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Why the Renaissance and its Art Were More Controversial Than We Think

Madonna della Misericordia by Fra Bartolomeo, 1515


In this article, Bob Duggan discusses how Renaissance Art redefined culture by overturning dogma and challenging religious notions, sometimes vain but always intriguing. Based on the book The Controversy of Renaissance Art by Art History professor Alexander Nagel he explains how Humanism deeply influenced artists of the day yet were criticized for being superficial and distracting people from the intended message. The Art triumphs ultimately after the fall of Savonarola's radical puritanism and paves the way for artists to explore ideas and concepts within the scope of religion and Neo-Platonism that changed the world.

Pittoni's Venetian Flair

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, ca.1726


Born June 6, 1687 in Venice, Giovanni Battista Pittoni was a late Baroque/early Rococo painter. Pittoni enjoyed a popular career throughout Europe both as an artist and restorer, and at the age of 71 he became the second president of the famous Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia whose alumni include not only Tiepolo but Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Francesco Hayez, and Antonio Rotta among others. Pittoni's work is characterized by grand gesture, strong, dramatic figures and of course, being Venetian, a bold palette of beautiful colors.

Look at The Rest on the Flight into Egypt above and we immediately see two interesting things: a low viewpoint, where our eye level is right about at baby Christ's yet intersects the waistline of Joseph and just below the neckline of Mary, and second, dynamic figure placement that focuses on Mary and Joseph more than baby Jesus. I love how Joseph is portrayed in true Humanist style, sculptural and stron…

The Sensuality of Corrado Giaquinto

Allegory of Peace and Justice, 1754


Born on February 8, 1703 on the eastern coast of Italy, Corrado Giaquinto was a Rococo painter. His early training was under Neapolitan Master Francesco Solimena, then Giaquinto worked mainly in Rome, under another Neapolitan great, Sebastiano Conca. During this time he moved between Turin and Madrid where he received important commissions including Church frescos, alterpieces and a ceiling in Turin. Giaquinto marks a period in Italian Art where the elegance and sophistication of the Baroque leaned toward a more sensual liberty that would ultimately never quite return again. His work reflects the influence of his Neapolitan Masters yet also reveals a certain French sensibility in terms of colour, as he was sometimes referred to as an Italian François Boucher. Giaquinto however, has a drama that is particular in that his Baroque roots remain intact despite the grace he conveyed.

In Allegory of Peace and Justice above, he uses an incredible, vibrant p…

The Greatness of Erasmus

The Birth of the Virgin, ca.1660

Born on November 19, 1607 in Antwerp, Erasmus Quellinus II was a Flemish painter and engraver who worked under Peter Paul Rubens. Erasmus came from a family of artists that profoundly influenced Flemish Baroque in the 1600's. Unlike Rubens, Erasmus had never been to Italy and so his style evolved from the influence of Rubens and others around him, including his brother, sculptor Artus Quellinus II. Although the influence of Rubens is very strong—sometimes easy to mistake—Erasmus developed into a deeper Baroque sensibility with less emphasis on color and sensuality and more on chiaroscuro and architecture. Today little is mentioned about Erasmus, especially in that he worked with Rubens for less than ten years yet became a major painter in the years after Rubens' death in 1640.

In The Birth of the Virgin above, we can see here that the cluttered confusion of this composition doesn't quite have the flow and grace of his Master, Rubens. The fi…

Tarbell, The Quiet Master

A Girl Crocheting, 1904

Edmund Charles Tarbell was born on April 26, 1862 in northern Massachusetts. Tarbell studied in Boston and trained in Paris under Jules Joseph Lefebvre where he learned the Academic rigors of Classicism in the late 1800's, and while studying in the museums he was also inspired by the French painters of Impressionism. This new approach to color and light would have a profound influence on his work. Tarbell would synthesize this soft brushwork with his Classical training into his own distinctive aesthetic of mood, light and silence while capturing his American era. While most of his contemporaries painted both in plein air and interiors, Tarbell painted mostly quiet interiors with pensive women that is unique in that his brushwork is breathtaking.

In A Girl Crocheting above, Tarbell uses a dimly-lit window as his light source for a woman crocheting. Note the loose copy of Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X on the wall. Her chair seems to echo similar ornat…

Joseph DeCamp, Impressionist Poet

The Cellist, 1908

Joseph DeCamp
was an American painter born in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 5, 1858. Having studied in Europe he returned to America where he worked under the Boston School with artists such as William McGregor Paxton, Edmund C. Tarbell and John Joseph Enneking among others. Later on he would form a group of American Impressionists known as the Ten American Painters, including artists such as Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, John Henry Twachtman, and once again Edmund C. Tarbell. DeCamp's work is characterized by the Tonalism of predominantly women in deep shadows, vibrant color, elegant body language and pensive mood.

In The Cellist above, DeCamp's palette is monochromatic yet he makes effective use of highlight and texture to convey his mood. Dry brush and warms illuminate the wall behind her, where the shadow side has traces of violet scumbled on top of grey and yellow tones while the bright side is smoky white. This technique continues along the shoulder an…

William McGregor Paxton, American Master

In the Studio, 1905



Born on June 22, 1869, William McGregor Paxton was an American painter from Baltimore. Paxton was a founding member of the Boston School from the early 1900's, which drew its inspiration from Impressionism with an emphasis on both the landscape and the upper-class society of Boston. Paxton's prestigious training included working under Jean-Léon Gérôme and Joseph DeCamp, leading him to teach at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, where he met a student and future wife, Elizabeth Okie Paxton. His style was deeply influenced by Vermeer and he often paints interiors with soft, dramatic light. Paxton was a poet in the way he captured the elegance and grace of women in his era.

Looking at In the Studio above, Paxton portrays himself and the model as subjects bathed in warm afternoon sunlight coming from a window. I love the reflection of the glowing fireplace shimmering across the floor. Paxton creates depth by composing the model in the foreground with him…

The Polish Classicist

Christian Dirce, 1897

Henryk Siemiradzki was a Polish Academic painter born on October 24, 1843. After studying painting in Russia and Munich he moved to Rome in his late twenties, where he would be known for his very large-scale paintings that rival Rubens in terms of sheer size. Siemiradzki (pronounced ShimiRADski) like many of his Russian-educated contemporaries, had a genius for multiple figure arrangement and use of natural light. Siemiradzki's attention to architectural and natural detail appears astounding from a distance, yet the way he paints detail is actually suggestive and emphasizes the appearance of texture over intricate detail.

In Christian Dirce above, Siemiradzki depicts a scene from Greek mythology portrayed in the Roman arena about Dirce, wife of the ancient ruler of Thebes, martyred by being tied to the horns of a bull. In this instance, by the title of the painting, it is a Christian woman being martyred in the same fashion as Dirce. Note the elaborate costume…