Autumn Beauty: On Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna Of The Small Trees”

Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular image of the Madonna and Child in an autumnal landscape by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and since today is the first day of Autumn, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this piece with you.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the most famous member of a family of painters, which included his father Jacobo and Giovanni’s older brother Gentile, as well as his brother-in-law Masaccio. This particular member of the Bellini clan (and I will refer to him as “Bellini” for the sake of clarity throughout this piece) was not only a highly accomplished artist in his own right, but also the teacher of some of the most important artists who came after him. His most famous pupils were Titian, the greatest of all the Venetian painters, and the enigmatic but short-lived Giorgione.

Many of Bellini’s larger works, which were commissioned by the rulers of Venice, have unfortunately not survived due to fires and natural disasters. Yet his smaller-scale religious pictures, such as his beloved “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (1480) at the Frick Collection in New York, are arguably to Italian Renaissance painting what the work of Jan Van Eyck is to Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. They feature careful attention to detail, jewel-like colors, and inviting landscapes.

Bellini completed his “Madonna of the Small Trees”, now in the Accademia in Venice, in 1487; we know this because he signed and dated the picture on the painted slab of green marble on which the Christ Child is standing in the painting. We see Jesus and His Mother standing against a pea green, silk moire curtain with a cut velvet border in pink coral. Beyond the curtain is a dry landscape in early Fall, featuring two small trees – hence the title of the painting – along with some tree-covered hills and blue mountains in the distance, all beneath a very Venetian sky. It is a wonderfully quiet and still scene, and the rich colors of the fabrics provide an eye-catching contrast to the more subdued landscape colors in the background, which is composed almost entirely of graded blues, autumnal browns, and mottled grays.

This work is related to several other paintings which Bellini produced of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus around the same time, including his “Madonna of the Red Cherubim” and his “Alzano Madonna”, both painted in 1485, and both now in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in the city of Bergamo. However this one happens to be my favorite from this period, in part because Autumn is my favorite time of year, and in part because there is a pensive, dignified, but slightly sad quality to this picture. Given the size of the “Madonna of the Small Trees”, which is roughly 2 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, it was almost certainly painted for its original owner to use at home, as indeed were the aforementioned paintings.

In making this point I can’t emphasize enough when, as I often do, I point out to my readers that paintings such as this were not intended to be simply decorative objects. Aesthetically pleasing though they undoubtedly are, they were meant to be USED in everyday life. In creating works like this, Catholic artists like Bellini were, in part, trying to help their clients, who were men and women seeking to develop a deeper relationship with God through a more active prayer life. The fact that we can look at a painting like the “Madonna of the Small Trees” and find it beautiful is only logical. Yet if we look at it and miss the intent that went into the commissioning and the execution of this piece, then we have moved out of the spiritual into a purely material and incomplete appreciation of this work of art.

For the wealthy in particular, the challenge of being a good Christian during the Renaissance while living in a world of profit and loss, war and diplomacy, plenty and famine, was no small burden to bear. Paintings such as these helped to remind them of their Faith, and to encourage them to remember the tenets of that Faith in their dealings with others, even if (admittedly) they were not always successful in their attempts. We can see this as hypocrisy, or we can see it in the light that Evelyn Waugh would have, as in his famous letter to fellow writer and Catholic convert, Edith Sitwell: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

In following the art world as I do, trying to keep up with what is going on in the auction rooms, museums, and galleries, I often find myself losing heart or even my lunch. The creative, the well-to-do, and our own cultural institutions are generally not interested in commissioning beautiful objects, let alone devotional ones, and instead are intent upon creating and acquiring works of profound physical and spiritual ugliness. Because we live in a time when all seem to act with deadly, fixed intent upon appearing and behaving in as unattractive and crass a fashion as possible, it is to be expected that our art reflects or indeed anticipates our culture.

All the more reason then, to retreat as needed back into the Age of Faith, when beautiful pictures such as this not only celebrated the beauty of the physical world, but also the spiritual beauty of God made Man: an act of selfless beauty which, like Creation itself, God brought about on our behalf.

I See Dead People: Art From Beyond The Grave

Although we still have more than a month to go before Halloween, an interesting article in this month’s National Geographic raises the question of whether Eugène Delacroix‘s (arguable) masterpiece of 1830, “Liberty Leading the People”, was painted using a heaping helping of human remains. Up until the early 20th century, Ancient Egyptian mummies were exported to Europe and ground up for all sorts of purposes, especially for creating medicines and paints. In the latter category, the shade known as “Mummy Brown” was popular for many centuries. Although “Mummy Brown” is still an artist’s paint color today, it is assumed that mummy is no longer used in its production.

As ArtNet reports more thoroughly, Delacroix was just one of many artists who were known to employ mummy-based paint in their works. I particularly enjoyed a recounting of this by Rudyard Kipling concerning his uncle, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Kipling wrote in his autobiography that he witnessed his uncle come running out of the house one day, horrified, and insisting that they inter his tube of “Brown Mummy” paint in the garden. This was because “he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs, and we must bury it accordingly.”

Truthfully, there are all sorts of dead things in much of the Ancient and Old Master art that we can still see today. The best purple, for example, came from the mucus of sea snails raised in Ancient Phoenicia. One of the most popular sources for red was made from ground up scale insects, i.e., parasitic creatures that live on trees. Fish were fermented and turned into glue, in order to help pigments adhere to the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages; the pigments themselves were made from things like cuttlefish ink or ground-up animal bones. The powdered form of these materials were sometimes bound together using earwax or urine, while the pages were often made out of animal skins. However when it comes to what we might call the “ick” factor, “Mummy Brown” certainly takes the cake.

