ITALIA, wherein lies the secret of your artistic greatness? Do your azure skies make clear the vision? Does your sunshine cast creative spells? Alas, Giovanni Cimabue learned painting from a Greek.
Vasari, the whimsical chronicler of Dante’s time, writes of Cimabue as one of the greatest painters of his daythe latter part of the thirteenth century. He tells how a Madonna by this artist was borne in procession amid such loud acclaim that one street through which it passed was named the “Street of Joy.” Cimabue has been credited with ushering in the Renaissance. The allegation is generally denied, although he was undoubtedly a leading artist of his time. Immortality is his, however, be-cause he taught Giotto di Bondone. Giotto broke completely away from the past and revolutionized Italian painting.
Yet Giotto was not altogether free. Like other artists of his time he was still bound to the Church and its dogmas. Nature had no place in art. Painting was a means of presenting to the people the doctrines of the Church, whose importance was supreme. The Church was the influence, the inspiration and the task-master of art. The business of painting was to recount the story of Christ, the glories of Heaven and the horrors of Hell. Truths and beauties of nature meant but little; also such considerations as line, tint, mass, composition and color. Yet these are in Giotto’s work developed to a marked degree.
I shall not dwell on Memmi, Lorenzetti, Fra Angelico and other followers of Giotto. You may find them in many a book. We pass on to Masaccio, in the early fifteenth century. Masaccio is said to usher in the Renaissance, or “New Birth” of art. In the art of his time, incidentally, once again we see a striving after simplicity. Classic models had been newly rediscovered. They created a desire for naturalness, purity, refinement.
In his personal habits Masaccio was notoriously care-less and slovenly. Yet he was the first painter to put genuine beauty of attitude, natural movement, expression and reality into his figures. The modeling of nude figures in his “Expulsion of Adam and Eve” served as an inspiration to Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Here for the first time was a painter who recognized the everyday world as a mine for his art. Yet this great genius, who pointed the way for the tremendous development of the art to follow, received the reward that many a great artist was to get in succeeding ages. After opening the eyes of the world to glories hitherto unseen, and while his great powers were still in their first freshness, he died in misery and extreme poverty at the age of twenty-five.
Now let us get a “close-up” of the work done by these men and their glorious successors. For this purpose I have gathered quite an array of “Old Masters,” and placed them in one immense gallery for your pleasure and instruction. Please project your imagination with me and get the most out of them. I will not tire you with too many pictures. But I must have your attention.
The sizable fresco you are now looking at was brought on from the Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. It is about fourteen and a half feet in length and nine feet in height. This somewhat primitive painting is the “Death of St. Francis” by Giotto. Yes, it has a number of technical imperfections. But you must remember it was done in the early fourteenth century. Instead of picking flaws, marvel at its power. See those figures, for instance. A bit stiff, you say? Perhaps. But how impressive! This man Giotto was in earnest.
Surrounded by the brothers of the Order in grayish-brown robes the saint’s body reclines on a bier. His soul is borne heavenward by these angels. White-robed monks read the mass. A cardinal in a robe of red trimmed with ermine kneels at the bier. A number of the brothers are kneeling. Some kiss the hands and feet of the great man. Here is stirring and passionate grief in a perfectly arranged composition.
This work is remarkable for its vigor and freshness, its sincerity, its depth. Also for the refinement of expression in all the faces. On the other hand, the vivid colors, as you see, are not properly modulated. There is brilliancy without gradation. It lacks the subtle and almost imperceptible stages of tone development from highlight to shadow. Giotto was no doubt the greatest painter to his day, but there was still a good deal before him. He painted in tempra, or with colors mixed with the white of the egg. This medium was limited in color possibility. Oil was to come much later. Perspective, too, is notice-ably lacking. All his figures are on the same plane and of equal strength of outline. The art of depicting objects or persons in proper relation to each other was also to be of later accomplishment. All the more praiseworthy this achievement of the superb Giotto.
Sincerity and simplicity are outstanding features in Giotto’s painting. In his work one feels the simple piety of the man. And what an appeal there is in simple piety? One of the most impressive sights that I have ever witnessed was in a little chapel in Quebeca nun kneeling in prayer, her face covered with tears.
