Art Of Carpaccio

NOWHERE but in Venice can Carpaccio be really studied and appreciated. There alone do we see him in all his glory, and can trace the influence of his personality on the artistic movement of his day. The society in which he lived contributed largely in making him the artist that he was, for more perhaps than any other man did Carpaccio love his own times and Venice—that Venice that he delighted to depict, reproducing in his paintings the beauty of her skies and the splendors of her fêtes.

His canvases unfold before our eyes a brilliant vision of the past. Venetian life in its external aspects, as well as in its more intimate relations, is portrayed as if in an instantaneous photograph, and in spite of their red caps and close-fitting hose, their short jackets and parti-colored trousers, we feel that we have known and have even been on intimate terms with the people whom he paints. The artist may indeed be said to have immortalized the manners of his time. . . .

In studying Carpaccio’s pictures illustrating the legend of St. Ursula we are impressed by a certain delicate sobriety in his art; it does not dazzle us, but, rather, steals softly into our inmost hearts. Close observation of nature under all its aspects, and a sense of harmony that he so well understood and preserved to so unusual a degree, are combined in Carpaccio’s works with imagination and eminent creative faculties, heightened by a sentiment that is both elevated and refined. He gave his personages the most varied expressions of gentleness, fear, joy, serenity, grief, or love. Carpaccio, indeed, as Zanetti has expressed it, “had truth in his very heart.”

A power of faithful imitation, a simple and natural arrangement of draperies, a study of relative values and relief, gradation in tones, skill in the management of light and shade,—all these are great qualities; but what charms us far more in Carpaccio is a certain simple and natural elegance, and a harmonious distribution of colors which are arranged without any apparent striving after effect. “Carpaccio,” says Charles Blanc, “seems at times to be endowed with the seraphic sweetness of Fra Angelico, as well as with the delicate naturalism of Memling.”

The Middle Age has passed away and a new era in art is inaugurated at Venice by Bellini and Carpaccio. An astute critic, Topfer, has noted the fact that in the paintings of antique art relief and color were altogether sub-ordinate to line. Relief served to emphasize salient points and give force to the representation of form, but did not render all the modeling; while color, differing but slightly from flat tones, was used merely to express certain conventional truths. Carpaccio, on the contrary, studied effects of modeling and coloring, and in his pictures man is invested with all the energy of life. It is indeed by his study of man, a study to which he devoted himself with an interest far keener than any that he felt in surrounding nature, that he gives us a foretaste of modern art.

Ruskin observes that Carpaccio never gave his serious attention to painting the natural objects of the earth, caring only for the beings that people it; that the blue of the sky in his pictures is too pale, the bases of the mountains too small, and that the waves of the sea and waters of the lagoons are painted with very slight regard for nature. In his representations of the stately and majestic architecture of the fifteenth century, however, we see how far Carpaccio had solved the problem of linear perspective, and when we look upon the buildings, arcades, and towers that he painted, we fancy that we, too, are living amidst the splendors of that city around which art, commerce, and riches cast so brilliant a glamour. . . .

Venice with its rich, varied, and harmonious coloring seems like some radiant vision, the very spot of all others where the scenes of the story of St. Ursula should be portrayed. In one of Carpaccio’s pictures of the legend the saint sees in a dream the angel who brings her the tidings of her future martyrdom; but the richness of the bed-hangings, the furniture of her chamber, austere in its elegance, take us back to the intimate life of Venice of the fifteenth century, when riches were allied with the most somber stateliness. In his picture of the English ambassadors in the presence of King Mauro (Plate II), the arches and open loggie recall the Porta della Carta, the Giants’ Stairway of the Ducal Palace, the Church of San Zaccaria, that of Santa Maria dei Miracoli—all those buildings, in short, which arose in the fifteenth century as if by magic on the lagoons of Venice. In the painting of King Mauro dismissing the ambassadors, it is Venice that in her public fêtes borrowed the opulent coloring of the Orient, and in the solemn ceremonies of the Republic gave expression to some deeply felt sentiment, some great idea. Again, on the canvas where Carpaccio has represented St. Ursula and her virgins at Cologne, it is in reality not Cologne that he shows us, but Venice joyous and alive with the noise of arms and the activity of labor. In another picture, where the ambassadors return to their king (Plate ut), Carpaccio has painted a little hill in the background covered with verdure; but we are not deceived, for here again it is Venice—Venice with the banners of St. Mark lightly floating in the breeze, the air redolent with the odors of the sea, and overhead that sky which disclosed to the painter all the colors of the rainbow.

