What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Paolo Veronese’s Masterpiece: Feast in the House of Levi (c. 1573)

“I paint and compose figures.” ~ Paolo Veronese

At first glance this Italian Renaissance painting appears to be depicting your average 16th century lavish Venetian banquet; but when you focus on the central figures beneath the middle arch it becomes apparent that it’s actually a scene of Jesus and his twelve disciples at The Last Supper.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

The Last Supper was in fact the painting’s original title, as commissioned by the refectory of the Convent of San Giovanni e Paolo, to replace Titian’s Last Supper which had been destroyed by fire in 1571. The monks did not take umbrage at the painting’s contemporary aristocratic setting and adornments.

Exterior of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice

The Inquisition however, took a more pejorative view! During the political and religious landscape of the Counter-Reformation all religious art works had to strictly convey the spiritual message and theological doctrine that was dictated by the Roman Catholic Church.

A brush with the Inquisition!

Despite its magnificence as a work of art, the Last Supper got Veronese hauled up before a tribunal of religious inquisitors who were less than impressed with the painter’s secular additions.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

Some of the questioning went along these lines:

TI: Why have you depicted buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarves, and other like fooleries?

PV: We painters take the same licence as do poets and madmen…for ornament, as one does.

TI: Who do you think had been present at the Last Supper?

PV: I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…

TI: Has anyone given you orders to paint Germans, buffoons and similar figures in this picture?

PV: No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

TI: Should the ornaments in the picture not be suitable to the subject…or have you put them there only to suit your fancy, without any discretion or reason?

PV: I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.

TI: Do you not know that in countries that were besieged by heresy- particularly in Germany- many such pictures full of foolishness had been painted in order to ridicule the Catholic Church?

PV: I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters.

TI: What have your masters painted?

PV: In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling. (I bet he thought he’d stumped them with this reply).

TI: Be advised that clothing was not necessary at the Last Judgement, but no foolishness was present there either.

PV: I do not pretend to (defend) it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration.

A page from the transcript of the Inquisition.

It must have been a trifle intimidating being questioned thus about his motives and his art. Not wanting to fall foul of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, Veronese agreed on a solution to correct the picture according to the requests of the tribunal at his own cost.

Veronese may have felt more defiant than he let on, and rather than alter the picture as directed, he simply changed the title of the painting to The Feast in the House of Levi, and the Inquisition was satisfied.

Veronese’s renamed painting remained inside the Convent of San Giovanni e Paolo until 1797, when it was removed on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte and taken to Paris. When it was returned to Venice a decade later it sat once more in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo until it was relocated to its current home at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Interior of San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

When compared with other Last Supper paintings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Jacopo Tintoretto the questioning of Veronese by The Inquisition appears concordant with what they were trying to achieve.

The Last Supper Fresco by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1495 – 1498

The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto

Paolo Veronese was clearly not burdened with the same concerns, as he wanted to put his own artistic spin onto the traditional biblical scene.

From Wikipedia:

The revised title refers to an episode in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5, in which Jesus is invited to a banquet:

And Levi made himself a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

The Feast in the House of Levi

The oil on canvas painting was completed in 1573, measuring 18 ft 2 in x 42 ft (555 x 1280 cm) and its home is in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

What I love about this painting is the vibrancy and range of colours, and its realistic rendering as a supper that may have taken place in the grandeur of Veronese’s Venice. The diversity of people in their cultural and social depictions highlights Venice as an important and eclectic centre of trade, culture and wealth in the late 16th century.

Veronese had painted what he knew best – people. Whereas his older contemporary, Titian, was more concerned with exploring the psychology of his subjects, Veronese painted people in their outward public appearance, in realistic activities and attire for the era. It would have placed the Last Supper in a setting viewers could relate to; in many ways making it more human and accessible to its audience.

Detail of Christ, Saint Peter, Saint John and Judas

You have the divine figure of Christ in the centre, engaged in teaching and sharing with his disciples, and around them (almost as if the holy party aren’t really there), a whole raft of ordinary people: Venetians, merchants, moors, German guards, various guests, jesters and animals, feasting without a care in the world.

Detail of the Germans

It probably seemed entirely feasible to him that Jesus would tolerate a cat gnawing and playing with a bone at his feet beneath the table, with a dog curiously looking on, or a parrot sitting on the arm of a dwarf.

The sumptuous green clothes of the wealthy man on the left portrays an open, communicative stance, whilst the corpulent Venetian guest on the right of the central archway comes across as more inebriated; his belly full of food and wine, his stripy robe somewhat dishevelled and saggy, his skin pallid and sweaty, as if he suffering the after effects of a little too much indulgence…

The smooth marble pillars of the three archways are formidable and luminous, anchoring the scene in a majestic backdrop, where from behind the figures ghostly silhouettes of buildings glow in the moonlight of an immortal Venetian evening.

His use of colour and attention to detail of the ordinary folk gives us an evocative snapshot into the more decadent side of life in Renaissance Venice.

The Lord Jesus Christ is depicted in a translucent salmon tunic with a dark blue cape with his loving light surrounding his head; in deep conversation with Saint John, as Saint Peter listens whilst helping himself to a leg of lamb. Even though they are the chosen ones they are still shown in their human aspects.

The traitor Judas, the figure in dark red in the shadows, to the right of Saint John on the opposite side of the table is looking away from his Lord, likely ashamed of the betrayal he has agreed to commit, knowing it will lead to Christ’s crucifixion. He seems afraid that Jesus will see through him to the vile act in his heart, even as Jesus already knows what will happen.

Paolo Veronese (1528 – 19 April 1588)

Born Paolo Caliari in Verona, Italy, the son of a stonemason; his birthplace immortalised his artistic name, Veronese.

Paolo Veronese – Self Portrait

He joined the workshop of his uncle Antonio Badile before studying under Giovanni Francesco Caroto (1480-1546) and subsequently working on the decoration of Venetian villas.

Veronese created numerous pastoral frescoes in well-known villas such as the Villa Barbaro by famed Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in Maser. He gifted aesthetic beauty to the walls and ceilings of the houses and churches of ‘La Serenissima’.

As a fun-loving Venetian patron of Veronese you would have been confronted with the imaginary landscapes, lively festivals and various illusory effects that served as a backdrop to your entertainment and possibly your portrait.

Another of his grand banquet scenes was the Marriage Feast at Cana (except it’s Venice); an explosion of colour and an extraordinary depiction of humanity ensconced in celebration.

Forerunner to the Baroque era

Veronese’s ceiling paintings of Esther Brought Before Ahasuerus and The Triumph of Mordecai in the Church of San Sebastiano as well as The Rape of Europa in the Doge’s Palace are particularly ahead of their time, providing a model for the Baroque style that was soon to sweep the continent.  Perhaps he had anticipated the coming epoch.

Veronese’s legacy was partly as an influence for Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, one of the most important Baroque fresco painters.

The Complete works of Paolo Veronese:

Last Work

Veronese’s final painting was his homage to the Serenissima, The Triumph of Venice. It was completed just three years before his death and had taken him five years of toil. It shows the people of the republic willingly surrendering to Venetian power, and among the envoys paying their respects is no less a figure than the French King Henri III.

The Apotheosis of Venice by Paolo Veronese

I wish I could have seen his exhibition when it was on at The National Gallery in London, although I think the Feast in the House of Levi was too large to transport:

If pomp and splendour was your pleasure, I doubt anyone else could have outshone or outdone Paolo Veronese!

There are three Venetians that are never separated in my mind — Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. ~ John Ruskin Art Culture : A Hand-Book of Art Technicalities and Criticisms (1877)

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Peter Paul Rubens’ Masterpiece: Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-12)

“I’m just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration.”  ~ Peter Paul Rubens

With so much violence being perpetrated in Syria, across the Middle East and in pockets around the world, it seems timely to revisit a powerful anti-war artwork by one of history’s greatest artists – the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens’ visceral and heart-stopping visual depiction of the biblical story about the slaughter of the firstborn male babies in Bethlehem fills me with horror. It’s almost as if the heinous, frenzied energy portrayed within the lifelike pigments on the canvas spill out onto the viewer. It’s impossible to remain passive and calm while looking at Massacre of the Innocents.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The Massacre of the Innocents now hangs as the pièce de résistance  in the Art Gallery of Ontario, to whom it was donated by Kenneth Thomson; a generous gift to the people of Toronto. After its initial time hanging in the National Gallery, (side by side once again with the painting that preceded it, Samson and Delilah) it was sent to its permanent home in Toronto in 2008. I wished I had seen it while it was in London…

Provenance and Misattribution

The Massacre of the innocents was the first of two works on the biblical subject painted by Rubens, commencing in 1611 just three years after his return to Antwerp from an eight year stint in Renaissance Italy.

Alongside Rubens’ earlier masterpiece, Samson and Delilah, the Forchondt Brothers sold the works to a patron of the arts and an avid Rubens collector, Hans-Adam, the Prince of Liechtenstein in around 1700. The paintings remained in the Liechtenstein family collection for two centuries, and at one point were hung together in the Garden Palace in Vienna.