Step over to this fresco by Masaccio, done about a hundred years later. It is more than eighteen feet long by eight feet in height and comes from the Brancacci Chapel at Florence. Its title, as you may have guessed, is “The Tribute Money.” Here is the tax gatherer in the foreground, his back to us and his hand held out. Jesus is telling Peter to get the money from the mouth of the fish. All the figures, as you see, are almost life size. In the background at the left you see Peter crouched down by the water, his weight on one leg and the other ex-tended, taking the coin from the fish. On the right we again see Peter, this time handing the tribute money to the officer. Both are in front of that arch.
The background here is an advance over previous painting. It is a praiseworthy landscape. Mountains and sky are rather well done, so is the flowing river. Trees recede in correct perspective. Well may you marvel at the colors. The red in the drapery of Jesus contrasted with the fine blue of the overrobe is pleasant and soothing. Beautifully blended and harmonized in a low key against soft, warm gray tints, the color of the other draperies is remarkably well handled.
Please note the quiet dignity and grace of the figures, the magnificent attitude of Christ. See the broad play of light on his outstretched arm, the air of command blended with fine dignity, the manly beauty, nobility and strong personality in his face. Observe, also, the admirable drawing of the other heads, the excellent grouping of figures, the ease and grace of composition. Note the play of light, the life-like attitudes, the spirit in the figure of Peter as he looks inquiringly at Jesus.
Masaccio was the first naturalistic painter. His predecessors were given to creating people out of the imagination. He saw the art values in the world around him. Instead of painting dream figures he drew types from everyday life. To be sure, he was no slave to the model; but he was the first of a great line of painters who drew what they saw. He was also first in painting from the nude and from it to learn the secret of natural movement and flexibility of the human form. Masaccio was the first master of group figure composition. With him art begins to take on an importance of its own apart from the story it tells or the moral lesson it teaches. From Masaccio on there is a growing tendency of art for art’s sake. And there is more in that than at first appears.
The altarpiece before you is the “Madonna and Child Enthroned” by Giovanni Bellini, painted in the year 1488. It came here from the Frari Church at Venice. It is about eight and one half feet wide. The middle panel is six feet three inches and the two side panels are a trifle over four feet in height. I notice you pass lightly over the four evangelists on the side panels and gaze on the Madonna and Child under the canopy. The Madonna’s dignity and beauty hold you spellbound. Look at those slender, shapely fingers supporting the Child standing on her knee. Quite charming are these angels at the foot of the throne.
Figures and drapery here are exceptionally well drawn. Also incidentals and architectural background. Observe the sureness of stroke, the power and beauty in this work. This picture is in oil on wood. Its coloring as you see is rich and mellow. For it is by a great Venetian. And the Venetians raised color to heights which no other school ever equaled. Notice the golden clouds parted in the middlethey unfold a glory of light which is the opening of heaven itself. How this light brightens and mellows the flesh tints and gives added richness to blue and bright red of drapery? See the ruby-like background behind the Madonna, rich carmine ornamented with red. Observe the soft sparkle and quiet lustre where the light from the dome strikes it.
Now turn to this example of an entirely different type of painting. It comes from the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence”La Primavera,” or “Spring,” by Botticelli. It was done for one of the Medici family. Lorenzo di Medici, as you know, was then the leading patron of art. This picture was made for him about the time when Columbus stumbled upon the Western Hemisphere. It is six feet nine inches high and eleven and one-half feet long. Does it puzzle you? Well it might. Students have pondered its meaning for some few hundred years.
The picture is generally called “Spring,” though there is grave question if that was the artist’s intent. That tall, beautiful maiden in the center who seems to be the pre-siding genius over the dancing and running figures, above whose head Cupid shoots his dart, has been called Venus. Thete is some doubt of Botticelli having called her that, even if he was strongly influenced by the newly discovered classic Greek art.
Yet here is this exceedingly graceful lady. At our right a shy nymph by some called the Spirit of Spring is fleeing from the grasp of a muscular, half-naked youth said to represent Boreas, or the North Wind. A charming, flower-bedecked goddess lightly springs before them and scatters blossoms in their path. On, the other side of the canvas these scantily clad young ladies, called the Three Graces perhaps because of their number, form a circle in a dance. That male figure posing with an air of importance and looking away from the entire scene is Mercury, touching a cloud with his wand.
