, concluding that they showed ‘no traceable intention … but that of reproducing the scene as in a looking-glass, with the least possible expenditure of work.” He conceded that revealed a “discipline of eye and hand” but in the end found them to “have no depth of meaning, and their beauty is of the every-day sort … .”16

The MFA exhibition only has a small sample of the city park paintings, and in any event they tend to have a sameness to them. While they represent a step in the direction of European advances, the subject matter, visual frame, color palette and treatment and intended effect tended to fall into a pattern. Chase would defend this fact on the ground that technique, and not subject matter, is the point of art. Right at the beginning of the period he spent making city park paintings, however, he painted a genre work titled Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (#26). Although in some ways similar to the park paintings, particularly with the clotheslines acting in the same way that lines of paths and park sections do to direct the viewers eye and create sections of the work, the painting shows a scene rarely attempted by Chase—a person at work. It is the sheets, though, that give Chae the opportunity to make light reflection into a pattern, not only on the lines but on the ground between them. Behind this work are trees that themselves provide a pattern of light  (which appears to be coming from the left of the picture). A decade and a half later John Singer Sargent would employ the same concept in a watercolor, using instead of the colored linen, pure white sheets, which produce more of a patterned effect with reflected white and shadow, in front of small leafless trees. (To see a comparison of these two works, scroll to the bottom of the post Sargent’s Watercolors.) The painting is the kind of original concept approach that Chase abandoned once he hit upon the open air paintings in city parks.

Wash Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn by William Merritt Chase. (Oil on panel. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn Exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

26. Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn. Oil on panel. ca. 1886. Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Shinnecock and the Summer Art School

27. My Baby Cosy. Pastel on board. 1888. Private collection.

Chase was plagued his whole life with a taste for compulsive acquisitions that exceeded his ordinary income. His need for money only increased when he married Alice Gershon in 1886 and the large family that resulted, beginning with the birth of Cosy in 1887. Chase tried to reduce his expenses by ending his summer trips to Europe after his summer with Whistler in 1885. But from time to time he also attempted to obtain large sums by selling his works (and often his collections of others’ works) at auctions. Invariably, these sales, some of which were quite large, proved bitterly disappointing to Chase and a subject of astonishment to his friends and even the art press. Chase was forced to rely more and more on income from teaching. In 1885 he again took a position at the Art Students League. In 1887 he held an auction of 98 works after his first major solo exhibition in New York, and realized less than $90 per work. In 1889, two months before the SAA show that caused the Times reviewer to muse on Chase becoming unfashionably establishment, his second daughter, Koto Robertine, was born, and in June 1890 his son, William Merritt Chase, Jr. was born. The growing family probably convinced him of the wisdom of supplementing his income with a more-or-less permanent summer school proposed by Mrs. William S. Hoyt, in the eastern end of Long Island to be called the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

28. The Japanese Doll. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Walter & Lucille Rubin collection.

The school was located in a relatively unimproved area that a few fashionable New Yorkers had begun to develop for summer retreats. Janet Hoyt, a real estate professional and investor in her own right, managed the project to create the school and design an art village that would not only attract students of plein air painting but also become the catalyst for attracting others to purchase real estate in the area. She was assisted by two Southampton friends, Annie de Camp Perrot Hegeman Porter and Samuel L. Parrish, and together they obtained support from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. August Belmont and various Astors and Whitneys. Chase presided over the school for 12 summers, and it became the largest and best known of the plein air summer schools. It was a breeding ground for artists who would set up schools elsewhere as well a basis for Chase’s national fame as an art instructor which would later allow him to create his own full time school in New York (the Chase School of Art in 1896) and generated offers for permanent employment (such as at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where Chase began teaching in 1896) and short term courses (such as at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1894 and 1897). But for our purposes the significance of the move is how it changed his approach to outdoor landscape painting.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

At the end of the 1880s Chase was beginning to look for subjects beyond his portraits, studio views and parkscapes. Chase had a brief flirtation with Japonisme in the late 1880s. One of the interesting insights the MFA show provides is through collecting the little known Japanese-influenced works with the better known portraits. The Japonisme works of Chase were created during a four year period from 1888 to 1892. None of it shows a deep sympathy for Japanese art or printmaking. Instead Japanese elements are presented as merely exotic decoration. The paintings involve models wearing kimonos and sometimes with other Japanese accessories. In one still life (#28) Chase paints a collection of crafts before a Japanese hanging. Chase even presented his wife and children, dressed in Japanese outfits (#27) or amusing themselves with Japanese crafts and prints (#29).

30. Flying Clouds. Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection.

The departure Chase made in this period in landscapes took place in the summers at Shinnecock. Chase was required to teach plein air painting (or at least evaluate it), so he threw himself into it. And as a result he pioneered a new type of American landscape. The land here in the Hamptons probably had a particular calling to Chase because it was quite like the sand and scrub vegetation that he encountered and painted in Holland. The similarity is brought home by an odd comment by a reviewer. In March 1884, at the first Pastel Society showing in New York, Chase exhibited a work painted in Holland, presumably much like Coast of Holland (#21). The reviewer for Art Amateur, who was filled with disdain for Chase’s studio genre works, commented appreciatively on a landscape from Holland,, “the best, one from Scheveringen, showing a beach and dune the very counterpart of East Hampton, where, so far as we know, no one ever found a subject of a landscape, … . [P]robably there are twenty Americans ready to buy a bit of Scheveningen for one that will look twice at a corner of East Hampton.”17 The anonymous critic noted the similarity of the vistas that Chase would paint a decade later to those he painted in Holland. And to perhaps acknowledge that similarity himself, Chase painted an early landscape there, Flying Clouds (#30), as a tribute to the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, whose pioneering Baroque landscape, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields (ca 1670, Kunsthaus Zürich), resembles the later work not only in the kind of sandy soil and grasses, the distant building, the low horizon with vast expanses of sky, but also, and mainly, in the billowy clouds that fill the sky.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

As in the untitled canvas called Shinnecock Landscape (#31), Chase captures the characteristic view of Eastern Long Island, the ecosystem of which is based on the sandy soil which can support only the intermittent clumps of grass and scrub bush. Without trees and owing to vast expanses of flat land, a large vista of bright summer sky can be seen and it is usually filled with large clouds backed by pale blue. In many of the Shinnecock landscapes, clouds seem to be the subject of the paintings. The combination of the blue, brown and green produces a harmony redolent of summer and all it connotes. Unlike the parkscapes, there are no artificial straight lines which always signify human interference with nature. The absence of such lines also means that there is no artifice of composition to direct the eye. The art is solely in the framing of the scene; the artist does not otherwise seem to intrude. In a lecture right before he established his Shinnecock school, he told of a means to avoid the difficulty of deciding how to “cut off” a scene:

“[T]ake a little card, a visiting card if you like, and cut an oblong square hole in it … look through it occasionally. push it about until you see something you like. … In this way you will find pleasing conceptions and original compositions, things that have not been done, and not too perfectly balanced to be delightful.”

Even before the Shinnecock paintings, Chase had thus abandoned his early tenet that artists should only make a sketch of an out-of-doors scene and paint the scene later in the studio. In fact in the same lecture in Buffalo in 1890, Chase urged beginners never to “meddle” with a work in the studio, otherwise its naturalness would be disturbed and it would take on the look of “conventional picture-making.” (Pisano 1993, at 11.)

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Many of the Shinnecock paintings included his favorite subjects, his wife and children. Portrayed as members of the Southampton leisure class, they are depicted gathering berries or flowers, enjoying family time or relaxing on the beach. As is usual with paintings of his family, they are adorned in expensive outfits with colorful accessories to provide color accents to the muted color palette of the landscape. In Seaside Flowers (#32) Mrs. Chase is tending to her son and four daughters, who are out collecting wildflowers. Each of the three daughters in the foreground is wearing an individually adorned hat and colorful ribbon. In the background can be seen the Chase family summer home.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The Shinnecock landscapes represented the closest approach Chase ever made to French Impressionism. His color scheme and figure modeling looked vaguely like early Impressionism. But he only was interested in light as it reflected from surfaces or occasionally caused shadows. He never experimented with representation of figures or objects, instead he continued to draw with the same approach to realism that he developed in art school. For these reasons in his day Chase was not recognized as one of the core group of American Impressionists.  Art Amateur, for example, never mentioned Chase in any of its articles of the 1890s on American Impressionists, and his works were not acquired by collectors of American Impressionist paintings (Pisano 1993, at 14 & 18 n.62).

Nevertheless, the unusual views that Eastern Long Island offered (unusual in terms of American landscapes, that is) allowed for a somewhat forward looking approach to art and with the absence of recognizable figures like trees, land formations and buildings, suggested non-representational art, especially when the pictures lacked figures and clouds dominated the canvas.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Despite his role in upending a style in American art, Chase did not believe in change as an end in itself. He saw art as part of a tradition going back to the Baroque masters—a tradition to be built upon and acknowledged. Innovation, as Chase saw it, was to follow a path suggested by past masters. The innovation was to extend, not to overturn, the tradition.

The one experiment he continued to pursue even late in his career was the treatment of space on the canvas. The open vistas of Long Island allowed for such experiments. In The Lone Fisherman (#34) Chase uses the foreshortening of a canal embankment and the row of rocks behind it to create a sense of depth to the picture. Those features take up most of the canvas and dwarf the figure, Chase’s father, sitting far down the line fishing in the canal. Chase uses the space devoted to the rock to show the reflection of light on the surface. The landscape portion of the picture occupies a small line on the horizon below a sky that has a yellow coloring near the earth and becomes bluish only at the top of the picture. Unlike Flying Clouds (#30) and Untitled (#31), the sky occupies only a small portion of the picture. All three of those paintings are related to the kind of treatment of space that Chase was doing in his late studio and family genre paintings, which is the last part of the MFA show.

Before considering those works, there remains only to briefly note Chase’s final landscapes after he closed the Shinnecock school in 1902. By that time Chase had almost completely transformed from vital force in the vanguard to grand old man. In 1888 he was elected to the National Academy of Design, the conservative force that the Munich Men rebelled against. In 1895 he declined to run for President of the Society of American Artists (the organization designed to counter the Academy), a position he held for a decade. In 1898 he gave up administrative control of the Chase School (it would become the New York School of Art). Chase would spend much of the rest of his life arranging for showings at various important expositions and shows.18 He also cultivated relations with major museum curators (his work was shown at the opening of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1895, for example19). Many would purchase his works for reasonable prices, while other would host exhibitions at which sales could be made.20 Chase was also exhibited in large one man shows at the galleries.21 But he remained plagued by compulsive large expenses which he tried to finance with auctions of large amounts of his art. They all turned out badly. (In 1896 he sold off all the items from his 10th Street Studio as well as 66 of his own work. Flying Clouds was knocked down at $310. All 1800 lots produced slightly more than #21,000. Bryant, at 171.)

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

After closing Shinnecock, Chase spent little time in outdoor painting. He organizied summer tours of Europe with students to finance trips to Holland (1903), England (1904), Spain (1905) and Florence (1908 and 1909). These trips, however, did not allow for systematic painting like he was able to do in Long Island where he had a house, permanent studio and his family. Yet he occasionally produced striking works, like The Olive Grove (#35). The problem Chase faced was that the cutting edge of art had moved well beyond him. By the time the Armory Show for Post-Impressionists was organized in New York in 1913 his work looked several decades out of date. None of his works were accepted at that show. The decision was devastating to him. And though he visited the show several times, he simply could not understand non-representational art, particularly cubism. He would spend his last several years polemicizing against it.

Chase’s Sanctuary: His Studio and His Family

As a teacher of artists, Chase was hardly doctrinaire and always urged his students to achieve their own artistic vision. But two bridges he could not cross. He could not bring himself to paint subjects he considered lacking in beauty. And he could not comprehend for what reason an artist could distort visual reality.

36. Two of My Children (At Play). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

The first of these bedrock beliefs probably stemmed from the effects of his hard-scrabble upbringing in Indiana. Chase saw art as the way out of a grubby existence. Rockwell Kent remembered Chase once telling his studenta: “Look at me. Beginning as a shoe clerk trying on ladies’ shoes, I have come to be the guest of kings.” (Kent, at 76-77.) Chase probably did not even realize how much his aesthetic pose was a class attributem and he was anything but analytical in his aesthetic philosophy. When the Ashcan School attained ascendency at the New York Art School under Robert Henri, eventually forcing Chase to resign his teaching position 1907, Chase expressed his disdain dripping with class-based contempt: “A certain group of painters in New York paint the gruesome. They go to the wretched part of the city and paint the worst people.” (Bryant, at 211.) Deciding what was “beautiful” and what was base and mean was a visceral choice for Chase.

Chase’s second objection to modernism (or perhaps more fairly, to certain aspects of modernism that aroused him on an instinctual level) followed directly from the first: Why would one distort reality when what one saw to paint was beautiful? In 1899 he told a reporter for an Indianapolis newspaper that his approach to painting was through his own understanding of Nature: “Art transcends Nature. One must paint what is behind the eye of the artist.”22 Chase did not mean that an artist could refashion what is naturally true, but that an artist must conceive of what he sees in the most truthful and beautiful way and then to paint that conception. What Chase “saw” behind he eye was how what he saw with his eye should fit on a canvas. In the outdoors he could look for the right combination of elements to produce a picture behind his eye.  In the studio he could arrange objects, models and props to produce a picture. And his family played the central role in a great many of these compositions, his wife first and foremost.

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark.)

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark).

Chase met his future wife Alice Gerson shortly the year after he arrived in New York from his studies, in the summer of 1879. She was the daughter of widower Julius Gerson, who held something of a salon for artists and writers and even supported some artists. Chase was brought into this circle by Frederick S. Church, to whom he was introduced by Shirlaw. Alice was 13 at the time but Gerson encouraged her and her two older sisters to appreciate the artists and intellectuals he brought to his home, and Alice soon developed a crush on the flamboyant Chase. Chase frequented the family’s gatherings, sketching and painting the girls and guests. His affection developed into passion for Alice and he married her in 1886. She would prove to be his most reliable subject and muse.

The year of his marriage also saw Chase bask in a burst of popular and critical acclaim with his triumphant one man show in Boston’s Art Club which displayed 130 of his paintings and crammed the gallery with the bric-à-brac from his 10th Street Studio. A “sensation,” said Art Amateur, where the town

“went in full force, and repeated its visit with enthusiasm, and it is unanimously voted that nothing has been here at all like it since [William Morris] Hunt’s day. Such fertility, variety, dash, gayety, excitement! Such frank singleness of delight in in cleverness, in painting as painting; such naïve confession that the fun of doing it is the main thing; such happy unconsciousness that art has any other ulterior objects, any moral mission or historical function!”23

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

When Chase painted Alice he merged this same joie de l’art with joie de vie, and that can be seen in every one of the paintings he did of her for the rest of his life. He treats her not as a model but as a person whose thoughts, feelings and interior life is worth exploring. Meditation (#37), for example, sees the young Alice as wise beyond her years and suggests that she is lost in thought by enveloping her in soft blues and velvety greys which also frame her pale face, accented by dark brows and hair. It is a work that is difficult to look away from. (And doesn’t that make a masterpiece?)

With the arrival of Alice Dieudonnée (“Cosy”) in 1887 his children also became subjects of the art that most overtly showed his feelings of tenderness and devotion. The Chases would have five daughters and three sons although William Merritt Chase, Jr., died shortly after his first birthday. Chase dressed his children up in costumes and expensive clothes, presented them with costly toys and books, gave them the run of his studio and then painted them in this world that celebrated beautiful things. In Two of My Children (#36) Chase showed Cosy and Koto Robertine (his second daughter, born in 1889) captured in a “spontaneous” way just as Valázquez might have composed a picture of Philip IV’s household. Cosy looks back at us as she is tying the ribbon belt on her younger sister. The light brings the figures out of the dark background and emphasizes the beautiful salmon colored dress of Cosy and the lighter dress of the younger child, who we see only from behind. Both the Dutch masters and Velázquez made figures immanent by this trick of light to make the figures more “real” even though the light source, like Hollywood lighting, was unrealistic.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

From the evidence of Chase’s portrayals of them, his family happily participated in his world of art for art’s sake. Not only do they delight in each other’s company, but they do so principally by enjoying the objects that delighted Chase and which were part of his work, as they themselves were.  Chase introduced his most playful “tricks” in these family portraits and thereby showed that he enjoyed these works the most. In Hall at Shinnecock, for example, Cosy not only views Chase as he paints the picture, but we can see Chase ourselves in the reflection in the glass of the cabinet on the other end of the hall.

