National Gallery – Early Art In Italy

EACH great picture-gallery in the world is famous for some special reason ; the Dresden Gallery stands, in the estimation of many people, at the head of all, because it possesses the greatest picture, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna ; the Pitti Palace enshrines especially the works of the Italian painters of the Golden Age; and the Luxembourg displays in its perfection all the vigour and brilliancy of the modern French school.

The National Gallery in London, besides being the home of some of the world’s greatest master-pieces, is particularly noted for the fact that in this building one may study the history of art by its examples, nearly all schools being represented, and so arranged that it is possible to make a systematiç study of the growth and development of art from very early times until the days of the century just past.

The true way to visit and enjoy the National Gallery is to take it by schools, beginning with the Italian, as one normally would do in following the course of art-progress through the civilized world. As the pictures are hung in this order, the progression is easy.

Before proceeding to do this, however, it will be interesting to consider for a few moments the history of this unique collection as it became national property, and to observe the various parts of the building in which it is lodged.

In 1824, Mr. Angerstein sold his collection of thirty-eight pictures to the British nation. This group was the nucleus of the present gallery. The pictures remained in the house of Mr. Angerstein in Pall Mall for a number of years, while the building which had been planned for their reception was in process of erection. Sir George Beaumont bequeathed sixteen valuable pictures by the old masters, in 1826 ; and thirty-five more were added by Rev. W. Hollwill Carr in 1831. In the year 1832 the new building in Trafalgar Square was finished, and the pictures placed there. The public was first admitted in 1838. The building was designed by William Wilkins, R. A. In a semi-classic style, surmounted by a very inadequate dome, it is not, strictly speaking, a triumph of architecture. A drawing was made of it by Thomas H. Shepherd, and was engraved, under the title of ” The New National Gallery,” by W. Wallis. It is a quaint view of Trafalgar Square, with mounted dragoons, and ladies and gentlemen in the costume of the period, suggesting a very different London from the one which we know. In 186o the National Gallery was enlarged, additional space being required for the increased number of pictures. In 1838 there were one hundred and fifty pictures; in 188o there were something over nine hundred, while at present the number amounts to nearly fifteen hundred. Again, in 1876, Mr. E. M. Barry, R. A., designed and built a ” new wing,” as it was called. There are now over twenty-two rooms in the gallery. Large bequests have been left from time to time, which have made a substantial increase.

The arrangement and systematic hanging of the pictures have made this gallery invaluable to the student of art. Many years ago Ruskin alluded to the gallery as ” an European jest.” But this is no longer the case. Indeed, in Mr. Ruskin’s opinion, the opprobrium was much modified by the purchase of Perugino’s great altar-piece, which, said Ruskin, ” raises our National Gallery from a second-rate to a first-rate collection.” He considered the Perugino in this gallery to be the finest in existence.

As it is frequently necessary still to change the hanging of pictures throughout the various rooms, in order to make space for new acquisitions, it is not possible to deal with the pictures in the National Gallery as one would with those in completed historical collections, and to direct the visitor to the exact spot upon the wall where any special work may be found. But as there is an inflexible rule that the number affixed to each picture shall always remain the same, the student will have no difficulty in locating any picture when he wishes to consult it, with the aid of the catalogue.

In the North Vestibule one is immediately introduced to the very earliest examples of art in the gallery. These are a set of remarkable portraits, painted in encaustic, or wax medium, a thousand years earlier than any other works in the collection. They were found by Mr. Flinders Petrie in the cemetery of Hawara in the Fayoum, and are among the most significant examples of ancient Greek art that have survived. Such portraits used to be placed inside the sarcophagi, over the face of the deceased, and in all probability they were painted in every case from the actual person, so that they have marked individuality and a very vital expression. Professor Ebers pronounced them to be of the third or fourth century before Christ, while other critics assign them to the first or second century A. D. The types of the faces are Oriental, the eyes being large, and usually dark. In some of them the colour is less strong than in others; and in one or two the surface is quite hazy, as if one were looking at this face from the dead past through a thin veil.

The medium in which these portraits are executed is difficult to determine at this late day, but most authorities agree that there is some tempera painting employed, which consists in the use of powdered colour mixed with yolk of egg and a little oil; while a great part of the work is pure encaustic, — colour-powder mixed with oil and wax, and applied hot. As a rule, the colours in encaustic painting were put on in small crude patches, and then worked together by means of a tool ; they received their final polish by being smoothed with some hard substance, heated.

Oil-painting, especially in conjunction with wax, was certainly understood in these early days, al-though, in the Dark Ages which succeeded them, the art is generally believed to have been lost. It will be our purpose shortly to examine the facts, and see, by consulting contemporary treatises upon this subject, whether there was ever a time when the use of oil had been entirely abandoned.