Whether this work was intended to portray Spring or to glorify one of the ladies of the Medici household is really of little importance to us. We are concerned with its great beauty and the classic perfection of the composition. No overmastering wealth of colors here, as in our previous painting, but rather the aesthetic restraint of the more intellectual painter. Study, for example, the cold greenish monotone of the figure supposedly Winter. Yet the artist’s self-restraint in the handling of color does not detract one bit from the wild action of the running figures on the right or the enchanting grace of the dancers at the left.
The fact is, Botticelli had none of the instincts of the colorist. He was what is known as a purely intellectual _ painter. With him color was an incident in portraying what is before him or possibly a means of producing finely mystical effects, not a direct medium for raising the beholder to heights of ecstasy. But Botticelli was the first real portrait painter. He was a story-teller on canvas. He was also the first to sever art from being a mere vehicle of the Church and make of it an instrument of general culture. Subjects with him were religious or profane, as occasion or whim demanded.
Naturally you would stop before the “Mona Lisa,” by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). It was hung here by the kind permission of the Louvre at Paris. While you look upon this masterpiece let me read you an account of it by the imaginative and sometimes truthful Vasari:
“The eyes had that moisture and sparkle which we see continually in Nature. The lashes, showing how the hairs grew in the skin, in’ one part thicker and another thinner could not be more natural. (You probably do not see any eye lashes, and there is considerable doubt about there having been any) . The nose with its nostrils, pink and tender, seemed to be alive. The mouth, the red of the lips united with the carnations of the face, seemed not color, but really flesh. In the dimple of the throat, if you looked carefully, you saw the pulse beat. Madonna Lisa being most beautiful, he had someone who, while he drew her, sang or made music on some instrument, and buffoons who kept her merry so as to relieve that gravity which painting gives to portraiture; and in this work of Leonardo was a smile more divine than human to see.”
Let us now pause before Leonardo’s even more famous “Last Supper.” It is here by courtesy of the Con-vent of St. Maria della Grazie, at Milan. Note the animation and character portrayal of the twelve apostles at the table. According to Goethe, Leonardo has chosen the dramatic moment after Jesus had said, “One of you shall betray me.” Sorrow, indignation, amazement are registered on the faces of the apostles as they rise with the question, “Lord, is it I?”
At our left in the group next to Jesus see the furious look on the face of Peter, who grasps the knife as if to seek immediate revenge on Judas. The latter, clutching the money-bag, upsets the salt in his excitementan ill omen. See the quiet grief on the face of St. John. The hands of Jesus outspread in repudiation of so horrible a thought. The gentle, half-reproachful affection with which Philip pleads his innocence. Study the faces of Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon on the extreme right. Full of animation is St. Matthew as he points at the traitor. Thaddeus is furious with rage. Simon’s face expresses quiet scorn. No arbitrary symbols are used in this work. The standing figure of St. Peter casts a shadow upon Judas. The small open window admits a light which forms an aureole about the head of Christ. The “Last Supper” is especially noted for its action and realism.
Having taken liberties in transporting these works of Leonardo to our imaginary exhibition hall I took liberties also with the time of their presentation. I tried to depict them as they appeared when in perfect condition. Unfortunately they are much different now. The “Mona Lisa,” while still shedding her inscrutable smile and leaving a haunting impression upon the multitudes who come to see her in Paris, is greatly marred by restoration. The “Last Supper” is almost a total wreck. That is due to Leonardo’s use of oil. It gave him the chance of constant alteration and revision over a period of years so necessary to his finicky nature and fastidious tastes. He could not have done so with the less flexible medium of tempra. But it ruined his work. Oil is not suited to fresco painting.
On the merits of Leonardo da Vinci as a painter there is considerable difference of opinion. Yet there can be no doubt that he was the first Italian realist. Here, by the way, is his own version of realism: “I say to the painters that no one should ever imitate the manner of another, because he would thus be the nephew and not the son of Nature; because, the material of Nature being so abundant, they ought rather to go to her than to the masters who have only learned from her. And this I say not for those who desire to become rich, but for those who desire by art to acquire fame and honor.”
