Artists In Love: Painting The Muse

The artistic muse is a figure of great importance in art history. For centuries, men have been inspired by the women they are in love with, to create beautiful works of art which try to capture the beauty of these women for posterity. Today I’d like us to briefly consider an English 19th century example of how beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, at times, and then jump back to perhaps the quintessential artistic muse of the Italian Renaissance.

Jane Morris is a muse well-known to those who have any familiarity with Pre-Raphaelite art. From portraying her as the figure of Beatrice from Dante’s poetry, to dressing her as a goddess or nymph, she inspired the painter Dante Gabrielle Rossetti for years. She had quite a lengthy affair with him as well, even though she was married to another Pre-Raphaelite luminary, William Morris. The question one has to ask oneself, though, is why.

From nearly two dozen paintings of her by Rossetti, Morris stares out, bug-eyed and seemingly bad-tempered. Why Rossetti was so besotted with her is something which I have never understood. To my eye, she looks like a rather oafish young man in drag, who has just been awakened from a stupor to discover that he is drooling on himself. Described in articles like this one as a “beauty”, Morris is proof that for many people, beauty must truly be in the eyes of the beholder.

Whatever beauty Jane Morris may have (inexplicably) been to the English Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century, for Raphael himself during the High Renaissance in Rome, his mistress Margarita Luti, more commonly known as “La Fornarina” – “the baker’s daughter”, was the muse of muses. I wanted to write briefly about a beautiful portrait of the beautiful La Fornarina known as the “Donna Velata” or “Veiled Lady”, and to look at it in conjunction with his portrait of Count Baldessare Castiglione, painted roughly around the same time, between 1514 and 1515. (Regular readers know that Castiglione’s portrait forms the design basis for this site, as you will discover by scrolling up and clicking “Patron”.)

Before beginning however, a note of caution. The problem with La Fornarina has always been identifying her, since there is a portrait by Raphael called “La Fornarina” which looks nothing like the lady in question. I have always doubted that Raphael painted it, or that if he started it someone else, such as his pupil Giulio Romano, finished it and changed it significantly. La Fornarina is the model for the Virgin Mary in several of Raphael’s most famous paintings, including his “Sistine Madonna” and “Madonna of the Chair”, and the half-naked woman in the portrait named for her, in fact looks nothing like her.  

That caveat out of the way, let’s look at the “Veiled Lady” portrait. The first thing to notice in this picture, after you have absorbed the (actual) beauty of the woman in it, is that here we have almost a tonal painting. There are only shades of browns, whites, and golds, with a tiny bit of red for La Fornarina’s lips and cheeks, and in the ruby clip holding the pearl drop to her hair. Even the agate necklace around La Fornarina’s neck shows earth-toned gems set in simple gold.

Compare this very simple color scheme, almost a lack of color, if you will, to the portrait of Castiglione. Here, too, Raphael is also highly restrained in the color palette he uses. Castiglione’s painting is made up of browns, grays, blacks, and whites, with the only outstanding color being the writer’s piercing blue eyes. Even the gold-set jewel in his cap is shown muddled and in shadow.

Another similarity between the two portraits lies in the use of fabric. La Fornarina’s lavish white dress envelops her like a merengue, but it is lacking in color other than geometric borders in gold thread; she also wears a simple, natural linen veil over her head. In his portrait, Castiglione is shown wearing a basic black suit with a plush but equally simple, gray velvet cloak wrapped around him, and a jaunty black hat pushed back on his head, somewhat like a turban. While both of the outfits shown in these portraits were costly, their cost is shown through their quality, rather than by their being flashy.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as being a bold, colorful business, with people wearing extraordinarily loud colors and patterns. In this instance however, when Raphael chose to paint portraits of the woman he loved and of one of his closest friends and mentors, he did so without a great deal of fussiness, color, or flashiness. The brushwork is swift and natural, with the shyness of La Fornarina being expressed as beautifully in her somewhat timid glance, as Castiglione’s polite, noble self-confidence is in his own. There are no props necessary when you are an artist this good at capturing human expression. Indeed, one can look at this art and easily leap forward over a century and a few hundred miles to see how Velazquez did exactly the same thing in Madrid in the 17th century as Raphael was doing in Rome in the 16th.

Jane Morris and La Fornarina are not the only muses in art history, of course. From Simonetta Vespucci to Lady Hamilton to Gala Dali, many women became artistic inspirations for the men who admired them and represented them in art. However I think that what is interesting in the representations of these women are not when they appear as models for goddesses or saints, but rather in the art created for private consumption by the artist himself, for his own delectation. There we get a better sense, perhaps, of how the artist really saw his muse, when the two of them were alone. In the case of Raphael, one can well understand why he fell in love with La Fornarina.

image

"Donna Velata" by Raphael (c. 1514-15)

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One thought on “Artists In Love: Painting The Muse

  1. Piovonmi amare lagrime dal viso
    con un vento angoscioso di sospiri,
    quando in voi adiven che gli occhi giri
    per cui sola dal mondo i’ son diviso.

    Bitter tears pour down my face
    with an anguished storm of sighing,
    when my eyes chance to turn on you
    through whom alone I am lost from the world.

    Like

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