Pliny alludes to the fact that the Greek painter Apelles used an oil varnish. These Greek portraits prove that the disciples of the great master must have handed down his methods in the use of pig-ment. Aetius, who wrote a treatise on medicine in the fifth century, speaks of the properties of a certain kind of oil, adding : ” It has a use beside these, being employed by gilders or encaustic painters ; for it dries and preserves the gilding and encaustic painting for a long time.”

After examining these crude but expressive Greek works, we will turn to the next oldest painting in the gallery ; one would naturally expect to see an advance in art, and that the Madonna by Margaritone of Arezzo, which was painted in the thirteenth century, at least a thousand years later than the Fayoum portraits, would show some improvement in technical work, at least. But such is not the case. This stiff, unlovely Madonna, No. 564, sitting up like a lay-figure, may be historically interesting, being the best and most important example of this master which remains; but as a picture to look upon, or to act as a spiritual stimulus to the observer (as altar-pieces were intended to do), it is lamentably lacking. One can understand Browning’s state of mind, when he penned his drastic lines :

” Margaritone of Arezzo With grave-clothes garb and swaddling barret; (Why purse up mouth and beak in a pet so, You bald old Saturnine poll-clawed parrot?)”

The arts had suffered a decline during the Dark Ages, and Margaritone must be classed among those who had not been touched by the dawning revival which was to follow in the next century. Pictures were painted by rule in his day; no one had thought of departing from the old traditions regarding the necessary symbolism and the conventional idea of colour. The ” Byzantine Guide to Painting ” was the only text-book to which artists had access, and that was a code of æsthetic etiquette which resulted in the production of hundreds of just such pitiful works. Both as to subject-matter and method of execution, the masters of the early thirteenth century suffered a great handicap. In painting a picture of the Virgin, for instance, they had to conform to the Church’s ideals as set down in the ” Byzantine Guide.” ” We have learned not only from the Holy Fathers,” says the manual, ” but even from the Apostles . . and from Christ himself . . . how holy images should be painted.” Then the ” Guide ” proceeds to give minute directions. ” On the character of the physiognomy of the Mother of God,” is the heading of a set of careful directions for producing an accurate likeness of the Virgin. In another place occurs the phrase, which seems to have been invariably followed, ” The Holy Virgin seated, holding the Infant Christ, who blesses.” This composition is constantly seen; and, to prevent any wavering from the established law, even in the form of the blessing which is thus vouchsafed, the ” Guide ” adds a paragraph, ” How to represent the hand in blessing.” After giving exact directions for the position of each finger, and explaining the symbolic meaning in each case, it sums up by saying, ” So, by the divine Providence of the Creator, the fingers of a man’s hands, whether they be long or short, are so placed that it is possible for them to figure the name of Christ.” All possible subjects for religious pictures are prescribed by the ” Byzantine Guide “; some of the headings are as follows : ” The ladder of Salvation and the Heavenly Way “; ” How to represent the death of a hypocrite.” This recipe is so terse and graphic that it is a temptation to quote it in full, — ” A monk wrapped in bedclothes, a great serpent issues from his mouth. A demon over him buries a trident in his heart.” Quite a bloodthirsty scene. In the directions for painting ” The death of a righteous man,” the text reads : ” An angel above looks at him with joy, and receives his soul in veneration and respect “; while in ” The death of a sinner,” a demon is admonished to ” torment him with all manner of atrocities, and to tear away his soul by force.” In a time when such vengeful ideas represented the state of the Christian doctrine, and of the Church’s teaching, it is not remarkable that art was somewhat backward also. The whole state of civilization was at a low ebb, and the arts merely kept pace with the spiritual and ethical culture of their day. On either side of Margaritone’s Madonna are small scenes from the lives of the saints, which reflect, in their choice and treatment, the cynical theology of the times. Margaritone has selected scenes from the tribulations of the faithful; St. John is being boiled in oil ; St. Margaret bursts gleefully forth from the body of the dragon which had presumed to swallow her, and St. Benedict is seen rushing for a brier-patch, in hopes that the counter-irritant of the thorns may help him to drive from his recollection the image of a beautiful woman. St. Nicholas, too, is superintending the throwing overboard of a cup which the devil had presented to the sailors on his ship. Altogether, the key-note of the composition is that ” the world is very evil, the times are waxing late.” It is a gloomy panel of a gloomy age, and, except for its antiquity, would excite little interest among us to-day. The grotesque stiffness of the figures verges on the comic.

