The eighty-some images here are intended as accompaniments and enrichments, not illustrations geared to particular poets or poems. They are in two groups—Classical (largely the 1500s) and Romantic (1740s–1840s). Two contrasting high-energy periods.
Clicking on the thumbs enlarges them. Clicking on the numbers under the thumbs takes you to comments on them on the present page. For a list without comments, click HERE.
The images come largely from Emil Kren and Daniel Marx’s Web Gallery of Art, supplemented by googling. The Web Gallery is bliss, in its profusion of works for which there isn’t room in print overviews, its exemplary search-system, and the top-left index bar that enables you to vary image sizes up to 200%.
Three print collections that I’ve found particularly helpful are:
Art; the Definitive Visual Guide, fore. Ross King, Chief Consultant Ian Chilvers (Dorling Kindersley, 2008)
The Story of Painting, enlarged and expanded edition, contributing consultant Patricia Wright (Dorling Kindersley, 2000)
Christiane Stukenbrock and Barbara Töpper,
1000 Masterpieces of European Painting, English edition (Ulmann, 2011)
Wikipedia, as usual, has been a blessing.
The value judgments, like the selections and configurations, are my own. I seem unable to resist making them.
But there are some great pics here.
My thanks, as always, to webmaster Rob Stevenson, for his quality control and unflappable problem-solving. Questions and suggestions can be addressed to either of us by Email.
In the Classical group as a whole—as a Wittgensteinian “family”—we see an easy passage between mythical, supernatural, and realworld elements, a respect for identities (human and other), an over-all clarity, critical intelligence, and unegotistical craftsmanship, a broad variety of subjects, a good deal of sexual tolerance, and what I can only call gusto. There is a lot of enjoyment there in the doing. There is a lot to be enjoyed. For another take on the term, see “Classical.”
1. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
The Nymph of the Fountain, 1534
If one has to choose between Eros and Thanatos as setting the key for these poems and paintings, then of course it has to be Eros, son of Aphrodite, rather than Thanatos, described in Wiki as “the daemon personification of death.”
Here, sexy and enigmatic, is one of Cranach’s incomparable nymphs, so much more interesting than the general run of more or less static Venuses in art—Venus a being (above all in Botticelli’s masterpiece) to be worshipped like the Virgin, with Cupid as her inspiring and trouble-making son.
The nymph here, reclining below the fountain of creativity, with her bow and quiver at her feet, is more a Diana, a huntress rather than hunted, and definitely a player. Doves apparently were companions to Venus, being gentle and faithful to one another—hardly the way that Love mostly operates in the arts.
In the first of the paintings in this series, the sacred spring is a single jet so narrow that you could miss it. Now the spring has become a fountain, with lots emanating from it.
But of course Thanatos was a presence too.
2. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
The Paradise, 1530
A benign presentation of a major biblical event—the Fall—as not involving any Edenic beatitude or guilt-laden drama (“Look what was lost, I mean LOST, lost for ever and eternity, oh woe is us!”), such as in Massaccio’s poignant Expulsion from the the Garden of Eden (1426–7) and Michelangelo’ theatrical The Fall of Man (1509–19)
Things do happen in that nicely landscaped bit of property, the way the Bible tells the story—Adam’s rib and so forth—but with small figures unengaged in Edenic activities (naming beasties, a spot of horticulture, whatever).
The old gent in the foreground looks admonitory but not enraged. The couple, hand in hand, stand tall, and she looks the old fellow straight in the eyes, unfazed. The naked man’s faun-like ears and beard hint at woodland doings to come.
No, this isn’t Massaccio’s anguished wailing couple being driven out naked and defenceless.
3. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569)
The Triumph of Death, c. 1562
This masterpiece by the greatest Low Country artist next to Rembrandt has no romantic nonsense in it about the absurdity and unfairness of death as such. Deaths here are what happen, and mostly, in an epitomizing of so much ruination, are made, in wars, executions (including the frightful breaking on the wheel), and murders.
The active skeletons, supernatural agents of death. are human scale. And there are no distinctions between high and low victims. The rich revelers in the lower-right corner, including the self-absorbed lovers who in a romantic presentation would be central, are all going down, like the monarch on the left.
The painting, with the eye guided three dimensionally through so many different areas, is a masterpiece of expressive form. Did Thomas Nashe (“Swords cannot fight with fate”) know it when he wrote “In Time of Pestilence”?
4. Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516)
Adoration of the Magi, c. 1510
A lovely devout handling of one of those type-situations—Crucifixion, Judgment of Paris, Susannah and the Elders, Temptation of Saint Anthony, etc—to which artists returned again and again, back in the days of precise representation and an intense interest in faces and character, when no disjunction was felt between realworld details, theatrical settings, and symbolic significance.
The three magi aren’t elaborately costumed like visiting monarchs or prelates with their retinues, conscious of their own importance and the competing generosity of their gifts. The plain-faced, plainly dressed mother holds the little manikin sitting erect and looking back at them, and this is just some rustic interior.
5. Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516)
Christ Carrying the Cross, 1515–16
The Jesus story bracketed in two images—the amazing child, naked and unsustained by any worldly powers, but honoured by kings and emperors. And the grown man, unhaloed and exhausted, crushed and ignored by a medley of grotesques intent on their own doings—the “humanity” whom he came to redeem?
A poignant take on the agonizing torture-killing (ex-cruci-ating) that invited artist after artist to have a go at it, with some of them using the writhings of the two other victims in their desperate attempts to ease the weight dragging down on their tendons to show what the central figure too must have been feeling.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Crucifixion (1617) is a major rendering of a secular event with four crucifixions in progress.
It was probably fortunate for the new cult that the Romans’ preferred method of torture-execution wasn’t impalement.
6. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
The Martyrdom of St. Catherine, 1504–95
One of the most intense evocations of the chaos of close-quarters battle, without there actually being fighting in it, along with Uccellos’ Battle of San Romano (1450s) and Delacroix’ Battle of Taillebourg (1837).
Presumably what we’re seeing here comes after the spiked wheel on which Catherine, a brilliant well-born Alexandrian, was going to be put to death has flown apart, to the injury of some participants, so that she’s going to be beheaded instead.
What’s going on in certain areas is a bit mysterious now—the two lowlifes doing something, lower right, to the fallen young man in a cuirass, the bearded muslim elders on the left, the armoured and unarmoured men talking in the background. But everything is clear in the savagery of the executioner, or warrior told off that task, and the beautiful and decorously clothed Catherine.
The nearly nude Saint Sebastian seems to have been the most popular male martyr as a subject for artists and art-buyers.
7. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
Judith and the Head of Holofernes, c.1530
Women aren’t just natural-born victims and subjects for male fantasies of dominance. Cranach’s Judith, her dress unstained, is undemonstrative about her trophy, the head of an Assyrian general, but she did it, a female David, only close-to and maximum risk. Slingshot David wasn’t taking risks at all, so long as he could dodge and retreat.
In Carravagio’s and Artemisia Gentileschi’s brilliant treatments of the subject, we see the deed itself being wrenchingly enacted, with the recognition that it wasn’t a neat affair of a couple of swipes and off with the head.
The Bible a smorgasbord of sex and-violence. Not a bad entertainment, actually, if that was all that you had to read on the Sabbath and weren’t required to memorize boring verses.
8. Joachim Patenier (c. 1480–1524)
An interesting fusion of pagan and Christian, in which Charon, ferryman on the Styx, is transporting another soul into the realm of the dead, traditionally Pluto’s Hades. Dante crossed that river during his tour with Virgil, the dead pressing up against the boat. But here there are angels on the “light” side, and the sinister and obscure details on the dark side are Christian-hellish, like those in Bosch. In the shelter (kennel?) beside the round structure level with Charon is Cerberus, three-headed guardian of the portal of Hades.
There is no crowd of the damned, though, packed unwillingly onto the boat that will take them forever away from the light and life of day, as in Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment (1537–41), or a welcoming party of demons, The “light” side is oddly empty, too, without angels obviously engaged in celestial tasks, and only the distant glassy-looking building hinting at a superior, un-violent ordering.