The first misattribution occurred in 1767, when the Massacre of the Innocents was categorised by Vincenzio Fanti as a Franciscus de Neve (II) and the second mistake happened in 1780 when it was catalogued as being by Jan van den Hoecke, one of Rubens’ assistants. The painting was subsequently sold to an Austrian family in 1920, and then loaned in 1923 to Reichersberg Abbey, a monastery of Augustinian canons in northern Austria.

When the Massacre of the Innocents came up for sale it was brought to the attention of Sotheby’s and the National Gallery in London where David Jaffé helped to identify the work as a Rubens.

He compared it with Samson and Delilah (already hanging in the National Gallery) and recognised the artist’s distinctive style and artistic ‘handwriting’ immediately.

Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609 – 10

It strikes me as more than co-incidence that these two works by Rubens have crossed paths multiple times throughout their history!

Some statistics:

Once the Massacre of the Innocents had been attributed to an Old Master its perceived value increased exponentially.  It was the most expensive painting ever sold in the UK and Europe when  the hammer crashed down with the winning bid at a thrilling Sotheby’s auction in 2002.

The purchaser was the Canadian billionaire and art enthusiast Kenneth Thomson, who stumped up the eye-watering amount of £49.5 million; a world record for an Old Master. It’s in the top ten of the world’s most expensive paintings. No painting has reached more at auction in the UK and Europe to this day.

On 1st March 2017, Gustav Klimt’s ‘Bauerngarten’ painting was sold by Sotheby’s in London for a record price of £47,971,250 ($59,321,248), making it the second highest painting in British and European history after Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents.

Bauerngarten by Gustav Klimt

However, if one includes sculptures as works of art, they were both eclipsed in 2010 when Alberto Giacometti’s life size Walking Man was sold for £65 million by Sotheby’s.

Previous to the sale of Massacre of the Innocents only two other paintings fetched more at auction: Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet at $82.5 million in 1990 and Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, which fetched $78.1 million in the same year, both in New York.

Anti-war sentiments:

Rubens grew up in the aftermath of violence and war, as a protestant led rebellion was crushed when his home city of Antwerp was laid to waste by the Spanish on 4th November 1576 during the Eighty Years War. This brilliant article by Jonathon Jones in The Guardian gives an insight into the life and times of Peter Paul Rubens and his social commentary on violence and war via his art, and in particular, his epic painting of the Massacre of the Innocents.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” ~ Elie Wiesel

The genius of the Massacre of the Innocents

When you get over the sheer revulsion of the subject matter – it’s not easy to look at infants being slaughtered, or the anguish on mothers’ faces as they desperately try to save their sons from the cruel attack of Herod’s soldiers – you can appreciate the skill of Rubens in creating a scene of pure drama, of the wretched bodies trapped in time, in their epic struggle for survival.

The impressive blend of shades of light and dark epitomise the influence of Caravaggio imbued from his travels in Italy.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The luminous and deathly grey skin tones, the rippling muscles, the terror on the faces, the contortion of bodies in a confined space make for a powerful painting. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it.  Rubens fought against warmongering with his paint brush, (it’s not just the pen that is mightier than the sword).

My eyes are drawn to the central figure, the young, fair haired mother with her back turned to us and being pushed downwards by an older woman about to be run-through by a soldier. She is grasping her baby in her left hand, shielding him beneath her fleshy, alabaster shoulder, whilst her right hand reaches up to claw and gouge the face of the soldier who is grabbing at her son’s loin cloth. The silky, deep crimson skirt has a sombre sheen, as if it is meant to represent their spilled blood.

Above and behind them, orange streaks across the sky and a ruined, classical city provide the back drop for one of art and history’s unspeakable deeds. Rubens has a way of making spectators become involved in his paintings, his visual storytelling.

David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens:

Perhaps the outrage evoked by this 406 year old painting should be seared onto the minds and hearts of politicians all over the world.  Innocents are still being massacred and exploited in one way or another. Maybe that will never change; human nature has shown us repeatedly that we are slow to learn from the lessons of history.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Eli Wiesel

Peter Paul Rubens (28 June 1577 – 30 May 1640)

Born as one of three children to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks, Rubens was well educated as a humanist scholar, familiar with Latin and classical literature. He remained a devout Roman Catholic throughout his life. He began painting at age 14, and studied under two leading late Mannerist artists of the time, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen.

Peter Paul Rubens – self portrait c. 1623

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was not only a prodigious painter (with around 1400 works of art to his name), but a scholar, diplomat and businessman. He was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles 1 of England.

His works were mostly religious and historical in subject; usually bold, ebullient and colourful, with a classical aesthetic for muscular, full-figured human anatomy and reverence to a more natural, realistic way of portraying people, places and scripture, that defined Flemish Baroque art.

The artist and his first wife, Isabella Brandt – The Honeysuckle Bower by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609

During his years of study in Italy, Rubens drew many statues and sculptures from antiquity and learnt the techniques of High Renaissance painters from Venice such as Giorgione and in particular, Titian, who he revered especially for his use of colour; as well as the towering figures of Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo in Rome.

He also embraced the edgier Baroque artists such as Carracci and Caravaggio and reflected each of their styles in his unique body of work as he became established in his own right in Antwerp. He fused these iconic influences into his own unique perspective, and is probably considered to be the greatest painter of the Dutch Masters.

I’ll sign off with a short documentary by Andrew Graham Dixon which gives a fascinating insight into the genius of this extraordinary man:

“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size… has ever surpassed my courage.” ~ Peter Paul Rubens

Welcome to the Most Original and Unique Contemporary African Art Gallery in the UK

It’s my very great pleasure to introduce you to Debs Digby, creator and curator of Fillingdon Fine Art. I first met Debs through our Athena business networking group, and she talked about her colourful contemporary African Art gallery. Honestly, she had me at hello!

I’ve been to all her exhibitions since then, and normally have to be forcefully dragged away (just like my daughters), from her beautiful, meticulously prepared and stunning gallery. I’ve always found high quality, unique gifts there, (for every budget), plus the odd treat for myself!

gold-leaf-pottery

I asked her to share her wonderful passion for contemporary African art with you, as it’s well worth a visit if you live withing driving distance. If it’s a few hours you can make a day of it, with the village of West Wycombe, West Wycombe Park and also the Hell Fire Caves located just five minutes up the road, so there’s plenty to combine on a day trip.

If you like what you see I strongly recommend having a look on the Fillingdon Fine Art website. Debs is more than happy to ship the item of your dreams directly to you if you’re unable to visit the gallery during the upcoming spring exhibition.

That’s all from me,  it’s time to discover these gems from Debs!

🇻🇺⛰🌅🌆

“No-one’s wife, mother or daughter” is how I describe my status when I am on a sourcing trip, and any wife, mother or daughter will know how liberating that feels! For 26 years I have returned annually to the continent of my birth, to roam freely through the studios of artists, sculptors, potters, weavers, glass-blowers, wood-carvers and jewellery makers, hunting and gathering for my gallery.

zebra

From the majestic Drakensberg Mountains to the floor of the Rift Valley; from the rolling vineyards of the Cape to the shores of Lake Kariba; from The Kingdom of Swaziland overlooking Mozambique to the crashing of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans; I seek, I love, I buy.

Photographer heike@kayenne.net

Photographer heike@kayenne.net

Artistic creativity is inherent in Africa and natural materials such as wood, stone and minerals abound, as well as an ethic of self-sufficiency and a history of home adornment and personal embellishment.  Not seeing any work of quality from Africa in London in the late 80’s, and wanting to be my own mistress if and when I began a family; I resigned my marketing job in the food sector and opened a contemporary African art and craft gallery in Knightsbridge in 1991.

Marriage and motherhood followed with a move to the country, and the gallery seamlessly relocated to its new home in a rustic 300 year old barn nestling in the Chiltern Hills.

sign-road

Three times a year, our distinctive sign goes up on the A40 in Buckinghamshire, and the public are invited to view the latest curated exhibition; always a large mixed show with original paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery and craft by over 100 different artists from Africa, who are not big enough to supply department stores or the mainstream galleries in UK.

Likening ourselves to ‘the slow art version of slow food’ we aim to be the complete antithesis of the urban shopping mall experience.  With two and a half acres of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, parking is plentiful; riders and ramblers are welcome; dogs, kids and grannies are encouraged; refreshments in the garden are available and excess home-grown produce is often given away as a ‘going home present’.

Everything is complimentary until the point of purchase, but we do encourage a donation for refreshments to the worthy charity Farm Africa (registered charity number 326901).

sculptures

Many of our crafts are created in rural communities, and selected deprived agricultural areas benefit greatly from long-term assisted programs initiated by impressive organisation.  To date, we are proud to have raised over five and a half thousand pounds for Farm Africa through our refreshment donations alone.

But rural, friendly and aesthetic ethos must not be mistaken for unprofessional.  By personally choosing all the work; having reciprocal knowledge of the artists and 26 years’ experience of the market; customers can have confidence in our taste, judgement and expertise.