40. An Artist's Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

40. An Artist’s Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

An Artist’s Wife (#40) is a portrait of Alice looking away toward the artist who interrupted her from viewing Chase’s The Fairy Tale, a Shinnecock work (not in the MFA show) in which Alice and Cosy sit amidst the rolling landscape of Long Island both in their summer finery. The Alice who is contemplating this picture is dressed in clothes reminiscent of the days of the Dutch masters. And this is for good reason, because the painting itself is an homage to the portrait of Issac Massa by Chase’s favorite old master Frans Hals (1626, Art Gallery of Ontario). Both the study and The Fairy Tale were highly praised by John Gilmore Speed in an article in Harper’s [linked below]. Speed saw the works in Chase’s summer studio. It occurs to me that Chase must have viewed his own life as a Northern European Baroque painter, perhaps like Rubens, who also used his wife and child as subjects and who lived the life of an aristocrat as he painted for them.

The playfulness of the picture within a picture (and subject within a picture of the subject) is similar to the punning title (and meta-comment) of the painting Reflection (ca. 1893, private collection). In that work we see Alice’s face only in the mirror (her back is to us), but we can see that she is cogitating on something, reflecting. The mirror itself is fit in a section of the wall behind a current (drawn open), just like the window next to it. The window curtain, however, is drawn shut, for all of the interest is takes place within the room and within the mind of Alice. The reviewer of the Society of American Artists show of 1894, where this picture was exhibited, acknowledged that some would object to the literary nature of the composition but dismissed it because the “picture is a good one, nevertheless … .”24

Chase’s paintings of his children also displayed playfulness but less literary and more visual, much like Velázquez did in the day of the masters and John Singer Sargent in contemporary times. Chase’s Hide and Seek (#41) is a large canvas that presents a large empty space in the middle. Much like Sargent’s Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882, which you can see upstairs in the MFA). (Sargent’s canvas is, however, much larger than Chase’s.) Chase places children at the opposite ends of a largely empty plane. In Chase’s painting, which the title tells us is about a game, the empty space ads to the excitement one feels for the girl at the bottom who is about to escape detection as the other girl departs the room. The light that seeps in from the exit the second girl is about to use illuminates the room, where we see only a curtain, a large green chair and the bottom of a painting above it. The care with which the hair and gown of the girl at he bottom are rendered make her the one we are rooting for. Of course the painting is actually a study in space, but Chase, like the old masters and Sargent, is never one to force-feed am aesthetic lesson down the viewer’s throat. That was never how he viewed the role of the artist; it is also why he never understood the post-Impressionists.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Even if we didn’t have the letters when Chase was away and pined for his family, we would know that it was his family that meant the most to him in his latter years, solely through these genre paintings. That affection is palpable in these works which occupy the final gallery of the MFA show. These works are a fitting close to the show because they represent the central thing in his life, if our reaction to them is any proof. If I were to suggest why anyone should care about Chase, I’d suggest going straight to the end of the exhibition to view these pieces. Chase’s approach to art may have outlasted the public’s taste for it, but these pictures say something more than Chase’s place in art history. They transcend it. And that is what makes a master.

Chase the teacher (a role in which he contributed at least as much to American art) produced many quotable aphorisms, most of which seem hardly able to guide a beginning artist, or even a beginning art appreciator. His biographer Katharine Metcalf Roof collected many of them. Some seem hardly to apply to his own work. For instance, “Learn to paint so well that you can conceal your own dexterity,” seems on the basis of this exhibition to be something he never attempted. But perhaps his best known quote is “Do not try to paint the grandiose thing. Paint the commonplace so that it will be distinguished” (Roof, at 319). His family paintings belie this quote, for there was nothing commonplace in his love of his own family.

In the end this exhibition gives a comprehensive look at this important nineteenth century American artist. The enormous revolution of Modernism, which began at the end of Chase’s life, cause us now to give him insufficient credit in the great scheme of things at the beginning of the twentieth century. But for a brief peiood, at an essential time, Chase turned American art outward and tried to connect it with the trends and flow of Western culture as it was boiling up in Europe. That he accomplished that goal also caused his own contributions to be overwhelmed by the flood that followed. But this retrospect proves that he is still worth a serious look, even if he did not create a school or issue a manifesto and even though he viewed change as a conservative would: good only if it added to what was valuable, not if it tore it down.



1“American Artists’ Annual Exhibition,” New York Times, Saturyday Review of Books and Arts, March 19, 1898, p. BR191 (clip online via [Return to text.]

2I was (slightly) disappointed to see that neither of the two 1892 genre paintings, Afternoon by the Sea [Gravesend Bay] and The Fairy Tale (both in the same private collection, I believe), were present. The student work The Moorish Warrior, ca. 1878, which remained in a European collection until the twentieth century and now is owned by the Brooklyn Museum, also would have been nice to see. One or two of the better female portraits are not included, but all in all these are mere quibbles, given the large number of sources these works were borrowed from. [Return to text.]

3The National Gallery of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art co-sponsored an exhibition entitled “William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, 1891-1902” in 1987-1988. Before that a national retrospective of his entire career toured from the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983-84. It was three decades before then that the last previous major exhibition was mounted. [Return to text.]

4“The Society of American Artists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 11, 1978, p. 2 (clip online via [Return to text.]

5Chase had not resided in New York for a year when Harper’s New Monthly Magazine included him among the most important new influences on American art, moving it away from landscapes to the portrayal of the human figure. The piece included an etching of his Boy Smoking (#2) (see S.G.W. Benjamin [cited below].) Not long after the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s own arts magazine, American Art Review, published a review of the young Chase together with detailed etchings, spread over two issues in early 1881 (see Van Rensselaer, below). That review was noted in newspapers around the nation. E.g., Detroit Free Press, February 8, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via; New York Times, February 16, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via; Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1881, p. 9 (clip online via [Return to text.]

6Much later in life Chase claimed that he was a successful ladies’ shoes salesman. He said the trick was to always recommend a size smaller than the woman was then wearing. [Return to text.]

7Baury, Louis, “Story of the Tile Club,” Bookman, Vol. 35 (June 1912) 381-96, at 391 (online via Google Books). [Return to text.]

8“Talk on the Old Masters by Mr. Chase, New York School of Art, November 17th, 1906,” typescript from Archives of American Art, quoted in Cikovsky [cited below], at 7. [Return to text.]

9Bryant’s biography, which makes no attempt to connect Chase to his social setting, gives no reason to think that New Yorkers viewed Chase as “sophisticated” rather than simply odd or worse. Cikovsky (at 2) is more likely correct in concluding that his European styled beard, his fastidious and often outrageous dress and his exotic pets “startled still provincial New York of the late seventies, when they first made their appearance.” Later he was satirized as a pretentious fop. In Coast of Bohemia Howells has his art student Charmian model herself on Chase in designing her studio: “I must have a suit of Japanese armor for that corner, over there; and then two or three of those queer-looking, old, long, faded trunks, you know, with eastern stuffs gaping out of them, to set along the wall. I should be ashamed to have anybody see it now; but you have an eye, you can supply every thing with a glance. I’m going to have a bed made up in the alcove, over there, and sleep here, sometimes: just that broad lounge, you know, with some rugs on it—I’ve got the cushions, you see, already—and mice running over you, for the crumbs you’ve left when you’ve got hungry sitting up late.” (Chapter XVII.) [Return to text.]

10For example, the State Department commissioned Chase for the official portrait of Secretary of State William M. Evarts, “Notes on Art and Artists,” New York Times, March 19, 1882, p. 5 (clip online via, and Harvard College commissioned him to paint ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes. [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, March 26, 1881, p. 1 (clip online via [Return to text.]

11For a contemporary review of Sunlight and Shadow, see “Water Colors and Etchings,” New York Times, January 30, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via [Return to text.]

12“Paintings for Amateurs,” New York Times, April 10, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via [Return to text.]

13Untitled paragraph, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1866, p. 4 (clip online via [Return to text.]

14The decision was made by Superintendant Aneurin Jones, and it was unknown even to the Parks President when asked about it. Jones had recently been dismissed as superintendent of parks in New York City and soon became a target of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for his imperiousness. The paper reported on the barring of Chase in “The New Autocrat of the Park,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 18, 1890, p. 4 (clip online via Both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The New York Times reported on the bureaucratic intircacies that prevented Chase from paining in Brooklyn’s parks throughout the summer. [Return to text.]

15See Charles de Kay”Mr. Chase and Central Park,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 35, no. 1793 (May 2, 1891),, pp. 324-25, 327-28 (online via Hathi Trust). The four paintings, photographed in black and white on pp. 234-34 are: A By-Path, (ca. 1890, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), The Nursery (1890, private collection), The Lake for Miniature Yachts (ca. 1888 or 1890, Peter G. Terian collection) and A Bit of the Terrace (1890, private collection). The second and third of these paintings are exhibited at the MFA show. [Return to text.]

16“Minor Exhibitions,” Art Amateur, Vol. 22, no. 6 (May 1890), pp. 113-14, at 114 (online via JSTOR, open access). [Return to text.]

17“The Pastel Exhibition,” Art Amateur, Vol. 10, no. 6 (March 1884), pp. 123-24, at 124 (online via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

18In 1893 Chase exhibited five works at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893: Official Catalogue. Part X. Department K. Fine Arts (Chicago : W.B. Conkey, 1893), p. 15 (online via Hathi Trust). In 1894 he received first prize in the Cleveland Art Association show. (American Art Annual (Macmillan Co., 1903), Vol. 4, Part II, p. 15 [“AAA”].) The Pennsylvania Association of Fine Arts awarded him Temple gold medal at its 1895 exhibition, and the same year the Society of American Artists awarded him its Shaw prize.. (AAA.) In 1900 two paintings were shown at the Paris Salon. Roland Strong, “American Art. Pictures Shown at the Paris Salon,” New York Times, Saturday Review of Books and Art, June 2, 1900, p. BR364 (clip online via The same year he silver medalled in the Paris Exposition. (Gallatti 1995, p. 101.)  In 1901he received the gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and in 1902 he gold medalled at the Charleston Exposition. (AAA.) In 1904 he received a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis as well as the Corcoran Prize of the Society of Washington Artists. In 1910 he received the grand prize of the International Fine Arts Exposition in Buenos Aires. And the National Academy of design awarded him its Proctor Portrait Prize in 1912. (Bryant, at 225.) In 1915 a gallery was devoted to his work at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Gallatti 1995, at 135.)  [Return to text.]

19“Great Collection of Paintings,” New York Times, November 5, 1895, p. 5 (clip online via [Return to text.]

20At the end of 1897 the Art Institute of Chicago displayed 71 paintings, mostly portraits and scenes from Shinnecock at a time when Chase giving a life class at the school. [Return to text.]

21In 1903 M. Knoedler’s in New York had a one man showing of his works. In 1905 he had a solo exhibition at McClees Gallery in Philadelphia. The Herron Institute of Indianapolis organized a travelling exhibit in 1909. In 1910 the National Arts Club held a retrospective in 1910.  [Return to text.]

22Benjamin Northrop, “Great Artist’s Struggle: How Chase Painted His First Successful Pictures,” Iandianapolis News, January 14, 1899, p. 9 (clip online via [Return to text.]

23Greta, “Art in Boston,” Art Amateur, Vol. 16, no. 2 (January 1887), p. 28 (onlline via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

24“The Exhibition of the Society of American Artists,” Art Amateur, Vol. 30, no. 5 (April 1894), p. 127. [Return to text.]


Benjamin, S.G.W., “The Present Tendencies in American Art,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1879), pp. 481-96 (online; subscription required).

Bolger, Doreen, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Rizzoli, 1986).

Bryant, Keith L.,William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, c1991).

Chase, William Merritt, “The Two Whistlers: Recollections of a Summer with the Great Etcher,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 80 (June 1910), pp. 219-26 (online via Hathi Trust).

Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai, “William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street Studio,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1976), pp. 2-14.

Cox, Kenyon, “William M. Chase, Painter,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1889), pp. 549-57 (online; subscription required).

Francis, Henry S., “Portraits by Whistler and Chase,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 52, no. 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 19-23.

Frey, Elizabeth Vose, “The Renaissance of Pastel Societies,” International Association of Pastel Societies (n.p., n.d.) (PDF, open access).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase (New York: Henry N. Abrams Inc., 1995).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with H. Abrams, c1999).

Gerdts, William H., American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, c1984).

Hiesinger, Ulrich W., Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel, c1991).

Kent, Rockwell, It’s Me, Oh Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent (New York: Dodd, Mead, [1955]).

Larkin, Oliver W., Art and Life in America (Rev. ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964).

McSpadden, J. Walker, Famous Painters of America (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916) (online at

Marling, Karal Ann, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Miss Dora Wheeler,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 65, no. 2 (February 1978), pp. 47-57.

Merrill, Linda (ed.), After Whistler: The Artist and his Influence on American Painting (Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Yale University Press, c2003).

Pisano, Ronald G., William Merritt Chase (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1979).

Pisano, Ronald G., Summer Afternoons: The Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase (Boston: Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown, c1993).

Pisano, Ronald G., The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) (New Haven: Yale University Press, c2006).

Roof, Katharine Metcalf, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917) (online via

Schaffner, Cyntia V.A. and Lori Zabar, “The Founding and Design of William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art and the Art Village,”  Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 44, no. 4 (December 2010), pp. 303-350.`

Speed, John Gilmer, “An Artist’s Summer Vacation,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (June 1893), pp. 3-14 (online; subscription required).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [First Article], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 3 (January 1881), pp. 91-98 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [Second and Concluding Part], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 135-42 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Whistler, James Abbott MacNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies ed. by Sheridan Ford (New York: Frederik Stokes & Brother, 1890) (online via

The Nude among the Habsburgs in Spain

The Body as Subject in Paintings from the Prado

1. Lot and his Daughters by Francesco Furini. Oil on canvas. ca. 1634. Museo Nacional del Prado (“Prado”), Madrid. (Clicking once of the illustrations here enlarges the image and clicking again frees the image from the frame.)

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

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

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

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

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.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1618-23. Prado, Madrid.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Gerard Seghers, Joost de Mompe and Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1620. Prado, Madrid.

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.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

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.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

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.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Domenico Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

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 AhasuerusJudith 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.

8. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

8. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

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.

9. Susannah and the Elders by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Oil on canvas. ca. 1617. Prado, Madrid.

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

9. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of †itian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

10. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of Titian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

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.

10. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

11. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

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.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

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

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

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.

14. Detail of Furini's Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

14. Detail of Furini’s Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

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.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

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.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

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.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

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).

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

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.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

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.

Final Thoughts

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, [1940]), p. 29. [Return to text.]

3Based on stylistic evidence Renaissance art historian Mary Pittaluga (Il Tintoretto (Bologna, N. Zanichelli [1925]) assigned the panels to ca. 1655, while Rodolfo Pallucchini (La Giovinezza del Tintoretto (Milano: D. Guarnati, [1950]) 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, [2012]), 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.]

American Illustration as Art

The Best of the Illustrations
in the Collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art

1. Emily supplemented her husband's meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, "Murder for Millions," Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1848), p. 17.

1. Emily supplemented her husband’s meager income by getting herself modeling jobs by Austin Briggs. Oil on board. 1948. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut “NBMAA”). Illustration to Nancy Rutledge, “Murder for Millions,” Saturday Evening Post (November 20, 1948), p. 17.

The New Britain Museum of American Art, the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art and owner of a significant and comprehensive collection from early New England through post-contemporary, also was the first museum to begin collecting (in 1964) the work of American illustrators. Taking advantage of the large number of magazine, book and advertising illustrators who lived in Westport, Connecticut and the surrounding areas  accessible by train to New York City and using the expertise of a committee of prominent illustrators and art teachers, which has since met semi-annually to formulate the museum’s acquisition policies, the museum has amassed (mainly through gifts) a collection of over 1,800 works from the mid-nineteenth century onward, possibly the largest and most significant collection of American illustrations in existence. Last month the museum opened a “best of” exhibition, Masterpieces of The Sanford B.D. Low 
Illustration Collection which runs through October 2, 2016. The event gives us a chance to see some of the best examples of American illustration over the course of its history and also to see how we can react to examples of illustration art standing on their own.

2. Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Wood engraving by Edward LaGarde. Print at NBMAA. Illustration for Harper’s Weekly, September 20, 1873, pp. 824-25.

Just to start with a working definition (there is no agreed on one) illustration as used here means visual works intended for reproduction (usually in large numbers) and specifically conceived to comment on, explain or attract attention to a text or group of texts. This highlights the two features that differentiate illustration from other art forms. First, illustrators must concern themselves with the technology of reproduction. (This consideration was more important when means of reproduction were less sophisticated than today but it still prevails.) Second, the illustrator must take into consideration the demands of the author (usually) and the publisher (almost always). This second consideration makes illustration more “commercial” than, say, fine arts painting. A painter who disregards the market will simply not make money; an illustrator who does the same does not get work. With regard to advertisement illustrations the second consideratin is paramount, but the New Britain show only has one example of an illustration intended for advertisement, and that is a 1920s study by Joseph Christian Layendecker for a male clothing line by the House of Kuppenheimer, and is mainly an example of how illustrators mock up their pictures.

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

3. Two versions of Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Both were painted in 1872. The top painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the bottom work is owned by the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (Neither of these canvases is part of the New Britain exhibition.)

Illustration, unlike other forms of the visual arts, is tied to a text. Stand-alone art (for lack of a better descriptor) can tell a story or a scene, even one contained in a specific text. But illustrations are intended to be subordinate to the text and indeed produced with it. Moreover, the object that the artist produces is usually not what the consumer sees; the artist usually makes a master in some medium and then it is mechanically or photographically reproduced (usually by someone else) for printing together with the text. The “originals” from which the illustrations are produced until recently were not valued by their publishers (which generally owned them) and were often stored under suboptimal conditions. The New Britain Museum (under director, painter and illustrator Sanford B.D. Low) saw the opportunity to acquire work while simultaneously raising awareness and appreciation of illustrations. Many publishers saw this as a way to relieve themselves of storage problems. Prominent illustrators, grateful of the museum’s effort, assisted in selecting and recommending works and donated pieces from their own collections. We’ll return to how the “market” influenced American illustration outside of advertising illustrations.

The Beginning of American Illustration

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

4. Scene by Felix O.C. Darley. Wood cut. 1948. From Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle Designed and Etched By Felix O C Darley for the Members of the American Art-Union (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Company and George P. Putnam, 1848).

At first American illustration was done exclusively by woodcuts.1 By this process an artist would draw lines on a wood block, and either he or (more usually) an engraver would cut away the area between the lines leaving only the raised lines to apply ink. Needless to say this was a tedious process and required the skills both in drawing and carving. Competence in these skills did not appear in America until the mid-nineteenth century, when illustrators began providing visual journalism as well as editorial comment in the form of caricatures and cartoons. Winslow Homer, for example, began his art career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. That magazine also contained the political cartoons of Thomas Nash (three of his anti-Lincoln caricatures are at the bottom of this post). Homer covered the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and his drawing printed in Harper’s Weekly became the visual record of the event seen by the vast majority, even though there was a photograph of the event. (Both Homer’s print and the photograph are shown in this post.) When the war commenced Homer became a visual journalist by means of his drawings. In fact, as he moved towards oils, he occasionally painted versions of drawings he made for the magazine. (See, for example, the Sharpshooter that was printed in the November 15, 1862 issue and only later turned into the painting shown in this post.) When Homer turned to painting full time, he often had his pictures engraved by others for printing. The sensibilities and compositional techniques he acquired as a magazine illustrator seemed to inform his early paintings. His work Snap the Whip, which he painted in two versions (#3) and had engraved for Harper’s Weekly (#4), is an example. Sensing a national mood (at least in the North which wished to put behind the violence and destruction of the war) yearning for peaceful domestic scenes, ones emphasizing cooperation and nostalgic depictions of the serene joy of childhood, Homer created Snap the Whip, which captured all three of these sentiments.

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to "The Cave of Bellmar" by F.F. Cavada, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to "Jeremy Train--His Drive" by An Old Fellow, Scribner's Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

5. Two woodcut illustrations from 1870. Top: Illustration to “The Cave of Bellmar” by F.F. Cavada, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1870, p. 826. Bottom: Illustration to “Jeremy Train—His Drive” by An Old Fellow, Scribner’s Monthly, November 1870, p. 4. (Neither item in NBMAA show.)

Well conceived, technically competent illustrations had began appearing in American books in the 1840s. Before then, according to nineteenth century art critic Frank L. White (p. 33), the few decorations and “vignettes” in books “were, as a rule, wretchedly drawn and engraved.” It was in the mid-1840s that 21 year old Felix O.C. Darley first showed illustrations which were warmly received. In 1847 he presented to the New York Art Union his outline drawings for “Rip Van Winkle” (see #4). The performance would launch his career as an illustrator and also significantly influence the course of the field by showing the possibility for wood engraving and by elevating the standards that the public would expect. He would go on to illustrate other Irving works (including, famously, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New-York), Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the works of Cooper, Dickens, Longfellow, among other books. The iconography that Darley is best known for today is his visualization of Santa Claus from his illustrations of A Visit from Saint Nicholas (New York: J. G. Gregory, c1862), a work that would prove wildly popular. Illustrated books published in America were few and far between, however, because production was expensive and also American booksellers believed that American consumers preferred illustrated books from abroad, where there was a longer history. As one sellers said: “what smells of English ink sells best to American tastes” (“American Proficiency,” p. 155).

Illustrations for periodicals began in the 1850s, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had competent illustrations from the beginning. Its first issue (June 1850) not only contained illustrations of pieces on three contemporary intellectuals (Archibald Alison, Thomas Babington Macaulay and William H. Prescott), it also had an illustrated section on women’s fashions, something that would be repeated in following issues and would eventually lead to America’s first fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazar, a weekly first published on November 2, 1867 (without the later affectation of spelling its title “Bazaar”). The Harper brothers also launched a weekly political journal, Harper’s Weekly, the first issue of which (January 3, 1857) illustrated a first person story of a police officer’s cross-country search to arrest a bank forger. The Harper brothers had also published an extensively illustrated biography of Napoleon in 1855 with illustrations by Carl Emil Doepler, whose cartoons ran several times in the mid-1850s in Harper’s Monthly.

6. New-York—Bird's Eye View from Union Square." Woodcut. Illustration for "New-York Daguerreotped," Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (not in NBMAA show.)

6. New-York–Bird’s Eye View from Union Square Woodcut. Illustration for “New-York Daguerreotped,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art Vol. 1, No. 2 (February 1853), between pp. 122-123. (Not in NBMAA show.)

George Palmer Putnam competed with the Harpers’ firm for America’s best engravers. Although Harpers had been publishing books longer, it was the Putnam firm that published Darley’s Rip Van Winkle drawings and in the 1850s bought five other works of Irving illustrations by Darley and employed America’s best engravers on them, including Henry W. Herrick, J.W. Orr (and his firm), J.S. Harley, J.H. Richardson and others. Putnam began its own periodical two and a half years after the Harpers began theirs, but by the second issue (February 1853) it was illustrating Putnam’s Magazine with a series intending to show the architecture and cityscapes of major American cities beginning with New York (see #6). Putnam’s Monthly suspended publication in 1858 but resumed in 1868. Until the Gilded Age, the Harper brothers and Putnam published the only national general interest magazines that promoted illustrations.2

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, "The Phidian Age of Sculpture," The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (This low resolution scan of the image does not do justice to the quality of the image.)

7. Group of Gods from the East Frieze of the Parthenon. Illustration to Lucy M. Mitchell, “The Phidian Age of Sculpture,” The Century Vol. 23, No. 4 (February 1882), pp. 542-59 at 554. (Not in the NBMAA show.)

The 1870s saw the beginnings of a number of national journals which attempted to capitalize on the greater wealth and leisure time of the upper middle class.3 The periodicals aimed at a decidedly more middle brow taste and while they tried to attract subscribers with illustrations, the new ventures could not compete with Harpers’ publications or Putnam’s book business for competent illustrators or engravers. Perhaps the new journals did not pay enough or established illustrators and engravers were under contract to other firms. Whatever the reason, the quality of illustrations in the new magazines were markedly inferior. (Compare the illustration from Scribner’s Monthly‘s inaugural issue with one from Harper’s Montly of the same month, #5). The situation improved as technological innovations in engraving (graphotype, zincography, etc.) leading to the photoengraving process made possible more detailed reproductions. The Century, for example, was able in 1881-82 to publish a series of essays on ancient sculpture (Central American, Mesopotamian, archaic and classical Greek) with good illustrations of the works discussed (e.g., #7). The introduction of the halftone reproduction technique allowed for the simulation of a smooth gradient of tints (by using dots instead of lines), which became commonplace in magazines in the 1890s, when the first flowering of American illustration took place. Later, using four halftone plates (one for black, the other three for the primary colors), which applied ink successively, color illustrations became possible.

The “Golden Age” of American Illustration: 1890-1920.

8. Hosea and the Parson by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. 1904. New Britain Museum of American Art. Illustration for the story “The Biglow Papers” in The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell Vol. 11 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1904).

Howard Pyle was the first to take advantage of the possibilities that the new technologies offered. Pyle used a variety of styles from pen and ink to oil on canvas (as in #8). But what made him in demand was his ability to distill down a narrative scene to a visually interesting essence, true to the story and at the same time adding scenic and psychological details that enhance it. The muted tones of Hosea and the Parson, surprisingly, are not off-putting, but rather they invite the viewer into the scene. On the museum wall, one among many works hanging at the same height, it was the one I gravitated toward. It is clear from the rendering that the visitor (Hosea) is acting deferentially to the Parson, who is reviewing documents of some importance to Hosea. The latter waits expectantly, erect, not sitting back in his chair, and holding his hat somewhat awkwardly. The composition creates the sense of tension but to understand the relation of the characters and the meaning of the scene, one must go to the text.

9. “… Tom heard the sound of another blow, and then a groan …” by Howard Pyle. Ink on paper. ca. 1891. NBMAA. Illustration for Howard Pyle, “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box,” Harper’s Round Table, March 24, 1896. Reprinted in the anthology Merle Johnson (comp.), Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (New York: Harper Brothers, 1821), p. 111.

Pyle’s sense for the essence of a drama came from a life-long interest in the theater, which began as a child. Pyle also wrote his own adventure stories and had a specialty illustrating stories for boys. As an author and an illustrator Pyle so absorbed the elements of the story that it seems he not only is watching first hand but is seeing it with the eyes of his audience. The line drawing for “Tom Chist and the Treasure Box” where Tom secretly watches a murder take place (in the illustration, #9, he hides behind a sand dune) has a fully composed construction with the four characters arranged in an undulating line (from front to back) which mirrors the undulating beach line and the tops of the dunes (as well as the blood from the chest of the dead man). And the scene captures the breathless, adolescent sense of seeing a murder, almost antiseptic except for the thrill (one wonders if the fact the victim was black contributed to this sense at the time). The scene expresses exactly what the prose (written by Pyle himself for an adolescent boys’ magazine) delivers.4

9. Abraham Lincoln's Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. (Not part of NBMAA show.)

9. Abraham Lincoln’s Last Day by Howard Pyle. Oil on canvas. ca. 1907. Present location unknown. Illustration to William H. Crook, “The Last Day of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, September 1907, p. 496 (Not part of NBMAA show.)

Pyle’s pirate illustrations demonstrate another of Pyle’s characteristics—his authenticity. Pyle believed that historical accuracy was essential to the visual sense of immediacy and therefore spent considerable time and effort researching the costumes (down to the buttons), equipment and behavior of historical pirates. As a result his portrayals (especially the monochrome and full color paintings of his Book of Pirates) became the emblematic version of pirates in the public mind. Likewise, his interest in American history and Americana generally was deeply researched in order to portray authenticity in the service of the dramatic moment. His illustrations of the American Revolution and Civil War are found in a number of books, including Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and History of the United States by James Truslow Adams (New York: Scribner’s, 1933).

Perhaps more important than his example (and popularity) to the course of Aermican illustration was his role as teacher and mentor. Unlike other artists who became illustrators in the early years, Pyle did not go to Europe for his education (he studied in Philadelphia and then the Art Students League in New York City), and after his success, he aimed to establish American instruction opportunities for would-be American illustrators. In 1894 he joined the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia to teach the first course for illustrators in America. He lectured at the Art Students League and eventually set up master classes in his home town of Wilmington, Delaware and in the summers at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. He built studios at his own expense, did not charge for his instruction and used his own contacts to introduce his gifted students to publishers. A generation of illustrators learned from Pyle.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem "The Maiden with the Valentine" by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

10. This Maid of Forty Years Ago by Anna Whelan Betts. Oil on canvas. ca 1903. NBMAA. Illustration for poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” by Katharine Young Glen in The Century Illustrated Monthly (February 1903), p. 592.

Anna Whelan Betts was a student of Pyle’s, one who took to heart his concern with period accuracy and one whom Pyle promoted. The illustration for the poem “The Maiden with the Valentine” (#10) shows everything she learned from Pyle. The picture captures a moment of quiet drama (which brought, in the words of the poem, “the dream-light to her face”). There is meticulous attention to costume and surroundings (the poem lists “the paneled-wall / The picture and the silhouette, / The whispering roses and the shawl”). Every part of the canvas is used to tell the story, including the bottom where we see the envelope, suggesting it was dropped by the maiden in her excitement to read the valentine. The color palette is only white, black and red, and the red is used sparingly to highlight her lips, the letter, the seal on the envelop and the trimming of her hooped skirt. Unfortunately, the print as seen in the magazine (which is hosted by Hathi Trust; scrolling to the next page shows the full poem) is only monochrome so the red cannot be seen by the readers. The illustration of Betts for upscale magazines (and Century had become the most important of illustrated magazines, seeking out the best illustrators and engravers and experimenting with reproduction techniques) generally documented the lives of well-to-do ladies in elegant dresses and sumptuous surroundings for magazines like Ladies Home JournalMcClure’s and Collier’s. But she was not entirely pigeon-holed. Together with Pyle and others of his students, she was chosen to illustrate the twenty-two volumes of The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900). (She illustrated Twice Told Tales.)

11. “One More Step, Mr. Hands, ” said I, “and I’ll Blow Your Brains Out.” by N.C. Wyeth. Oil on canvas. 1911. NBMAA. Book (and jacket) illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Scribner’s Classics, 1911).

The New Britain exhibition contains works of other students of Pyle, but none were more important than N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations for Scribner’s reprint of Treasure Island clearly bear the influence of Pyle. The jacket illustration (#11), which is the one owned by the New Britain Museum (most of the rest are owned by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) captures a moment of high tension as the mutineer and the captain face down each other. The point of view, from the level of the mutineer looking up to the captain higher up in the rigging heightens the drama. As in both the first Pyle and the Betts paintings above, the entire canvas is filled with information to describe the scene. But the staging is the most important. He completely absorbed Pyle’s sense of dramatic timing which Pyle once explained: “The moment of violent action is not so good a point to be chosen as the preceding or following instant.” (Quoted in Barr, p. 176.) And Wyeth also embraced Pyle’s themes and subject matter; he would paint pirates and Americana (and knights, another favorite of Pyle’s) throughout his career. Wyeth was so devoted to Pyle that he used the payment from his Treasure Island series to purchase a place in Chadds Ford on the Bradywine River, from which the style created by Pyle and his students would take its name, the Brandywine School of American Illustration, a style that would long influence mainstream American illustration.

12. The lady of his heart was his partner in the dance by Arthur Ignatius Keller. Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper. ca. 1906. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Illustration for Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1906), p. 63.