What predominates, of course, is the landscape, in contrast with which the tiny figures have more the air of the last wasps of summer, going through the motions, but with the energy gone.
Elsewhere, there’s maybe something a shade formulaic about Patenier’s inserting the Flight into Egypt into so dramatic a landscape that you have to hunt for the little group. But at least there we have a known (the Christ-child and its parents) providing some counterpoising emotional weight vis-à-vis crags more powerful than the glimpses of civilization in the background.
Here in the Charon scene things are less tidy, and the lightened horizon draws the eye horizontally towards the navigable ocean rather than heavenwards.
But do arrivals have the option of not going through the portal into the Underworld?
9. Jan Wellens de Cock (c. 1480–1527)
The Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1520
This is funny!
Artists like Bosch and Grunewald really went to town on the Temptation and the number of creepy things surrounding the saint. There’s a rich sampling online. If some of the monstrous aberrations encroaching on the saint are temptations, it’s presumably in the sense of persuading him that he’s in an insane world over which God’s writ no longer runs.
In 1947 the Temptation was the subject of a competition by a number of artists, among them Dali and Max Ernst, the latter of whom won it with his last important painting after he married artist Dorothea Tanning and became happy.
There could be a fascinating current competition in which, absent censorship, good taste, and jejeune conceptualist entries, we could learn plenty about our currents dreads and yearnings. R. Crumb was doing some of that in the Sixties.
De Cock keeps the subject down to its basics. Anthony is a grumpy old man and these are sexy naked women, who in their casual stances look like professionals from a “quality” escort service.
Cranach’s nymph (or the model he used for a number of paintings) would have been amused if asked to have a go at titillating the old fart.
10. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
St. Jerome in the Desert, 1525
Jerome, patron saint of librarians and translators, was a major figure in the fifth-century Christian church—theologian, historian, polemicist, and creator of the first Latin bible, the Vulgate. So says Wikipedia.
Reportedly, when he was studying the Classics in Rome and, like the young Augustine, living it up, he had a vision at the age of twenty-eight that swerved him away from the pagan and made him spend three years in the wilderness finding purity as a hermit.
Apparently he also paid visits to the dead in the Roman catacombs to remind himself of damnation, and in general was a major propagandist for asceticism.
His turning away from the flesh to concentrate on mind made him the hero of a number of paintings. His advanced age in a painting like this one obviously helped his image as the epitome of knowledge and wisdom. Reportedly he was companioned by a lion. I don’t know whether the crucifix here is a vision or was built by or for him, or what the human-faced creatures in the lower right corner are doing.
Apparently Anthony started what became the monastery movement, as groups of other seekers after enlightenment went off into the wilderness. And Jerome jump-started Christian scholarship. Cranach’s treatment of him here is unironical.
11. Masolino da Panicale (1400–1447)
The Temptation, 1426–27
An amazing image.
They don’t look in the least like delinquents playing out their assigned roles in a drama bringing sin and death into the world. There isn’t a trace of furtiveness.
They’re a good-looking Upper-West-Side couple the Adam-and-Eves— tall, hardbodied, and with his-and-her genitals simply there and no big deal. She looks the stronger of the two, with her stylish neat hairdo. But his own hair and beard are trim, and he awaits with curiosity her reaction as she tastes, as if in a foreign market-place, an unfamiliar fruit.
The serpent is unfussy—just a female head with a plain snake body, like another branch of the tree. Nothing satanic or slimy there.
One can’t imagine this Eve miming remorse later, having figured that the Old Man is going to do what he wants with them anyway. I mean, it isn’t exactly coming as a surprise to him. What a fuss about a piece of fruit.
Of course, if God had looked and acted like Bellini’s Doge, it might have been different.
12. Dosso Dossi (c.1490–1542)
Circe, c. 1520
The Web Gallery hesitates over whether this is Circe or Melissa.
Accordng to Wiki, that there was a nymph, Melissa, in Greek mythology who taught the use of honey, and a Melissa in Merlin’s cave in Ariosto’s long narrative poem Orlando Furioso, the first edition of which appeared in 1516, four years before the date assigned to the painting.
She doesn’t look care-giving to me (that face, those clothes) so I assume it’s between Circe and an assistant of Merlin’s who’d picked up a few spells from him.
And this is such a Power Woman, gorgeously arrayed, organically flavoured, and perfectly self-assured. She’s holding a tablet with what appear to be geometrical figures on it, and, also like a priestess, is equipped with fire. Is she perhaps making a spell irreversible here?
The armour would have been a knight’s and the dog has a very human look. In Dossi’s painting of a naked Circe and her lovers, there are a couple of dogs, along with several other creatures, swine not included. No doubt she knows a thing of two about the men in the small city in the background.
Since writing the foregoing, I see that in A Thousand Masterpieces of Western Painting (1999) Wendy Beckett unhesitatingly opts for what I take to be her idea of the Melissa of the poem. So for her what we have is a good sorceress, to whom you go to have spells removed, and a knight turned into a dog is waiting for when he can put his armour back on.
But Circe isn’t off the board on the Web, and the woman here doesn’t look all that benign to me. Her rich clothing is apparently Venetian (Venice, that city-state of opulence), as is Mary Magdalene’s , and Mary was a whore before Jesus took her up and she became his right-hand person. “Courtesan” would seem a better term for the figure here.
And in fact her rich apparel and her general stance go clean against how she functions in Canto Seven of Orlando Furioso, as translated brilliantly by David R. Slavitt (Harvard U.P., 2009), in which she rescues Ruggiero from the long, luxurious, erotic delights of the enchantress Alcina at her palace, and steers him back towards the desperately seeking Bradamante (who has enlisted Melissa’s help at Merlin’s tomb ) by going to Alcina’s isle in shabby clothes and then, in the guise of Atlas, preaching a sermon to Ruggiero about Bradamante and knightly virtue. I see from Wiki that she intervenes again on other occasions.
The figure in the painting is surely not what would have come to mind as Melissa for readers of the poem at the time, any more than Marlene Dietrich would give us Amelia Earhart. Dossi’s nude Circe was safely in the past. There would have been contemporary Circes, figuratively speaking.
13. Jan Van Scorel (1495–1562)
Mary Magdalene, c 1528
Iconographers can talk an image like this to death. The primary thing, surely, is that she too is a figure of power, or at least resistance to the demands of others, dominating a wild landscape, richly dressed (she was a courtesan before taking up with Jesus and his group), with a perhaps magical run of Hebrew characters on her dress, and holding a rich-looking container without any figures on it indicating its contents, as does the character in a not particularly good painting by Holbein. Which are what?
Biblically, ointment, it would appear. But one of Les Girls tempting Anthony also holds some kind of container.
Mary’s face, a bit irritable and curiously modern-looking, is wary. This isn’t a woman who’s going to give herself easily to some group or the directives of others.
And as for drying anyone’s feet with her hair . . . !
14. Jean Cousin the Elder (c. 1495–c.1560)
Eva Prima Pandora, c. 1550
Pandora, emblematic figure of erotic power, arouser of lust and conflicts, causer of deaths—here priestess, sacred prostitute, Cleopatra-like, with the reminder that she, belongs in the line of trouble-making woman too curious for their own good, violators of prohibitions, that began with Eve.
The Eves and their other descendants in our group don’t look as though being characterized like that would send them into paroxyms of guilt. Nude gardening is really only fun if you know that others are having to do it clothed. And if a talking snake is the best that you can hope for in the way of socializing, it’s going to be a long endless summer.
15. Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Peasant Wedding, 1567
There is so much in Bruegel to choose from, including the hyper-kinetic Peasant Dance celebrated (and somewhat misdescribed) in William Carlos Williams’ “The Dance.” But Peasant Wedding is a moving affirmation, like the dinner party in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of values unaffected by the universal finality of death, and the likelihood back then of its coming sooner rather than later.
With its piper, the neat dishes being passed down the table, the Italianate-looking pourer of wine, and the decorously-behaving guests, this is an important social ritual, not a beanfeast of bumpkins. And if the positioning of the plain-looking bride, and the flow of the wine (the marriage at Canae?) have a religious penumbra, it is the ceremony that confers value on the associations, and not the other way round.