2016-lion

We promote each artist through our comprehensive website and work can always be viewed and purchased from there, in-between or concurrent to exhibitions.  We are happy to pack & post at cost, and have recently sent work to USA, Australia, mainland Europe and Dubai.

We also issue customers with information sheets to complement their purchases.  This is particularly popular for pieces which are gifts, as it enhances their provenance and originality as one-off unique works of art.

glass-vase

Having been chosen, commissioned and bought, the work is finalised before being packed ever so carefully by the artists themselves, and collated by a freight agent in Africa before flying overnight to London.  Taxes and duties are all paid before the boxes are delivered to Fillingdon Farm and the great unpack begins, with my heart in my mouth, hoping nothing is broken and salvaging as much packaging as we can in the name of recycling.

debs-unpacking

We pride ourselves on paying the asking price to our artists as we are firm believers in, where possible, ‘trade not aid’.  A fair price in exchange for perfect, beautiful and original work is our policy and it has never let us down.

Photographing, measuring, cataloguing, stock-listing and pricing are all the mundane necessities of running a gallery, alongside the important work of loading the website and posting on social media. We are @DebsFFA on Twitter and we’re also on Facebook.

PR, marketing and networking are all essential, as there is little point in having a fabulous product if no-one knows about it.

2016-2-orange-tepots

But by far the least glamorous job is cleaning.  A gallery space – especially one in the country – does not stay spider-free for long!  So a vacuum cleaner, long-handled broom and mop and bucket are employed amongst the ancient rafters, before my trusty little blue ladder comes out and the fun job of hanging begins.

barn-preparation

We open and end a show on Saturdays, with the final Sunday being dismantle-day and one when customers can collect any artwork they have bought and left on show for the duration of the exhibition.  Once we are up and running, we are open for fifteen days flat, including Sundays, 10am – 4pm.

We get so many lovely repeat customers, knowing they can find an original quality gift; happy they can meet their friends over an unhurried cup of tea; or comfortable just to enjoy the peace, colour and creativity of the show.  But, like all businesses, we need fresh blood too, so referrals are appreciated and new faces are very welcome.

interior

Our forthcoming exhibition “Freshly Found” opens on 25th March and runs until 8th April.  As always, all details are on our website www.fillingdon.com and you can subscribe there to our newsletters so you will always be informed about our shows. 

We have planted 1000 new daffodil bulbs down our drive which we hope will be a dancing ribbon of yellow to welcome you, and perhaps the first bluebells might be out in the nearby woods, so do bring your walking boots.

If you can’t make this spring exhibition, make a note of the July dates; 15th – 29th, and come and enjoy the magnificence of large stone sculptures from Zimbabwe set amongst a traditional English summer garden in full bloom.  Finally, we’ll close the year with our ever-popular Christmas exhibition in November, where glass angels twinkle; decorations sparkle and a plethora of unique handcrafted items solve perennial gift dilemmas.

flower-painting

Come to one, two or all three shows, or visit the website.  Whichever way, know you will be supporting Africa and her creative community as well as enjoying something unique and special.  Let us be your guilty secret; you won’t be disappointed.

Halloween: An Epic Journey to The Isle of the Dead

“A dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” ~ Arnold Böcklin

As our collective fascination with death prevails at this time of year, my thoughts drifted to Rachmaninoff’s evocative symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, completed in early 1909.

This haunting music was composed after Rachmaninoff had seen a black and white reproduction of the painting Isle of the Dead, exhibited in Paris two years earlier.

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

The original and subsequent versions of the Isle of the Dead paintings were created in colour by the romantic Swiss artist, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901).

Between 1880 and 1886 he painted a total of five versions of his iconic Isle of the Dead. The original painting was commissioned by his patron, Alexander Günther which was spotted half-finished, sitting on an easel in his Florence studio by German widow Maria Berna. This is often referred to as the Basel version.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

She persuaded him to add the female figure and the draped coffin to the solitary rowing boat in memory of her deceased husband. Maria’s painting (version two) was a smaller painting (29 x 48 inches) of oil on wood, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Böcklin must have admired Maria’s idea as he then also added the figure and coffin to his original painting. These first two paintings were titled Die Gräberinsel (Tomb Island) by Böcklin. The enduring ‘Isle of the Dead’ name that all the versions now go by was suggested by art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Painting number three was done in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s own initials: A.B. The painting was sold in 1933 when it was acquired by Adolf Hitler, where it hung in the Berghof in Obersalzberg. After 1940 it was moved to the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Its less contentious home these days is in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version number four, (upon which Rachmaninoff’s music is based), was created in 1884 due to financial pressures, and was bought by art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen. Luckily a black and white photograph was taken of the painting before it was destroyed by fire during World War II.

Rachmaninoff eventually got to see the fifth and final colour version (painted in 1886) at the museum of fine Arts in Leipzig. He commented that he much preferred the earlier black and white version and that he would not have been inspired to compose his opus 29 had he seen the colour version first instead.

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

“When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.” ~ Sergei Rachmaninoff referring to his orchestral opus 29 in A minor, Isle of the Dead.

Possible inspiration

halloween-pondikonissi_islandIt has been proposed that the Greek islet of Pontikonisi near Corfu, with its Byzantine chapel and Cypress trees was the main inspiration for the painting, along with the high volcanic walls of Strombolicchio. Also the English Cemetery in Florence, where Böcklin’s infant daughter was buried served as the location for the painting of the first three versions. Another suggestion is St. George’s Island in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.

Overview of the music by Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra :

Rachmaninov begins with the irregular movement of oars in the water. (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, completed just four years earlier, also begins with the stroke of oars on a lake.) The opening is dark—just low strings, with timpani and harp at first—and mysterious. For a very long time, we move forward with little sense of destination, but with a growing urgency. (Tantalizing melodic fragments appear from time to time, like glimpses through the mist, and a haunting high violin theme takes wing at one point.)

Finally, the island comes into sight, the music gathers force and direction, and at last we hear the Dies Irae, the Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead—a motto of mortality that recurs often in Rachmaninov’s music. Then suddenly the music is suffused with life—urgent, passionate, and joyous. (Here Rachmaninov departs from the painting, although Böcklin did in fact paint a complementary Isle of Life two years after his last Isle of the Dead canvas.) But the Dies Irae rings out, and the music is again clouded in shadows. The ending is mostly still, and we are left where we began, with the sound of ceaseless rowing.

Two spine tingling versions:

Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

An arrangement for 2 pianos sourced from my favourite treasure trove of classical music, with Zdeňka Kolářová and Martin Hrše of the Prague Piano Duo:

In honour of  Böcklin  and Rachmaninoff, as well as the historical origins of our modern interpretation of Halloween, I’ve written a few verses of my own:

Journey to The Isle of the Dead

Deep, melancholy chords escort me to the Isle of the Dead,

Remote, alabaster tombs protrude, rising from darkness and dread.

Monotonous oars glide through glassy, unfathomable depths…

No wind to rustle the sombre shroud of Cypress leaves,

Oil on canvas for widow Maria; a window to her dreams.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Reverent brush strokes paint entry to immortal sleep,

The fatal shore beckons: come, come, your soul to reap.

Cross the silent, still surface, to peace or purgatory…

Within the high, pale rock, lies the secret of eternity,

Destiny concealed from searching, inquisitive fervency.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Five versions, against muted backdrop of foreboding firmament

Greys and blues, softened by nebulous cloud; omnipotent.

Navigate lofty cemetery through the watery gates…

Sea and sky blend and merge, in subtle, never-ending horizon,

Arrival assured: but no departure possible, from Death’s Island.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Rhythmic notes on the stave narrate a deathly story,

Atmospheric melody; oppressive, mythical and eerie.

A final journey to the sea-bound realm beyond the living…

Corpses lay buried, side by side, forever to abide,

Within the endless cavern of souls; life doth hide.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Hallowed art and music, death’s mystery shall convey,

Sacred and ancient celebration – All Saints’ Day.

‘Samhain’ bids Gaelic farewell to light; to summer’s passing…

Hallow –e’en, from 18th century Scottish: ‘All-Hallows-Even’

Holy Eve before the rising; for death is conquered in heaven…

By Virginia Burges

Happy Halloween!

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Bosch’s Masterpiece: The Garden of Earthly Delights (Triptych c. 1510)

A work of art is not always created exclusively for the purpose of being enjoyed, or, to use a more scholarly expression, of being experienced aesthetically. …But a work of art always has aesthetic significance (not to be confused with aesthetic value): whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically. ~ Erwin Panofsky (art historian)

I can’t say I find Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights particularly beautiful, because it’s really quite disturbing in places. When you feast your eyes on many of the smaller images that make up the whole work, the words that spring to mind are freakish, Bacchanalian and nightmarish.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

Unlike his Renaissance contemporary, Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch was unaffected by Italian influences and was not concerned with painting works that hailed the glory of man in all his strength and beauty; but instead portrayed man’s vices and weaknesses in settings of fantastical worlds.

The general consensus among art historians and scholars is that the triptych was not created to be aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense, as more of a social commentary about the extent of human folly that Bosch perceived around him.