Arthur Ignatius Keller represented a contemporary style outside the Brandywine School. Son of an engraver, he was steeped in the tradition that emphasized the line, yet he developed into a skilled painter in demand by both the illustrated magazines but also by book publishers. The 1906 publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of several books he illustrated of the works of Irving, Longfellow, Doyle, Lowell, Harte and others. The drawing of Icabod Crane dancing (#12) focuses on a moment in the story when the odd, awkward and delusional school teacher achieves his goal—dancing with the girl of his dreams, Katrina van Tassel. Icabod Crane is not only out of his league as a matter of social class, but also his self-conception is completely at odds with what people around him see. Keller shows Crane dancing in a totally inappropriate way but lost in his self-absorption; Crane is completely unaware. The beautiful daughter of the local patroon is bemused but not unkind, yet clearly she does not see herself matched with the story’s hero. All of this is captured by the composition, mostly by means of the by-then old fashioned method of line drawing as a template for the engraver. But the scene has a more modern touch with the spotlighted couple as one of a roomful of couples each engrossed in their own stories and concerns.

Keller’s ability to home in on the emotional center of a scene can be seen in another work in the exhibition, a charcoal drawing which was one of a dozen illustrations for a serialized novel publsihed by Century in 1909-10. The picutre shows a man watching his wife sleep, while contemplating the state of their marriage, as she has been separating from him and their infant in order to meet the demands of her writing career. All aspects of the composition, including the grey charcoal gulf between the two figures, contribute to the sense of separation which registers on teh husband’s concerned face.

Among the others from the “golden age” included in the show are James Montgomery Flagg, Harvey Thomas Dunn, Mary Hollock Foote,  Frederick Remington, Louis Loeb, Arthur William Brown, Walter Appleton Clark and Maxfield Parrish.

The Mainstreaming of American Illustraiton: 1920-1945.

After the War, continued technological progress made color illustrations easier and cheaper, and illustrated magazines grew their audiences. But the primacy of the illustrator declined in two ways. First, before the rise of movies the illustrator provided the only visual medium for the masses and often achieved a celebrity status in his own right, sometimes greater than the author whose work he ws illustrating. That status declined with the rise of film and with the appearance of the new art editors who no longer deferred to illustrators in matters of composition (see Arthur William Brown’s take in Reed, p. 43).  The post-war era saw the rise of another major influence on American illustration, this one also reduced the independence  and individuality of the artist—advertising. Norman Rockwell, no less, testified to the pernicious effect of the large budget advertising agencies: “Its influence was a mixed blessing. To many illustrators, including myself, I feel that it was a corrupting one. The temptation of their big budgets took away the kind of integrity that earlier artists like Howard Pyle brought to their work.” Rockwell, however, thought that advertising agencies provided a “school” for young illustrators. Of course a school whose mission was to create illustrators who could sell products is not quite the same as the Art Students League.

12. Clancy made her way south across Washington Square by Dean Cornwell. Oil on canvas. 1920. NBMAA. Illustration for Arthur Somers Roche, “Find the Woman: A Novel of Youth and Mystery,” Cosmopolitan (December 1920), pp. 58-59.

The economic influences did not make themselves felt at first. In fact, Howard Pyle’s influence was still predominant in the 1920, even though he had died in 1911. Dean Cornwell, who was president of the Society of Illustrators from 1922 to 1926 and teacher at Pratt Instituted and then the Art Students League, absorbed the Pyle tradition from his own teacher, Harvey Dunn, a student of Pyle’s. Cornwell’s work was more modern, not just in moving away from adventure stories and Americana, but also in his more sophisticate color palette, a more subtle compositional sense and his attention to atmospheric perspective. His 1920 illustrations for Cosmopolitan (e.g., #12) strikes one as more painterly than the work of Pyle and Wyeth, more concerned with visual rather than narrative impact. Rockwell considered Cornwell’s addition to the tradition a “monumental style almost rococco in manner” (Reed, p. 82), but there is no unnecessary decoration or complicated design (perhaps Rockwell meant baroque). In fact, Cornwell’s work seems to me to be firmly rooted in American romanticism with occasional techniques borrowed from American Impressionism and Tonalism. After his success as an illustrator, Cornwell would study mural painting in England and go on the paint murals for the Los Angeles Public Library, the Lincoln Memorial in Redlands, California, the Tennessee State Office Building, the Warwick Hotel and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, "Peter Ashley," Woman's Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

13. Of the two, it was he who clung, she who sustained by Walter Biggs. Watercolor and gouache on illustration board. 1932. NBMAA. Illustration for DuBose Heyward, “Peter Ashley,” Woman’s Home Companion (December 1932), p. 26.

Two pictures from the exhibition showed that the 1920 and 30s were not entirely devoid of individual approaches. An ink and gouache drawing by John Held, Jr.  is one of his Arch and Magy cartoons depicting the exuberance of the Jazz Age. It is mostly outline drawngs with occasional solid fills of alternating foreground and background objects. An ink and wash painting by Henry Beckhoff, The Hillbillies (1934) for Collier’s, portrays the confrontation between backwoods farmers, fearful that their moonshining operation had been discovered, and a professor who was attempting to assist the government to bring them a more secure water source and better land. The elongated forms and the exaggerated expressions emphasize the humor in the situation.

In the 1920s and 30s American illustration in general, and illustration for the popular magazines in particular, gravitated to the then staple of popular culture (especially in magazines aimed at women), the melodramatic romance story. The illustration of Walter Biggs (#13) in the exhibition is a typical early example, Biggs was a successful illustrator but seemed more interested in his fine arts career for which he was elected to the National Academy of Design but obtained no lasting fame. As an illustrator Biggs often painted scenes of Southern romantic myth (the unreality of which is revealed by Ernest Watson’s statement (p. 37), evidently delivered without irony,  that “[n]o one, of course, can portray the colored folk with greater understanding.” Perhaps because his version of the Southern myth involved chivalry and ardent courtships, he was in great demand at Woman’s Home Companion (whose stories often told of strong-minded women and their passionate suitors). In any event, he sold almost all his illustrations to that magazine, and he always painted from models, never from photographs (Watson, p. 37).

14. [Love Scene] by Pruett Alexander Carter. Oil on canvas. ca. early 1940s. NBMAA. Unknown purpose.

By the 1940s more and more illustrators were being influenced by not only still photographs but also, and more importantly, motion pictures, which would become the the essential medium of popular culture.5 Carter’s unnamed love scene (#14) is composed much like what might be called a low angle two shot in movies. Carter’s first break was in New York where he illustrated Hearst papers. He returned to Los Angeles, where he was raised, around 1930 when he was nearly 40, although his chief occupation was still to provide illustrations for family and women’s magazines based on the East. The influence of Hollywood movies can be observed not only in the point of view but also in the lighting (which is #14 is vaguely from below the characters) and dramatic poses. Over time, however, his pictures became more more simplified, flat and often superficial, a characteristic he blamed on the inferior paper used by magazines in the 1940s (Hoppin, p. 41).

The influence of movies was felt in another way as well—the scenes were less “innocent” and less concerned with the well-to-do. Of course this had to do with the nature of stories that were selected for illustration, but the effect on illustration is noticeable. By 1942, however, the war would dominate all forms of popular culture.

15. The worst part was telling her father. "Who is the Man?" he asked. "I don't know," Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, "Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.," Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

15. The worst part was telling her father. “Who is the Man?” he asked. “I don’t know,” Lily said. by Ray Prohaska. Ink and oil on canvas. 1942. NBMAA. Illustration for Viña Delmar, “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.,” Good Housekeeping (April 1942), pp. 32-33.

The Prohaska illustration above (#15) is from a story written by novelist Viña Delmar, a writer who specialized in shocking or scandalous stories of women, one of which Bad Girl (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, c1928), became an immense best-seller and opened a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood for her. The story “Lily Hunter and the U.S.A.” begins with her heroine’s reflection on her own son, conceived out of wedlock during the last war by a soldier she met on Coney Island, a man she never saw again once he was mobilized. Her son is now a soldier in this second world war, and the story proceeds through her reflections and teaches her (and the readers) that the country, U.S.A., is in fact the father and husband of all women. Prohaska’s illustration is of the moment she tells her father of her pregnancy. He is tracing the troop movements on a map on the table, when she tells him she does not know who the father is. In the story there follows tense moments of silence. The scene, in which the father and daughter are separated by a table  on which the affairs of the world are traced, matters of little concern to Lily then, is explained with dialog selected to grab the reader’s attention and is spread across two pages at the beginning of the story.

16. One of the photos taken by Prohaska to use as a basis for painting #15. (Watson, p. 234.)

Prohaska had developed many of the skills used in movie-making to make such illustrations. He himself was adept at costume design (especially for women) and even could style hair. In this case he purchased vintage furniture dated in the 1910s from second hand stores and personally arranged the woman model’s hair. He staged the scene in a theatrical manner and then took 30 to 40 photos with his Contax or Rolleiflex cameras. Using the photographs he outlined his composition in ink, then laid in the light and dark areas with white and brown tempura, then painted the rest in transparent glazes and impasto colors. The technique was designed to give as the illustration as close to a cinematic feel as possible. It was precisely the opposite intention of a Golden Age illustrator like Walter Biggs who shunned photographs and insisted that only by painting from models could an illustrator fully translate his own art to the canvas. The economic and competitive pressures, as well as the branding of magazines, however, would put ever more pressure on the illustrator to see his job as part of an enterprise rather than an individualistic artistic endeavor.

One work on display at the New Britain exhibition, Smitty’s Diner by Warren W. Baumgartner (1943) struck me as to how interrelated cinema had become to all arts in America by the 1940s. In Baumgartner’s watercolor two men are seated at a diner counter, while the cook operating the grill is turned listening to one of the men. The painting evoked in me memories of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted the year before. Although the mood is different and the characters are not seen from the outside of the diner, the subject matter and the manner of illustrating them seems to owe a debt to Hopper, especially because it seems to give off a hardboiled feel to it. What makes this an interesting example of the intersection of cinema with American arts is that Hopper’s oil was based on Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which itself was turned into a movie directed by Robert Siodmak, which in turn relied on the sensibilities of the Hopper painting in several of the scenes in the diner.

Conformity and Departures: 1945-1960s and beyond

If illustrations are any evidence, then after the second global war America (at least the broad middle that consumed national magazines and print advertisements) was ready to inward and concern itself with mass entertainment and private concerns. Illustrated stories for women remained a mainstay for magazines, but women had gone through four years of dramatic change of circumstances and their status in society changed accordingly. Women were no longer characters who the fates acted on but became actors in their own right. Marriages were no longer seen as inviolable, even in Middle America. the excitement of such new freedom was reflected in the stories and illustrations found in even such conservative magazines as Saturday Evening Post. Austin Briggs plays with the sense of a woman’s new found freedom with his relatively emotionally static picture (#1), which depicts a model being posed for a photo shoot. The picture only becomes suggestive when paired with the title of Nancy Rutledge’s serialized novel, Murder for Millions. With the title and caption to the picture in mind, there are elements of the composition that become suggestive. Everywhere there are legs: on the camera, the tripod holding the fan, the ladder, the stepladder, and the legs of both figures. All, except the model’s, are splayed into a V pointing upward toward the model. What all this signifies can only be learned by reading the story, because, as Henry Pitz wrote (p. 24)the purpose of illustration is that customers are “stopping, reading, examining—buying.”

17. "Restrain," Regan cried. "I'm tired of restraint. There's more to love than waiting, Bill." by M Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration Christine Weston, "The Dark Wood," Ladies' Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

17. “Restrain,” Regan cried. “I’m tired of restraint. There’s more to love than waiting, Bill.” by M. Coburn Whitmore. Tempera on canvas. 1946. NBMAA. Illustration to Christine Weston, “The Dark Wood,” Ladies’ Home Journal (April 1946), pp. 46-47.

Whitmore’s illustration for Christine Weston’s serialized novel concentrates on a woman, Regan, who has much more assurance and considerably more willingness to act on it than any of the women in the other illustrations we have encountered. Regan is married to an army veteran who has returned from the war wounded. While he was away, Regan fell in love with Bill, and in the picture, the two are consulting a lawyer (out of sight, to whom Regan is looking at) and Regan is pushing for decisive action. Bill, however, is embarrassed by Regan’s directness and possibly also her loudness (we can barely see on the right another restaurant patron listening in). Bill is covering his face with his hand while he is listening to his lover. He holds her hand (although her’s is on top) to signify his support, but she is making her case to the lawyer not to Bill. The illustration thus provides the information necessary to attract the kind of reader who might read the novel. It was this talent, rather than any desire to forward the art of visual representation, that earned Whitmore repeated opportunities at the highest paying magazines and a five-year contract to do covers for Cosmopolitan.

By the 1950s a new phenomenon arose in the field of magazine illustration—an immediatel;y recognizable visual style associated with one publication. The magazine of course was Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrator who created the look was of course Norman Rockwell. The magazine and the illustrator were a perfect fit. The magazine had a long history dating to the nineteenth century but it was only in the mid twentieth century that it hit upon its formula for success: combine illustrated serialized stories that did not threaten middle class tastes with non-satirical single frame cartoons, add a political content that was decidedly conservative but not particularly analytical and package it all with comforting, nostalgia-laden pictures of pretty much the same sort (white children found in “cute” activities or poses, non-urban white adults, usually from the heartland, engaged in activities that hearkened to longstanding traditions or habits). Norman Rockwell came aboard in 1916 and was the pioneer of the Saturday Evening Post‘s style, which in its full-blown  manifestation in the 1950s might be called “American Sur-romanticism,” a capitalist counterpart to Soviet Realism. In Rockwell’s works, figures are infantilized, juvenile features emphasized and retained long into adulthood. For example, noses are generally shorter, snub, unless a figure is portrayed as quirky or humorous. (See for example the painting Rockwell made, entitled Weighing In, for the June 28, 1958 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which is part of the New Britain exhibition.) Figures often seem excessively rounded compared to a relatively flat background. But most important the scenes depicted are ones designed to elicit a warm feeling of nostalgia and comfort.

Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations are so familiar that it’s not necessary to discuss those shown in the New Britain museum.  In any event, just over 60 miles from the New Britain Museum is the largest collection of Rockwell work, in a museum dedicated to his work. But Rockwell’s pieces are quintessential illustrations, designed to prompt impulse buys, not study, because they are, quite frankly, eminently cloying. What is interesting, however, is how this style of illustration was taken up by others who provided covers for the magazine. It became an officially endorsed style, policed by the promise of future commissions. John Philip Falter became acquainted with Rockwell when he opened a studio in New Rochelle, New York, where Rockwell himself worked. Falter painted his first cover for Saturday Evening Post during World War II and he became a staple of the magazine after the war. His Boys and Kites, possibly his most famous cover (published in March 18, 1960 issue), the original of which is in the New Britain show, has all the hallmarks of Rockwell, except that it adds a midwestern background to it. Stevan Dohanos is the illustrator most represented in the New Britain exhibition, and he also followed the general Post style closely. His Fourth of July, Bridgeport (1947: cover illustration, July 5, 1947) shows an elderly wife fixing the color of the dress uniform of her World War I veteran husband (who is carrying a rolled flag and baton) while a World War II veteran waits indulgently; both are about to participate in a patriot parade. His Rained in Vacationers (1948: cover illustration, July 31, 1948) shows an extended family trying to amuse themselves on the porch of an old building (with an upstairs rental for vacationers?) while heavy rain falls around them. Like many of the Post covers, this one contains the ever reliable family pet. And yet there is one canvas of Dohanos which uses many of the visual tropes of the Post style to create the exact opposite message: Sometimes childhood is not a time of joyous exploration and some things learned were best not learned.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, "Come of Age," Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

18. Everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold onto (Heart Broken) by Stevan Dohanos. Tempera on board. ca. 1944. NBMAA. Illustration for Beatrice J. Chute, “Come of Age,” Saturday Evening Post (September 30, 1944), pp. 12-13.

As with the others of the Post-style illustration, Dohanos’s Heart Broken treats the non-human elements with a practiced simplicity, almost as if the grains of the wood and the blades of grass were design elements. The boy is dressed as one would expect a middle American middle class child to be and carries a large pen in his side pocket, a handkerchief half out of his back pocket and a death’s head amulet on a keychain. His left stocking has a hole just below h is knee pants. He is face down. We do not see his face, and as far as we can tell he might be playing hide-and-seek. But when we read the caption, we realize he is grieving. His arms cradle his head so that he can weep with abandon and block out all the world. The incongruity of the scene with the manner of illustrating it is the hook to lure the reader into the story, where we find that he has just learned on his way home that his brother has died in the war. This is perhaps the darkest use ever made of the Post style, and it is noteworthy that it was used for a story illustration and not a cover, because the subject violates all the marketing principles used by the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, old fashioned as the technique is and related to a conservative philosophy that wasn’t even true when it was being extolled, the painting draws in the viewer, which is the purpose of illustration and even has elements that are worth considering, which is not often the case with illustration.*

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn't keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, "No Visitors Till Noon," Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

19. Rules kept her from her husband. They couldn’t keep her visitor out. (Two Girls with Still Life.) by Joe De Mers. Oil, crayon and graphite on board. ca. 1963. Illustration for Dorothy Baker, “No Visitors Till Noon,” Saturday Evening Post (March 9, 1963), pp. 46-47.

