Painting “The Walk Of Shame”: The Intimate Art Of An American Master

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite artists, the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Regular readers will recall that my very first piece for The Federalist was a review of an exhibition at the MFA in Boston displaying a selection of works from the artist’s archive, which was recently donated to the museum by his family. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on his most famous output, the portraits he painted of family, friends, and the powerful people of his day.

However there is another side to Sargent, which is often overlooked in surveys of his art, and that is his more intimate, informal work, such as that which accompanies this post.

“A Street in Venice” (1882), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, is one of my favorite paintings; it is so different from the glitzy, glamorous portraits that we usually associate with Sargent, as to appear to be the work of another artist. It depicts a young woman wearing a black, fringed shawl over a long white skirt and a red blouse, walking down a side street in Venice. Two men in hats and overcoats standing in a doorway are having a smoke and watching her as she passes by. In the background, a man and woman are sitting in chairs and chatting outside of another doorway, and although most experts think they are at a cafe, I always think that they are peeling vegetables as they talk.

There is nothing about the picture which immediately tells us that this scene is taking place in Venice. There are no canals, no gondolas, no extravagant churches or palazzi. It could just as easily be somewhere in Spain or France. It is probably winter, given the gray, overcast skies and the men’s heavy coats, although the young woman certainly isn’t dressed for the weather. She is either avoiding the gaze of the two men, or so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice them.

Given her attire, her downcast eyes, and introspective expression, I like to think that what we are looking at is what we might call a “walk of shame” picture, when you’ve stayed out all night and finally make your way home at dawn. If you remember the scene in “Moonstruck” where Cher walks home in the early hours of the morning, still wearing her party dress and overcoat after a night at the opera, and leisurely kicking a can down the street with her extravagant, beaded red heels, you get the idea. I suspect that this painting is set in the morning, since there are not a lot of people about yet, and the shop on the left side of the picture is closed.

Among the many wonderful things about this picture is the fact that there is hardly any color in it, and yet it is still a lively composition. There are a few slashes of red, in the young woman’s blouse and the flowers or comb that she is wearing in her hair, and in the center of the picture there is the pink skirt of the woman sitting in the background, but there is very little else in the way of bright color. Here and there we see some ochre, teal, olive, and brown, but the majority of the picture is composed of shades of black, white, and gray.

Textures are also beautifully rendered in this painting. Notice also how Sargent is able to suggest the bouncing of the fringe on the shawl as the woman walks, and the swishing of the white skirt around her feet, with a bare minimum of brush strokes. The heavy wooden door on the left is wonderfully observed, with the lower portion already gray from being splashed with rainwater countless times, while the upper portion is still its original color, thanks to its being higher up and slightly protected from the overhang of the building.

John Singer Sargent’s portraits are, understandably, his most famous work. Yet much like Velázquez, whom he admired and emulated throughout his career, Sargent was much more than someone who painted simply to flatter those who could afford his paintings. In quieter, more loosely-painted works such as this, he showed that he was not all flash and glam. Rather, he was someone who could create grand works of art, but could just as easily create an engaging, more personal picture, with a real sense of immediacy about it.

Who’s That? Let’s Play Art Detective

Recently a reader asked if I could help identify a painting of an unknown lady. The woman in the picture bore many of the hallmarks of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, but I could not be sure that it was her. I also, rather cheekily, disagreed with an expert who had previously looked at the painting and concluded that it was 17th century, when to my eye it looked more like a 19th century Elizabethan Revival painting, designed to evoke the Tudor era for the purposes of interior decoration. I will always defer to an actual art expert of course, as I sit back and scoff in my big leather armchair, but in my response I had to explain to my interlocutor that it is often very difficult for any art historian to figure out who is being represented in an older work of art, unless the sitter’s identity has been clearly marked or documented.

Today being the birthday of Jacopo “Tintoretto” Comin (1518-1594), it seems appropriate to select a work by this Venetian Old Master painter to illustrate just how difficult identification in art can be. The painting I’ve chosen is artistically interesting, particularly for those of you interested in military history, but as we shall see we often can’t answer the question, “Who’s that?” – even in the case of an artist as famous as Tintoretto.

The portrait shown below dates from about 1555-56, and is in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. It depicts a gentleman in his 30’s or 40’s with a slightly reddish, forked beard, wearing steel armor with gold decoration, who is standing before an open window in a palace. In the background, a Venetian galley and another ship are heading out to sea under stormy skies. At the base of the column on the right we can see part of a date, but the picture appears to have been trimmed down slightly, so we can’t be sure of the exact number written there.

One possible reading of this painting by art experts, including the Kunsthistoriches Museum, is that the date on the column originally read “1540”. In looking at the historical record of what was going on in Venice at the time, this date could mean that the painting was related to the signing of a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice in that year, which brought to an end what was known as the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540). However as this treaty marked a humiliating defeat for Venice at the time, this hypothesis seems unlikely to me.

More likely – said the armchair historian – this painting has something to do with the founding in 1550 of the “Fanti da Mar”, the Venetian Marines Infantry Corps. They came to be as a reaction against the military losses that Venice had been suffering at the hands of the Turks during much of the 1500’s. Interestingly enough, the Fanti da Mar later became the San Marco Regiment, which itself was the foundation for the modern-day Italian Marines.

The armor depicted in the painting is that traditionally worn by commanders of the Fanti da Mar at the time, as shown in a later painting by Tintoretto of Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian Marines at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and future Doge of Venice. This portrait cannot be of Venier himself however, since at the time it was supposedly painted he was already in his 60’s. Moreover, at this point he was not yet commanding the Venetian Marines. 

A more likely candidate would be the condottieri (mercenary) Astorre Il Baglioni (1526-1571), who was hired by Venice in 1556 to fortify the Venetian mainland against the Turks and made Governor of Verona. That would make him exactly the right age and general profession for this picture, and a somewhat crude portrait of Baglioni from this time shows a man in his 40’s with a distinctive, receding hairline, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait. Another portrait of Baglioni much later in life shows him with a forked beard, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait, but now gray with age.

However, as fascinating as this speculation is, there is a more fundamental problem with this identification. Although Baglioni was a military man, he does not appear to have been a member of the Venetian Marines, let alone a commander of them. So unless new research shows up indicating that he was made a Marine Corps commander, we are left at a dead end with this line of inquiry, as far as identification of the subject is concerned.

Art appreciation involves not just looking at images of famous kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, but rather about staring into the eyes of people from long ago who became successful or well-regarded enough in their profession to have their picture painted. Before the dawn of photography, painting, sculpture, and engraving was how these people were commemorated for their contemporaries and for future generations. Even with all of our knowledge, resources, and technology, there are many great, portraits of unidentified people from the past like bankers and bakers, soldiers and scholars, and unknown Venetian Marines, whom we may never be able to conclusively identify. But the detective work that goes into trying to identify them is endlessly fascinating.

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.