The Garden of Earthly Delights – Overview

From left to right, the triptych depicts humanity’s journey and experience of life in three stages: Paradise, The Garden of Earthly Delights and Hell. It is painted in oil on oak, with the central panel measuring 220 x 195 cm and each wing is 220 x 97 cm. If you want to see it in real life you’ll have to travel to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

To me it comes across as a bold, imaginative, surrealist dreamscape; rooted in reality yet completely off the wall!

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a visual smorgasbord of polymorphous nude figures, beasts and human-bestial hybrids, illustrated in various poses and pursuits of pleasure; the most obvious being carnal satisfaction. Other iniquities on display include vanity, pride, decadence and greed, as well as their inevitable consequences.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

It’s so bizarre, it’s like a Renaissance parody of unbridled fornication, except its meaning or warning is deadly serious.

Bosch’s unusual creatures had their origins in the Physiologus, a folk book from Alexandria, and Herold’s illustrations of Herodotus, featuring images of monsters and strange hieroglyphs.

Details of The Garden of Earthly Delights to ‘De Profundis Clamavi’ composed by Josquin performed by The Hilliard Ensemble:

When I gaze upon these mostly grotesque creatures and monsters intertwined in activities and positions that are still shocking today, I wonder at his bravery for committing them to panels, as well as for stepping outside the established norms of the era.

Had he been living in any of the major artistic centers his peculiar type of art may not have been acceptable on the grounds of perspective or traditional expectations. Fortunately he was under the radar of the religious authorities, living in the provinces of the Low Countries which were under the control of the Burgundian aristocracy.

The Draper's Market in 's-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Draper’s Market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Garden of Earthly Delights is something of a time bomb, being way ahead of its time during the Renaissance, containing nothing in its imagery that dates it. The triptych is just as relevant and enigmatic today as it was 500 years ago. Mind you, one has to wonder if Bosch was on some kind of hallucinogenic substance when he painted it!

Hieronymus Bosch has defined sin as a consequence of temptation and lack of judgment in startling, 16th century high definition.

bosch-hell-detail

The three panels that comprise the triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights are full of symbolism and mystery, and Wilhelm Fraenger, a leading Bosch scholar, considered him to be under the influence of esoteric mysticism and occultism.

Provenance, journey to Spain and the tapestry

When the tripych’s owner, Count Hendrik III of Nassau died, The Garden of Earthly Delights was passed on to William of Orange. However, Bosch’s altarpiece was coveted by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, who took it (after torturing William as to its whereabouts), at the start of the Eighty Years War.  He transported it back to Spain, where a copy was made in tapestry form in 1556, exquisitely woven in silver, gold and silk, which now hangs in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

After the Duke of Alba’s death the painting was passed on to his illegitimate son and then became the property of Felipe II of Spain.

Left Panel – The Garden of Eden (Paradise)

In the far left panel of the triptych, Bosch shows us the Garden of Eden at the exact moment Eve is created to be Adam’s earthly companion, with their creator making the introduction. It is a pristine paradise where animals, both European and exotic, as well as mythical creatures roam freely in God’s garden.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden

…”As though enjoying the pulsation of the living blood and as though too he were setting a seal on the eternal and immutable communion between this human blood and his own. This physical contact between the Creator and Eve is repeated even more noticeably in the way Adam’s toes touch the Lord’s foot. Here is the stressing of a rapport: Adam seems indeed to be stretching to his full length in order to make contact with the Creator. And the billowing out of the cloak around the Creator’s heart, from where the garment falls in marked folds and contours to Adam’s feet, also seems to indicate that here a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy”… ~ Wilhelm Fraenger (German art historian 1840 – 1964).

It has been noted that Eve’s body is leaning seductively towards Adam, whose intense gaze has been attributed to three things by Fraenger: firstly, surprise at the presence of his creator, secondly an awareness of Eve and that she has, essentially, the same nature as him and has been created from his body, and thirdly the intense sensation of sexual desire and the primal urge to go forth and copulate…ahem, multiply!

Centre panel – The Garden of Earthly Delights

Some scholars read the triptych panels as a narrative from left to right, so you have the perfect start, moving into the middle panel, which depicts man and woman gone wild with lust; cavorting around the landscape with the animals and each other.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The desire for earthly delights has run rampant and is now in full swing! The amount of naked flesh on display, the frolicking, debauchery and carefree attitude towards the pleasures of earthly life are evident in all the land areas of the Garden of Eden.

In the upper half of the main panel we see maidens bathing and they are encircled by hordes of men riding horses, donkeys, unicorns and beasts in various poses of bravado and acrobatics in order to gain the attention and favour of the females.

bosch-maidens

It seems evident from Bosch’s depictions and the dogma of Original Sin that the blame for man’s fall from grace lies squarely with Eve! The biblical story portrays Eve as the one who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation of eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, promptly leading Adam astray…

Therein lies the struggle of women over the centuries (perhaps subconsciously), with guilt issues!!!

It is a powerful allegory for the loss of innocence and the responsibility that comes with free will and knowledge, since we all can do both good and evil deeds, depending on our nature.

There is an interesting enclave to the right and centre of this panel that shows a group of men and women beneath apple trees. One male is reaching up for an apple while another couple eat an apple and a man approaches a resplendent woman with a giant strawberry, a symbol of the fleeting nature of hedonistic pleasures. One of the few clothed men in the triptych is the man tucked away behind them, watching their activities intently. He stands out with his very dark hair and a stern countenance.

bosch-detail-of-apple-tree

At the very bottom right of the panel there are two men, one of which is more obvious for he is clothed, has dark hair in the shape of an M and is crouching at the entrance to a small cave, pointing to a woman lying down. His possible identity has caused some debate among scholars and art historians. Some think it could be the painting’s benefactor, or an advocate of Adam denouncing Eve, or St John the Baptist or even a self-portrait.

Birds live in pools, fish fly or lay on the ground, it’s as if the world order is in chaos. Interestingly there are no children or elders in the painting, perhaps denoting the garden as it would have been before the fall of man, in a utopia without consequences. The images coalesce into an erotic vortex.

Fraenger believed that Bosch was indicating a route to paradise through sexual freedom that ultimately returned humans to a state of innocence.  Basically redemption through sex, putting his hypothesis directly at odds with the accepted idea that its central theme is one of morality.

Right Panel – Hell

The aversion these brutal images of miscreants suffering to eternity provoke in me, makes it all the more important to appreciate the timeless genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

bosch-hell

The flames, furnace and fires raging in the night of the upper part of the right panel would have been painted from real fires that Bosch had witnessed. Given the religious situation of the time it’s highly likely that he would have seen the burning of villages and executions of those branded as heretics and witches.

The atmosphere reeks of acrid smoke and the stench of wickedness, choking the air out of the viewer’s lungs.

It seems Bosch is expressing his curiosity about Hell, highlighting the fact that it is a firmly established empire here on Earth. The consequences of humanity’s sins (such as gambling), are shown in graphic detail. There is no longer any hint of eroticism, only ugliness.

Contorted, tortured, and broken bodies are subject to physical and psychological punishment and many are being devoured by animals, demons and beasts. It is a gathering of bleak scenes, devoid of hope and God forsaken; in stark contrast to the divine image of the first panel. The darkness is pervasive and heavy. Who wouldn’t amend their ways to avoid such a reality?

bosch-hell-music-detail

I can’t work out why the lute and harp are featured in Hell, with music emblazoned on some poor, half-squashed soul’s derriere! You can hear what the music of Hell sounds like if you take this detailed interactive audio-visual tour: Jheronimus Bosch – the Garden of Earthly Delights

Interestingly, if you draw a straight line from Adam’s eye line in the far left panel of paradise, and follow it diagonally all the way across the Garden of Earthly Delight to Hell in the far right panel, it aligns with Bosch’s self-portrait as the grotesque tree-man afflicted by his sins.

The Exterior panels

On the reverse side of the left and right panel, (which fold over the central panel), Bosch has painted an image of the Earth on day 3 of its creation by God, when the land is separated from the sea.

bosch_-_the_garden_of_earthly_delights_-_the_exterior_shutters

Thus, when the doors are closed it denotes the oneness and unity of creation that is to become fragmented and corrupted once the panels are opened to reveal the carnage within.

Earliest description

The earliest known writing about The Garden of Earthly Delights was recorded in Brussels in 1517, just a year after Bosch’s death, by Antonio de Beatis, secretary/chaplain to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon.  Whilst travelling with the cardinal and his entourage, de Beatis kept a journal of their grand tour through Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and Italy in 1517-18.

In the palace of the Counts of Nassau, Antonio de Beatis noted for posterity the unusual art he beheld:

“Some panels of bizarre themes. They represent seas, skies, woods, meadows, and many other things, such as people crawling out of a shell, others that bring forth birds, men and women, white and blacks doing all sorts of different activities and poses. They feature things so pleasing and fantastic that they could not be properly described in any way to those who do not know them.”