Wendy Beckett incomprehensibly sees the painting as a complaint about the degeneration and boorishness of peasant society. But Bruegel would not have devoted the attention that he did to village culture, with no sign of satirical intent elsewhere, if that was how he rated it.
Of course the figures in the dance painting are forceful, a trait not altogether vanished from the Dutch now. But that’s another matter.
16. Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Corn Harvest (Autumn), 1565
We have the bounty of the communal land in both foreground and background, worked and shaped by the generations, and exemplifying what could be lost in the ravages of war. The celebrations of rural plenitude in Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412–16) are very lovely, but the structure there is aristocratic, as evidenced in the power-charged castles. In Bruegel it’s a peasant community, and nothing but, and the women reapers have their own collective roles as they eat and gossip.
17. Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1555
Too lovely to pass up, though so often seen, particularly in the light of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”.
The painting is an extraordinary work of transformation, both in its reduction of that symbolic flight and failure to those two tiny foreground legs, and the transposition of the “ordinary” activities of ploughing and shepherding into a magical-feeling land-and-sea-scape, with voyaging ships, and a far horizon, and distant town, and that odd castle-like structure in the water with its round portals leading to where?
The painting itself, in the Brussels Musée, is nacreous.
Is it perhaps a graceful Northern farewell to the Mediterranean mythologies that had accumulated so much power and prestige—a declaration of artistic independence from Italy?
18. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
Portrait of Martin Luther, 1525
This is a hatless man named Martin, rather than someone collaborating with the artist in presenting a heretical authority- figure called “Luther.”. Which is refreshing.
If you saw him on the other side of the room at a gathering, maybe silent, or letting his eye move round the room as he barely attends to someone who’s buttonholed him, or maybe, with the right person or persons, as listeners suddenly articulate, you might very well ask who and what he was, since he’d be commanding in a variety of occupations.—soldier, merchant,, etc — his body humming with energy that would make it hard for him to stand still wasting time for long.
Apparently Luther and Cranach were friends, with Cranach, himself strong- featured, the senior by eleven years.
The first of several types portrayed by Cranach and others—theologian, monarch, poet, musician, etc—rendered with an appropriately classical (not neo-classical) seriousness, the various individuating strengths of character emerging from within, not sloshed on from outside.
John Baxter writes: “Martin without a hat, not here wearing any of his various hats (and certainly not the hat of arch-heretic Luther), just a man in the world, gazing at something in the middle distance.
It's in the eyes, isn't? I mean those medieval panel paintings (by Simone Martini, or Lorenzetti and others) have such intense eyes, looking not at but right through you, burning their way through this world to that other one that really counts.
Cranach's Martin is a man in the world, meditating on what it means to be there, in material as well as spiritual terms (a Christian humanist, as my Renaissance colleagues are likely to say).
His gaze is more or less reproduced by Holbein's Surrey (your visual no. 20), slightly averted, middle distance, worried but not without a certain poise and self-confidence, aware of the dangers but knowing what he knows and what he values.”
19. Anthonis Mor Van Dashorst (c. 1517–1577)
Portrait of Mary, Queen of England, c.1554
Mind and dogma and danger. She is hailed in William Forrest’s “A New Ballade of the Marigolde” in A New Book as the return of spring after the heretical dark, and was gifted and cultured, and there was widespread rejoicing at her ascent to the throne in 1553.
But she killed, horribly, like her father before her and her sister Elizabeth after her, and died hated in 1558 after a reign of terror.
In Mor’s seated portrait of her in 1554 she is tense and outright scary.
Amazing how little control was exercised at times over portraitists by their subjects regarding their images, the most out-of-sight amazing being, of course, Goya’s 1800 group portrait of the Spanish royal family.
20. Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543)
Portrait of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, 1541–43
I don’t think, myself, that our reading of poems by Wyatt, Sidney, Greville, Raleigh, Donne, Herbert, Herrick, Marvell is helped by our having access to the various online images of them. What conceivable representation of Marvell the man could one want while reading “The Garden”?
But the painting of Howard here gives us an emblematic figure, a scared or at least apprehensive writer, with no fancy accoutrements signalling social status. His poems aren’t particularly exciting, next to Wyatt’s. But the man here, caught by the great Holbein, is a live man in a time of danger who was in fact beheaded a few years later, with Wyatt only escaping the same fate by luck.
In Thom Gunn’s words, this was “a time of wheels, racks, and fires,” to which movie-makers continue to turn, the Tudors having something of the fascination of the Borgias.
21. Jan Van Scorel (1495–1562)
Portrait of a Lutenist, 16th c.
Being a lutenist (player, composer) does sound poetic—the lute the universal elegant instrument, popular like the guitar later, and beautiful to look at, the accompaniment to lovely songs: “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?”etc. Stringed instrumentalists in later pics have a good time over tankards. How nice to be able to make music and maybe be paid for it.
But the unidentified player here is wary, ironical, dependent on the approval of others, whom he may despise. Let him slip a little further into misfortune, and the hat becomes ragged, and the doublet holed, and he’s a street musiciaa tavern-haunter,n, a beggar. But when he plays, the music can be lovely.
22. Hans Maler (1480–1525)
Portrait of Moritz Wetzer von Eberstein, 1524
So refreshing when a portrait isn’t “period.” Moritz, whoever he was, could be here today in a bit of up-scale fancy dress. It’s the expression as much as the structure of the face. Are there different styles of faces in any period, some dominant, others out of sight, the way styles in TV actors change?
One would like to think that Moritz would have been among those of the elite who wouldn’t be swept along by the passions of religious bigotry.
And if he had been a poet …!
23. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593)
Portrait of a Daughter of Ferdnand I, c.1563
An aristocrat, a royal, her lineage obviously going far further back than that of the nouveaux bloodstained Tudors, coming up out of nowhere with Henry VII to seize the crown in battle, his son a rapacious tyrant and heretic, the legitimacy of daughter Elizabeth as monarch in serious question. The young lady here would have looked with disdain on Elizabeth, on the throne for only five years, her own father being Holy Roman Emperor, king of Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia.
24. Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543)
Desiderius Erasmus (1486–1536), “a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian, and advocate of religious tolerance.” (Web) He’s self-presenting here, or allowing Holbein to pose him, as Man Calmly Communicating, writing neatly in Latin, garbed against the Dutch cold, and unbothered, image-wise, by his projecting nose.
25. Hans Memling (c. 1440–94)
Portraits of Willem Moreel and His Wife, c. 1482
So much finer as a celebration of marriage and two beings in a state of benign equipoise within shared values, than Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Marriage (1434), with all its iconographical goodies.
Far from being, as Wendy Beckett claims, “one of the greatest celebrations of human mutuality” that “reveals to us the inner meaning of a true marriage” (placing it alongside Rembrandt’s sublime The Jewish Bride), it shows us, once one looks at those faces, an odious little cold-blooded tyrant and his cowed wife brought on stage to display the promise of heirs.
Her face is not the face of spirituality. She looks like a housemaid who has been elevated by the master of the house without understanding why, but knows her place and the value of silent obedience
There seem to be very few double portraits of lovers during the Renaissance, as distinct from betrothed or married couples, despite the omnipresence of Love in literature. Presumably, as Shakespeare knew in Romeo and Juliet, and as figured at King Arthur’s court and in the Tristran and Iseult story, lovers (by definition unmarried) were Trouble, and couples were as unwilling to come out of the shadows and be frankly memorialized as gay couples were until recently in photography.
Dante’s Paolo and Francesca are still in love, but they are in Hell.
What other marriage portraits would one put in the same room with The Jewish Bride? But note how quiet those two are, in a shared attending to a heartbeat.
I’ve nudged Willem and Barbara (van Viaenderberch) together to make for better continuity in this sequence about character. In their normal configuration they’re in the Web Gallery, where one can choose the sizes one wants. I see that Barbara is out on the Web alone when you google for Memling and click on Images.
The originals in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels demonstrate the usefulness of Yvor Winters’ analogy of specific gravity, their mere fifteen-by-eleven inches each having a heft beyond that of many larger works in the museum.
