17th Century Renaissance Painting

To FIND the Renaissance art of the seventeenth century at its best we must turn first to Spain or the Netherlands, where the works of Velasquez and Murillo, Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt continued in original ways and with some distinct national qualities the traditions of their Italian predecessors. For the general spread of Italian culture over northern Europe, which carried the Italian arts of design in its train, see my matter on the general history and architecture of the Renaissance.

The art of painting now becomes an art like other arts no longer destined to bear on its shoulders the whole spiritual thought and mission of an epoch or to raise to the highest pitch the monumental effect of magnificent buildings; but in a more limited sphere, as the art still exists for ourselves, a noble continuation and development of the lessons of the earlier great masters.

The changed position of the art of painting is to be ascribed ultimately to the introduction of printed books, to the new methods of education and expression which were consequently less dependent on the language of forms, and to an enlargement of national boundaries in which the direct relation of the artist to an entire civic community as the banner-bearer of its pride and ambitions was necessarily abandoned.

Perhaps we may add that as the study of nature and the science of form had been the great triumph of Italy over the Middle Age, it was natural that this triumph should have been announced and celebrated most enthusiastically when it was first won.

The use of books affected Catholic as well as Protest-ant countries, but in the former, religious pictorial subjects were traditional and were not abandoned, whereas in the latter they were for the time being formally offensive to the religious standpoint of the day. These religious subjects, as found in Catholic countries, were continued, however, on a much diminished scale of magnitude and number. The wall decoration of churches was practically abandoned. Not much, at least, worth quoting was done in this line. Nor could the Catholic artists avoid reflecting the tendency of their time in which the representation of visible nature for its own sake had begun to be the main thing. A closer illusion as regards momentary reality, the imitation of fabrics or of trappings, was now generally in vogue in religious art. In expression the sentimental rather than the dignified was commonly sought.

If therefore we wish to place the time as a whole, we must remember that Shakespeare was still writing his later plays (died 1616), that Cervantes and Calderon produced in it the great masterpieces of Spanish literature, that Corneille and Molière, during its lapse, raised the French drama to its pinnacle of glory. The age of Cromwell and of Richelieu did not lack great men or great artists, but the names so far mentioned Velasquez stands among the foremost as the great student of men and of character, as shown by the medium of art. In his masterly subordination of de-tails to essential facts and his large power of vision which carries the man to the canvas and fixes him there for all posterity, he can in general only find equals or rivals in Rembrandt and among the older Venetians or the very greatest names of the early Renaissance.

Such art shows us again and again that the pencil and brush are only means to an end, that technical facility in their use is admirable only when mind controls the hand.

It was the fortune or tact of Velasquez as a great realist, to steer clear of the religious subjects of his time. As we find these latter treated by Murillo we can only say that he rose to the highest level of his period and that this was not that of the sixteenth century. Our point of view for his “Divine Shepherd,” for example, does not so much relate to the picture itself as to the fact that his period mainly never was more serious than it is here. Taking this picture as a picture, we find it charming; taking it as a conception of the Christ subject, we find it admissible or tolerable; taking it as an example of the tone of the period, we are reminded that this century did not succeed equally well in more intellectual or more serious conceptions. mission of the latter was not exactly what it had been. What they accomplished in the way of painting considered as an art for its own sake is best attested by the fact that the painters of that day are still the models and teachers of our own.

The beauty of Murillo’s pictures, their warmth, and tender devotional spirit will always find admirers. The most inexperienced eye takes pleasure in a Murillo. No higher praise could be paid this artist. We must also give high rank to the somber power of Ribera, or Spagnoletto, as he was also called. His ” Jacob’s Ladder” is an excellent illustration of the semi-romantic spirit of the time and of the class and style of scripture subject in which this spirit was most successful. We could not wish that this picture had another name, and yet it is doubtful if it does not more successfully transfer us to the world of dreams at large than to the world and days of Genesis.

Beside these Spaniards, the Flemings, Rubens and Van Dyck, take in their own way an equal rank. In portraits, landscapes, mythologic and religious subjects, Rubens was a prolific and vigorous producer. Italian influences had been long ascendant on the art of Flanders, but Rubens was the first who knew how to graft the color and science of the foreign art on a Flemish stock without sacrificing his own native spontaneity and Flemish character. The ” De-scent from the Cross,” in the Antwerp Cathedral, was his greatest picture.