The 1960s (which may have begun before that decade officially began) would do in the Saturday Evening Post, not because of the libel suit it lost, but because its view of American life was no longer interested in the sugar-coated conservatism of the early 1950s. De Mers’s illustration (#19) shows as well as any how illustration entered the Mad Man eara. Even before we consider the relation of the women, we see a scene where everything is up-to-date, “modern” according to the taste-makers of the day—advertisers. In the foreground is a table with sixties-style decanter and glasses as well as the ornaments of upper middle class ostentation. These items almost squeeze out the two figures of the story. The more central character wears capri pants and a yellow blouse with a collar that covers her neck. Her blonde hair completes the amber look of the woman who is backed by the yellowish wall. The other woman, who we see against the other, brownish wall is dressed in a short one-piece all black dress. with elbow length gloves, a black hat and dark glasses. The two women represented two poles in what passed for sixties chic. And that piece of information is enough to introduce us to the story in which the women become adversaries. All of this can be absorbed in a quick glance.

Of course the sixties would begin a process of experimentation that has not yet ended. Illustration, as much as most other art forms, became intertwined with domestic decoration, product design, technological necessity and consumer demand. Some arts were able to retreat into academic protection to maintain a freedom from commerce. Illustration, which depends on commerce, could not. So, at least based on the evidence from the New Britain exhibition, illustration remained representational, even though it borrowed techniques from contemporary fine arts. But all of that is beyond this post. You can judge for yourself at the exhibition.

So based on all of the foregoing, is there a way to evaluate illustration in a formal manner? Try as I might, I personally could not draw any larger conclusions except that each piece was subservient to the text or product it was promoting. Of course some art forms can support others: poetry, for example, can provide the basis of oratorios or lieder. On the other hand nothing associated with advertisement, whether music, illustration or film, really can rise above the product. But the New Britain exhibition demonstrates that several generations of very talented American artists lent their talents to lesser forms of creativity. The masterworks selected by the staff are each arresting in themselves. And when considered chronologically may in fact be genuine artifacts describing American cultural mores of a particular time. Is this art? Only the consumer can tell, now that we have become solipsists. The New Britain show at very least allows viewers to make up their own minds.

And there is an added benefit. The museum itself is a remarkable tour of American art. There is no place like it for a concentrated dose of the history of American visual art. And with that background, one is better equipped to decide how to appreciate American illustration.


1Steel engraving had existed since 1792 but was never used in printmaking, although it had specialized uses, such as for reproductions of art work or to produce illustrations on bank notes and securities. [Return to text.]

2In addition to Harper’s Monthly and Putnam’s Monthly, there existed another national arts and culture journal The Atlantic Monthly. The Boston brahmins affirmatively declined illustrating their articles and held out throughout the nineteenth century, although they printed illustrated advertisements after the Civil War. The illustrations for advertisements became so lavish by the early twentieth century that the policy against even tasteful illustration of the reading material seemed perverse. [Return to text.]

3Scribner’s Monthly launched its inaugural November 1870 issue calling itself “an illustrated magazine for the people.” A series of ownership changes and management crises after the death of Charles Scribner in 1871 eventually led to the sale of the magazine (and its publishing company) to new owners whose editorial direction was more upscale and cultural. The new magazine was called The Century Magazine. A 5-year non-compete agreement as part of the sale prevented the Scribner heirs from founding a magazine until 2886, when they commenced a monthly journal called Scribner’s Magazine. Collier’s Once a Week began in 1888 and by 1895 called itself Collier’s Weekly: An Illustrated Journal. McClure’s Magazine, an illustrated political and literary monthly began in 1893. The Gilded Age also saw the appearance of national magazines directly aimed at women. Women’s Home Companion started in 1873 and began including illustrations in the 1880s. Ladies Home Journal started in 1883. The two competed for what turned out to be a very large market through the mid twentieth century. [Return to text.]

4This is how the scene reads:

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the three figures reappeared from behind the sand hill, the pirate captain leading the way, and the negro and white man following close behind him. They had gone about halfway across the white, sandy level between the hill and the hummock behind which Tom Chist lay, when the white man stopped and bent over as though to tie his shoe.

This brought the negro a few steps in front of his companion.

That which then followed happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so swiftly, that Tom Chist had hardly time to realize what it all meant before it was over. As the negro passed him the white man arose suddenly and silently erect, and Tom Chist saw the white moonlight glint upon the blade of a great dirk knife which he now held in his hand. He took one, two silent, catlike steps behind the unsuspecting negro. Then there was a sweeping flash of the blade in the pallid light, and a blow, the thump of which Tom could distinctly hear even from where he lay stretched out upon the sand. There was an instant echoing yell from the black man, who ran stumbling forward, who stopped, who regained his footing, and then stood for an instant as though rooted to the spot.

Tom had distinctly seen the knife enter his back, and even thought that he had seen the glint of the point as it came out from the breast.

Meantime the pirate captain had stopped, and now stood with his hand resting upon his cane looking impassively on.

It continues in this manner. Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, pp. 110-11. [Return to text.]

5While the influence of motion pictures on illustration was first shown in illustrations such as Carter’s (#14) it was not long before reference to the framing by movies was explicitly recommended to illustrators. Henry Pitz’s 1947 primer for aspiring illustrators makes this point of movie techniques:

[The] ability to swing the camera (which is the beholder’s viewpoint) through every possible arc of vision, has opened up a whole new world of pictorial possibilities. It has released picture-making frm the normal eye-level viewpoint and stimulated the search for newer rhythms. Best of all, the American public, insatiable consumer of the films that it is, has become accustomed to the new viewpoints and craves the same things in its magazines. So diagonal thrusts, angular and eccentric rhythms, and bird’s-ey viewpoints have become commonplace in the new compositional vocabulary.

[Return to text.]


Anthony, A.V.S., Timothy Cole and Elbridge Kingsley, Wood Engraving: Three Essays with a List of American Books Illustrated with Woodcuts (New York: The Grolier Club, 1916).

Barr, Pamela (ed.), New Britain Museum of American Art: Highlights of the Collection, Vol. III: The Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, c2016).

Congton, Charles T., “Over-Illustration,”  The North American Review, Vol. 139, No. 336 (Nov., 1884), pp. 480-491.

Goodman, Helen, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring—Summer, 1987), pp. 13-22

Hoppin, Martha J., Love Story: Selections from the Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection, New Britain Museum of American Art, February 14-March 31, 2002 (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, 2002).

Pitz, Henry C., The Practice of Illustration (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1947).

Reed, Walt (ed,), The Illustrator in America: 1900-196o (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., c1966).

Watson. Ernest W., Forty Illustrators and How They Work (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., c1946).

White, Frank L., “American Book-Illustration,” The Connoisseur, Vol. 2, No. 1 (October 1887), pp. 33-35.

“American Proficiency in Illustration,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (September, 1859), pp. 154-157.

In addition I browsed through files of the following magazines: Atlantic Monthly, Century Illustrated MonthlyCollier’s WeeklyHarper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s WeeklyLadies Home Journal, Liberty, McClure’s MagazinePictorial ReviewPutnam’s Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Monthly and Woman’s Home Companion.

Why Love is a Little Boy (as explained by Propertius)

Eros evolved over time (much like humans themselves) by a process of neoteny (whereby juvenile features are retained into adulthood). The early Iron Age and presumably earlier (see Hesiod, Theogony, 120) had him as the fourth of the original, primal beings (after Chaos, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (whence Light and the Cosmos)), “fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.” Both Phaedrus and Acusilaus in Plato’s Symposium (178b) say that Eros was third, but agree with Hesiod that he had no parent. As an ancient deity he was involved in uniting the unruly forces of the primeval universe as well as inventing procreation, both essential for our production. He was, in short, a formidable Agency.

By Classical times poets had reduced Eros to a minor deity, but youthful and handsome, either bearing a bow with arrows (e.g., Theocritus, Idylls 23 [in English]) or with wings (Nonnus, Dionysiaca V:88ff [in English]). He no longer was the product of spontaneous generation, but his parents were not clear. Usually his mother was said to be Aphrodite by Ares (the same book by Nonnus), although fragments (including of Sappho) have him as the son of Iris, Gaia or Aphrodite by Ouranos. He is capable of inflicting desire on both humans and gods and he occasionally is mentioned in this connection, but it is not until Imperial Roman times that his own story with Psyche is recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass (Book iv, Chapter 22 [in English]).

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

It was in the Hellenized world after Alexander, however, that Eros became the chubby child Cupid represented in many works of art in various Hellenistic kingdoms, where children were a much more common subject than in Classical times. The small (15 ½”) terracotta statuette from Myrina shown in the recent Pergamon exhibition at the Met (which we reviewed) and seen at the right, is a particularly famous example, given its impish charm. The child god is hiding something behind his back with his left hand (the object has since disappeared), and he cautions someone with his right hand. He has a disrespectful or smirking expression on his face. Such insolence is never found on Classical representations of children, and the pose is certainly one that Classical artists would not try to reproduce. But Hellenistic artists were more interested in sui generis portraits representing intimate rather than abstract situations. The infantilization of Eros is an interesting example of how the Hellenistic world personalized and in some ways domesticated not only art, but also religion and common culture. It was a world not looking for Truth but rather diversion. Hellenistic poets did the same in literature.

Sextus Propertius (? ca. 50 B.C.E.–before 1 B.C.E.) wrote in Latin rather than Greek, and while he lived at the end of the Hellenistic period, he resided as an adult in Rome, not a Hellenized kingdom. But he modeled himself after the most important of Hellenistic poets, Callimachus, once a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.1 Propertius wrote four books of elegies. The first (published around 26 B.C.E. and titled in some manuscripts as Cynthia Monobiblos) mostly contained poems detailing his erotic obsession with a woman he calls Cynthia. Apparently that book made him immensely popular in Rome. The second book (published in 24 or 23 B.C.E.) describes his agony in Cynthia’s unfaithfulness and rejection. The third book (published in 22 or 21 B.C.E.) treats poetic topics other than just his love and by the end he finally breaks with her. The fourth (which is half the size of the other three, perhaps because he died before it was completed; it was published in 16 B.C.E. or later) shows that he outlived Cynthia but never really resolved the affair.2

Propertius was born in Assisi, in the modern Perugia of Umbria. (Assisi was later also the birthplace of the friar Francis, who venerated animals.) In his major autobiographical poem, what the ancients called a sphragis, the “signet” by which a poet gives his name and provenance (IV:i), Propertius implies that his wealthy father died when he was young, around the time that Octavian ordered the redistribution of land for his soldiers in 41 B.C.E. Propertius’s circumstances was thus diminished but he was not reduced to abject poverty as was Horace when his own father’s estate was seized. Perhaps his estate was treated more leniently because the Propertii were of equestrian rank (IV:i:131-34), whereas Horace’s father was a newly freed slave. Propertius says that he gave up study of law for poetry. He soon fell in love with Cynthia who dominated the rest of what we know of his life. By law, Propertius was unable to marry her because she was a prostitute (II:vii:7). and so he chose to remain a bachelor.

When in Rome Propertius was part of the circle of Maecenas, the wealthy minister of Augustus. But he was not economically dependent, as were Horace and Virgil. (The first book was dedicated not to Maecenas but to Volcacius Tullus, nephew of the proconsul of Asia, and Propertius treats him as an equal (I:i:9).) Yet Maecenas was a literary taste-maker so it was useful to curry his interest and even recite poetry in his great estate house. Whether it was envy of his wealth or independence or his middlebrow popularity, Horace took a dislike to Propertius, telling a correspondent that he had to stop up his ears to avoid hearing the second Callimachus (Epistles II:ii:87-104 [in English]). But it could simply be that Horace could not make the break from Classicism that the new Hellenistically-inspired taste demanded. In any event, Propertius’s poetic description of Cupid is a good example of how lightly tripped the lyrics of this new school and how easily the gods were treated, both things strange to those who studied to imitate the more austere masters.

Incidentally, the term “elegy” in Greek and Latin poetry is not the same as in English, where it describes a plaintive poem lamenting a death. In classical times an elegy was simply a poem written in elegiac couplets. In such a couplet the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (the epic meter used by Homer and everyone else describing monumental themes). The second line is in dactylic pentameter. The rules of prosody are a bit arcane and in any event can’t be reproduced in English. The basic idea is that the first line is made up of six feet and the second five. (The number of syllables in a foot, however, depended on the vowel quality of each syllable.) The effect is supposed to be of a rising cadence in the first line and a falling one in the second (something I tried to recreate using a simpler English meter). Propertius’s “domestic” poetry uses the form rather than the spirit of the elegy, as we can see in his Elegy to Cupid’s Image.

Elegia XII
from Elegiarum, Liber Secundus
by Sextus Propertius
(edition of H.E. Butler, Propertius, Loeb Classical Library
(Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Pres, 1912))

Quicumque ille fuit, puerum qui pinxit Amorem,
nonne putas miras hunc habuisse manus?
is primum vidit sine sensu vivere amantes,
et levibus curis magna perire bona.
idem non frustra ventosas addidit alas,
fecit et humano corde volare deum:
scilicet alterna quoniam iactamur in unda,
nostraque non ullis permanet aura locis.
et merito hamatis manus est armata sagittis,
et pharetra ex umero Gnosia utroque iacet:
ante ferit quoniam, tuti quam cernimus hostem,
nec quisquam ex illo vulnere sanus abit.
in me tela manent, manet et puerilis imago:
sed certe pennas perdidit ille suas;
evolat ei nostro quoniam de pectore nusquam,
assiduusque meo sanguine bella gerit.
quid tibi iucundum est siccis habitare medullis?
si pudor est, alio traice duella tua!
intactos isto satius temptare veneno:
non ego, sed tenuis vapulat umbra mea.
quam si perdideris, quis erit qui talia cantet,
(haec mea Musa levis gloria magna tua est),
qui caput et digitos et lumina nigra puellae,
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes?

Elegy II:xii
[translated by D.K. Fennell]

Whoever first painted Amor as a child
Had marvelous touch, don’t you think?
He saw just how childishly lovers behave
Forfeiting the great for the small.

He usefully added two fluttering wings
Divinely convulsing their hearts.
Indeed we are tossed on buffeted waves
Our wind never blowing one way.

And apt is he armed with aquiline shafts
A quiver from Crete on each arm,
Because we are struck without seeing our foe
A wounding from which one can’t flee.

Transfixed as I am with his darts and his form
But surely his wings have been lost.
Alas! from my breast he never takes flight
Instead he makes war in my blood.

What joy is there living within my dried heart?
Know shame; throw your darts somewhere else!
Much better to poison the ones still unscathed;
Not me, it’s my shadow that’s drubbed.

For if you shall waste me, then how shall I sing
(Though slight is my Muse, your glory is great)
Her head and her fingers, my lady’s dark eyes,
The delicate sound of her feet?

Text note: In line 18, other (better?) manuscripts have “puella” for “duella” and “tuo” for “tua.” A modern emendation is simply to replace them with “tela una.” In other poems Propertius plays fast and loose with diction and syntax so it is difficult to know precisely what he originally intended, although the general sense is discernible. In this sense his poetry contrasts with that of other Augustan poets, particularly Virgil.


1In III:i:1-2 Propertius writes: Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philitae, /  in vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus. (“Ghost of Callimachus and rites of Coan Philitas, / permit me, I pray, to enter into your grove.”) In IV:1:62-64 he writes: mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua, / ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Umbria libris, / Umbria Romani patria Callimachi! (“Hold out for me your ivy leaves, O Bacchus, / So that my books may make Umbria swell with pride / Umbria, country of Rome’s Callimachus!”) [Return to text.]

