Deciding What Goes Over the Sofa

This weekend The Courtier had to visit the National Gallery of Art in his official capacity – albeit not in full superhero kit – in order to examine a piece of heroic sculpture he is studying for an upcoming article. Congenial company on the otherwise dreary day was provided by a philosophy professor friend, seeking a bit of guidance on art he could show his freshman students on a field trip there next week. The goal was to try to find some pieces illustrative of the 17th and 18th century philosophers whom the class is examining at this point in the course.

After some thought and discussion, a number of paintings were identified as being contemporaneous with, and in some ways reflecting ideas of, Descartes, Hume, and Rousseau. However this was not an easy task, despite the fairly broad holdings of the museum, because of the time period which we were looking at. This has a great deal to do with the identity of those who were paying for the paintings and sculpture produced during this time period.

Today we are accustomed to going to a gallery or exhibition and looking at pieces of art which, in the majority of instances, were created by the artist on his own initiative rather than to order. If we are to make a partial analogy to the fashion world, these pieces could be considered off-the-peg – or in this case, nail – rather than couture. Admittedly the analogy is not perfect, in the sense that an off-the-peg garment can be copied very easily, though a painting or sculpture may not be so easily cloned.

Of course, one-off art produced on commission has always been, and remains, an important part of an artist’s work, whether he is painting a portrait or creating a sculpture for a public building. This has not changed since the days of the Renaissance, when still-extant contracts were drawn up between the purchaser and either the artist himself or his sales representative. However, particularly since the 19th century, most artists have moved in the direction of creating art first, and finding patrons later: a practice which would have been far more unusual in earlier centuries.

This is not to say that artists did not create art for their own pleasure, which was never intended to be sold. A case in point at the National Gallery is “The Needlewoman” by Velázquez, which even in its unfinished state strikes us with its modern, impressionistic brushwork, so unexpected in a 17th century piece. Nor does it mean that the Old Masters only created salable work on commission. Sometimes an artist, or his workshop under his direction, would create smaller works in advance – such as a Madonna and Child or Crucifixion – for those who could not meet the price of a custom-made piece, or for those who wanted a piece by the artist now, rather than having to wait for the Duke of this or the Bishop of that to have their commission finished.

Given that background, it was not surprising to look at the art in the National Gallery created in England and France during the time period from Descartes to Rousseau, roughly 1600 to 1775, and note that most of it does not address philosophical issues such as anxiety, rationalism, empiricism, and so on. The exceptions are notable because they are few in number. This has to do largely with the answer to the question, “Who was commissioning the art during this period?”, when we know that artists at this time made their living largely on commission.

The answer is that people who could afford to pay for it were, naturally enough, the ones placing the orders and telling the artist what they wanted to look at. People who did not have the money to eat, or who did but did not know or care anything about art, would not be ordering portraits of themselves or canvases of the legend of Perseus. And because of the somewhat different social structures in Britain and in France, and of course the division between Protestantism and Catholicism and constitutional monarchy vs. absolute monarchy, there were also differences in the art produced.

In the case of Hume in Britain, those who could afford to hang original works of art on their walls did not want Christian scenes, or naked ladies cavorting in a landscape: they went on the Grand Tour to buy those. Rather, they wanted portraits of themselves, their houses, and their ships. The results were the elegant, serene 18th century portraits showing that the British were the masters of all they surveyed, the idyllic, rolling landscapes showing the fine country house in its park, or the tall sailing ships, flags flying, which in Hume’s day were the pride of the British Establishment.

France of course was somewhat different. The 17th century was as tumultuous a time for France as for Britain, with France coming out of the wars of religion and enacting the Edict of Nantes at the beginning of Rousseau’s life. Art during this period continues in some respects with the themes of the Renaissance, but there are hints here and there of the anxiety and disquiet that many felt during this time period – Georges de la Tour being an example. By the time Rousseau was born, Louis XIV was on the throne, and his centralizing efforts put an end to much of the division that had bloodied the country – albeit temporarily, as it turned out.

During the lifetime of Rousseau and the height of the Ancien Régime, most of the art produced in France now on display at the National Gallery is, frankly, little more than soft pornography or utter fantasy. It is mostly flippant decoration, even if beautifully painted, but there are exceptions, such as in the work of Chardin or Houdon, where one gets a sense of an increasing respect for looking at the world as it is, without over-idealization. However, one cannot help but look at the paintings of Boucher, Fragonard, and Watteau, while thinking of Rousseau (let alone Voltaire and Diderot), and reflect that the world which created these pretty but vapid things was doomed.

Yet even with the decline of the commission as impetus for the creation of art, those who are paying for art still have some influence on what art is being created. The Church is no longer – and has not been for some time – the largest patron of the arts in the West. Today, when a parish is being built or re-decorated, most of the devotional art put into it is of the mass-produced variety, as has been the case for well-over a century. When original art is commissioned, it is usually terrible: there is one church in Washington, for example, with a ridiculous “Risen Christ” whom some call “Poppin’ Fresh Jesus”, as the sculpture looks as though Our Lord is emerging from some sort of a Pillsbury dough mold.

The State, particularly in this country, has had something of a hit-or-miss record when it comes to commissioned art. For every beautiful structure such as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial here on the Tidal Basin, the Feds have also commissioned things like “Flamingo” by Alexander Calder, which is not only ugly but placed in a bizarrely inappropriate location: in front of the Federal Building in freezing cold Chicago, a city which never saw a live flamingo outside of the zoo. Perhaps the reason Calder’s sculpture looks nothing like a flamingo and more like a semi-crushed pile of the remains of extremities is because the poor thing has perished of hypothermia.

In the main it is the wealthy individual collector, always a prized patron for an artist, who is making decisions about what we see in our museums, based on their taste and philosophy. It is important to keep this issue of patronage in mind when considering what we are looking at and, particularly in modern and contemporary art, what is being produced and how it is valued. An artist can hold whatever opinions he likes, but in order for him to air those opinions – and pay his rent – he must have an audience. That combination of ideals and practicalities can only work if the artist is himself independently wealthy (a rare occurrence) or one or more wealthy collectors get behind his work.

The next time you visit a gallery or exhibition, whether it be from the 14th, 18th or 21st century, stop and ask yourself, “What does this tell me about the people who paid for this?”

The Needlewoman by Velázquez (c. 1640)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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