His pupil, Van Dyck, shows still more distinctly the reflex of his Italian models. Like Rubens, the friend of courts and kings, his peculiar forte was to portray the aristocratic and royal people of his day. In religious art he had not the strength or earnestness of Rubens and only in special cases, as in our illustration from Antwerp, did he rise to the level of his master’s religious pictures. As a colorist, however, he may be considered the superior of Rubens in refinement and in harmony.

In the Italian painting of this age the painters of Naples and Bologna took the lead, displacing the civic centers of earlier times. The former carried to the highest pitch a bold realism which has caused them to be named the School of the Naturalists, while the Bolognese are also known as the “Eclectics,” that is, universalists or imitators. As this designation would imply, their art was academic and “correct,” but lacking in spontaneity and in originality.

In the typical religious subjects of these Italians we find the tide of taste turning toward those which favor the ecstatic or the sentimental. The isolated Magdalens, the Immaculate Conceptions, Ecce Homos (heads of the Savior crowned with thorns), half-figures or heads of saints and Madonnas are of this period. The same holds of the isolated crucifixion scenes.

According to the ordinary presumptions of people who have not studied the topic, such pictures were typical for all old religious art, but the contrary is the case. In the early sixteenth century the actual crucifixion was rarely rendered. The “Deposition from the Cross” replaced it. At that time the Head of Christ is unknown, likewise the Head of the Madonna. The Immaculate Conception ” type is also unknown to the great period of Italian art, so are the Magdalens as a half-figure type. One by Titian is a solitary exception. His “Assumption of the Madonna” is the only important case of its time.

In sixteenth century instances where the ecstatic expression is attempted, as in Raphael’s ” Transfiguration ” (Fig. 84), and Titian’s “Assumption” (Fig. 95), the great dignity and reserve are to be noted and compared with seventeenth century types. In the same sense the reserve and dignity of the “Sistine Madonna” by Raphael may be compared with the Immaculate Conceptions. All these facts point to the larger, more general one, that good taste and common sense have not been confined to the nineteenth century, and that as far as religious painting is concerned they have never been so prominent since as they were in the sixteenth century Italian art. Good taste avoids the painfully tragic; common sense avoids the ecstatic and the sentimental, or handles it with great reserve.

The landscapes, mythologic scenes, and “genre” pictures (realistic subjects) are the most successful of this time. In these the period announced its own tastes and preferences most clearly, while the traditional religious pictures were largely a cloak and disguise for a realistic art lacking real sympathy with the heart of the subject and consequently treating it without earnestness.

In landscapes and classical subjects the Frenchmen, Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin, respectively took first rank, both residents and students in Italy.

Among the Bolognese, headed by the three artists of the Caracci family, we specify as specially important names those of Guido Reni, Domenichino, and Guercino. Among the ” Naturalists” we mention Salvator Rosa and Caravaggio (to whom the Spaniard Ribera, long resident in Naples, is also generally reckoned). The leading picture of its century is Guido’s fresco of the ” Dawn” or ” Aurora,” on the ceiling of the Rospigliosi Villa at Rome. The greatest work of Domenichino is the “Diana and Nymphs” of the Borghese Gallery.

Guido Reni on the whole deserves first place among the Italians of this age. He was an industrious and able manufacturer of all the classes of pictures which I have specified as types. His Magdalens, Ecce Homos, Crucifixions, and Immaculate Conceptions are very numerous. In the Crucifixion type he had an active follower in Van Dyck. In the Immaculate Conceptions Murillo carried off the palm.

The names of the Italians Sassoferrato and Carlo Dolci represent a weaker art, which unhappily offers excellent subjects for photographs and engravings, tending by their clearness and distinctness in copy to give an unduly important place to the originals.

In treating of the seventeenth century we must always keep two points in view; first, to be just to its own great excellence and achievements; second, not to be unjust to its great predecessor, and to preserve a proper perspective in our notions of the two.

The difficulty in preserving this perspective lies partly in the fact that the galleries of northern Europe necessarily exhibit a larger number of the later pictures, which are seen by many to whom the monumental works of Italy are not so familiar. The copies and reproductions of these seventeenth century works are also more in demand because they are better known, and because being smaller in original they make relatively larger and more decorative copies.

It is the universal experience of students that as beginners they are first drawn to the art of the seventeenth century. In external and momentary attractiveness it undoubtedly holds its own. This should scarcely be reckoned against it; but “still waters run deep” and the waters of the seventeenth century are rarely still, at least in the religious art of Italy. For genuine and spontaneous feeling in this century we shall fare best with the French, the Spaniards, the Flemings, and the Dutch. The English had as yet no painters of their own worth naming. (Sir Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller were Germans.)

( Originally Published 1894 )

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