In the same diary he also wrote about meeting Leonardo da Vinci in France in October 1517 and being shown three of his paintings by the ageing artist.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 9th August 1516)

There was no other artist quite like this early Netherlandish master, who was a genre defining anomaly of his era. He was truly an independent, creative free spirit.

Image of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

Sketch of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

His birth name was Hieronymus van Aken and he was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, after which he is named. His first name is also linked to a mysterious religious sect in the town, the ‘Hierononymites’, also known as the ‘Brethren of the Common Life’ whose aims were withdrawal from the world and cultivation of the interior life.

Although he never travelled, he was well known outside of his home town and made a very good living from his art. Felipe II of Spain acquired a total of 33 of his paintings.

Trailer to a new 2016 documentary – Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil

Some of his other famous works are the Haywain Triptych ca. 1490 (also in the Prado), The Ship of Fools (Louvre), Christ Carrying the Cross and the Last Judgement Triptych, Ascent of the Blessed, c. 1504, which resides in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

“This too high for my wit,

I prefer to omit.”

~ Erwin Panofsky on deciding the secret to the interpretation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has not been found.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 2)

“My illustrious lordship, I’ll show you what a woman can do.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi

Not long after her wedding to Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi in Rome on 29th November 1612, Artemisia and her husband moved to Florence; where, armed with a letter of introduction from her father, she began her career as a professional painter.  It proved to be a successful and fruitful time in her life, (she certainly deserved some good fortune after the traumatic events in Rome as a young woman).

Self-portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 - 17 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 – 17 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Florence and the Medici Court

Soon after arriving in Florence the ambitious Artemisia landed a commission from Michelango the Younger, great nephew of the Renaissance icon. She painted a panel, the Allegory of Inclination, for the Galleria of his Casa Buonarroti.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Allegory of Inclination

Artemisia set about educating herself in the spheres of music and literature, employing her beauty and charm to impress the wealthy merchants and nobles of Florence, with the aim of ingratiating herself with the powerful, dynastic Medici Court.

She understood that the appropriate appearance would elevate her position, so she wore expensive silk gowns which she managed to purchase on credit. She gave it some good, old fashioned hustle!

Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute by Artemisia Gentileschi

Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute by Artemisia Gentileschi

After all the struggle of her painful last year in Rome she had earned some success.

Her living was made mostly by painting commissions from wealthy patrons and for Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and Grand Duchess Christina. She was friends with Galileo Galilei – excerpts from her letters to the astronomer, physicist and philosopher still exist.

Tragedy, however, would strike again in her life. The first three of her babies with her husband Pietro did not survive infancy, and her fourth, a daughter, was named Prudentia after her deceased mother. Like her father had done with her, Artemisia taught her to paint.

She eventually left her husband in 1620 after financial problems arose, returning to Rome in 1621. She spent a decade travelling Europe, painting in Genoa, Venice and England (where she was reunited with her father at the court of Charles I), before settling permanently in Naples.

A View of the Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusieri

A View of the Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusieri

Before the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, Naples came under Spanish rule when it was the largest commercial, cultural city on the Mediterranean. In Artemisia’s day it was three times the size of Rome. She spent the last years of her life in Naples and continued painting into her sixties. She taught male students and collaborated with other painters during this time.

Judith and Holofernes

The biblical story from the Book of Judith tells of how the beautiful Israelite widow Judith bravely slays the Assyrian General, Holofernes, in order to save the people of her homeland, (the city of Bethulia). It proved a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque art.

In return for sparing her life and that of her family, Judith had promised Holofernes a secret route into the city in an act of apparent betrayal. Due to his desire for her he admitted her to his tent and gave her free access to the Assyrian camp. Being Jewish, Judith would have taken her own food with her and perhaps a maidservant.

Thinking that his personal conquest of Judith is assured, Holofernes lets down his guard and drinks himself into a stupor. As he sleeps, Judith summons up her courage to decapitate him using his sword. The two women put his head in a sack and sneak out of the camp. The next morning, as the head of Holofernes is displayed on the battlements and the rest of his body is discovered, his men flee, having lost their leader and, quite literally, head of the army.

The chaste Judith ( a female version of David and Goliath), is victorious and has been depicted many times as the triumph of virtue overcoming vice, chastity overcoming lust and humility overcoming pride.

With her penchant for painting  powerful women: heroines of immense strength and courage, imbued with a healthy dose of vulnerability, it’s no surprise that she painted four canvases of Judith and Holofernes.

Of all the paintings and sculptures that were created by artists of the era, (including Caravaggio), to me, hers are the most violent, visceral and real.  The graphic violence of Artemisia’s depictions is staggering when compared to the more sanitised versions (except maybe Caravaggio), considering the other artists were all men.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1614-18. Pitti Palace Florence

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1620 -21. Uffizi Gallery Florence

When I look at the Florence painting it shows me rage. Pure, unadulterated rage and it’s horrible to look at. It’s as if she has transferred all her anger towards Agostino Tassi and the suffering she endured from inquisition style torture at the hands of the ‘establishment’, and laid it bare for people to witness hundreds of years after her brush covered the canvas.

It is similar in composition to Caravaggio’s version painted earlier in 1599, but in Caravaggio’s Judith is somewhat detached from her grisly deed, whereas in Artemisia’s paintings she’s putting all her physical effort and force into her unpleasant task. The look on Holofernes’s face (or is it Agostino’s face?) is chilling.  Certainly Judith is a self-portrait of Artemisia.

The injustice she felt and the cruelty she experienced is expressed through her art. Artemisia put herself into her work, and her art speaks to me as a woman.  Art historians might disagree with me, but that’s my humble opinion.

Her earlier painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes (where she is wearing a blue dress) shows the pure horror of her act: there is blood seeping into the mattress and spurting everywhere, but she is determined to kill Holofernes and thus eradicate tyranny.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1611-12. Commissioned by the King of Naples now haning in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1611-12. Commissioned by the King of Naples now hanging in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

The other two pictures of the aftermath, where the head of Holofernes is being placed in a basket/bag are equally arresting. Again, there are many versions by different artists, and even compared to one by her father, Orazio, Artemisia’s 1625 version (now in the Detroit Institute of Art) has a sense of realism that makes your hairs stand on end.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes c. 1625

Judith with the Head of Holofernes c. 1625

The golden silk sheen of Judith’s dress is almost luminescent under the flame, and her skin glows in the candlelight in comparison to the pervading darkness inside the tent. This shade of yellow has been labelled as ‘Artemisia Gold’.

It’s as though, having done her deed, Judith and her maidservant pause as they hear a sound outside the tent. Discovery would have meant certain death, so the two women are momentarily still, not yet able to make their escape. It’s claustrophobic, dramatic and totally brilliant!

Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1612-13. Housed in the Pitti Palace, Florence

Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1612-13. Housed in the Pitti Palace, Florence

Other paintings

Here is a selection of her heroines and biblical characters, proving that she didn’t just do gore and slaughter!

Clio the Muse of History c. 1632 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Clio the Muse of History c. 1632 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi. Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi. Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther_before_Ahasuerus c. 1628 - 35 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther before Ahasuerus c. 1628 – 35 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia c. 1620 -21 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia c. 1620 -21 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera c. 1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera c. 1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Penitent Mary Magdalen c. 1615 - 16 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Penitent Mary Magdalen c. 1615 – 16 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Although there were other notable baroque women painters, I feel it is Artemisia who suffered and struggled the most for her art, who laid down the gauntlet to the male art establishment that said, “I’m as good as any of you.” Art was very much a gentleman’s club in the baroque era, and Artemisia soon discovered that they weren’t all gentlemen either!

She was an artist with an edge, certainly living on it most of the time. Her work has such a robust and natural quality, and perhaps her infamous status after the rape trial set her apart as a bit of a curiosity, freeing her up to create such incredible works without the usual constraints that women of the time lived within.

Her early trauma seems to have been the catalyst for her career. I don’t think she would have made such an impact as an artist without the emotional intensity behind her painting.

Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1623 - 26 by Simon Vouet

Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1623 – 26 by Simon Vouet

She and I would have had quite a bit in common, (centuries, circumstances and talents notwithstanding). Being as I can’t have a conversation with her, the next best thing is to admire her art and study her life. She deserves to be remembered.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 1)

“I have made a solemn vow never to send my drawings because people have cheated me. In particular, just today I found…that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gata, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi (from a letter to patron Don Antonio Ruffo, November 13, 1649.)

From what I have gleaned in my research and seen with my own eyes of her paintings; Artemisia Gentileschi was a strong, spirited, determined, talented, fearless and voluptuous artist; who possessed bright, fierce eyes that communicate her emotions from her canvases. In pigment she exudes a powerful energy that is completely captivating. In real life she must have been a force of nature!

Artemisia Gentileschi (8th July 1583 – 1656)

Much of her work has been lost, sidelined and misattributed through the centuries, but has recently been restored, revered and rightly honoured.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. Thought to have been in the collection of Charles I.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1638-9, commissioned by Charles I in London. It is now housed in Hampton Court Palace.

If ever there was a body of work that deserved the mantle of ‘art imitating life’ it was hers.

She painted mostly biblical scenes and heroines – strong female protagonists from history and mythology, in a way that was natural and worthy of a Caravaggista.