2In IV:7:1 Propertius recounts the visitation of her ghost: Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit. “Spirits are real: death is not everything.”) [Return to text.]

The Seductive Elegance and Startling Cruelty of Greece’s Baroque Age

Power, Pathos and Prestige in Pergamon
and Other Hellenistic Kingdoms

1. Head of Woman (the “Beautiful Head”). Marble. ca 200-175 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered at Pergamon (Terrace of the Great Altar) in 1879. As with all illustrations in this post, clicking on it will produce a larger version, and clicking on that version will produce a still larger one. (All illustrations in this post are of items displayed in the Met show unless indicated by an asterisk (*) before the illustration number.

The current show of Hellenistic Art at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition that will run until July 17, left me, the first time through, with an unsettled feeling. (I emphasize “first time” because, if you have time and energy, you will be compelled to view it again, the second time lingering over particularly haunting pieces.) On the one hand there is no doubt that the peoples who created and patronized this art were sophisticated humanists; they were in many ways (though not all) the inheritors of the intellectual and aesthetic tradition of Athens at the time of Pericles, as sterling a pedigree as any intellectual or art pedigree in all of history. It is also true any time a Hellenistic artist deviated from the principles of symmetry and compositional balanced developed by the classical Greeks, the sacrifice was a purposeful choice intended to draw the viewer into the work, often evoking a personal, emotion response of recognition, or empathy or identification. In addition, after seeing the nearly 200 items on display, it is difficult not to be convinced that the societies that produced these works were full of energy, confidence, belief in their own values and a marked fearlessness in the face of uncertainty that makes them entirely unlike ourselves, unlike what we have been for half a century at least.

However admirable the last point may be, it makes them alien to us, however appealing the art is. And there is another point of difference. Their sense of self-assurance seems to manifest itself in a kind of cruelty we recoil from. Not satire or demonization of overbearing superiors, but a kind of mean taunt or smug satisfaction in the fate of social subordinates, it is hard to to dismiss. It is as though the baroque aspect of the art indulged in excess exceeding the bounds of decency. It is a characteristic not at all common in classical Greek art, and while not characteristic of most Hellenistic works, it is common enough to influence how we understand their self-expressions. But more on that later. First an overview of the exhibition.

Pergamon and Hellenistic Kingdoms

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

The remodeling of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin gave the Met the opportunity to display nearly 90 of its items from the ancient site of Pergamon, which has been excavated by German archaeologists since the 1870s. The Berlin Museum was founded in the midst of the period of increasing European Great Power competition, which had already involved war between France and Prussia and would play itself out in a scramble for colonial possessions around the world as well as for allies to bank on in the event of a Great Power confrontation (which, to the great surprise of all the participants, actually did happen with catastrophic consequences). The Pergamon excavations were a chance to enhance German cultural prestige with a collection that could rival the ancient cultural treasures looted by the British Museum and the Louvre. In the Ottoman Empire, Germany found a willing partner. The Sick Man of Europe desperately needed a Great Power patron, and the two came to an arrangement allowing Germany to take away a large haul of stunningly beautiful artistic creations by a short-lived kingdom, that in its day devoted as much of its resources to artistic and scholarly collections as any state ever. The Germans took individual statues, statuettes, and large monuments. The most spectacular item of the haul, which exists now largely built into the walls of the Berlin museum, consists of architectural elements and friezes from the Great Altar of Pergamon, a structure so famous in the ancient world that centuries later the Christian Apocalypse referred to it as Satan’s seat (Revelations 2:12-13). Sculpture from that altar complex and one of the friezes (as well as oversized photos the spectacular Gigantomachy relief which followed the celebrant up the altar’s stairway) give the Met visitor a glimpse of what the acropolis of Pergamon must have looked like at its height.

3. Gallery of the Great Altar in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

In addition to materials from Pergamon, the Met assembled about 180 more items from almost four dozen other institutions. The show is a spectacular display of the best Greek art of the kingdoms that succeeded Alexander’s empire and includes statues, reliefs, figurines, jewelry, luxury goods and historically important coins from the time of Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E to the suicide of Cleopatra (the Ptolemaic Queen Kleopatra IV) in 30 B.C.E. (It also displays field notes and artwork of the German archaeologists who excavated Pergamon beginning in the 1880s). The collection shows just how exhilarating is the art that is now called “Hellenistic.” The items breathe not only life, but also the ambitions and despairs of a people who were heirs to, but fundamentally different from, their classical Greek forebears. Macedonian King Philip II and his son Alexander had ended permanently Greek self rule and set up in its place a form of eastern monarchy, which Philip justified as the way to save the Greeks from the Persians. Not all submitted willingly. The Athenians, who suffered a catastrophic loss to Philip, and still used every opportunity to revolt, honored Demosthenes [see #4], even after it was clear that he had led them to a bloody and bitter defeat, because the Athenians prized liberty over life, as Demosthenes unapologetically proclaimed in his Funeral Oration.

5. Head of Alexander I (the Great). The “Alexander Schwarzenberg.” Marble. ca. 20 B.C.E.-20 C.E. Glyptothek, Munich. One of several Roman copies of Greek original by Lysippos (?), ca. 330 B.C.E.

Perhaps it was the irrevocable shift from self-determination to monarchy that subtly permeated all Greek art from Alexander on. Charismatic, self-assured, decisive, Alexander held in thrall the most ambitious military leaders of his time, as the wars of his Successors (the Diadochi) would prove after his death. And yet he himself proved to be intellectually inclined and cosmopolitan. Was it his teacher Aristotle who instilled in him the confidence to trust his own counsel not only in matters of war and politics, but also in matters of art? Or was it simply his own self regard? In any event, Plutarch tells the story of how when Lysippos first carved Alexander’s likeness, it so impressed viewers (who saw it express a defiance of Zeus to keep to heaven because Alexander had claimed Earth) that Alexander decreed that only Lysippos was authorized to make statues of him because only he could “preserve his virile and leonine expression.” (De Alexandri magni fortuna aut virtute, 2.2.) For hundreds of years statues and statuettes of Alexander filled his former empire and Rome; for the Kings it was used to show their legitimacy, how their authority flowed from him. For others, his image probably represented the Fortune that never forsook his purpose. And perhaps in uncertain times (as was all Hellenistic times), Fortune would “rub off” from his likeness (Pollitt, p. 3). The likenesses deviated ever so slightly in intent from that of classical Greek art. Beauty was not the sole object, nor was emphasizing some abstract Platonic ideal, but rather self-expression was the goal.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

The art of Alexander and his immediate Successors was not only about self-expression. It was also, and mainly, about action. Military action was of course central to the art of the conquerors, and in those pieces physical movement, how the body functions, what it looks like in victory and subjugation, provides the fascination. While classical Greek statues portrayed bodies in motion, usually involving athletes or mythological figures, it was in the age of Alexander and afterwords that contortions, bodies pushed to the limits of endurance and even in the throes of death, became common.

7. Statuette of Resting Herakles (Anticiter-Sulmona). Bronze and sliver. 3rd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Villa Frigerj, Chieti. Copy of work by Lysippos (?).

Alexander supplied the Hellenistic age with artistic tropes and tokens other than military ones. There are numerous statuettes of Alexander hunting or riding, usually with animal skins. Inasmuch as Alexander associated himself with Herakles, Alexander is frequently seen hunting lions or with lion skin. (The first labor of Herakles was to slay the Namean lion, and Herakles himself is often seen carrying a lion skin [e.g., #7].) The Diadochi (the Successors of Alexander) followed Alexander’s model. Unlike the classical Greek portrayal of philosophers and statesmen as old and wise [e.g., #4], the Kings of the Hellenistic Kingdoms showed themselves as young, virile and clean-shaven. As for Herakles, he will show up again in Pergamon, not because the dynasts of that city were Diadochi, or even because they saw themselves as warriors in the mode of Alexander. If anything, they saw themselves as philosopher-kings or at least patrons. Herakles, however, was the father of the traditional founder of Pergamon, who we will see is celebrated in a famous frieze in the altar complex which was Pergamon’s principal monumental achievement. First it’s useful to put its achievements in historical context.

A Brief History of the Pergamon Kingdom

*8. The Aegean World in Early Hellenistic Times.

Pergamon is located at a site that would be improbable for a good sized-habitation, let alone a cultural center of historic importance. It was within the province of Mysia, the region west of the Troad (the province in which Troy was located), bordering on the Sea of Mamara to the north and the Aeolian province (with Greek settlements) to the southwest. Pergamon is about 24 km from the Aegean Sea and not on any trade route. It sits atop an extremely high promontory that is inaccessible on three sides and rises about 1000 feet above the surrounding plains (1100 feet above sea level). Its chief virtue was that it was easily defensible; it was a natural fortress (the meaning of its name). Its major disadvantage was that it required extensive terracing on its accessible southern side to accommodate a sizable population. The upper part was eventually formed (by years of building activity) into four terraces. On the highest was the living quarters of the rulers (and in imperial Roman times a temple dedicated to Trajan). The second level, about 30 feet lower, contained the temple and precinct for Athena, Pergamon’s patron. The third level, about 80 feet lower, became the site for the Great Altar. The fourth level, still 45 feet lower, became the upper agora. [See model, #22, below.] None of that work took place until after the death of Alexander, however.

There are no historical records describing the settlement or early history of Pergamon, or indeed the settlement of Mysia. Homer said that the “lordly” and “stalwart” people of Mysia were allies of Troy (Iliad2.858, 10.430, 14.512). There was also Greek classical lyric poetry concerning the legendary founder of Pergamon.1 As for historical records, Pergamon is first mentioned by Xenophon as his last stopping point in the retreat of the remnant of his mercenary Ten Thousand in 399 B.C.E.2

Pergamon fell from Persian control early in Alexander’s campaign, shortly after his victory in the Battle of Granikos River in May 334 B.C.E. He there installed Barsine, a Persian noble woman who became war booty and may have been his mistress and mother of his child.

9. Bust of Antiochus I Soter (?). Bronze. ca. 50-25 B.C.E. Meseo Archicologico Nazionale, Naples. This piece is a copy of a statue from the Hellenistic period and was excavated in 1755 from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Antiochus I was the son of Seleukos I Nicator.

After Alexander’s death, war broke out among the Diadochi (the Greek military notables who vied to be Successors to Alexander). Lysimachos, the Macedonian commanders who was appointed King of Thrace in 306 B.C.E., crossed into Asia in 302 to gain possession of certain Greek cities on the Hellespont. All of “Hither Asia” had been ceded to Antigonas in the Peace of 311, but when he died in battle in 301, the territories in Asia Minor (except Bithynia and Pontos) rapidly fell into the hands of Lysimachos. One of the early defectors to Lysimachos, Docimus, had in his employ one Philetairos, whom he evidently recommended to Lysimachos, because the latter appointed Philetairos commander at Pergamon. (See Strabo, Geography, XIII.4.1. In that passage Strabo notes that at the time the inhabitants of Pergamon were still living only on the very top part of the “cone” of the hill.) Lysimachos entrusted Philetairos with war booty in the form of silver coins, which were deposited in the fortress atop the Pergamon hill. (Lysimachos had at least three other hidden treasures of war booty, but this was probably the largest. Hansen, p. 14 n.5.) Philetairos served Lysimachos loyally for nearly twenty years. But then a series of court intrigues revolving around Lychimachos’s third wife, Arsinoë, resulted in Lysimachos executing his son by his first wife. This behavior (among other signs of irregular rule), of course, unsettled his subjects and allies and gave his opponents room to maneuver. Seleukos I Nicator (the Conquerer), Lysimachos’s Diadochi rival, seized the occasion, and Philetairos offered his services to him when the former went to war. Lysimachos fell to Seleukos’s forces at the Battle of Koroupedion [see Map, #8] in 281 B.C.E. With this Seleukos became the last living of the original Diadochi, but he was shortly thereafter betrayed and assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos (the Thunderbolt), who had been under Seleukos’s protection. Ptolemy Keraunos then seized the Macedon throne. Philetairos thus found himself ruler of Pergamon, though nominally under Seleukid rule, and Philetairos, quite fortunately, had Lysimachos’s large war booty at his disposal.

10. Herma of Philetairos of Pergamon. Pentalic marble. ca. late 1st century B.C.E. Museo Acheologico Nazionale, Naples. Roman copy (from Herculaneum) of Greek original ca. 250 B.C.E.

Using the silver Lysimachos entrusted with him (which amounted to 9,000 thalers of silver, an immense fortune), Philetairos began forging strategic alliances. Strabo (XIII.4.1) said that he opted “to manage things through promises and courtesies in general, always catering to any man who was powerful or near at hand.”3 Philetairos also used the funds to engage in significant urban improvement. The settlement was expanded, and the streets and roads were regularized. The temple and precinct of Athena in the upper acropolis was erected. Thirteen hundred feet south of that temple, Philetairos built another temple, this one to Demeter with its adjacent altar [see Plan #11 below]. With building on the lower acropolis, Philetairos had to expand the city walls and provide for defensive structures on the perimeters. Finally, and significantly, Pergamon added a large theater. The natural shape of the terraces in the area next to the plateau which would become the Great Alar (and raising above and descending below it) made for a natural seating area in something like a semi-circle. At first wooden chairs were placed on the existing levels, but during Philetairos’s reign stone seating was provided and a foundation supplied to make the seating area regular all around. On the stage a provision was made for a removable 122′ x 21′ scene building. The stage area was on a level 150 feet below the Athena precinct and on the same level as the stage was an altar and other structures. This building programme would be only the barest beginning of what was to come in the succeeding reigns, but the first ruler pointed the way and showed the ruler’s obligation to spend for public benefit.

11. Plan of Acropolis of Pergamon (Upper and Lower) before Imperial Roman times). From Hansen, between pp. 249-50. This plan includes all building through the end of the Attalid dynasty.

Philetairos was childless (possibly because, according to Pausanias (I:8.1), he was a “Paphlagonian eunuch”) and rule passed to his nephew Eumenes I (r. 263-41 B.C.E.), who set about heroizing his predecessor by putting his likeness on coins and having a heroic sculpture made of him [#10]. (By designating a successor Philetaros founded a dynasty, which was called, even by contemporaries, Attalid, after his own father, Attalos). These acts of sovereignty by Eumenes constituted a revolt against Seleukids’ dominion over Pergamon. The revolt was made good in 261 B.C.E. when Eumenes defeated Antiochus I near Sardis [see #8], and in the process expanded the state’s territory. His reign, however, was plagued from a different source—by plunder and marauding raids by the Galatians. Rather than fight them too, Eumenes used the same expedient as his neighbors; namely, to pay tribute to induce them to stop.

12. Galatian Warrior Crushed by an Elephant. Painted terracotta group. First half of 2nd century B.C.E. Louvre, Paris. Found at the Necropolis of Myrina.

The Galatians (or Gauls) (Γαλάται) were a group of nomadic, warring Celtic peoples from central Europe who having been repulsed in an attempt to invade Italy (around 390 B.C.E.), travelled through the Balkans and settled in Thrace around 280 B.C.E. The next year they drove through Macedonia killing its principal military leader and headed towards Thessaly. They were checked by a combined Greek force at Thermopylae. The invaders then marched toward Delphi and the Greek version has it that an assembly of Aetolian and allied forces only reached Delphi in time to prevent the invading Gauls from sacking the temple of Apollo. The Greeks repelled the nomadic warriors, who regrouped in Thrace. In 277 B.C.E. after sacking the territory of Byzantium, they crossed over to Asia Minor with the help of the Bithynians, who planned to use them as mercenaries. Once in Anatolia they wreaked havoc on their neighbors. It was Eumenes I’s successor who would deal the Galatians a crippling blow.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale--Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale–Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

Attalos I (r. 241-197 B.C.E.), according to Pausanias (I:8.1), “received the kingdom from his cousin [first cousin once removed] Eumenes, who handed it over.” According to Livy (XXXVIII.16.12-13), Attalos took a decidedly different approach to the Gaulic threat than Eumenes and others in the region (including the Seleukids)—he refused to pay tribute and instead engaged the Galatians several times and finally met them in force at the headwaters of the Kaikos River [#8], where he won a decisive victory. As a result, grateful coastal cities gave him the title “Soter” (Savior) to append to his name. More significantly, he took for himself on monuments the title Basileus (βασιλεύς), a Persian title for “King” used exclusively by Alexander during his life and only by the Diadochi right after his death. Even in Attica, however, the title could not be disputed, for the Gauls were deemed as insidious as the Persians, perhaps more so since they were, after all, barbarians. Attalos celebrated his victory with a spate of public building. Outside the city he built a temple to Athena, the “Victory Carrier” (Athena Nikephoros). In the central plaza of Pergamon, the Athena precinct on the top level [Plan #11], he set up a monument to the Battle of Kaikos River. And he made a sacred walk space from the gate toward the city center, which contained larger than life-sized statues of the defeated and dying invaders, including the Dying Galatian (the “Trumpeter”) [#14], and the stunning “Ludovisi Gaul,” showing a warrior, having just killed his wife, in the act of killing himself. That piece [#13], unfortunately, is not part of the Met show.   If the evidence of Roman copies of two of the figures are a fair indication, it must have been a spectacular promenade.

