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.

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

Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York

A Million Thanks

Those of you who follow me on social media know that yesterday afternoon this blog hit one million visits!  I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all of my readers over the years, as well as fellow writers in the blogosphere who have encouraged me from the beginning and continue to do so.  That so many of you subscribe or take the time to drop by this site, when there are far better writers than I whom you could be reading, is both humbling and a great honor to receive.

As regular readers know, I do not make a living from my writing – although if you are an editor or publisher let’s have a chat, shall we?  This blog is just something I do, usually five days a week, and in my spare time.  I bear the costs of running and hosting this site, and I do not expect that is going to change, for however long it continues.

Someone told me recently that I am more of an essayist than a blogger; this is probably true.   I do not break stories, and I generally do not share a link unless I have commentary to accompany it.  Often a news item is merely something which I treat as a jumping-off point to discuss something else entirely.

Also, the length of my average scribbling on these virtual pages is generally far longer than the typical 300-500 word post.    To date, I have written the equivalent of roughly fifteen 100K word novels.  That is a lot of thinking, typing, and editing over the years, but fortunately I work pretty quickly.

As to the “Why?” of what I do, I hope that I serve as a voice for culture, in a society which has largely forgotten what that word means.  The temporary trends of political tit-for-tat, and the needs of a celebrity-hungry media do not hugely interest me, since I take the long view.  While I criticize where warranted, I also hope that I seek to build up, not simply tear down.  Encouraging my readers to learn more about our world, and Western culture in particular, but also to look at popular culture in ways which might not otherwise occur to them, is the real raison d’être here.

By way of conclusion, I quote the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, who in his “Book of the Courtier” rather neatly sums up what I have tried to do thus far, and will continue to do here on this blog for as long as I am able, and for as long as people are interested in reading it.

I say, then, that since princes are today so corrupted by evil customs, and by ignorance, and mistaken self-esteem, and since it is so difficult to give them knowledge of the truth and lead them on to virtue, and since men seek to enter into their favour by lies and flatteries and such vicious means, the Courtier…should try to gain the good will and so charm the mind of his prince, that he shall win free and safe indulgence to speak of everything without being irksome. And if he be such as has been said, he will accomplish this with little trouble, and thus be able always to disclose the truth about all things with ease; and also to instil goodness into his prince’s mind little by little, and to teach continence, fortitude, justice, and temperance, by giving a taste of how much sweetness is hidden by the little bitterness that at first sight appears to him who withstands vice; which is always hurtful and displeasing, and accompanied by infamy and blame, just as virtue is profitable, blithe and full of praise.

Detail of "The Suitor's Visit" by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658) National Gallery, Washington DC

Detail of “The Suitor’s Visit” by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658)
National Gallery, Washington DC