She truly mastered the Baroque painting technique developed by Caravaggio, known as chiaroscuro, in which light and shadow are sharply contrasted. Only a heroine could have done that…

What she achieved as an artist of the post Renaissance era in a heavily male dominated field (only seven percent of the self-portraits by western art’s most revered masters hanging on the walls of the Vasari Corridor are by women), is just astounding. There were so many obstacles to her success and although she is one of history’s most accomplished female artists of the baroque period, she was never recognised as much as she deserved to be in her lifetime.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

Alas, the stories of many great painters, writers, poets, sculptors and composers share this unfair narrative arc of neglect, both male and female.

“Artemisia has suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her calibre.” ~ Art Historian Mary D Garrard

Artemisia Gentileschi’s childhood and teenage years

Born on 8th July 1593 in Rome to a well-known, established painter, Orazio Gentileschi and his wife, Prudentia Montone, Artemisia grew up being greatly influenced by her father’s trade. At that time in history it would have been impossible for a young girl to receive training in the arts, unless from a parent. She would have learnt to draw, mix paints and watch her father painting in his studio from a very early age.

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi - obviously a very good likeness of his beloved daughter - Artemisia Gentileschi!

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi – obviously a remarkable resemblance of his beloved daughter – Artemisia Gentileschi!

Her mother died in childbirth when Artemisia was just twelve years old, leaving her with her father and in the role of surrogate mother to her three younger brothers. No easy task at the same time as dealing with her own grief.

I love the fact that her father (who was a friend and follower of Caravaggio and Tenebrism), admired her talent regardless of her gender, with no regard for his ego, stating that he could teach her no longer when she turned 15. He then turned to another painter to continue her tutelage.

Rome, although home to the Pope and The Vatican was far from being pure and sin free. After the sun’s pink and orange hues faded from the sky above its historic spires, statues and domed rooftops, its illustrious streets witnessed many deeds of depravity, when parts of the city transformed into a cesspool of vice and crime.

Criminals were swiftly dealt with, (usually on the Piazza di Ponte), where public executions and beheadings were common.  The bodies of these unfortunate souls were left exposed to passers by on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. It was noted that on such occasions the waters of the Tiber ran red…

Ponte Sant' Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’ Angelo, Rome

Orazio Gentileschi was understandably keen to protect his only daughter from such goings on; she was vulnerable until she could marry.  Seventeenth Century Italy was very much a patriarchal society where women were often either classed as virtuous or sinful. If a woman lost her virginity outside of marriage (and therefore her reputation), it frequently led to a life of prostitution.

It seems that despite his best intentions for his daughter, Artemisia’s father unwittingly played a hand in one of the most traumatic experiences of her life when she was eighteen years old.

Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi by Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644)

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

As Orazio had worked with a painter of frescoes, Agostino Tassi, at the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, he trusted him to further Artemisia’s training. At the time of the rape (in spring of 1611), with his wife missing, assumed dead, Tassi struck.

One afternoon during one of Artemisia’s lessons, Tassi’s lechery turned into a sexual assault when he accosted Artemisia in her father’s studio. She fled upstairs in an attempt to escape but he followed her, forced her into the bedroom and raped her.

Sadly, the only other woman in her life, a family friend Tuzia, who rented an apartment at the premises did not come to her aid.

Not only was this a traumatic physical and emotional experience (one that she initially kept from her father), but it spelled disaster for her reputation and marriage prospects. It is thought that Tassi promised he would marry her and she had no choice but to accept. Under that expectation and agreement they had sexual relations for a further year, until it emerged that Tassi’s wife was actually still alive (it was rumoured he had hired men to kill her).

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Orazio Gentileschi, who was outraged that his daughter’s purity (and therefore prospects) had been violated by a trusted friend without the promised restoration to his family’s honour. He duly launched court proceedings against the scoundrel Tassi in 1612.

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century currently held by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The case was unprecedented, and with his daughter’s character in tatters through no fault of her own, Orazio wrote to Pope Paul V (who unfortunately was a patron of Tassi’s), to claim reparation for such a wrongdoing to their family name.

He may have been a talented artist, but Agostino Tassi was no gentleman. He was a serial liar, a serial rapist (having also defiled his own sister-in-law) stolen a painting from Orazio’s studio, as well as planning the murder of his wife. The kind of person we might label today as a low-life scumbag!

There would have been no counselling and support for the victim of this sordid affair, Artemisia herself. It must have been a very confusing, frightening and terrible time for her under such an intense spotlight in court and as a subject of notoriety in the gossip circles of Rome.

What follows is a graphic extract recorded by a court notary during the trial in Rome, where Artemisia describes the moment of the rape. The ancient transcriptions of the case are held at the Rome State Archive:

“I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth, I couldn’t cry out. However, I tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair, and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. All this didn’t bother him at all, and he continued to do his business.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi.

Throughout the trial Artemisia was subjected to horrific examinations and torture with instruments such as the thumbscrew, which strongly shaped her psychological development and her future artwork.

Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia_Gentileschi - Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610)

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi circa 1610

Only a year earlier at the age of seventeen she had completed her version of Susanna and The Elders, circa 1610, one of the few paintings of this biblical subject that portrays Susanna with her head turned away from the advances of the men, with body language and an expression indicating their approach is unwelcome.  The female form (possibly based on her own), is more natural rather than idealised. Somehow, it seems to have been an inauspicious omen of the event that would take place on the Gentileschi premises in the spring of 1611.

Paintings of Susanna and the Elders (Book of Daniel) by Bernadino Luini, Jacob van Loo, Ottavio Leoni, Hendrick Goltzius, Antonio Bellucci, Bonaventura Lamberti, Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Alessandro Allori, Rembrandt van Rijn, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter Pietersz, Bartolomeo Chiari, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Massimo Stanzione, Claude Vignon, von Hagelstein, Sebastiano Ricci, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck, Sisto Badalocchio, Jean-Francois de Troy, Salomon Koninck, Frances Trevisiani, Lambert Sustris, Andrea Vaccaro, Hendrick de Clerk, Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri and Orazio Gentileschi have Susanna facing the men (fully or partially) and do not depict the same level of distress and unwillingness.

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Eventually Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison and exile, neither of which he fully served. Artemisia on the other hand, was viewed as damaged goods, but her father (with the help of a substantial dowry), found her a husband, a Florentine artist, the younger brother of the lawyer that had helped him during the lengthy court case against Agostino Tassi.

Despite these considerable challenges, Artemisia managed to pick herself up, ditch her victim mantle and find solace and cathartic expression in her work.

Artemisia Gentilschi quote

In part 2 we’ll look in more detail at her paintings – you’ll notice that many of them are shockingly violent for a female artist – even to our more exposed, desensitized eyes of the twenty first century!

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Albrecht Dürer’s Masterpiece: Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (c. 1500)

“If a man devotes himself to art, much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

I tarried for a long while deciding which painting to cover next in the ‘What’s in a Painting?’ series. There’s just so much amazing art and many deserving artists to choose from! But for now, I have settled with Dürer’s beguiling and enigmatic Self-Portrait circa 1500, a mixed media composition on limewood, measuring 67.1 by 48.7 centimetres.

Dürer was the first ‘artist’ in the modern sense… This is for several reasons, which I’ll share as I go along.

First and foremost, the 1500 Self-Portrait is a mesmerising piece of art which I’m always drawn to, and was fortunate enough to see hanging in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich a few years ago. Looking at it I felt like I might have known him, it’s so…human. His image still speaks to us from the grave.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he painted it in the year 1500; the expected year of the Apocalypse that was foretold and dreaded in the late Middle Ages. But 1500 was also the first centennial year in Europe that was celebrated. It brought hope, change and new ideas.

You may also be thinking, ‘What’s there to talk about in a self-portrait?’ I almost fell into that trap until I started my research about the cosmopolitan Herr Dürer…

Da Vinci had drawn the iconic Vitruvian Man only ten years earlier, moving away from church art towards images of human beings, when human proportions became the standard for artistic creation.

What’s really incredible to me is the actual skill with which he depicts himself. It must be hard enough to paint a life-like portrait of another person, let alone oneself. What’s even more striking about this portrait is the fact that he is facing us full on.

You might think that is perfectly normal, and it is today, but back in 1500 only paintings of Christ were afforded that honour. Portraits by Dürer’s predecessor, Jan van Eyk, were always painted of a person slightly side on with their face at an angle. Had he painted this self-portrait just a few decades earlier, Dürer could have been burnt at the stake for what the medievalists would have considered unforgivable blasphemy.

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Indeed, he even has the audacity to show himself in a Christ-like pose, with his hand in front of his lapel, his gaze so utterly penetrating. It’s as if his kind, hazel eyes are looking right through me. I can’t be completely sure what his expression portrays.

If I were to put my finger on it I’d say self-assurance and serenity. His eyes radiate compassion and understanding; the windows to the soul of a deep thinker. Albrecht Dürer was twenty eight and at the height of his career when he painted it.