Memling’s couple are posed against a single background. In his Diptych with the Deposition (1493–94) in the Web Gallery, there’s another ambiguity as to whether, when they’re out of their frames, you’re seeing two distinct images or one divided, like Davide Ghirlandaio’s striking Portrait of a Young Man, Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1500), in connection with which it’s suggested in Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann, eds., The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini (Metropolitan Museum iof Art, 2011), p.154, that such Italian diptychs may originally have been hinged like books.
26. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
Christ and the Virgin Mary (or Mary Magdalen), 1515–20
The man here is the most open, unarmoured, the most one of us in the group. And the woman (mother? good friend? helper?) is in an equality of focus with him. They could be from a hippy commune in the Sixties.
A wrenching is required to see him as one of those innumerable near-naked figures nailed to a cross or stooped under the weight of one, the writhings of the figures to either side of him showing the agony of that protracted public dying.
Cranach was a Protestant reformist, enjoying the patronage of Protestant German rulers, and, according to Wiki, a good friend of Luther’s. The portrait here is a strong political presentation of true religion, the authority of the charismatic figure coming from inside, in a self where the spiritual and the erotic are blended. There could be something between him and her. I mean, if you had no idea who they were.
Maybe she trims his moustache? Someone does.
Given Cranach’s feeling for couples, and her unlined face, and the loss of narrative tension otherwise, I’m certain that this is Magda, not Mum.
27. Jan van Eyck (c. 1395–c.1441)
Adoration of the Lamb (detail), 1425–29
One of several details provided in the Web Gallery from a wide, pageant-like painting in which a variety of groups (Christian martyrs, Jewish prophets, and so on), organized symmetrically around a central axis, worship a symbolic Lamb.
What comes across particularly well in the detail here, with its tightly grouped figures and that frieze of all those church spires in the background is the sheer hard-edged power and thereness in the early 15th-century of the Holy Catholic Church, below and above, and there to all eternity. Proceed against it at your own risk.
28. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569)
The Tower of Babel, 1563
With its look of the ruined Colosseum with barrel-vaulted spaces converted into dwellings, the tower recalls the Rome that had aspired to rule and civilize the known world (or a large chunk of it), but whose central icon had been a site of horrors,
And not just Rome, but the would-be universal and eternal Church based in that city. And too much hubristic seeking after too much grandeur in general. (And maybe too much urbanization?) The right-hand side looks more like something eaten away by cancer than a work in progress. The human figures are insect-like, in among the clutter at the base.
Wiki suggests that the ruler in the foreground was Nimrod. Wiki also contains a painting done by Bruegel the year before in which the building is whole in its circumference, though incomplete at the top, reinforcing the idea of diseased erosion in the subsequent one.
29. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569)
The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562
This must have been fun to do, turning into narrative action Bosch’s monstrosities and other Bosch-like creatures in the various Temptations. A far cry from Milton’s serried ranks doing epic battle. The rebels here are without dignity, transformed into vermin during a cleansing.
30. Albrecht Altdorfer (c.1480–1538)
Lot and His Daughters, 1537
I had thought, before seeking the title of this brilliant painting, that it was an interesting instance of modern-looking mature sexuality. But this is the Bible’s Lot, the Mr. Clean, the one man of virtue, who fled the iniquities of Sodom while his wife demonstrated that too much salt was indeed bad for you.
And here he is, out in the wilderness, and here (in the biblical account) are his two daughters who’ve decided that the holocaust makes it unlikely that they’ll be finding mates now, so that they’d better get the Old Man excited and become pregnant by him themselves.
Like Susanna and the Elders (nude bather and voyeuristic old hypocrites), it was a popular subject. There are at least ten versions on the Web. The one by Altdorfer here, with the comfortably tactile nudity, and wine in a good glass, and he alert and beardless and with a touch of the satyr, and she pondering what he’s just said to her, is by far the best of them, and wholly fresh in treatment.
Done the year before Altdorfer’s death, it’s a remarkable rendering of mature sexuality, without bare-nekkedness instantly inciting to action or moral judgment.
And it contrasts with disquieting violences elsewhere in his oeuvre. A Sebastian is fuller of arrows than usual. In The Martydom of St. Florian, a crowd on a bridge press eagerly in on a near-naked young martyr who’s kneeling in his final prayer before they throw him off with a millstone fastened to his neck. And crucifixions look painful, two of them being especially remarkable.
In Calvary (1526), on stony ground in among trees, a group of seated women occupy the right foreground, five armed men stand talking at the foot of the crosses, and up above them an executioner is starting to descend a ladder resting against the cross on which an un-haloed Jesus hangs in the same arm-wrenching position as the other two condemned men.
In Crucifixion of Christ (c. 1518?), the three low crosses, viewed from the side, are close enough together for a kneeling disciple to touch the bases of two of them, and three officials stand chatting, and a slumped Mary, with a couple of companions, is there for the long wait, and a soldier is obviously wondering what all the fuss is about (I mean, these are simply three executions), and two long thin nails have not been hammered all the way in, and the whole canvas, like the other one, is alive with shapes.
In an Italian crucifixion like Mantegna’s of 1457–59, the high cross is an icon to be worshipped, not the instrument of an agonizing death. Germans like Altdorfer and Grünewald obvious knew about the horrors which men inflicted on one another for religious reasons.
In the Lot painting, without the jagged rocks and prickly-looking vegetation of various other works by Altdorfer, we seem to be in a kind of time-out, away, almost picnic-like, from the moral conflagration (top right).
And in this and Giampietrino’s amazing painting of Leda, we have an acceptance of figures who are beyond conventional pales—incest, bestiality—but are still very much their own human selves, and not reducible to stereotypes.
31. Giampietrino (Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli?) (active c. 1500–1550)
Leda and Her Children, c. 1508–1513, after a drawing by Leonardo.
There are darks, back in those imagined times when mythological characters were free to act out their impulses. The face of this Leda is tragically now (and very Italian), that of someone having to live outside society after the very mixed blessing of a relationship with a god, a relationship in which, to judge from the number of kids, there was more than one incident.
I cannot read her face, though I know there are emotions there to be read—a kind of resignation, though without self-rejection, by someone who knows that, yes, to a conventional outsider’s eye she is a species of monster, but who also cares about the babies, who are, yes, hers, though perhaps having to be cared for as children of a god. Not, at any rate, the Christian version of divine impregnation.
The attribution of the painting to Giampietrino is in Frank Zöllner, Leonardo da Vinci 1452–1519; the Complete Paintings and Drawings (Taschen, nd.) There’s a touch of genius to the work that is absent from Leonardo’s own paintings of the subject and his two drawings of a Leda with slightly bent knees are simply not what was fleshed out to create the present masterpieces.
A stray thought. If the natural reproductive processes were what was inflicted as a punishment on the lapsarian Eve, how would things have been handled if she hadn’t fallen? There might have been something to be said for eggs, mightn’t there? I mean, if a myth is the source of uncountable human violences, one ought to be entitled to look at its dynamics when there is talk about Sin, and a lost paradise, and the necessity for the redemptive torture-killing of a god.
32. Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521)
Venus, Mars, and Cupid, 1490
Piero di Cosimo makes things strange, as if no rules had been established yet for the treatment of a subject. Mars is so hippy, anatomically, and has so little in the way of martial equipment, that you have to look more than once to make sure that he’s male.
This is not the conventional Mars, god of war, taker of women. He looks more like Narcissus. And Venus is thinking what? The Cupid here is unlikely to grow up to be the arrow-shooting creator and misdirector of Love. And what about that rabbit? The kids in the background (all hers?) have wings because that is what you could have back then, and not because they are cherubs.
Almost, a family outing by parents between whom things aren’t right.
Botticelli’s hard-edged Venus and Mars from seven years before, also very horizontal, is stronger formally, and it’s interesting trying to decide whether she’s disappointed in him because he hasn’t done enough or because she’s wondering whether he’ll rise to the occasion again.
But there’s more to hold the eye and mind in Cranach’s version.
Evidently both scenes are post-facto. But I can’t see that, while Piero’s painting “would have been understood as an allegory of love’s triumph over war, [he] appears to have been equally concerned to stress the theme of conjugal love, and the reciprocal nature of the couple’s affection,” as Sharon Fermor maintains in Piero di Cosimo; Fiction, Invention, and Fantasìa (Reaktion, 1993), p.45.