Margaritone of Arezzo was famous in his day both as a painter in fresco and on panel, and also for the execution of many large wooden crucifixes. His work was admired by his contemporaries, and he stood as well as any artist of his period. Vasari gives him credit for having invented the laying and burnishing of gold-leaf on a ground with bolarmoniac; but this art, as may be seen, was understood by the Byzantine painters much earlier than the thirteenth century. Margaritone may have been the first to practise the art in Italy.

In examining the technical methods employed by the thirteenth and fourteenth century artists, it will be seen that they differed essentially from the art as practised later in the Renaissance. The work was done on panels of wood ; but the painting, being in tempera (that is, water-colour tempered with egg and gum), could not be executed directly upon the wooden surface. A bed of plaster-like composition, known as gesso, was laid upon the panel, which was sometimes first covered with linen or leather, and the colours were applied to this. In other words, they made their altar-pieces to have as nearly as possible the same surface, on a minute scale, as the walls upon which they were in the habit of painting in fresco. The basis for this gesso seems to have been pulverized bones. In the treatise by Cennino Cennini is a paragraph headed : ” What kind of bones are proper for priming pictures “; and he directs that the bones of the ” ribs and wings of fowls or capons ” be used ; ” the older they are the better.” He adds, naïvely, ” When you find them under the table, put them into the fire, and when you see that they are become whiter than ashes, take them out, and grind them well on a porphyry slab, and keep the powder for use.” The monk Theophilus directs that this pow-der be carefully ground with water upon a stone, and then placed in a baked earthen vessel; he continues : ” And pouring in some glue, made from skins, place it over the coals, so that the glue may liquefy.” One is next instructed to paint three coats of this mixture upon the panel, which may first be covered with cloth or leather, ” the untanned skin of a horse or an ass.” When it is quite dry,” proceeds Theophilus, ” take the herb called shave-grass, rub this whitening with it until it is made everywhere smooth and polished.” In the treatise of Eraclius the preparation of the panel for painting is described in much the same way, the ingredients recommended being pulverized tile, wax, and white lead. Thus we see that wax was sometimes used as late as the thirteenth century.

Before the death of Margaritone, which occurred in 1293, Cimabue was painting in Florence. We may compare the panel by the painter of Arezzo with that of the Florentine, which hangs not far away, numbered 565. There is certainly an advance. The human element has crept in; there is a touch of nature in the later work which was absent in the earlier.

Giovanni Cimabue was born in 1240, and has always been regarded as the founder of the great Tuscan school, which must be examined before the other schools which grew up in Italy can be appreciated. Cimabue studied according to the Byzantine methods, for there was no other school for him. But he soon showed an original power of giving expression; he did not hesitate to turn the head of the Virgin slightly aside, or to attempt a little perspective. Every one knows the story of the famous Rucellai Madonna which he painted, and which was escorted to its place over the altar by an enthusiastic multitude, singing and shouting for joy, much like the procession which accompanied the still greater altar-piece by Duccio in Siena a little later. It is well that we may come to Cimabue from Margaritone, rather than to approach this picture after having admired the later works of Italian artists. For now we are able to see the advance which Cimabue made over the work which had gone before, and our attitude is more sympathetic; and not like the spirit of those who, in Mrs. Browning’s words :

Because of some stiff draperies and loose joints Gaze scorn down from the heights of Raphaelhood On Cimabue’s picture.”

Cimabue as a boy was sent to be educated at the Convent of Santa Maria Novella; but, like many incipient artists, he spent his time in drawing ” men, houses, horses, and all kinds of fantastic things.” He also played truant in order to watch ” certain Greek artists ” at their work. He being one of the born artists of history, his father and masters had the sense to recognize it, and to arrange for his education in his chosen field.

A commentator nearly contemporary with Cimabue speaks of him as knowing more of the ” noble art “. than any man, but as being so proud and arrogant that, if any fault were discovered in one of his pictures, or if he himself detected a flaw, he would immediately destroy the whole work. In the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence may be seen the portrait of Cimabue ; it is easily distinguished among the figures in the fresco, for he stands in profile, dressed all in white, with a short flowered cape and pointed hood, holding his chin high in the air, and with one pugnacious thumb visible over his turned shoulder. It is a spirited figure, and the pose suggests just such a character as that which the Anonimo gives him.

The example of Cimabue’s work in the National Gallery is an excellent one. The authenticity of the picture has been called in question, but it is so complete a manifestation of the style of Cimabue that for purposes of studying his characteristics one could hardly have a better specimen.