I’m also riveted by the detail and accuracy with which he has depicted his life-like hair. His long, flowing, spiralled curls are defined beautifully by the light glinting on the silky strands. Again, this natural, almost romantic look is not dissimilar to many images of Jesus, and he has also grown a short beard with tints of red. His powers of observation are amazing. It’s just so realistic. I even love the little tuft of fringe that tops his barely furrowed forehead.

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

His skin is both luminescent and slightly ruddy. The shadows shape his face perfectly. There’s a symmetry about his proportions that is divine in nature, representative of an omnipresent being. To me, he is saying, ‘I am every man,’ but he is also a humanist finding Christ within himself. He is comparing his own features with miraculous self-portraits of Christ.

So he’s looking out at us, but, rather mysteriously, he also appears to be absorbed in his body and inner world. The small piece of fur at the base of his coat overlaps his fingers, indicating he is rooted in a physical experience. Paradoxically his gaze then, is also one of introspection.

I am totally obsessed with this work of art! Not only is it incredible as a painting, it’s the ultimate Self-Portrait in the history of art. One could argue it’s also ground breaking as the first ever selfie…

“I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

Medieval media mogul

The modern cult of artist as personality was ushered in by Dürer. Art reveals the person who created it (regardless of subject matter), by showing the skill and character of its maker.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - woodcut print by Albrecht Durer c. 1497-98

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – woodcut print by Albrecht Durer c. 1497-98

Not only was Dürer supremely confident and talented in drawing, etching and painting (both watercolour and oil) he also harnessed the power of the invention of the age: Gutenberg’s printing press. He was the first major artist to embrace the revolutionary way images were made and used with his iconic woodcut prints. Instead of making just one print he was able to make and distribute thousands. It was a total transformation in communication.

Branding expert

Dürer’s ubiquitous monogram of a large capital A above the smaller D that he placed in a prominent position on all his works could be considered the very first trademark and brand. How clever of him to make sure everyone knew he was behind such works of genius…

Albrecht Durer - Monogram

I doubt that the likes of Coca-Cola, Apple, Disney and other famous brands realise how the concept of branding began with this visionary artist.

He wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what was acceptable, exploring his talent and his art regardless of the religious turmoil of the age. Living during the Renaissance and the Reformation enabled his vast creative expression to flourish.

Further south on the other side of the Alps in Italy, Dürer’s contemporaries; Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci were also making art history, but this did not seem to deter Dürer from forging his own path in Nuremberg.

Albrecht Dürer was the undoubted star of the Northern Renaissance; a polymath who mastered painting, printmaking, and theory. His fame and fortune was way ahead of its time for an artist of the early, modern era to experience in his lifetime. His popularity even reached as far as India.

Albrecht Dürer: Masterpieces at the Albertina

Earlier Self-Portraits

The very first self-portrait ever painted was also by the same artist, when he was just thirteen years old, and can be seen in The Albertina Museum in Vienna.

His 1498 Self-Portrait hints at an elegant, confident young man, with his shirt softly billowing in the breeze. However, each detail has been carefully considered and executed with the utmost technical precision.

Self Portrait c. 1498 by Albrecht Dürer in the Prado, Madrid

Self Portrait c. 1498 by Albrecht Dürer in the Prado, Madrid

He is portrayed as a slightly ostentatious dandy compared to his previous more boyish portraits.

Other Self-Portrait sketches by Dürer depict him in the act of sketching himself as well as in a vexed state. He was also the first artist to draw a nude Self-Portrait. He was certainly preoccupied with his own appearance, for no other artist before him had left such probing accounts of their person. Maybe for him, art was his way of exploring who he was at his core.

Albrecht Dürer: 21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528

Albrecht Dürer was born during the Northern European Renaissance as a native of Nuremberg, the third child to a Hungarian born goldsmith, Albrecht Ajtósi and his wife Barabra Holper, who supposedly had eighteen babies. Albrecht was the eldest son (and only one of three children) to make it to adulthood.

The German version of their Hungarian name was Türer, which Albrecht the Younger changed to Dürer to better suit the German language and dialect.

Albrecht Dürer statue in Nuremberg

He grew up in the mythical German city of Nuremberg during its golden age as a trading centre and home to the treasures of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1828 a bronze statue of Dürer was revealed to mark the third centenary of his death, (the first public statue of its kind of an artist in the world), and miraculously, it survived the heavy bombing of the city during the Second World War. To Nuremberg’s credit the historic city centre was rebuilt in its original medieval style that was so reminiscent of Dürer’s Halycon days.

For those that wish to learn more about his life and work:

He was a remarkable man; a humanist, scholar, philosopher and intellectual, with an interest in literature and nature as well as many forms of art. He left an incredible cultural legacy for humanity.

“As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Hans Holbein the Younger’s Masterpiece: The French Ambassadors (c. 1533)

Following on from my first installment about Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, I’m now turning to a work of art that was created in the Tudor period of English history; Holbein’s enigmatic and resplendent, The French Ambassadors. I’ve always been fascinated by this painting. It’s currently on display at the National Gallery in London.

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

This full-length double portrait with still-life objects depicts the French Amabssadors: Jean de Dinteville, the ambassador to England on the left (who commissioned the painting) and on the right is Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, ambassador to the Papal court. Both men served King Francis I of France.

You can tell by their posture, expressions and equal presence in the painting that they are good friends. Holbein seems to have captured beautifully the subtle nuance of their relationship and shared interests.

What also stands out for me looking at their stance, is how self-assured they appear, both personally and in regards to their faith, which would have been dangerously at odds with the religious turmoil in England at that time.

The painting has long been the focus of analysis and discussion, due to the many encoded clues contained within its colourful pigments. These hidden meanings spring from the Italian tradition, and because the work is full of symbolism it can be interpreted in a number of ways…

As I’ve said before, I’m no expert on art and art history, but it is a subject that interests me and I’m learning as I go!

Analysis

As a lay person I can appreciate the incredible detail and vibrancy of the green jacquard curtain behind the men, the way the light catches on the satin and the fullness of the folds. On the far left upper corner of the picture you can see a dark shadow where you can just about make out a silver crucifix hanging, partially hidden behind the sumptuous material.

It highlights that both the painting’s subjects are staunchly Roman Catholic. You could also surmise that they believed Christ is always there even if you can’t see him.

Research has recently indicated that a chapel was located directly behind the wall on which the painting was once hung.

The anamorphic skull between them would have served as a reminder of the transient nature of human life to courtiers and holy men as they passed by the painting on their way to the chapel. Art scholars have deduced that the painting was originally hung in a narrow corridor due to the acute slant of the skull.

It was a measure of Holbein’s skill that he could distort the image so cleverly that it appears to be corrected when viewed from a steep angle to the side of the image. It serves as a memento mori that death eventually comes to all, no matter their station in life.

The portrait is very telling of the political and religious upheaval that was underway in England in 1533. Henry VIII was deeply involved in his ‘great matter’, namely how he could annul his lengthy marriage to Catherine of Aragon, marry Ann Boleyn and break away from the Pope in Rome.

The beautiful floor tiles are even significant, being the same as the ones in Westminster Abbey choir, where Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn. Thus Holbein was doffing his painterly cap in a political and personal gesture to his future patron and monarch.

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The ambassadors are standing either side of an étagère, a double level storage unit that has an oriental carpet draped over the top. Both are resting an arm on the upper level which contains items concordant with the ‘celestial’ sphere. The objects imply erudition in science, showing perfectly detailed instruments that measure time and the heavens.

We immediately feel that they are educated, learned men, concerned with the larger questions of existence and the universe. Their expressions convey a sort of intellectual intimacy.

The lower shelf portrays the ‘terrestrial’ sphere, with a hymnal open to Luther’s hymn ‘Come Holy Spirit our Souls Inspire’ and the lute, which has a broken string, could indicate that harmony has been broken by religious discord.

A brilliant analysis of The French Ambassadors by the National Gallery in London:

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543)

Born in Augsburg to a painter father (Hans Holbein the Elder) and younger brother to Ambrose Holbein, he is considered one of the greatest German painters of his time, alongside fellow Northern Renaissance masters, Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald.

Self portait

Self portait

While his father produced mainly religious paintings, Hans Holbein the Younger was able to branch out into woodcuts and portraiture. He was obviously filled with wanderlust, and lived and worked in Basel from 1515 to 1526, when he took a two year trip to England.

Holbein returned to Basel a fashionably dressed, wealthy man and bought a house. Basel was a flourishing intellectual city at the time, where the influential humanist scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, lived and worked. Such was his legacy that he reconciled classical antiquity with Christianity and was named ‘the first conscious European’ by Stefan Zweig.

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1523

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1523

Holbein painted Desiderius Erasmus a number of times, who furnished him with a letter of recommendation to the lawyer and author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More in London.

The iconoclasm of 1529 meant that religious paintings were banned in many parts so portraits became the main source of income for artists.