14. Dying Gaul. Marble from Dokimeion, Turkey. First century B.C.E. or C.E. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Roman copy (excavated from Vila Ludovisi, Rome) based on original Greek bronze statue of late 3rd century B.C.E.

15. Head of a Dying Woman. Marble from Asia Minor. First half of 2nd century C.E. Museo Palatino, Rome. Found on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Copy of Greek bronze, late 3rd century B.C.E. probably part of the “large barbarians” dedicaton by Attalos I at Delphi ca. 220 B.C.E.

The Kaikos battle was not the end of the Gauls or their threat to Pergamon. In fact an alliance of sorts took place between the Gauls and one faction of the Seleukids which formed after the death of Antiochos II under his younger son Antiochus Hierax. The combined armies of the Gauls and rebel Seleukids apparently chased Attalos to the gates of Pergamon, where he defeated them in the battle of Aphrodisium (Hansen, pp. 24-35). Attalos pursued and then defeated the Gauls further to the east, then followed the Seleukids, defeating them as they fled northward toward Bithynia, and then southward in Caria. Finally, in 228 B.C.E. Attalos drove Antiochus Hierax from Anatolia in a battle in Eastern Anatolia on the banks of Harpassus near Cappadocia, leaving him, Attalos, with most of Anatolia. Attalos celebrated this second defeat of the Galatians with monuments in Athens, Delos and Delphi. Between 226 and 223 a monument was erected in the Pergamon acropolis in Athens recording all the victories of Attalos, including the victory at Kaikos, the later ones over the Gauls and Antiochus Hierax and others. Some time later, perhaps when Attalos visited Athens in 200 B.C.E., the so-called Lesser Attalid Dedication was made. Pausanias (I.25.2) described the monument as consisting of four sculptural groups depicting: battles by Athens against the Giants and then against the Amazons, the Greek battle against Persia at Marathon and the Pergamon battles against the Galatians. Romans made marble copies of dead and dying Amazons, giants [#16] and Persians. The dedications at the other sacred sites in mainland Greece (such as the large head (9″) of the dying woman [#15]) probably took place in Delphi in 210 B.C.E. ten years after the large monuments of the Galatians were dedicated in Pergamon). Significantly, all the sculpture which has survived involve dead or defeated enemies and not any of the victorious fighters or commanders. Is this a quirk of preservation or was the enemy the sole subject of the monumental displays? If so, what does that show?

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

17. Kneelling Persian. Marble from Asia Minor. ca. Early 2nd century C.E. Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. Roman copy of bronze statue of early 2nd century B.C.E. Possibly part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

The fighting was not finished in Anatolia. Achaeus, a general loyal to the legitimate line of kings, was able to retake Seleukid dominions in Hither Asia. Achaeus not only drove Attalos out former Seleukid holdings but also took lands long belonging to the Attalids like Aigai and Myrina [#8]. Pinned up behind Pergamon city walls, Attalos only could count on the loyalties of Smyrna and a couple cities in the Troad. Achaeus then took a step too far: he turned on Antiochus III. Attalos and Antiochos made common cause until Achaeus was captured (and viciously executed and mutilated4). In the end, Attalos regained more or less his original dominions and subject states, and with Attiochus busy with troubles to his east Attalos looked westward and inserted himself into Greek affairs, began creating a naval fleet and allied Pergamon with Rome.

*18. The Political States in the Aegean ca. 200 B.C.E. before the Peace of Apamea. (Modified from Wikipedia.)

Rome became interested in Greece when Philip V of Macedon entered into an alliance with Hannibal (whom Rome was fighting in the Second Punic War). Rome offered its assistance to the Aetolian League (which Philip was also threatening), and the latter reached out to Attalos. Pergamon’s fleet probably engaged Philip in the battle for Aegina, for when Philip was driven out, the League offered the island [see Map #8] to Pergamon for 30 thalers of silver. The island was useful as a naval station, but Attalos probably also was interested in its antiquities. The war ended in a stalemate (except Rome prevailed on Philip to break the treaty with Hannibal). Further adventures by Philip in the Aegean brought Pergamon back into the fight, this time with Rhodes as ally. When Rome finally defeated Carthage, it returned against Philip, this time defeating the Macedonians conclusively at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly [Map #18]. Attalos did not live long enough to see the allied victory. At a war counsil he suffered a stroke while addressing the Boeotian negotiators in Thebes. Taken back to Pergamon, he died shortly before the decisive battle in 197 B.C.E. Just three years before, the Athenians made him one of the eponymoi and in 200 B.C.E. named the twelfth “tribe” (phyle: φυλή) of Athens, Attalis, after him, and included his portrait in the statues of phylai heroes in the agora.

Tetradrachms of Pergamon

19. Silver tetradrachms minted in Pergamon. a. 263-41 B.C.E.; b. 241-197 B.C.E.; c. 197-159 B.C.E. Numismatic Museum, Athens. All these coins portray Philetairos on obverse and his name (ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ) with seated Athena (identified by “A” under throne), armed with bow, spear and shield with Gorgon’s head on reverse.

Under Attalos’s successors, his sons Eumenes II (r. 197-159 B.C.E.) and Attalos II (r. 159-138 B.C.E.), Pergamon reached the zenith of its political power. Philip V, of all people, explained the success of the Attalid brothers as an example for his own sons: “though [Eumenes II and Attalos II] succeeded to but a small and insignificant realm, they have raised it to a level with the best, simply by the harmony and unity of sentiment, and mutual respect which they maintained towards each other” (Polybius, Histories, XXIII.11.7).  The brothers, in fact, were remarkably devoted to one another (Attalos II even refused Rome’s suggestion to depose his brother with Roman help). Eumenes at first continued their father’s strategic alliance with Rome, Eumenes acting as head of state and military commander, Attalos as subordinate military commander and chief diplomat. Pergamon supplied Rome and the Achaean League with both soldiers and ships for their War against Nabis of Sparta in 195 B.C.E. In return Rome sided with Pergamon in its war against the Seleukids, who became quite aggressive almost immediately after the death of Attalos I. (Antiochus III had aligned himself with Philip V after the first Macedonian War and goaded Philip into adventures in the Aegean which so alarmed Pergamon and Rhodes that they prevailed upon Rome  to intervene against Macedonia again. This was the Second Macedonian War which ended in 197 B.C.E.) The Romans inflicted a devastating defeat on the Seleukids in the Battle of Magnesia in eastern Anatolia [see #18] in 190 B.C.E., and the resulting Peace of Apamea in 188 B.C.E. gave all the Anatolian lands of the Seleukids north of the Taurus mountains to Pergamon (and the rest to Rhodes). Eumenes would soon enough fall out of favor with Rome, but since Rome did not rule its clients in Anatolia with an iron fist (as it would elsewhere), this meant for the time being that Rome would simply deny assistance or engage is diplomatic intrigue. When it was time to put down a Galatian revolt, Pergamon defeated them without Roman help much to the gratitude of coastal states, which in turn conferred the title of Soler (Savior) on Eumenes. Acting without Rome’s active approval complicated the life of any subordinate power but there was no rupture in their relations (Rome’s attempt to suborn Attalos II notwithstanding).

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

When Attalos II, at age 61, succeeded his brother (the son of Eumenes being a minor at the time), he was able to repair relations with Rome. He restored his brother-in-law Ariarathes V to the throne of Cappadocia. Attalos II added territory to his kingdom, and Ariarathes in turn came to Attallos’s aid in 156 B.C.E. when he was attacked by the Bithynians, who came dangerously close to storming Pergamon and desecrated the temple of Athena Nikephoros; they were successful in stealing the statue of Asklepios outside the walls. Attalos completed the building projects of his brother and added a few of his own, including a temple to Hera above the gymnasium [see Plan #12]. He probably also was responsible for the Little Donation of the Attalids [##16 & 17] in Athens, where he also build stoas as well as in the Anatolian city of Termessos.

Attalos II was seceded by his brother’s son, Attalos III (r. 138-33 B.C.E), who the ancient historians did not treat kindly. Justinus (XXXVI.4), for example, has him engaging in murderous rage against those he thought had harmed his mother and fiancée and then becoming a recluse. Many ancients record that he devoted himself to the study of natural history and medicinal plants, which he tested on prisoners (see Hansen, pp. 144-45). In any event, being without heir, he bequeathed the kingdom to Rome on his death.  The Republic made the kingdom its Province of Asia. Pergamon itself lost its central importance when the seat of government was transferred to Ephesos. It remained a health resort of sorts because of the cult of Asklepios, which had established a center for treatment (including the famous serpent therapy) outside the city walls as early as the reign of Eumenes I. Later, a temple was built for the emperor Trajan, but in the end, the inaccessibility and fortress-like remoteness of the elevated city, the thing that caused Lysimachos to select it for his fortune, the thing that made Pergamon important in the first place, was what caused its eventual decline.

21. Acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Thiersch. Pen and ink with watercolor on canvas. 1882. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Pergamon as Cultural Center

*22. Model of Pergamon Acropolis from Burn, p. 83 (“showing how the various buildings, complexes and levels are grouped and linked one with the next.”) labelled by dkf.

The brief golden age of Pergamon took place during the reigns of Attalos I, Eumenes II and Attalos II. Impressive as their adroit expansion of territory was, it would remain a footnote to an age where econoies were largely based on conquest and tribute. But the Attalid kings were renown in ancient times for their dedication to Greek culture not only in Pergamon itself but also in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. A 2nd century B.C.E. poet hailed their fame: “The glory of the Kings of Pergamon, even though they are dead, shall remain ever living among us.”5

The glory of Pergamon is evident in the art on display at the Met. But before returning to it, two other aspects ought to be noted. First, the city itself was something of a marvel of urban design. Alexandria was praised in ancient times (see, e.g., Strabo, XVII.1). But Alexandria’s prestige largely came from Alexander having founded it and from its becoming the resting place for Alexander’s body. And it is of course easier to design a city on a flat ocean port. Pergamon was built on an uneven height, but the builders took advantage of the challenges and made, over time, a striking design. Burn (p. 82) describes it:

23. Statue of Athena Parthenos. Marble. ca. 170 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered in Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon. Copy of mid-5th century B.C.E. chryselephantine sculpture by Pheidias in the Parthenon.

“As the city lies on a steep hill that rises suddenly from the surrounding plain, terracing was needed to accommodate the monumental new buildings and enclosures, and here it was employed to astonishingly brilliant effect. The main view of the city is from the west, dominated by the huge theatre sunk into the side of the hill. The arc of the theatre seems to rest upon the giant stoa set below it that both served the practical function of a retaining balustrade and provided a panoramic walkway for strolling theatre goers. The main terraces on which lay the other main public buildings of the city—the temples, the library and the altar of Zeus—radiated outwards from the theatre, and many of these structures too are defined and linked by stoas.”

Moreover, the building complexes were oriented in such a way to give optimal views of each other. All of them were decorated by marble-columned stoas, many of which hosted exquisite statuary. The nature of the public art was more like Athens than like Alexandria or Macedon. The Pergamon dynasts did not exhibit themselves as masterful warriors or oriental gods. Unlike the Ptolemaic pharaohs, the Seleukids and the Macedonians, the Attalids celebrated the Olympian gods, especially Athena, who was not only a warrior but also the deity of wisdom. The city was thus seemingly a living entity, a body unto itself. And the residents were part of that living polis, not subjects of military masters.

Second, the Attalids, during Pergamon’s golden age, were  ardently pro-Athenian. Their aesthetics were principally influenced by that of Athens in the time of Pericles. In the Met show, the 2/3 size copy (over 10 foot without the base) of the famous Pheidias Athena from the Parthenon (created three hundred years before the marble copy) greets the visitor entering the gallery of Pergamon and its arts. Eumenes II probably commissioned the work, which was placed in the precinct of the temple of Athena in the upper plaza of the acropolis of Pergamon. What remains of the statue corresponds closely with the Athenian original, including the birth of Pandora relief on the base. Only the helmet is slightly simplified. It is impossible to tell if all the accessories were originally similar. Perhaps, some (like the serpent signifying Athena’s status as protector of Athens) were omitted, in which case the image may have been repurposed to emphasize her function as goddess of wisdom and learning. This would have been logical given the the famous Library of Pergamon was connected to the Athena precinct.

*24. Map of the Upper Acropolis of Pergamon (with building through Imperial Roman times). From Hansen.

25. Triton (Acroterion from Great Altar’s roof). Marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,

It was during Eumenes’s reign (according to Strabo, XIII.4.2) that Pergamon founded its great Library. Accounts of it suggest it may have been the largest library in the Greek world, with more manuscripts than the Library of Alexandria and a better cataloguing system. Unlike Alexandria, Pergamon used parchment, rather than papyrus, for its manuscripts. (The term “parchment” derives from “Pergamon” because it was such a large producer of the skin-based books.) The collection must have been a source of great pride, but it was not collected simply for vanity. The Attalids actively sought scholars and intended the library for research. Attalos I made an unsuccessful attempt to lure Lakydes, head of Plato’s famous Academy and a philosopher whom Attalos had laid out a special garden for in Athens, the Lacydeum, but Lakydes declined, saying “statues are best seen from a distance.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IV.8.60.) Attalos, however, was successful in recruiting the historian Neanthes (the Younger) and the famous mathematician Apollonius of Perga, who produced a significant work on conic sections (Sandys, p. 151). Eumenes II also aimed for one of Athens’s pre-eminent philosophers and tried to entice the Peripatetic philosopher Lykon, but he also declined. He then offered the position to Krates of Mallos, who accepted. Nagy (p. 214) quotes a witticism that “[t]he Stoics came, and so the Stoa accepted what the Academy and Lyceum had declined.” The ancients tended to deprecate the scholarship of Krates, the Stoic, especially when compared to Aristarchos of Alexandria. Aristarchos devoted full time to editing Homer. As a Stoic Krates was especially interested in Hesiod, but work on Homer was considered the more prestigious. In fact, he was considered the font of all wisdom. Varro (De lingua latina, 8.23 and 9.1) is responsible for the conventional view that Krates used the critical tool of “anomaly” in teasing out the “correct” Greek of Homer, while Aristarchos applied the opposite principle of analogy. A belief also arose that as a “good Stoic” Krates sought an allegorical interpretation of Homer. Nagy argues that their approaches were more nuanced. Krates, however, inclined to retain the text of lines he believed spurious (with appropriate marginalia annotations), while Aristarchos often simply excised them. Krates’s Homer therefore tends to be more inclusive and larger than that of Aristarchos. Nagy argues that as an editor and critic of Homer, Krates at least rivaled Aristarchos.

*26. Scene of Athena subduing two giants; part of Frieze of the Great Altar. Installed in Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

However that rivalry may be, the arrival of Krates came around the same time that the Great Altar [#2] was being built (Kastner, p. 140). The altar itself was the kind of monumental architecture that Pericles would have approved. Its immense stairway was surrounded on three sides by a base which contained a very high relief of the Gigantomachy—the story of how the gods of Olympus defeated the Giants and saved our world from chaos. The stairway led to a flood on which the altar proper surrounded on three sides by porticos containing statues. The roof of the porticos also supported statues of  deities, horses in quadrigas and mythical creatures. On the courtyard wall were reliefs of scenes from the infancy of Telephos, legendary king of Mysia.

*27. Okeanos driving Giants up the stairs of the Great Altar. Pergamon Museum.