This maelstrom of masculine anatomy is the cartoon entitled “The Bathers,” by Michelangelo. It was done about the year 1500 for a commission of a fresco which was never even begun. These soldiers of Pisa were bathing in the stream when word came of the enemy’s approach. An ideal subject indeed for the master sculptor, the lover of the nude figure.
Note the muscular development of dripping bodies clambering to the shore. The play of anatomy as Apollo-like troopers grab for clothes and cast apprehensive glances over shoulders in the direction where the enemy was sighted. See the superb delineation of vibrant flesh and tightened muscles in the figures of the two men leaning over to where the hands of a companion in distress appear in the water. Facial expression in this workis full of interest and variety. See the fear of the older man in the middle foreground as he cries to his companions to make haste. And the sardonic smile of that hardened trooper pulling at a trouser-leg in the right background, he with shield upraised.
The rhythmic action of these twenty male figures, mostly nude, is one of the marvels of painting of all time. And the draftsmanship is of the finest known to art. The effect is astounding. It is as if all the gods of Greek sculpture had come to life in a maze of furious motion. As you look upon this work bear in mind it is by the great master of movement and life, the modeler of the human form in all its physical splendor, the creator of super-men in art. Yet Michelangelo cared little for painting. He was a sculptor. All his leanings were toward creative work in that medium. With all that he has given to painting, the world might have been the gainer had he been left to follow his inclinations. But this genius, one of the greatest men of his time, was obliged to do the bidding of patrons and obey orders of popes.
Yet if there is any justification for his neglect of sculpture in favor of painting, it is in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That work, completed in 1512, more than justifies his employment as a painter. Undertaking it with great reluctance, pleading that he was but a sculptor and unequal to the task, he nevertheless created what is undoubtedly the finest piece of decorative painting in existence. With mighty sweep of the brush, in a style full of the character and charm of Greek art, he painted on this ceiling a sublime visualization of human life from the Creation onward. In a space covering some twelve thousand square feet, Michelangelo, with the combined genius of the sculptor and mural painter, tells his great thoughts about man and his relations to the earth and the eternal powers. This, the greatest intellectual feat ever achieved by a painter, stands as a lesson for all time.
And here we have a Raphael Madonna, one of a family of forty. It is the Sistine Madonna, or Madonna di San Sisto, done in the year 1519, and comes here from the Royal Gallery, Dresden.
Against a background of myriads of faintly outlined cherubim, standing on a cloud-covered globe, is the Ma-donna with the Child in her arms. A little below are St. Sixtus on the right and on the left St. Barbara. Beneath the cloud and directly under the feet of the Ma-donna two cherubs with chins on folded arms gaze upward in adoration. St. Sixtus looks up at the holy ones in rapt worship while St. Barbara, one knee partly bent and a hand over her bosom, is deeply interested in the cherubs below. See the flowing robe and veil of the Madonna. Also the wide drapes of the saints and the parted curtains on either side. As the Virgin looks at us her calm face reveals something of the suffering through which the world is to be saved. But notice the difference in the look on the Child. Agitated, restless is heas if the Saviour is fully conscious of the task before him.
In composition this work is exceedingly simple, as are all of Raphael’s Madonnas. Some critics do not like the curtains. They object also to the great quantity of drapery. Yet all agree that it is one of the best colored of Raphael’s works. Please take careful note of these details. You will find the knowledge useful in the appreciation of other works of art. First, the unusual effect produced by so simple a setting or grouping in the composition. This is characteristic of Raphael. With settings quite ordinary and apparently without the slightest ingenuity he produces endless variety. His simple outlines assume sublime grandeur. That is great art. In Raphael’s drawing of figures you will find something of the anatomical excellence of Michelangelo, the frankness of Masaccio and a fine poise which is Raphael’s. For this master had the Shakespearian faculty of freely absorbing the attainments of others and using them to produce something distinctly his own. Placing the figures in the firmament of the heavens is relatively new with Raphael. That helps his religious message. It suggests infinity.