The use of burnished gold backgrounds was almost invariable with the early painters of the Italian schools, and we shall constantly find them in the pictures in London. The method of applying this gold was a most interesting process. The sheets of gold were hammered not quite as thin as gold-beaters today are accustomed to make them, and were applied by means of a sizing, and, when quite dry and ” set,” were burnished to a very high polish. Much ornamentation was also used, as may be seen in the Cimabue Madonna, especially in the nimbus surrounding the head of the Virgin; this was accomplished by tracing with a stiletto or stile the pattern desired, while the gesso was in a soft condition. The laying of gold-leaf required much skill. Theophilus directs that the clear part of the white of egg, beaten up without water, shall be painted lightly over the place in which the gold is to be laid; one corner of the cut leaf is then to be raised on the brush, with the ” greatest quickness.” ” And at that moment,” he says, ” you must beware of a current of air, and refrain from breathing; because, if you blow, you lose the leaf, and with difficulty recover it.” The burnishing of the gold was accomplished by constant rubbing, gently yet firmly, with a hard substance, often a stone, such as crystal, or, for more delicate work, ” a dogges’ tooth set in a sticke.” But the tool of the burnisher was of less importance than his patience. In a manuscript by Jehan le Begue, the illuminator is directed to burnish and go on burnishing, until the sweat runs down his forehead. In grinding their colours, too, the thirteenth-century painters were admonished to use great patience; Cennino Cennini directs : ” Put some clear water . . . to the colour, and grind it well for half an hour, or an hour, or as long as you please ; but know that, if you were to grind it for a year, so much the better would be the colour.” Cimabue was famous for his use of the expensive colour, ultramarine, of which Cennini says : ” Its good qualities exceed anything we can say in its favour.” Cimabue died in 1302, — the beginning of that great fourteenth century, in which the arts of Italy made such wonderful advance under the inspiration of the immortal Giotto.

Greater than Cimabue is his contemporary Duccio di Buoninsegna, who, although the founder of the Sienese school, is unique, being the only other great painter of this epoch, and is usually studied in connection with the Florentine. In every particular in which Cimabue is superior to Margaritone, Duccio is equally superior to Cimabue. The National Gallery has a goodly collection of his works, and it is only necessary to glance at the exquisite little Annunciation, No. 1139, to feel that Duccio had all the faculties of a painter in a greater degree than did Cimabue. The other pictures by Duccio in this gallery are No. 566, the Madonna and Child, for some time the only example of his work in the collection; No. 1140, which represents Christ Healing the Blind, and 1330, the Transfiguration. To an uncritical observer, the differences between the work of Duccio and that of Cimabue are very slight; but almost any one will admit that, as they are to be seen in London, these pictures by Duccio far exceed in interest the Madonna by Cimabue. And so, if one were able to study these men both in their native cities, one would be forced to award the palm to the Sienese. There is more action, more feeling, and more human nature in Duccio’s works, especially the Annunciation, than in any of the remaining works of Cimabue. Indeed, several modern critics ascribe the picture which has always been regarded as Cimabue’s masterpiece to Duccio; but that is a point which is not in order for us to discuss in this volume.

Very little is known of the personal life of Duccio. But one pertinent fact should be noted. He was taught his craft in a guild in Siena; from whose laws the following quotation is made: ” We are, by the Grace of God, shewers to common men . . . of the miraculous things done by virtue of the holy faith, . . . and because in God is the sum of all perfection, therefore, in this our however small business . . . we call with much desire for the aid of Divine Grace, . . . and we order that no one of the art of painters shall dare or presume to put in the work which he may do other gold, or silver, or colour, than that which he shall have promised, . . . and who contravenes in the said matters shall be punished and condemned ten pounds for every offence.” Thus we see that a conscientious spirit of honesty dominated this guild, and no better training could have been given to the young genius.

The simple dignity of the figure of the Virgin in Duccio’s Annunciation, quite free from affected mannerisms, is imposing. The angel, too, is straightforward and graceful, moving with remark-able action and directness. The picture of the Madonna shows a touch of realism in the fact that Duccio has had the independence to represent the Divine Child as pulling aside his mother’s veil, instead of sitting up and bestowing a blessing, as was almost invariable in pictures of the Infant Christ up to this time. Thus the inner motive and thought of the master has advanced toward recognition of the Holy Family, whereas the outward sign of his teaching is visible in the Byzantine type of face and the long thin fingers. There is remarkable individuality, too, displayed in the arrangement of the figures and the treatment of the incident in the picture of Christ healing the blind man ; an original bit of imaginative work is seen in the fact that, while the touch of Christ heals the eyes of the sufferer, his crutch falling from him suggests that the other infirmity of lameness has been cured at the same time. The most Byzantine of the pictures by Duccio, so far as traditionary treatment goes, is the Transfiguration. The draperies here, as in his other works, are relieved with fine gold lines in the lights.

Taking them all in all, Duccio’s paintings are by far the most interesting of the thirteenth-century masters represented in the National Gallery.