The Gigantomachy frieze around the Great Altar is a masterpiece of Hellenistic relief. The planners of the altar undoubtedly knew that the work would be significant, because they not only inscribed the names of the gods (above) and giants (below) in each scene of the work, but also the name of the sculptor who produced the scene. Each scene is firmly rooted in Greek classical principles of composition. Take, for example the scene involving Athena [#*25]. The arrangement of figures follows the geometric form of a triangle and reminds one of Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite from the East Pediment of the Parthenon, now at the British Museum. But while the statues from the Parthenon give a sense of order and calm (no matter what is being depicted), the Pergamon frieze is one of continual action. The frame seems to be moving in a clockwise manner as Athena pulls the hair up of one giant with her right hand and the other giant is being forced down. The faces and bodily contortions of the giants show their agony, the one on our right is shown trying to hold the goddess’s arm to prevent further harm. The serpent legs of the giants are writhing uselessly while on our right the eagles of Zeus are coming to further torment the enemies of order. The frieze has over a hundred figures, each larger than life, and each one participating in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat rendered with the highest technique. The scenes are so engaging that it is impossible to resist the elegant design and the dramatic narrative. But the artists took the effect one step further. In places the figures come so far out of the block that they appear to be entering “our” world. On the stairway for example, as Oceanus is forcing two giants forward, one has a knee resting on the step [#*27].

28. Relief of Herakles finding his son Telephos nursed by a Lioness. Proconessian marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. From courtyard of Great Altar, Pergamon.

Unlike the art which sought to duplicate Athenian classicism [such as #23], the art of the Great Altar explores new manners of expression, emphasizing movement, promoting surprise and attempting to make the viewer experience a connection with the characters or respond to the drama or theatricality of the scene. Even when the subject is not frenzied activity, the bodies are often shown in positions unlike the formal posture of the classical figure [see, e.g., #22, above]. For example, the relief of Herakles discovering his son Telephos [#28] is one several scenes of the birth and childhood of Telephos. In this one block, Herakles rests on his club with one leg crossed in front of him. The posture shows how the muscles throughout his body are either tensed or relaxed. Telephos is being suckled by a lionness when Herakles finds him. The usual story has the infant being nursed by a hind, but evidently the artist here thought that the juxtaposition of the nursing lioness with the skin of the Namean lion Herakles killed [see also #7] created a contrast that provoked thought (a characteristic of the Baroque stage of Hellenistic art). The viewer has been promoted by this art from a mere spectator, an admirer, to a participant, one whose attention must be engaged.

29. Head of Karneades. Marble. Late first century B.C.E. Antiknmuseum Basel und Sammlung, Ludwig. Roman copy of Greek bronze ca. 120 B.C.E. The Greek original stood in the Agora of Athens near the Stoa of Attalos.

But engaged for what? Is there a lesson in the frieze of the Great Altar, and, if so, what? Pollitt (pp. 81-82) says that it sets Pergamon up as the Athens of the East, as the force to quell the chaos of barbarian Asia. Erika Simon sees it as a philosophical allegory influenced by Krates’s Stoicism. Krates, for example, allegorized Zeus as Ouranos and Helios. This would explain why the Titans were fighting on the side of the Olympian gods. Kleanthes in his Hymn to Zeus makes Zeus the enforcer of rational order. And on the frieze, Zeus is seen on each side, except the one representing Hades where order is abandoned. The deformity of the giants (with snakes for legs, for example) is consistent with the Stoics’ belief that passion (the cause of chaos) is a deforming disease. I am not sure a close allegorical correspondence is necessary, however. The art is on such a high level that the viewer can supply his own context, based on his own belief system. The ability to engage the viewer as a participant makes narrative explanation unnecessary.

Theatricality, Novelty  and Shock in the Baroque

Once you see the theatricality of the Baroque aspect of Hellenistic art, you notice it in all the work of Pergamon which is not a strict copy of a classical original. The Beautiful Head [#1], for instance, tilts her head and opens her lips slightly, as though she is about to speak to us. The fleshy cheeks of the Dying Woman [#15] are contorted by her curled lip to create an impression of immense despair. The head of the philosopher Karneades [#29] is slightly titled and his arched eyebrow, wide open eyes and parted lips give the impression of someone in rapt attention.

30. Small Heads with Theater Masks. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

The theatricality of the art should not be surprising given how central (and long standing) the theater of Pergamon was to city life. And theater was widespread throughout the Hellenistic world.. The fact that small (3″ high) terracotta heads wearing masks [#30] were found in a tomb in northwest Asia Minor suggests that theater was a personal and important experience for the public. Hellenistic theater, like Hellenistic poetry, was far more intimate than classical theater. Tragedies were largely declamations and dance illustrating a myth presented abstractly to teach a philosophical or religious point. Classical comedy was satirical and topical, mostly related to the politics of the time. With Menander (ca. 342/41–ca. 290 B.C.E.) comedy became situational and centered on commoners. The plots were often formulaic and pandered to middlebrow tastes. But unlike classical comedy, emphasis was placed on characterization (albeit stereotypical) so that the audience could respond directly to the predicaments the characters found themselves in rather than as mere spectators to events beyond their control. The copy of the Athenian statue of the playwright [#31] was one of seventy found throughout the Hellenized word, and they testify to the popularity of the writer. His epigrammatic sayings were so widely disseminated that one ends up in a Pauline Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:33).

32. Emblema of SItinerant Musicians dress in New Comedy masks. Stone mosaic. 2nd-1st century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. From Pompeii.

Lyrical poetry also became more personal, more concerned with temporal rather than rather than moral or metaphysical questions. Lovesick shepherds prevailed. Kallimachos (Callimachus), a scholar at the Library of Alexandria and influential lyricist of the era, actively advocated for poets to move from the epic and political to the small and personal. From his fragment Aetia:

“[T]he Telchines, who are ignorant and no friends of the Muse, grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines on … kings or… heroes, but like a child I roll forth a short tale, though the decades of my years are not few. … Begone, you baneful race of Jealousy! hereafter judge poetry by [the canons] of art, and not by the Persian chain, nor look to me for a song loudly resounding. It is not mine to thunder; that belongs to Zeus. For, when I first placed a tablet on my knees, Lycian Apollo said to me: ‘… poet, feed the victim to be as fat as possible but, my friend, keep the Muse slender. …”

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx om hp;f dryyomh. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx in gold bail. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The celebration of the personal (they might have said: the personal is poetical!) is seen especially in the luxury art. There are the usual items of ostentatious jewelry, necklaces, hair pins, diadems, pendants and one spectacular pair of gold serpentine arm bands that terminating in the bottom (the distal end?) with a sea monster and at the top in a male and a female triton. But two items especially struck me. The first was a royal (Ptolemaic) cameo from the early third century B.C.E. [#33]. The piece is an extraordinarily rendered portrait of the royal couple in dazzling onyx. But more interesting is how the composition portrays a perfectly serene and nearly matched couple, Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II, who were brother and sister before they were husband and wife. Their family relationship gives them nearly identical appearances. Although Ptolemy is fitted out as a warrior general, with a helmet sporting a serpent  and a portrait of Ammon on his neck guard, the portrayal resembles nothing like the heroic portrayals of any of the original Diadochi, of which his father was one, and perhaps the half-brother of Alexander himself). Arsinoe II wears the head covering of a bride, and this stone might have been carved to celebrate the couple’s wedding. Whatever the occasion, this piece is unmistakably “heterodox” in terms of classical aesthetics only one generation removed from Alexander.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

The second particularly striking piece of personal/luxury art in the Metropolitan show is a head of a mature man in a kausia [#34]. Of course the inlaid metal/mineral eyes immediately attracts attention, but a close inspection of the man’s face shows a spare beard of a few days’ growth. Although the kausia, a headwear designed to protect against cold, is sometimes seen in Hellenistic coins, it is unique among statues of warriors or rulers. A number of features point toward the conclusion that the man is Macedonian, and some have speculated that it might be of Philip V. If so, this item shows how far the Greek Baroque had by that time affected portraiture of men presumably interested in projecting power and authority. The gaze is fixed, and this possibly is designed to substitute for the youthfulness and vigor of earlier portrayals of Hellenistic kings. The figure conveys a sense of realistism, at least one step away from the idealized versions of Alexander and the Diadochi.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

The luxury items of the rich and powerful tended towards ostentation, on the one hand, and self memorial, on the other. For the less well off statuettes were available that veered into the grotesque. The Met show has two: one is a statuette of an old woman, the other is one of an emaciated youth [#35]. As for the latter, a recent medical opinion is that the young man is suffering from chronic lead poisoning. These two figurines belong to a subset of late Hellenistic art which Zanker (p. 125) lists as “boy-jockeys, old boxers, poor fishermen, drunken old women, dwarves, cripples and grotesques.” What could these images have meant to their owners? Did they provide humor (as Zanker suggests)? It is hard to imagine however, how having a severely diseased image could provide entertainment, no matter how decadent one imagines the society that produced them. Some new concept was aimed at, since such figures lay outside the boundaries of classical Greek art. According to Dasen (pp. 165-66):

“Greek artists, like Egyptians, had little interest in showing human physical anomalies. Monsters are usually composed of human and animal elements, otherwise normal when looked at separately. … [O]nly satyrs may have slightly unusual bodies, obese, acromegelic or hunchbacked. … [O]rdinary humans are very rarely individualized by physical deformities, apart from marginal figures, such as highwaymen or foreigners.”

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

The Met exhibition also has three renderings of dwarves. One, a late Hellenistic statuette now in the Louvre, probably was an object of merriment and ridicule, because it shows the man carrying a rooster which has planted one claw into his groin and had clamped its beak on the man’s lip. Another, a late Hellenistic or early Imperial Rome bronze statuette now in the Princeton University Art Museum, shows a dwarf jauntily carrying a small antelope across his back, his tunic failing to cover his disproportionately large penis. The third [#36] appears to me a representation of a dwarf as entertainer dancing. Dasen (p. 247) explains the difference between classical Greek and Late Hellenistic and Roman treatment of dwarfs:

The acceptance of dwarfs in Egypt and classical Greece contrasts with the centuries of exclusion which followed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when attitudes to physical malformation changed drastically. … The uneasiness created by their appearance still provoked rejection, but it was counterbalanced by laughter. All kinds of deformities, including cretinism and severe disorders, appear in a wide range of works, from small terra cotta and bronze statuettes to wall paintings and mosaics. … Dwarfs are shown with an exaggerated realism, often with additionally grotesque features, such as overlarge genitals, and grimacing faces. Many dwarfs earned a living by exhibiting themselves as entertainers in shows which staged, for example, fights between pygmies and cranes [see Iliad III:1-9]. Western Romans and emperors delighted in them, as later Europeans did.”

Levi gives another example of the use of dwarf iconography in late Hellenistic times. In a building at Jekmejeh near Antioch the second story contained an emblema of an evil eye being attacked by a number of weapons and animals. As a dwarf is walking away from it, his overly large penis, wraps between his legs and faces the evil eye. Levi (p. 225) speculates that this is an example of ἄτοπία, the principle of “unbecomingness.”

“Beings with a funny appearance or in which some obscene details are accented are good apotropia, as well as normal beings represented in indecent attitudes, making vulgar gestures or noises. Behind this magic conception, perhaps, lies something more than what is generally explained; more than a simple popular trick in order to avert the demons’ attention from their evil purposes: laughter is the opposite pole of the anguish produced by the dark forces of evil; where there is laughter, it scatters the shades and the phantasms. The magic papyrus of Paris … expresses this idea in the most expressive terms, by saying when the Creator laughed, for the first time, light was created. … Dwarfs and pygmies are especially fit to be used as ἄτοπία because of certain shocking disproportions in their bodies, appearing also in other representations beside the magic ones.” [Footnotes omitted.]

The superstitious use of dwarf images for magical and prophylactic purposes has the hallmarks of sources which the Greeks would call “barbarian.” But where did the revulsion and the ridicule come from? Did the baroque nature of the art, constantly pushing for more discordant contrasts, force wider the bounds of acceptable depiction? (Is this what we have seen in the twentieth–twenty-first century C.E.?) Or did the mixing of cultures that began with Alexander’s conquests inevitably lead to the need to create “others” to remind the “us” of our status especially in times of distress? (Is this another phenomenon we have seen?)

37. Hermaphrodite and Satyr. Marble. 1st century C.E. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia. Roman copy of Greek bronze (?) original in 2nd century B.C.E. Discovered at villa at Oplontuis at the foot of Vesuvius.

Whatever the explanation, we can see the the boundaries of decency pushed to their ancient limits in the final gallery where we see Rome as a Hellenistic-influenced city. There we find the nude female body (first introduced in post-classical times), in the form of a marble Aphrodite from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, not simply an object of beauty, but also an object of erotic desire. It is not far from there to the depiction of the sleeping hermaphrodite from the Met’s own collection—an object initially of erotic attractive from  behind, but one of surprise and possibly mirthful shock when viewed from the other side. The final step in this process of decadent eroticization is seen in the statue of the hermaphrodite fending off the attempted rape by a satyr [#37]. Here a deformed creature is portrayed as lustfully and violently pressing himself on a human that belongs to no “natural” sex. Not only does the work violate several of the “rules” that governed classical art, it seems also to show that art could be appreciated not only by how it conforms to “rules” but also by how it breaks them.

Regardless of one’s feelings about what the subject matter says about the patrons of such art, it is impossible to fail to be amazed at how the three dimensional composition of this work as well as the technical mastery required to produce two figures in such physical contortions. Both of these considerations are considerably beyond the conceptions of Athens during the classical period. And neither would be seen again for nearly a millennia and a half.  Whatever combination of Greek seed and foreign soil that Alexander and his followers sowed, the result was three centuries of art of imagination and quality at least equal to any other period of history. And the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation is a superb introduction, not to be missed if at all possible.


1According to Pindar, Telephus was king of Mysia when the Achaeans landed there mistaking it for Troy. Because he was most like his father Herakles, he was able to repel them. (Olympia, ix.12; Isthmian v.12.) Dionysus, however, caused him to trip over a vine, allowing Achilles to wound him. (Isthmian, viii.109: “Achilles, who stained the vine-covered plain of Mysia, spattering it with the dark blood of Telephus … .”) Telephus died from the wound. [Return to text.]

2Xenophon had gone to Pergamon to meet up with the Greek mercenaries who had assisted Cyrus in his expedition against his brother, the Persian King, and were now intending to join Thibron, a Spartan who had come to Asia Minor in force to free the Greek cities.
At Pergamon Xenophon met the the widow (Hellas) of a Greek defector, who was sympathetic to the Greek cause, and she suggested that Xenophon raid the estate of a wealthy Persian neighbor. The sons of Hellas came to Xenophon’s aid when surrounding areas came out against him, and eventually Xenophon obtained the treasures he was after along with the Persian family as his prisoners. Xenophon’s forces and Hellas’s sons then joined Thibron. (Anabasis, VII 7.57 & VII 8.7-23Hellenica, iii.1.6). After the end of Greek-Persian hostilities in 386 B.C.E., the Persians regained control and punished those dynasts and cities that aided Xenophon and Thibron (Hansen, p. 10). [Return to text.]

3Indeed his monetary “courtesies” were widely bestowed, such as to such far flung cities as Greek Pitane (he paid part of the debt owed to Antiochus), Aeolian Aigai (his contribution was reflected in a dedication to the Apollo Chresterios) and Kyzikos on the Sea of Marmara [#8] (over a five year period he gave significant sums to pay for such things as games, horses for defense, troops to protect against the Galatians, etc.). Inscriptions in mainland Greece also give evidence of substantial contributions by Philetairos to various temples (Hansen, p. 19). [Return to text.]

4Polybius, Histories VIII:23: “… the council met, and a long debate ensued as to what punishment they were to inflict upon Achaeus. Finally, it was resolved that his extremities should be cut off, his head severed from his body and sewn up in the skin of an ass, and his body impaled.” [Return to text.]

5Pseudo Scymnus in [Heinrich Theodor Dittrich (ed.)], Scymni Chii Periegesis quae supersunt. Recensuit et annotatione critica instruxit B. Fabricius (Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B.G. Teubneri, 1846), p2, lines 16-18, which can be viewed at Hathi Trust. There is, unfortunately, no English translation of this poet who seems to have flourished around 150 B.C.E. [Return to text.]


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