Consider this, too, if you will. Anyone can place a naked child into the arms of a pretty country-woman and pose her in a dozen pretty attitudes. But to so pose the head and neck as to bring out the lovely gradations of light and shade, or chiaroscuro. To put such unearthly refinement into mere flesh. To so place and paint figures and objects as to bring out all their fine curves and make of them a “euphonious cacophony.” Then to clothe the whole with colors more of heaven than of earth. To do all this, one must be a great artist a Raphael.
If there are no critics in our midst, we will pause be-fore Andrea del Sarto’s “St. Agnes,” which came here from the Pisa Cathedral. Andrea del Sartoif you must have dateswas born in 1487; he died in 1531. Some critics agree with Browning in calling Andrea “the faultless painter.” Others consider him mediocre. So if by chance you should like this picture be very careful to whom you tell it. In fact, since our degree of culture is often gauged by our views on art, it is safest to be noncommital. Rather than approve, one should grunt “quite interesting.”
The “St. Agnes,” then, is in oil on wood, about three and one half feet wide and five feet high. It is done with Andrea del Sarto’s characteristic sureness of stroke. This young lady, as you know, was a Christian martyr in Rome. Her tomb became a place of devotion. One day she appeared before her followers with a lamb at her side and related the tale of her bliss in the other world. Here you see the saint seated, eyes uplifted to heaven, one hand holding the martyr’s palm and the other resting on the snuggling lamb beside her. There is much drapery about the graceful form, as well as on her head, all very well drawn. In fact, the drawing throughout is as good as any we have seen yet. The wide window behind the saint’s head discloses quite an interesting castle set on a hill, with a view of the water in the distance.
In spite of what some critics may say, this picture is full of sweetness and refinement. Its color is not quite up to Venetian brilliancy. But it is pleasing, harmonious and varied. That reddish-salmon in the shoulder robe is soft and charming against the cool gray-blue landscape. And the mellow flesh-tints are delightfully cooled by the white of the head-dress. Take particular notice, by the way, of the fine lines and expression of the face; its sweet delicacy, its subtle refinement, its charming quality. See how the purplish-gray robe about the knees is subdued by cool creamy tone in the highlights, producing plum color in the middle tints and deep purple in the darker shades. The lustrous blue of the bench and soft green of upraised sleeve complete an exquisite color harmony.
Now study the fine delineation of head and neck, the refinement of features in this idealized portrait. Observe the drawing of hands and drapery. Follow carefully the modeling of the neck from the line where it meets the flowing headdress; also of the rounded face. How the dark flesh-tones in the shadow are lightened, lightened by ever so gradual, almost imperceptible stages, growing into its fullness where the light strikes squarely upon it, then receding to that feeling of air behind the figure. It is this that makes you feel you can put your arm around that neck. Here is modeling, atmosphere! Note also the color of the lips, the pulsing tones of living flesh, the feeling of blood in veins ‘neath velvet skin.
Andrea del Sarto is criticized because his work was not up to the devotional and inspirational standards set by men like Fra Angelico and Giotto. His a more worldly art. He represented the spiritual decline so noticeable during the early sixteenth century. But he was quite modern in his pictorial effects. He had extraordinary facility and versatility. He could paint!
This mail-clad knight on snorting steed is Charles V of Spain at the Battle of Muhlberg, by Titian. It comes here from the Prado, at Madrid. It was painted in 1548. Well may you marvel at the colors. For this is a master-piece by one of the great Venetiansand among them Titian is pre-eminent as a colorist. I would call your attention to the unusually fine drawing of rider and horse; the play of light and shade on armor of polished steel and the superb landscape forming the background.
Note the perfect posture, the erect carriage of the warrior-king as he sits on his beautiful, prancing horse. See the expression in the proud face. The eyes gaze into the far distance. Together with pride of possession there seems to be a sense of isolation in the royal countenance. In the solitary dignity of this lord of half the world we feel something of tragedy. It seems to portend the coming day when he would renounce the glory of his thrones for the solitude of the cloister. Look at the landscape, with its vast distance, its finely drawn trees, its colorful meadows. Observe, too, the contour and movement of storm-laden clouds. Titian is a master of landscape as well as portraiture. With profound insight into character he combines a highly dramatic power of presentation.