Over time, many of these biologically-based hues, such as “Mummy Brown”, faded more quickly than those derived from mineral sources. As a result, they have mostly fallen out of favor among artists working today. But the next time you are looking at a painting in a museum, take a moment to reflect on how that work of art came to be in the first place. It may well be that your long-vanished ancestors played a far greater part in its creation than you previously realized.

Is This Goya Painting A Political Cartoon?

Hoo boy.

Recently Spanish lawyer and art researcher Antonio Muñoz-Casayús has come out with a rather interesting theory concerning “The Pilgrimage of San Isidro”, one of the so-called “Black Paintings” by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Up until now, most art historians have assumed that the figures in this painting are anonymous types, rather than representations of specific individuals. However according to Muñoz-Casayús, about two dozen of the figures in the painting are in fact caricatures of famous people from the Napoleonic period in Spain, including Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Back in June, I revisited the “Black Paintings” at The Prado, along with a friend who was seeing these haunting works in person for the first time. They have always struck me as symbolic tableaux, demonstrating different aspects of the Spanish tendency toward embracing the darker side of life. Broadly speaking, art historians often look at them as commentaries on more universal themes, such as poverty and human suffering. Therefore the idea that Goya included caricatures of personalities of his day in the “San Isidro” is an extremely interesting one, because it would completely alter the way that most people, myself included, interpret this painting.

In favor of the argument that Goya was commemorating the disastrous politics of early 19th century Spain in this painting is the fact that Goya, like many radical republicans of his day, had a bizarrely fanatical attachment to Napoleon Bonaparte – or at least, to the Napoleon-shaped god whom he and many others had come to believe in. As often happens when one decides to lionize a dictator and overlook his evil tendencies, be he Adolf Hitler or Fidel Castro, Goya fell into the trap of believing that Bonaparte stood for something other than self-aggrandizement, even though his words never quite matched his deeds. If, as Muñoz-Casayús suggests, the little emperor is perhaps the only figure painted with some degree of sympathy in the “San Isidro”, this could be because Goya failed to reconcile the dichotomy between the real Bonaparte and Goya’s imaginary one.

Also in favor of the argument that the “San Isidro” is a political work is the fact that this painting was not created either for sale or for public exhibition. Rather it was a personal piece, like the rest of the works that collectively make up the “Black Paintings”. It was painted directly onto the wall of Goya’s own home in Madrid, where it remained until long after the painter’s death. The only people likely to have seen the “San Isidro” at the time of its creation would have been those invited to the artist’s home, and we can reasonably assume that Goya’s only invitees at this time would have been those whom he considered friends.

Yet significant arguments against the idea that the “San Isidro” is a giant political cartoon do exist. Perhaps foremost among them is the possibility that Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is an example of pareidolia, the human psychological tendency to perceive intentional images or hidden messages where none in fact exist. An example of this is the innocuous practice of looking up at the sky, and comparing the shape of a particular cloud formation to a human face, a running dog, or some other object. Another is the Rorschach or “ink blot” test, in which a person is asked to look at a series of ink blots on cards, and describe what, if anything, they see.

As stated above, Muñoz-Casayús claims that he can identify two dozen individuals in the “San Isidro”, including Bonaparte himself, his first wife Josephine, and his sister Pauline, among others. Certainly, the figure in the center of the main group, who is supposedly the Corsican, has the attributes we have come to expect in a representation of Napoleon: the short stature, the sunken eyes, the curl falling over the receding hairline of the round head. However, it is also entirely possible that this could be a case of seeing what one wants to see, and that the resemblance is merely coincidental.

The fundamental problem that arises in trying to prove or disprove Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is that we have no explanation from Goya or any of his contemporaries about the significance of any of the “Black Paintings”, including the “San Isidro”. In fact, some scholars believe the “Black Paintings” are not by Goya at all, or that some are by Goya and others are by his son Javier. We simply have no records indicating that Goya, or anyone else at the time, laid out what these paintings mean, let alone pointed out the presence of specific individuals in them. We don’t even know what Goya himself titled these paintings, if they are indeed his work, as I believe they are.

Goya is perhaps the first great “modern” artist, not because he was a technically accomplished painter, but because of his approach to his subject matter. There are no sacred cows in Goya’s art. His images of the court in Madrid are astonishing not because they are well-painted (which they aren’t), but rather because he often got away with painting powerful people as unattractive, parasitical creatures. His boldness in tackling unpleasant subjects, such as madhouses or witchcraft, as well as unpleasant people, like the Spanish royal family of his day, put him far ahead of his time.

It is this characteristic boldness that leaves me willing to remain open-minded about Muñoz-Casayús’ theory. Would the old, sick, and disillusioned Goya, his hearing gone, and his revolutionary ideals crushed into dust, have hesitated to paint a monumental political cartoon on the wall of his house, after a lifetime spent mocking power with paint? I can’t imagine that at this point in his long career that he would have restrained himself from doing so, if indeed the idea to create such a work had occurred to him. On the other hand, given the contemporary, gnostic tendency to declare the discovery of hidden meanings where there are none in works of art, architecture, literature, and so on, I’ll leave it to those better-informed than I to reach a consensus on this latest theory.