Regardless of what doves and rabbits conventionally symbolized, I can’t discern any signs of gratification, let alone love, in her slightly brooding face, any more than in Botticelli’s cool Venus. And the near-androgyny of Mars’ body and the similarity of their faces are odd. To judge from the strong self-presentations of aristocratic males in Italian portraits from those decades, this would surely not have been normally viewed by men as a benign triumph of Love over not just War but manhood.
The theme of women’s sexuality weakening men had a long life. In a Pompeii fresco, a curiously modern-looking Mars, right hand clutching a weapon like a security-blanket, gazes ahead apprehensive as the cuties embrace him. In Botticelli’s masterpiece, a horizontal lance is being played with by the fawnlets, its tip looking as though wedged into the closed end of a conch-shell, and the sleeping Mars resembles a dead Christ in a Pietá. Three centuries later, in Jacques-Louis David’s Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, Mars, his erect spear held away in his right hand, is obviously recoiling from the wreath with which she wants to lasso him, while her three nubiles have fun with his weaponry.
Cranach, in contrast, obviously liked heterosexual love and comradeship, and wouldn’t have dreamed of sending Botticelli’s Pallas, with her fierce halberd, after one of his bearded males.
All of which makes Piero’s painting, following on from Botticelli’s, a fascinating document in the evolution, or at least presentation, of sexual types and relationships.
33. Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521)
The Death of Procris, c. 1500
Portraying the grieving of realworld flesh-and-blood individuals for one another wasn’t easy, at least if one didn’t want melodramatics and sentimentality, and there are probably few such paintings in which an observer can feel the grief, other than in Crucifixion scenes.
With classical myth, one was out in a dimension of fuller and freer emotions, which was partly why the myths and the characters and situation in them went on mattering.
Here it’s a landscape of the mind where humans, part-humans, and animals peaceably co-exist. But is the faun in fact grieving, or has he happened upon her and is puzzled by why she won’t awaken from this sleep?
In the receding background, other creatures are going about their normal affairs. The foreground dog looks as though it might have been her companion. The whole elegaic configuration is pagan.
Wiki informs us that scholarship nowadays prefers as a title A Mythological Subject or A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph. The first seems to lack something. Do we even need to know who Procris was? (accidentally shot by her husband out hunting) This is Procris. And it’s one of the most beautiful paintings ever.
34. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593)
Maximilian II, His Wife and Three Children, 1563
Here’s so ordinary-looking nouveau-riche a family in their living-room, as if posed by a less-than-inspired photographer (just look at that cod-piece!), that it comes as a surprise to learn from Wiki that Father was or became several different kinds of king, and an emperor. She looks the stronger of the two. So much for the heroic male and his natural right to rule. England’s Elizabeth would have been on the throne for five years at that time, navigating through uncharted waters.
35. Joachim Beuckelaer (1533–1574)
Market Scene, 1563
A step back, in the same year, into the noisy, secular realworld present, one of a number of market scenes by Beuckelaer (see Google).
In another of his paintings, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, also foregrounding the fruits of earth, air, and water, the biblical episode is glimpsed in grey through a narrow arch.
36. Roelandt Savery (1576–1639)
The Paradise, 1618
One of a number of plenitude paintings by Savery, who may have loved birds even more than other creatures, and did a couple of great Dodo paintings, pre-Audubon.
We’ve come a long way from the tidiness of Cranach’s 1530 Paradise. Savery’s paradise feels as though there wouldn’t be much room for God or his angels in it.
Did this sense of a bountiful Nature come partly from reports of New World plenitude?
But what did the carnivores eat?
37. Bonifazio Veronese (1487–1553)
The Finding of Moses, mid-16th c.?
A welcomely peaceful Biblical episode, with its troublesome future aspects, embodied in that tiny, almost invisible figure held in the middle of the picture, totally absorbed into the comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-mannered court life on display here, without any of the obvious trappings of royalty.
No fussing about commandments here, let alone ten of them.
The first of three paintings by different artists in which everything is going right, and free of ideological tensions, as the secular heart desires.
38. Frans Floris (1517–1570)
Banquet of the Gods, 1550s
Secular, secular secular, and very comfortable, with no worrying about who is clothed or who naked, no by-play, and the traditional and often conflicting roles—Thunderer, Neptune, Bacchus, Flora, Ganymede, others that I can’t identify—laid aside in the common sociable discoursing, apart from little symbols that the eye has to hunt for after the initial overview—a seashell, a bunch of grapes, flowers, a wine cup, with only winged Hermes playing on his pipes.
39. Joachim Wtewael (1560–1638)
The Judgment of Paris, 1615
What golden succulence! What a party! Not a breath of dissension or intimations of mortality. No recoil from the flesh. No crime, no guilt.
That later we, though parted then,
May still recall those evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look.
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees ther muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.
The faces of Paris and the lady on the left could be 20th-century. The animals are contented. There’s a satyr at the feast in the background. Giullo Romano, who did erotic prints, has a garden-party scene with a visibly priapic satyr in it.
It strikes me that the majors may have eschewed certain kinds of explicitness because they’d draw too much attention to themselves and become what viewers would be looking for in each new painting And if you show desire being consummated, you weaken or lose the aura of the desirable, and the un-limited nature of it. We don’t know how Cranach’s nymph would behave in action.
As to the benign and yearned-for secular hedonism, look at the dates of the next three pictures. There were other and very different things being felt and done out there.
40. Roelandt Savery (1576–1639)
Landscape with Wild Animals, early 17th c.
Nature not all a benign abundance. Those lions and the leopard are scary. The inhabitants of that building in the background, with their tame herbivores, had better not take their security too much for granted.
41. Andries Jacobsz Stock (c.1580–c.1648)
Witches’ Sabbath, c, 1619
To judge from the works by him online, in which he seems to be an artist in search of both style and subjects, this was Stock’s masterpiece.
One could spend quite a while attending to the various items in it, figuring out, not, what they SIGNIFY, but simply what they are and what they’re doing.
These women are malignant beings, seekers after supernatural power, embodiments of unreason, not maligned representatives of an ancient alternative tradition in Western civilization.
To judge from the formal likeness, Blake (see below) may have known this print.
42. Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom (1566–1640)
Battle of Gibraltar, 1621
A powerfully kinetic battle scene, without individual heroics, compressing and intensifying Bruegel’s handling of ships in Naval Battle in the Gulf of Naples (1558–62) and adding the drama of the ramming and the fleeing or falling individuals, with what look like sailors and soldiers to the left and civilians, including women, on the right.
The billowing sails have some of the look of wings. The black specks in the sky, recalling bits in the temptations of Saint Antony, likely floated up there after the explosion in the powder magazine and the ensuing fire.
The painting is dated six years after the idyllic Judgment of Paris, inhibiting any temptation one might have to see the early 16th century in such terms, as distinct from what might go on in the garden parties of the very rich, where the foreground scene could almost be a tableau.
The battle, in 1506, was between the Dutch and Spanish fleets. The Dutch, who loathed the Spanish because of their oppressive rule in the Low Countries, wrecked the other fleet.
There is a lot more technical variety in this group than in the previous one, less in the way of shared myths, and a greater tension with respect to energy and order. The orderings, the calms here, are unstable. States oppress individuals, inviting revolt. Eros is more individual and erotic. Women have less in the way of active roles. The imagined supernatural is stranger. And the presiding deity, the incarnation of energy, the Warrior-Emperor, is wholly secular.
43. Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–89)
The Chocolate Girl, 1744–45
Comfort, cleanliness, caring.
This lovely pastel preceded by three years Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s more servant’s-eye celebration, in The Attentive Servant, of those virtues in a filthy century, whose idle and dishonest servants were much remarked upon.
In Liotard’s A Lady Pouring Chocolate (1744), a young lady or young matron sits at a small round drawing-room table with on it a tray containing two cups, an elegant silver pot, a bowl of sugar, and a creamer. Her silk or satin skirt cascades with lots of fabric, but the bodice is modest, and so is her cap. She wears no jewels.