Carpaccio, indeed, represented historic events after a fashion that was unknown before his day, nor did he hesitate to depart from the traditions of religious art, for even sacred story is warmed by a ray of Venetian sun and enlivened by that gaiety with which the very air of the lagoons is impregnated. In speaking of the angelic children seated on the steps of the throne in Carpaccio’s picture of `The Presentation in the Temple,’ Symonds says that while not precisely of human lineage, they are more earthly than Fra Angelico’s melodists, and justly observes that Carpaccio was the true interpreter of Venetian devotion, “at once real and devoid of pietistic rapture.”

It is precisely this harmony between the real and the ideal that produces a certain delicacy of form not to be found in the work of any other Venetian painter. The voluptuous beauty of the women painted by the sixteenth century artists charms us less than the frank ingenuousness of those whom Carpaccio portrays, who, with their radiant eyes, their delicately elongated faces and slightly prominent foreheads, give the impression of beautiful and melancholy visions. In the great picture of `The Presentation in the Temple’ (Plate VII), what sweetness, what truly divine majesty, characterize the Virgin who presents her Child to the aged Simeon! And just as pure spiritual joys are here made visible under human form, so in the scene representing the meeting of St. Ursula and her betrothed (Plate iv), the sanctity of Christian love has rarely been rendered with such holy sweetness or a modesty more gracious. Carpaccio is at once naïve and truthful, frank and strong, and in studying his works we end by agreeing with the opinion of that writer, Théophile Gautier, who found in him the purity and seductive grace of Raphael combined with that Venetian coloring which no other school has ever been able to equal.

Carpaccio reproduced nature with a delicate touch, with minute fidelity, and without preconceived idea. His groups are not marked by any great variety, nor does he disturb the tranquil serenity of his composition by any artifice, but simply reproduces what he sees in such a way that the scenes follow one another without any apparent arrangement. For instance, in one of his pictures (Plate Iv) we see on one side the English prince taking leave of his father; on the other, this same prince meeting St. Ursula, and again, the royal couple about to embark. Three subjects on one canvas! But what does it matter? Nothing escapes the observant spectator, from the heads that are marvelously drawn and painted, to the most minute architectural details —all rendered in a charming style that, far from mannered and soft in execution, is yet devoid of hardness. Indeed, such is the delicate sobriety of the drawing, such the beauty of the coloring, that all possibility of harshness of execution is excluded.

Although we can sometimes trace the influence of the old school of Squarcione in Carpaccio’s work, and sometimes that of the early Flemish and German masters, these influences left no decided mark on his genius, and he returned to the pure fountainhead of nature itself for his inspirations, always remaining true to himself—a painter ever naïve, simple, delicate, and charming.

Beauty of color and purity of form are qualities which characterize other Venetian painters of the fifteenth century, but what we look for in their works in vain is originality of composition. Carpaccio has reproduced with marvelous delicacy of observation the splendors which he himself witnessed—Venetian life, varied, vivid, luxurious, and glowing. Living as he did towards the close of that period when Venice was richest and most powerful, he had a complete appreciation of the life which surrounded him, and may truly be said to be the artistic interpreter of the Venetian people when at the very height of their glory.—ABRIDGED FROM THE FRENCH

CARPACCIO is an artist of great individual fascination. He is essentially a romantic painter. Though he portrays the actual pageantry of the splendid Venetian life—though he is in this sense a realist—yet he tells his story with a peculiar grace and dignity, a certain romantic charm.—SELWYN BRINTON

( Originally Published 1903 )

Masters In Art – Vittore Carpaccio:Vittore CarpaccioThe Art Of CarpaccioAndré Pératé ‘La Grande Encyclopédie’Bernhard Berenson ‘Venetian Painters Of The Renaissance’W. J. Stillman ‘Old Italian Masters’E. H. And E. W. Blashfield And A. A. Hopkins, Editors ‘Vasari’s Lives’The Works Of Carpaccio