Holbein travelled to London again in 1532 where he was bestowed with many private commissions, one of which was by the now immortalised Jean de Dinteville. He also received commissions from Thomas Cromwell and the powerful Boleyn family.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein c. 1527. The Frick Collection New York

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein c. 1527. The Frick Collection New York

He was appointed as a court painter and portrait artist to Henry VIII in 1536. His annual income was around thirty pounds; less than the miniaturist painters at court received. However, it’s Holbein’s work that has endured from this period!

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

In recent years I enjoyed watching the hit TV series The Tudors, and here is a great scene where Thomas Cromwell commissions Master Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves (with the agenda of arranging a politically advantageous union between her and Henry), and tells him to make sure that he portrays her with a “pleasing countenance”.

Holbein’s supposedly complimentary 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleaves persuaded Henry to marry her, but unfortunately, when Henry decided that his bride’s actual appearance did not live up to that of her painting, Master Holbein fell from favour and did not receive any further royal commissions.

Hans Holbein the Younger died at the age of forty five, falling victim to the dreaded plague which was rampant in London in 1543.

Holbein is probably one of the best portrait artists of all-time, leaving a large number of eloquent and life like portraits of his contemporaries to posterity.

Conclusion

With regards to The French Ambassadors it’s not just the skill with which he has incorporated the hidden meanings, but also the sheer brilliance and appearance of the realistic figures, the fine details of the still life component and the texture of their clothes. I want to run my hand over their furs and silks…

However you interpret the painting, one thing’s for sure: it’s an amazing piece of art that is clever, beautiful, contemporary and full of technical mastery which is still relevant today.

The Story of the World’s Most Accomplished and Successful Art Forger

In an unassuming garden shed that sat in the back garden of a council house on the edge of Bolton, art history was made.

There, over a period of several decades, all kinds of art; paintings, ceramics, bronzes, reliefs and sculptures were produced by the supremely talented (if somewhat deceitful and misguided) Shaun Greenhalgh.

Shaun Greenhalgh's fake carving of Gauguin's Faun

Shaun Greenhalgh’s fake carving of Gauguin’s Faun

Unsurpassed in their variety, quality and sheer inventiveness, these forgeries fooled many art critics and dealers all over the world, being sold to museums, auction houses, private buyers and collectors, all hailed as long-lost masterpieces.

His career as an ‘official forger’ began in 1989 and during the following seventeen years Shaun created and (with the help of his parents), sold a prolific amount of art worth almost a million pounds.

It’s a tale almost too fantastical to be true, but the shunned and frustrated shy young man whose art was scoffed at and who felt discriminated against because of his humble origins (let’s face it, growing up in Bolton in the sixties and seventies wasn’t exactly glamorous or exciting), decided he would prove the experts wrong.

That’s exactly what he did and he achieved it in spectacular style! The fact that his gifted hands were able to produce so many different forgeries for so long shows just how good he was. And he had the nouse to know that he had to create a ‘past’ for each piece.

The Risley Park Lanx made by Shaun Greenhalgh from melted Roman coins

The Risley Park Lanx made by Shaun Greenhalgh from melted Roman coins

The lad from Lancashire took the art world by storm, knocking up masterpiece after masterpiece until one day in 2006, when he got an ominous knock at the door. Goodbye shed, hello Scotland Yard…

The law had finally caught up with Shaun and his elderly parents; the most unlikely ring of master forgers you could ever imagine. Truth really is stranger than fiction!

It turns out a mistake in his Assyrian Relief, which was in the process of being authenticated by Bonhams for The British Museum alerted the authorities to their brazen activities.

Where it all began

Shaun’s penchant for making things began to surface at primary school, where he exhibited early talent in pottery. After a while he gave up art at his Bolton Comprehensive and started to learn on his own terms. The Bolton Museum had also imbued the fledgling forger with a love of all things Egyptian. He taught himself hieroglyphics and stone carving. He studied woodwork and attended pottery classes. As it turned out, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t turn his hand to.

Provenance is everything

Much like musical instruments, the provenance of a piece of art can massively add to its value and desirability. It’s a shame that a certain amount of snobbery comes into play.

Shaun Greenhalgh believes that people should only buy a thing because they like it, rather than for the signature on it, or for an item’s detailed history. Forgeries thrive because of the stories behind the art’s creation. I wonder if, in a few hundred years, collectors will flock to purchase the art of probably the most prolific art forger of all time?

Gauguin’s Faun

Art critic, Gauguin fan and documentary maker Waldemar Januszczak was one of the people that Greenhalgh fooled, and can be seen here waxing lyrical about the discovery of Gaugin’s first sculpture during an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Gaugin’s death at the prestigious van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2003:

To be fair, the faun was displayed underneath bright lights and sheltered behind thick perspex, so it’s unlikely he would have noticed the composite pieces had been made separately and glued together with Araldite Rapid! The naughty “PGo” signature was a touch of genius that added authenticity to Shaun’s fake faun. The half man, half goat ceramic was acquired by the Chicago Art Institue for $125,000 back in 1997.

The Amarna Princess

Another stunning creation by Greenhalgh was his alabaster model of an Egyptian princess, carved in his shed in just three weeks from calcite, with tools he purchased from B&Q. He aged it with tea and clay. The statuette depicts the daughter of the Pharoah Akhenanten and Queen Nefertiti, mother of Tutankhamun, said to date to the Amarna period of 1350 B.C.

The Amarna Princess

The idea for the provenance of the piece came after they had purchased an 1892 catalogue that listed valuable antiques that had been auctioned off in Silverton Park, Devon, home of the 4th Earl of Egremont. Among the items sold were eight Egyptian figures, which he drew on as inspiration for the carving.

Unbelievably, Shaun dropped the piece of stone and it cracked in two, but his trusty Araldite Rapid came to the rescue once again! The glued together work was authenticated by both the British Museum and Sotheby’s, and was deemed so important that it was even shown to the Queen. It was sold to the Bolton Museum in 2003 for £439, 676.00!!

La Bella Principessa, aka Alison from the Co-Op

Greenhalgh claims that in 1978 he did a drawing in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, using a check-out girl as his model. Shaun used the lid from a discarded desk that came from Bolton Tech. His dad had worked there and when he realised there were unwanted desks he bought one home for his son. The wood was used as the backing to the vellum of an old land deed that Shaun drew the image onto.  It was never meant to be a da Vinci and wouldn’t have fooled any Renaissance specialists, it was more an experiment to see if he could emulate the left-handed genius.

Amazing artefacts

It’s thought that Shaun produced over 120 forgeries, and it’s highly likely that some are still in circulation, yet to be discovered or else kept on the QT by embarrassed owners. Over the years many experts were duped, as were private buyers. One such buyer, William Jefferson Clinton purchased a so called bust of Thomas Jefferson in an auction. Luckily for Shaun, the Tower of London is now only open to tourists, as he sold a medieval crucifix to the royal family on the pretence that it came from the tomb of King John. It actually came from the shed on the outskirts of Bolton.

Shaun Greenhalgh's forgery of LS Lowrys - The Meeting House

Shaun Greenhalgh’s forgery of LS Lowrys – The Meeting House

His copy of LS Lowry’s painting, The Meeting House sold for £70,000 and his Risley Park Lanx made £100,000 and was displayed in the British Museum for a time. He passed off watercolours claiming they were painted by Archibald Thorburn, as well as beautiful items of lalique glass, Chinese pots, Venetian bronzes and Visigoth eagle brooches.

Known list of forgeries.

The ugliness of prejudice

I think what I found so fascinating about this story is the fact that we tend to underestimate seemingly ordinary people. We judge by appearances and circumstances. Unless you’re already an established name or celebrity it seems that it’s almost impossible to make it in the world of literature, art, music and culture.

But by anyone’s standards, the range and depth of skill of this self-taught artist is staggering, and he should have been able to produce his own art and make a living with the same prestige and recognition as say Rothko, Warhol, Banksy, Gormley or Emin – to my mind he has more talent.

But his talent wasn’t recognised in its own right because the ‘experts’ were blinded by prejudice. It was this prejudice that drove him underground, where, by taking on the personas and works of masters of the past, he could prove he was every bit as good (within a whisker) as Lowry, Gaugin, Da Vinci and ancient Egyptian, Roman and Anglo-Saxon artists.

How the Greenhalgh’s were caught:

According to Shaun’s prison memoir – A Forger’s Tale – many of his creations were sold to unscrupulous dealers who made up the provenance and stories attached to them.

Facts tell but stories sell…

It’s obvious he was no angel, and I liken his father, George, to a British TV character Arthur Daley, a benevolent wheeler dealer, but he certainly became embroiled in the underworld of the art world. Waldemar Januszczak points out that Greenhalgh’s book (written during his four and half years in prison), exposes the massive murky side of an industry that is meant to celebrate enlightened and brilliant individuals at the pinnacle of human expression.

Shaun Greenhalgh features after the Sutton Hoo hoard is shown, about 23 minutes in (demonstrating how Anglo Saxon disc brooches were made) in episode 4 of Januszczak’s documentary, The Dark Ages – An Age of Light (2012):

It’s not as if he lived a flamboyant and expensive lifestyle with his considerable earnings from his forgeries; Shaun never left home. It seems he was content to live in meagre circumstances doing what he did best – making things.