Vasari, during Titian’s lifetime, thus writes of him: “His way of working in his last pictures is very different from that of his youth. For his first works were finished with great diligence and might be looked at near or far, but the last are executed with masses of color so that they cannot be seen near; but at a distance they look perfect. This is the reason that many think they are done without any trouble, but this is not true. And this way of working is very effective, and it makes the pictures seem living. . . . He has been most healthy and as fortunate as anyone has ever been. In his house at Venice he has received all the princes, all the learned and famous men who came there, for besides his greatness in art he has the most pleasant and courteous manners. He has had some rivals, but not very dangerous ones, and has earned much, his work being always well paid, so that it would be very well for him in these last years of his life to work only for his pleasure lest he should injure his reputation.”
Wise observers avoid the quicksands of comparison. Wiser ones see the greatness in all the great and judge them by standards of their own. Yet it is interesting to read this by Ruskin (The Two Paths, pp. 62-64). “Nobody cares much at heart about Titian. Only there is a strange undercurrent of everlasting murmur about his name which means the deep consent of all great men that he is greater than theythe consent of those who having sat long at his feet have found in that restrained harmony of his strengththere are indeed depths of such balanced power more wonderful than all those separate manifestations in inferior paintersa softness more exquisite than Correggio’s, a purity loftier than Leonardo’s, a force mightier than Rembrandt’s, a sanctity more solemn even than Raphael’s.”
It makes you blink and rub your eyes to look at “The Night,” by Correggio. It was commissioned in 1522 at a price of two hundred and eight lire and put in its place in the Church of St. Prospero, in Reggio di Emilia in 1530. And it is the most brilliantly lighted Nativity painting known. All its lighting, as you see, is from the unearthly glory shining about the Child. A most brilliant blaze of color has broken forth from the new-born Infant in the arms of the Madonna. So strong is this light that both Virgin and Child are half lost in its radiance. It illuminates more softly the immediate surroundings in the stable, the shepherd and maiden, the angels above; while other figures and beasts in the stable are in dim shadow. That band of light in the distant horizon is rich in tints of early sunrise.
This is the work of a great master of chiaroscuro, or light and shade. See how the central light accentuates the fine lines of the face of the Virgin, how it gives the skin a softness almost transparent. How it brings out the fine texture of the garments of Mother and Child in contrast with the coarser ones of the onlookers. How effectively it brings into relief all the important elements in the scene, at the same time subduing the lesser ones. How clearly and naturally yet with cameo-like precision it delineates the faces and part of the figures of the be-holders. How it produces a series of contrasting light and dark masses like an improvization of great chords on a church organ. The confusion of arms and legs of the angels overhead must have been intended to lend an air of realism to the scene and to give it added action.
Ruskin speaks of Correggio’s “luscious refinement,” the melting softness of his outlines and his extreme grace of motion. Of his masterly and inimitable treatment of light and shade Mrs. Jameson says, “You seem to look through Correggio’s shadows, and to see beyond them the genuine texture of the flesh.” Sir F. W. Burton, in his “Catalogue of the National Gallery,” has this to say of the art of Correggio: “None before him had shown the capacity of painting to affect the imagination by the broad massing of light and shadow, by subordinating color to breadth of effect and aerial perspective, and suggesting the sublimity of space and light.”
About now you must be aching to know what, if any, are this artist’s faults. He did have faults, indeed. According to some criticsand here again I must warn you to be on your guardhe had more faults than virtues. The fact is, at times his figures are a bit out of pro-portion. His independence in the treatment of religious subjects has been said to border on profanity. Although, as I have pointed out, this tendency was not new with Correggio. It had been quite noticeable for some time, in other fields as well as in painting. The vise-like grip of the Church had begun to relax. There was a general revulsion against abuses which grew with the power of the Church. Power and abuse, by the way, always seem to travel together. You may recall this from your Bible: “And Israel grew fat and he rebelled.” Correggio has been accused also of being a purely technical painter, and nothing more. On the other hand, some say there need be nothing moreif one is a good technical painter. But I am here to show you pictures, not to argue.