We are into an important style-shift, showing Chinese/Japanese influences probably, where less is indeed more. I don’t know whether she’s an aristocrat or the daughter/wife of a rich merchant. Either way, things are becoming more bourgeois and comfort-oriented, with a recognition that not trying to overwhelm can be the best taste.
With Chardin’s and Liotard’s two servants, the I, the attentiveness to the inner feelings of individuals, including invalids and the young, is the principal novelty. And it was easier to have delicate inner feelings if you weren’t chronically exasperated by cold food, and unemptied chamber-pots, and lying servants.
44. Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)
The Artist’s Daughters with a Cat, 1759–61
Decades ago, the photographer Jerry Liebling pointed out to me how the emotional authority of the great daguerreotypes came from exposures having to be so long that faces had to settle down into configurations that could be maintained without strain, and that were true to the basic characters of the sitters.
It can help sometimes to see paintings as photographs—some with that kind of integrity (like Paul Strand’s), some designed co-operatively for self-presentation, some snatched on the wing, the eye of the artist having glimpsed an expressive moment and his or her pencil instantly making notations that can summon it back in paint.
The faces of the two lovely young girls here are caught on the wing. The protective older one, the gentler and more vulnerable of the two, leans slightly forwards. The other, the tougher, her head thrown back and jaw more prominent, returns the artist’s gaze more firmly. Both of them are already starting to be the women whom they will become.
The bodies and dresses are only loosely defined, with bonding rather than demarcation, and the hands are mere gestural calligraphy, rather than grippers of the cat of the title.
The two of them matter a lot, but not because of roles or status. What matters is the aliveness and susceptibility to feeling. The development of environments like those in Liotard’ paintings, essentially a feminine one, by diminishing frictions would facilitate tender feelings. And their father, with whom they’re obviously comfortable, likes them the way they are.
45. Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, 1748–49
How on earth did they allow the artist to leave them looking so awful—she narrow-eyed hostile, like Charlotte Rampling on a bad-hair day, he (as Wendy Beckett points out), still a bit callow. In any event, we have the brilliant interplay between the glorious order of an ideal English country estate, its naturalness the creation of the arts of successive cultivators and (contra French formalism) English landscapers, and the mediocrity of its owners.
46. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1808)
Blind-Man’s Buff (detail), 1775–80
Those French! With the Cataclysm only nine years away, there they go, playing, and partying, and erotically communing in an utterly unEnglish estate, their doings dwarfed by the immense, wild, oneiric vegetation.
47. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721)
The Blunder, 1716–18
Sex now, along with pecking-order status at Versailles, and money, is the central preoccupation of the politically unemployed French aristocracy, for whom, in contrast to the great English aristocrats and country squires, living on their own estates would have been a banishment like that of “honest Ovid among the Goths” (As You Like It).
Sex is facilitated by theatricalization, stretching out the game, with more ease in transitions from play into something more serious, and withdrawals when challenged.
Watteau wonderfully captures the erotic nature of the parks, with back-and-forth movements there too between the oases of light and the concealing dark beyond. Here either the would-be seducer has gone too far, or else she is in danger of doing so.
The onscreen figures and faces of his Embarcation for Cythera (1717) are too small for use here.
48. François Boucher (1703–177)
Miss O’Murphy, 1752
Blonde Odalisque is an alternative title, Watteau having painted several copies, but Miss O’Murphy she has been for so long and must remain, one of the King’s mistresses, and with a piquant contrast between assumed Irish-Catholic decorum and her erotic sprawl.
Apparently there has been some debate in art-historical circles about why Boucher should have chosen to pose her like this. Thank goodness for scholarship’s unwillingness to let us dream on in the vulgar obvious.
Googling for Boucher suggests that he was the most erotic of the important eighteenth-century French painters, with some works obviously for private consumption only, and probably commissioned. His Leda, with its swan-size swan inspecting from close to her anatomically correct pudenda, is very different from what we have in Giampietrino’s masterpiece. A whole lot of draining away of moral significance from mythical episodes had gone on as growing sexual licence diminished their liberating effect.
49. Jacques-Louis David (1748–1829)
Paris and Helen (detail), 1788
Paris is a real sweetie, and there’s no Noble Greco-Roman stuff here. But 1789 is just around the corner. How politically-conscious was the very political David at that point? Does the red cap have any significance? And could one altogether avoid the double sense of the word “Paris”?
50. Bernardo Bellotto (1720–1780)
Capriccio with the Colosseum, 1743–44
Easy to forget, at times, how Rome and the imperial-Roman idea had dwindled down, replaced by a wild ruined grandeur in the topographical etchings of Piranesi, with the littleness of figures increasing the size of the buildings.
In the painting here even the Colosseum is a broken shell, its stones obviously taken away, as with the arena at Arles in the Middle Ages, to be used for more modest buildings. The handful of figures, weakened probably by the fevers that would later kill Henry James’s Daisy Miller, are doing nothing much—inhabitants of a degenerate South.
51. Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canale), (1697–1768)
Doge’s Palace, c. 1725
“Once did’st thou hold the glorious East in fee” (Byron). That heroic city-state age is past, and it’s now (on display in other paintings by Canaletto) pageantry and glamour. But what glamour, what style—Venice, the most romantic, and un-European, and erotic city in Europe, rising from the water. And lovely the sun, warming here the facades of those beautiful and oriental-tinged buildings.
An erotic city, gondolas gliding along without the betraying clip-clop of carriage hooves on cobble-stones, bringing lovers from one set of water steps to another, and themselves little rooms, with total privacy behind the curtain, and a gondolier singing gently of Amore, as instructed,
Byron’s favorite city, after his exile for questionable sexual practices.
52. Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canale) (1697–1768)
Capriccio with Venetian Motifs, 1740–45
Venice fraying at the edges, with those oddly shaped buildings—church and triumphal arch—making one wonder why they’re here, and whether the land’s been eroded. And that squishy-looking soil, and those shallow lagoons (but flowing in over the land at high tide?), and a couple of fellows spear-fishing, and a woman doing the wash. But oh the sun and sky.
A great movie set. “One afternoon, we …”
53. Pietro Longhi (1701–1785)
The Ridotto in Venice, 1750s
Europe’s first gambling casino.
A reminder here, perhaps not wholly theatrical, of the Venetian spice of danger and secrecy, with the Bridge of Sighs, and the recalled secret tribunals, and Bellini’s great Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501), one of the scariest images of total inflexible power.
Easy, too, for a quick thrust of steel on those winding narrow nighttime streets to send another figure splashing into the dark water.
A city of masks and masking—masks very convenient when taking risks with money or sex.
54. Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778)
Prisoners on a Projecting Platform, 1749–60
Piranesi’s Prisons are so instantly recognizable as to be almost a cliché, but remain unique and nightmarish. As I say elsewhere,
There’s a natural continuum from the actual feared dungeons and torture-chambers of pre-Enlightenment castles, via ruined castles as mysterious spaces haunted by the clanking of men-at-arms and the cries and groans of the victims of total power, to the surreality of Piranesi’s Prisons (themselves a condensation of aspects of the literal ruins in his other etchings), which, according to [Aletha] Hayter, became metaphors for indecipherable enclosed heights and depths in individual psychodramas.
The figures and activities in Prisons, like the spaces and objects, do not make sense, and defy interpretation.
Piranesi can be dream-like scary too in some of his images of ruined Imperial buildings that simply feel much too big, as if having their own SF-like growth and mystery.
55. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828)
The Inquisition Tribunal, 1812–19
There’s a disturbing wide-angle painting of Interrogation in Prison (c. 1710) by Alessandro Magnasco, who was also doing “absurd” Roman ruins around then with mysterious figures engaged in frenetic and almost SF activities, to what end?
A dangling man is being given the strappado, others (fettered) await treatment, something horrible is being done to someone else. But this is all in a mouldering dungeon-like chamber, with scruffy clothing and two or three bearded black-robed inquisitors.
Goya makes everything worse and more modern by presenting the stylized, carefully orchestrated ritual of the public auto-da-fé, with the condemned acknowledging their heresies before sentencing, as would happen again later in twentieth-century political trials.
