Bowie’s Bargain: A Rock Star’s Venetian Masterpiece

The late David Bowie was not one of my favorite entertainers. I know, I know, many of you are now pointing at me on your side of the screen and shouting, “Blasphemy!” but there it is. Apart from one or two of his 80’s tunes, however, I just don’t care for his work.

It was nevertheless fascinating to learn, after his death, that the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust had accumulated a rather significant art collection during his lifetime. And as it happens, one of the first pieces that he acquired turns out to have been quite a find. For it appears that in purchasing the work pictured below, Bowie found a lost work by one of the most important artists of Renaissance Venice.

Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594) is one of the greatest names in Venetian art, representing the transition from the classical precision of the High Renaissance, to the more emotional and elongated style known as Mannerism. He was famous both for his portraiture and for painting enormous religious, mythological, and historically-themed compositions at breathtaking speed. His “Il Paradiso” in the Doge’s Palace in Venice for example, which depicts hundreds of saints and angels in Heaven is, at roughly 80 feet long and 30 feet high, one of the largest canvases ever painted.
Fast-forward to 1987, when the now well-established David Bowie pays a visit to Colnaghi’s in London, which for over two centuries has been one of the world’s premier dealers in Old Master paintings. He purchased a 16th century Venetian altarpiece, which depicts St. Catherine of Alexandria interrupted at her prayers by an angel, who gives the saint a premonition of her forthcoming martyrdom. At the time, the painting was believed to be a work from late in Tintoretto’s career, and mostly executed by assistants in the artist’s studio.

Following Bowie’s death, the altarpiece was sold for around $250k – a decent price for a studio piece, but nothing spectacular. After the sale however, experts examining the picture on behalf of the new owner concluded that the painting is, in fact, a much earlier work than originally thought. Moreover, given the details such as the underdrawing and pentimenti – changes of mind by the artist himself while painting the picture – the piece was clearly by Tintoretto himself.

Further research led experts to the preliminary conclusion that this was a piece created in a competition between Tintoretto and his rival Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), for the decoration of the Church of San Geminiano in Venice, which once stood on St. Mark’s Square, opposite the Basilica. The church was demolished by everyone’s favorite midget social-climbing bastard, Napoleon Bonaparte, so that he could build a larger palace for himself in the city. When the church was destroyed, the art within it was scattered, and so some of the pieces in the church’s collection – like Bowie’s Tintoretto – ended up in private hands.

I must confess that, on the whole, I usually prefer Veronese to Tintoretto. I find Tintoretto somewhat muddled and murky, whereas Veronese is often crisp and direct. Take these paintings, for example, which are two of the images that Veronese painted for that competition to decorate the now-gone San Geminiano. Sts. Geminiano and Severo, two 5th century Italian bishops, are shown in wonderfully detailed vestments, while St. Menas, a soldier martyred in the 3rd century during the Roman persecutions, is about to step out of his niche and do some damage with that halberd.

That being said, a personal favorite of mine is Tintoretto’s “Miracle Of The Slave” (1548) which is now in the collection of the Accademia in Venice. This picture dates from an earlier period in his career, when he used a lighter palette than we see in the “Paradiso”, and made full use of the famous Venetian embrace of bold color choices, such as in the aquatic blues and raspberry reds scattered throughout the painting. Here, Tintoretto depicts a pious legend in which St. Mark intervenes to stop a slave from being tortured to death for being a Christian.

Note how the only person who sees St. Mark appearing from Heaven is the little baby in the arms of the woman standing at the left of the picture. Everyone else in the painting is so intent on either the slave lying on the ground, or gazing in amazement at the broken torture implements, that they miss what’s going on right above their heads. Perhaps the artist intended this as a subtle reminder of Christ’s admonition that if we are to imitate Him, and see as He sees, we must become like little children. In its innocence, the baby in this picture “gets” it, in a way that the adults in the image do not.

Currently, Bowie’s former Tintoretto is on exhibition at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp, the former home of Holland’s most famous Old Master painter Peter Paul Rubens, who was a great lover of Venetian art. Further technical analysis is underway on the altarpiece, which I imagine will need to be cleaned and restored, as is usually the case with Old Master paintings. It’s a shame for Bowie’s estate that the entertainer never had the painting cleaned or re-examined during his lifetime, since the piece would have fetched a far, far greater price at auction as an autograph Tintoretto, than what it did as a studio piece.

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.