This is “Venice Enthroned,” by Paulo Veronese, taken from the ceiling in the Doges Palace at Venice. It was painted about 1580. The crowned and sceptred lady on her high throne on the globe looks quite imposing in jewels, silks and ermine. There is grace and freedom in those figures at her feet, Justice and Peace. All three figures, as you see, are life-size. Fine tone is in that sky of soft blue with clouds of cool gray and rose. See the gradation of color in this work. Note its simple treatment. How charming the effect of that ermine-lined creamy silk robe of Venezia against the rich crimson canopy and subdued gold throne. There is excellent modeling in the youthful, serene and sweetly beautiful face of this central figure. See the harmony of color produced by green, yellow, crimson ochre and Venetian-red of the robes of the other two figures. Fortunately you are viewing this painting in the afternoon sun, which reveals its regal splendor, its lightness, delicacy and refinement.
While this is by no means his masterpiece, it is a typical work of Paulo Veronese. His aim was to produce “absolutely normal paintings, perfectly balanced between light and shade, between dignity of form and realistic action, between splendor and simple charm.” (This is from Sturgis, The Appreciation of Pictures.) It is said that Veronese first painted his pictures in a flat solid opaque color then laid in all his light and dark masses. That would involve almost superhuman intellectual power. For it would require complete visualizing of the work in the artist’s mind; with its endless gradations of tones and hues, with all the fine blendings and contrasts of color masses.
Picture what it would mean in a canvas containing forty-five life-sized, richly clothed men; all moving, gesticulating, busy humanswith individual heads, expressions and characters. Done in any manner such works as his “Supper at the House of Levi” and the “Marriage of Cana” would stand out among the greatest achievements of the Renaissance. Not a false note is in either of these immense paintings, in spite of their many figures and colors and variety of dress. In the former a wealth of architecture is beautifully blended with festive humanity. In the latter a host of figures, splendid character studies, are full of action; facial expressions are most interesting, even of children on the floor and the family cat. For pure craftsmanship, there is not a great deal in the art of any age to compare with these works.
The painting you are now looking at is so big, so vast in conception as well as execution, it is next to impossible for me to point out all its qualities. This “Crucifixion” by Tintoretto nearly filled a forty-three foot wall in the School of San Rocco at Venice, from whence it was brought here. It is so vast, so complex, it baffles description. Think, then, what must have been the mental powers of the man responsible for its execution. See the natural, matter-of-fact way in which up there on the hill of tragedy the cross of one of the thieves is being put in place. The criminal is lashed to it, as men are straining under the load or pulling at guy ropes. The cross of Christ you see already in its place, and behind it a man on a ladder fixing a sponge to a pole.
I want you to take particular notice of the great amount of movement in this vast aggregation of people. Aside from those actually engaged in the business of execution, see the action in the groups worshipping and weeping at the foot of the cross of Christ. Also in the great crowd of onlookers all about. What fine contrast in delineation is in this work. Here folks are deeply interested; over there curiosity seekers seem to be making of the terrible tragedy a festive occasion. The powerful imagination of Tintoretto has tried not for an idealized conception, but to grasp the scene as it must have been in reality. Into vigorous action of figures he threw all his love of the human form.
Another interesting feature here is Tintoretto’s use of chiaroscuro. See his dramatic play of highlight and shadow; the striking rhythm and movement obtained from mass contrasts. Unfortunately we do not get the full benefit of the original colors. This is due to Tintoretto’s speed in turning out his pictures. For quick action in finishing he used deep red and other dark grounds. This served its purpose at the time; it helped to harmonize the after-painting. But age made the dark colors underneath come through the coatings of lighter tints and glazes. The result has been to blacken the en-tire work and upset the original harmony of contrasting color.
Tintoretto was largely self-taught. He was the most prolific workman of all the Italian artists. He was always painting. When commissions were scarce he painted for nothing. When inside walls were lacking he painted great scenes on the outside of buildings. His popular monicker was “Il Furioso.” He had an unusual amount of self-confidence. While still quite young he started a school. A sign in front of it read, “The design of Michelangelo, and the color of Titian.” If instead he had sought to add the patience and system of Titian to his own genius and inventiveness he might have been by long odds the greatest painter of all time.