The principal official is in normal Age-of-Enlightenment dress. An official at the top is reading out charges or sentences. The three victims, in their shaming costumes, will probably have been tortured into confession. The one on the dais, under the eyes of all, looks broken, all resistance gone, as does the one seated despairingly to the right. But there is still defiance in the third.
The sentences by this time may not necessarily have been burning. They could be long imprisonment, loss of all property, maybe the hell of the galleys. The chamber pullulates with tonsured monks.
56. John Constable (1776–1837)
Refreshingly more muti-dimensional than the general run of his so very “English” landscapes. A site of mystery in a barely defined setting, survival of distant past rituals, performed by whom? And marvellously lit. Very different from the tidy little cluster of stones as seen from the road out there near Salisbury on the Wiltshire plain. And, to repeat, from his immensely popular landscape scenes, in the best of which, especially the preliminary treatments, you have the drama of seeing, but in too many of which you have picture-making without a sufficient subject. And in his visual ignoring of the iniquities of the Enclosure movement, wasn’t he one of the great falsifiers of English rural history?
57. William Blake (1757–1827)
Hecate or the Three Fates, 1795
Supernatural power and menace. A queen of night and nightmares, with steed, owl, reptile, surreal bat, and stronger in her elegant black than the naked individual male and female pair behind her.
One of the first Symbolist visuals, its iconography not derived from traditional Christian sources or opening up into a Christian space. And with a weight of thought in it, missing from the merely oneiric images of Fuselli.
58. William Blake (1757–1827)
The Lovers’ Whirlwind; Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatests, 1824–27
The adulterous lovers in the Inferno had been murdered by Francesca’s deformed husband (Paolo’s brother), to whom she had been married by trickery, before they could repent.
When Dante speaks with them, they are still in love, and explain how what had brought them together (the power of the Book!) had been an account of Lancelot and Guinevere’s adulterous passion. The power of l’Amour, sweeping so many along with it.
59. James Gillray (1756–1815)
The Blood of the Murdered Crying for Vengeance, 1793
Possibly adapted by Blake for The Lovers’ Whirlwind (those figure-like forms at the bottom of the swirl?) The guillotining of poor dumb proto-bourgeois Louis XVI would have been the most shocking act of lèse-majesté since Elizabeth Tudor’s reluctant and much postponed execution of her first-cousin-once-removed, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, and Charles I’s beheading under Oliver Cromwell after a rigged trial. No social order is immutable henceforth, and no divine right of kings.
60. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828)
A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, (1820–23), detail
A frightening group of figures, malevolent, ecstatic, cannily watchful, surging forward at the head of a long train of others. A new, dangerous social collective.
61. Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835)
Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole, 1796
The beautiful young general, in an image that must have been imprinted on thousands of romantic young minds, leads his troops into action against the Austrians in an episode in the Italian campaign.
62. Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835)
Battle of the Pyramids, 1810
The battle, christened by Napoleon himself, the Pyramids being distantly visible, took place during his 1798–99 campaign in Egypt, when he was in his late twenties and aiming to make his mark on an epic scale.
The Egyptian venture, as described in Alan Schom’s 888-page Napoleon Bonaparte (1997), was pretty much a bust and (in that appalling heat, among those alien peoples) hell on his troops. But, given his own fascination with the country, and his assistance to scholars, it firmed up the image of Egypt as the repository of millenia of arcane knowledge.
63. Jacques-Louis David (1748–1829)
Bonaparte, Calm on a Fiery Steed, Crossing the Alps, 1801
A masterpiece of French political Romanticism by a politically odious artist.
An unforgettable inspirational icon.
Commissioned by the new-made First Consul himself, after his 1800 coup-d’état, from the artist who, as friend of Robespierre and Marat, had been art-director and signer of death-warrants during the Revolution, during which he immortalized the assassinated Marat in the bath in which he sought relief from his chronic itching.
There were five versions of the Bonaparte painting, with its rider at least a foot taller than the man himself. His driving of his army up through the mountain pass to defeat the Austrians sounds militarily brilliant.
Ah! that cult of Napoleon, nearest thing to a secular Saviour, a transformer, a bringer of Glory. His indifference to the welfare of his soldiers during the Egyptian campaign and the Russian debacle didn’t generate disillusionment
Hitler, Stalin, Mao take note. He was partly revered because of the devastation.
64. Jacques-Louis David (1748–1829)
Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814
For awhile, not having done my homework, I assumed that this was a hymn to the joys of young hardbodies, unwinding after a naked battle, with Leonidas making up his mind which of them he was gong to have, the dishy youth fixing his sandal being an obvious candidate.
In fact, Leonidas and his fellow Spartans were a rearguard at Thermopylae against the much larger army of the Persians, in a fight to the death.
But it still looks rompish.
65. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Liberty Leading the People, 1830
One of the great Romantic images, applicable to both war and revolution, including the 1870 Paris Commune.
Wonderful classical breasts, wonderful profile. France defined as la belle Marianne, her inspiring image still evoked a century later against the Germans. Great kid with those pistols. An Afro man with a sword. An interesting bohemian character with shabby top hat and cravat, who could have been a denizen of the theatrical Boulevard des Crimes immortalized in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945).
Corpses, too, one with his pants stripped off and a glimpse of pubic hair. This isn’t the tidied up neo-classical combat of Jacques-Louis David, so noxious a presence in 19thC academic French art.
66. J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851)
The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up,
I see that in 2005, in a poll organized by the BBC, this was voted the greatest painting in a British art gallery, the runners-up being Constable’s The Hay Wain, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait.
The Téméraire, according to Wiki, was one of the last British ships that had fought at Trafalgar in 1805, and is being towed here, a bit spectrally, behind a smoke-jetting dark tugboat, with a ghostlier old ship further back—the romantic old, the businesslike new, and a pure young girl ascending the throne in the same year, and a new age beginning.
The tone is elegiac without being nostalgic. This is now, and is to remain, an age of peace, technological advances, and prosperity, secured earlier by a British prowess that demonstrated that she indeed ruled the waves, and is not in need of any martial adventurism now in order to authenticate herself. She won at Trafalgar, which Turner memorialized in a handful of paintings in the 1820s. The best-known one shows the flagship Victory, its sails a chaos of forms, and lots of featureless men in or on the water in front of her.
Turner, if one may go by his numerous works online and in Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll’s The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner (Yale, 1977), was the laureate of energy and peace. Overwhelmingly, his violences are natural ones—ships and boats in deep trouble as the wind, power for their swelling sails, turns enemy, threatening trade and travel.
It’s interesting how different a path he took from that of Delacroix, a generation his junior. But then, he himself would have been almost forty at the time of Waterloo, when Delacroix was only fourteen, and would have viewed Napoleonic glory very differently, as did the unromantic Wellington. Turner’s only painting of war on land was The Field of Waterloo (1818), a night scene with a pile of corpses in the foreground illuminated by the moon and the flaming torch of a couple come, presumably in search, I take it, of someone fallen.
67. J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851)
The Golden Bough, 1834
A priestess in a sacred grove with an ever-growing tree and a significant lake, featured, it appears, in the Aeneid. The golden landscape recedes into mystery, in contrast to the sea-bound recessions in the paintings here by Patenier and Bruegel.
68. J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851)
Mortlake Terrace, 1827
A lovely celebration of the English mixture of order and naturalness, up river near Richmond, and away from the untidiness of Regency London, and with the repressions of a government terrified of revolution comfortably out of mind. A row of planted trees, not too regularized. A bit of river wall. A clean pathway where it would be safe to stroll admiring the river view. A commercial boat or two. A remarkable composition. And, brilliantly, that little dog.
Since writing that, it’s been thrilling having the image expand in a better reproduction (it can be enlarged further) and observing details that you’d have seen in front of the painting itself.
The table and chairs show that we’re in the grounds of a private house, with trees planted by a proprietor, not some civic improver, plus a neo-classical structure of some kind. Children have been at play—a doll, a hoop. (Wiki has an article on Hoop Rolling, hoops, like dolls, going way back, and widely popular, with symbolic associations.) Is that a nursemaid by the tree? Is someone standing behind the tree on the wall? There is a second dog. And the one on the wall is looking towards a busy scene, some kind of regatta maybe. Peaceable maritime England—the Thames the great waterway. The tracery of the overhead branches is lovely and complements the relative austerity of the trunks.
I hadn’t previously noticed the houses lining the riverside. This is Mortlake, a fashionable suburb by then, close to Richmond and Kew Gardens, on the south side of the river. We’re looking westwards, directly into the afternoon sun, a pale disk, its light reflected off the wall.
69. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Mademoiselle Rose, 1817–20
Delacroix, without props and theatrics, does one of the great art nudes, his model taken “candidly” sitting, just like that, stay like that, but why do you want me like this, no no stay just the way you are.
So she looks a bit sad, and not as young as she was, but her body is firm still, and displays a touch of that pubic hair so curiously absent earlier from nudes across five European centuries, and first emerging in respectable movies on Jane Birkin in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).
And the model is a person, an individual, with her own name, Mademoiselle Rose. I would bet that Delacroix was referring back to Boucher’s so very different Miss O’Murphy.
70. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
A Mad Woman, c. 1822
Madness and vision? But vision of what? Insight into what kinds of the truth of things?
Other figures are more simply mad, like Géricault’s joyless compulsive woman gambler.
71. François-Léon Benouville (1821–1859)
In the Old Testament, where there’s a Book of Esther, Esther was the Jewish queen of a Persian king who by her courage saved the king and her own people from plotters. Racine wrote a play about her. Handel based an oratorio on it.
The woman in the painting, in her stained and shabby dress, doesn’t look queenly. But the cushions don’t look like what you’d expect for a captive. What is the Nubian saying to her? She seems to be ignoring it, locked in her own space.
In any event, she is one of the most complex women on the site so far. She’d be a serious talker if one were in a relationship with her, different from both the language-loving Irish and the quick-tongued cleverness of French hostesses like Madame de Staël—more introspective, more melancholy, more, well, Jewish.
The fascination of Napoleon and others with the millenia-year-old wisdom of Egypt, was paralleled, as travel conditions improved and the romantic Holy Land became more accessible, with the recognition that Jews too (emancipated in France in 1791) had a long and rich cultural tradition. And Jewish women became, in goyishe eyes, mysterious and erotic.
72. Ary Scheffer (1795–1858)
The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil, 1836
Here are the classic doomed lovers after Tristran and Isolde, swept helplessly away (as they inform Dante) by a coup-de-foudre as they read in an Arthurian romance about adulterous Lancelot and Guinevere.
Dante and Virgil are unsmiling.
It looks as though she’s clinging to him and he, in his own mental torment, is trying to get away. If this is deathless love, it’s not a happy kind. The treatment of her body verges on the kind of 19th century academic art, such as Bougereau’s, that gets away with things because well-made and serious.
Given his hidden face and the merely yearning look on hers, there isn’t much to hold the mind here. Mostly one just looks at her ass, not exactly a central element in the cult of Love as manifestation of Spirit.
73. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Triason (1767–1824)
François-René de Chateaubriand, (1790s?)
Described in Wiki as “writer, politician, diplomat and historian” and “considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature.” In the best-known portrait of him, also by Girodet and done in 1808, he’s a bit too romantically brooding, posed against a vaguely exotic background, with tousled locks and Napoleonic hand thrust across his chest under his jacket. Also (for a hero) he’s a bit short. But he’s formidable in the earlier portrait and would be formidable today. I’ve guessed at the date, given that he looks in his twenties still. He and Girodet were born within a year of one another. There was obviously fellow feeling there.
74. William Hilton (1788–1839)
Portrait of John Clare, 1820
In contrast to the Fab Five (who’d gotten all the PR), and even Blake, this fiercely proud and terribly fragile and unlucky man, holding himself together here for the portraitist by an exercise of will, looks as if he was indeed the creator of his marvellous poems.
75. Ary Scheffer (1795–1858)
Portrait of Fréderic Chopin, 1830s (?)
A great Romantic portrait, convincing us (if we didn't know the subject) that this is an aristocratic figure of notable intelligence, sensitivity, and inner force, possibly even a military man, and (once we know who it is) a creator who, in the displayed strength and intensity, transcends the popular image of his “delicate” creations. Which was far from being the case with the images, at least as available through Google, of the English Romantic Five, or even Hölderlin and Hugo.
It would be interesting to compare this portrait with that of Moritz Wetzer von Eberstein, #22. What a difference it made when men were able to show their own hair. The only portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds in which he looks like a major mind and not just a formidable man-of-letters shows him wigless and short-haired.
76. John Martin (1789–1854)
Manfred and the Alpine Witch, 1837
Wiki tells us that:
Manfred is a Faustian noble living in the Bernese Alps. Internally tortured by some mysterious guilt, which has to do with the death of his most beloved, Astarte, he uses his mastery of language and spell-casting to summon seven spirits, from whom he seeks forgetfulness. The spirits, who rule the various components of the corporeal world, are unable to control past events and thus cannot grant Manfred's plea. For some time, fate prevents him from escaping his guilt through suicide.
Apparently there was a good deal of sexual confusion in Byron’s head when he wrote the poem, after going into exile from England because of—take your pick—an incestuous affair with his half-sister, or having congress with his wife “unnaturally,” or occasionally swinging the other way. (On which see George Colman’s not necessarily reliable “Don Leon” in these pages.”)
In any event, there’s no psychology in Martin’s painting, only the symbolic evocation of turbulence, and the tension between humans as dwarfed by Nature (mountains were being discovered) and humans as GREATER than nature.
Martin did other Big Forces paintings, one of them showing mighty buildings being destroyed and fire and larva bursting up from below.
77. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
The Death of Ophelia, 1843
A powerful response to Shakespeare, and vastly different from Millais’ Ophelia (1851–2), drifting and quietly singing among the vegetation, the model seriously catching cold in the tub.
78. J. M.W. Turner (1775–1851)
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour Mouth, c. 1842
A dab or two less, and you’d have abstraction, but it would be a thinner and two-dimensional work, rather than the three-dimensional one that it is.
This is the power of Nature.
79. John Constable (1776–1837)
Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, (date?)
Constable produced what on the Web look to have been acres of pot-boiling dullness, being a good deal dependent on his subject matter (not all that unlimited in the environs of an English village) to give him major form, and losing energy from the canvas when smoothing things over for the Lovable Rural England market. With, please, no reminders of the misery of the post-Enclosure rural labourers and the savage repression of their 1830s protests.
The presence of his best loved pictures on innumerable jigsaw puzzles and boxes is only fitting. If you wanted to be in Salisbury looking admiringly at the cathedral between trees when it wasn’t raining, there it was.
But there was also the drama of perception and recording in those oil “sketches” for the ambitious works, paintings in their own right that had the admiration of Delacroix. And Constable found subjects where no-one else was looking,
And when he cut loose, particularly with conjunctions of sand, sea, and sky, he really cut loose, as he does here, slashing on paint in a way looking a century ahead. And a quiet painting like Brighton Beach with Colliers (1824) looks straight out of the Impressionist bin, before the fact.
80. Honoré Daumier (1808–1879)
The Third-Class Carriage, 1860–63
Quantifiable, unromantic, enlightened, technological modernity, with passengers sitting there quietly, including what look like a craftsman and his wife, in a way that would have been less likely in the crowded horse-drawn omnibus, let alone stage-coach. Lurking here is the lonely crowd of the City, with proximity and no relating.
81. Honoré Daumier
Intermission at the Comédie Française, 1858
Quels cons! If one were young and bohemian and wanted to define “bourgeois” this would be a useful document.
82. Honoré Daumier
Crispin and Scapin, 1858–60
But still, theatre can provide an ironical subversiveness, a touch of the mephistophelean, something of the Italianate commedia-del-arte, watched with pleasure by theatre-goers like Gautier, Nerval, Flaubert, its characters adapted into Watteauesque parks of the imagination by Verlaine in Fêtes Galantes (1869), and the Romantic theatricalisation of L’Amour brought to a glorious apotheosis in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945).