New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art – Part 4

THE luxuriance of Rubens’ pictures index, in a measure, the luxuriance of his life. He was born, lived and died on the crest of the wave of fortune. His birthday was the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, so his given names, Peter and Paul, may have presaged his impetuosity and saneness in the quantity and quality of his work. A thousand pictures re-main to his credit, most of them immense in size. He once wrote, “I confess that, by reason of a natural bent, I am better qualified to create large works than little curios.” Of this tremendous output of pictures by this great Flemish master we have less than fifty in America, the smallest per cent. of any of the great masters of the seventeenth century. We are fortunate, though, in having one of the Rubens’ hunting scenes, painted between 1612 and 1616, that brought him recognition from aristocratic circles of foreign countries, especially England.

“The Fox and Wolf Hunt” (Fig. 55) is a replica of a painting bought from the artist in 1616 by the Duke of Arschot for $2,500. The original picture is said to have been lost. Our painting of “The Fox and Wolf Hunt” is probably not so large as the first picture, but comparing it with an engraving of the original it is easy to see that it has been cut down, especially at the top and bottom. Some critics have asserted that the animals were not by Rubens, but were painted by Snyders. This seems impossible, as Rubens said at that time that Snyders could paint dead animals, but not living ones. It may be that the small section of landscape was painted by Jan Wildens. It was Rubens’ custom in his large paintings to make the first drawing, and then his pupils would add the details, and afterward Rubens would go over the whole painting with his brush. There is no question about the final brush strokes in this picture ; they are master strokes by Rubens.

The two figures on horseback at the right are Rubens himself and his first wife, Isabel Brandt. Notice the marvelous flesh tints in these portraits. Is it any wonder that it was said of him, “His flesh colors alone baffled every one of his pupils and imitators”? But he was not only a master of human physiognomy and human flesh that glows as under a tropic sun, but he knew the animal world as few know it. His horses are superb—his own stables were filled with choice breeds—and his picture of the hunt shows him master of animal portraiture. Look carefully at the struggling, snorting victims and the overpowering force of the hunters. There is perfect order in the confused mass, for a master mind is guiding the issue where reason overrules brute force. The Rubens who is watching the scene from his horse is no more contained than is the Rubens who is making the picture. We have the feeling that a perfectly balanced mind is handling the great hunting scenes, though at times we shiver with real pain as the teeth and claws of the ferocious beasts tear and rend the flesh of horse and rider. Again, in “The Holy Family,” Rubens shines forth in his inimitable flesh tints.

The large picture in the next room (28), by Tintoretto, is a Venetian religious painting in which the costumes of the assembled company reflect the fashions in Venice at the time of the Renaissance. One might say that the picture is religious in name only, but that is scarcely true. Tintoretto has combined the miracle of the loaves and fishes with the miracle of Christlike love in the hearts of these fashionable women as they care for the poor little outcasts they are fondling so tenderly. The picture was probably painted for some foundling society, as the company in long white robes in the middle distance seem to represent a religious order. Though the Savior and St. Peter, the only ones dressed in Oriental costumes, really belong to the miracle, yet the boy carrying the basket of bread and fish certainly feels the influence of the Savior’s words, for he staggers under his basket as though its weight were increasing.

Hanging at the opposite end of the room is “St. John the Evangelist” (Fig. 56), by Murillo (1617-1682). It is the only example of this Spanish artist in the Museum—in fact, there are but few Murillos in this country. The artist represents St. John in the act of writing. The eagle, the apostle’s attribute as the evangelist, refers to his inspiration in heavenly wisdom and love. The golden cup is an-other symbol that recalls the tradition that St. John was repeatedly offered poisoned wine to drink, but that the poison either left the cup as a serpent or that it had no effect on the saint, while the bearer of the cup fell dead at his feet. St. John’s robe is usually blue or green, but Murillo has substituted pale yellow, though he adheres to the red draperies that signify divine love. The various shades of red have special symbolic meanings.

Murillo was at his best as an artist in his “Beggar Boys”—he painted a number of them in the beginning of his career—for in them he produced masterpieces that vie with Velasquez’ children of the Spanish court. But when Murillo became the popular religious painter of the seventeenth century he lost much of the spontaneity and originality that he showed in his genre subjects and came very near being a mere sentimentalist. It is a curious comment on his countrymen that very few, if any, of his “Beggar Boys” paintings are in Spain today.

Now look at “The Nativity” (Fig. 57), by El Greco (1548-1614), a forerunner of Velasquez and Murillo. There is no sentimentality in this night scene, rather a “veiled conflagration” seems about to burst forth. Never be-fore had the infant Savior been the source of light, though later artists often used this method. The Apocryphal gospel, “The Protevangelion,” says : “But on a sudden the cloud became a great light in the cave, so that their eyes could not bear it. But the light gradually decreased until the Infant appeared.” El Greco was a Cretan but, strange to say, his impetuosity and sudden breaking away from the narrow, bigoted beliefs of the Spanish of the Inquisition period, passed without reproof and the new day, begun in Spanish art with him, reached its climax in Velasquez and was still felt by Goya.

The latter artist, Goya (1746-1826), is well represented by “The Jewess of Tangier,” a small canvas, yet glowing with an inner life that not even her elaborate brocaded costume and sparkling jewels can eclipse.

As we turn to Correggio (1494-1534) and look at his “Four Saints” (Fig. 58) we recognize at once that sunny Italy has come into the picture. Correggio, though not a deep thinker, was most original in his use of light. He gave to it a decorative quality, often disregarding its legitimate source, that is charming. Correggio was unique in his training or rather in his lack of it, for it is not known that he studied under any master. His drawing and foreshortening proclaim him a remarkable genius, and his flesh tints are so natural and fresh that it seems impossible that the work was done four hundred years ago. The four saints in this painting are: on the left, St. Peter with his keys and St. Martha with her foot on the dragon’s head; on the right, Mary Magdalene, dressed in yellow with a red cloak and in her hand the jar of ointment, and St. Leonard.

The latter was a much beloved courtier of King Theodobert in the sixth century. He spent much of his time visiting prisons and interceding for captives whom the king often pardoned. He grew weary of court life and retired to a desert near Limoges, France. One day the king and queen were journeying through that section when the queen was smitten with the pains of childbirth and likely to die. The prayers of St. Leonard relieved the pain and brought her through safely. In gratitude the king gave him a large portion of the forest and there St. Leonard founded a religious community. He wears the brown robe of the Benedictines and his chain refers to his work among prisoners. His name signifies “Brave as a Lion.” “The Four Saints” is the only work by Correggio in the Museum.

The portrait of “Christopher Columbus” (Fig. 59), by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547), was probably painted for Ferdinand Columbus, who wrote a life of his father. The artist possibly may have seen Columbus, though this portrait was painted after the great discoverer’s death (1506). At least the portrait has that warmth of personality which marks a real likeness. We can well imagine that such a man was capable of battling with the unknown seas, as well as with adverse for-tune among his own countrymen. We are not surprised that Queen Isabella of Spain aided this man looking out at us with his confident smiling eyes. The inscription on the painting is interesting for its definite information. It reads:—”This is a wonderful likeness of the Genoese Columbus who was the first to penetrate in a barque to the region of the Antipodes.” When we remember that Christopher Columbus lived at the time of the great Renaissance when Michael Angelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci were startling the world with their powers, we look with keener interest on this portrait. Piombo was a favorite of Michael Angelo, in fact the latter had such confidence in his genius that when a contest was to be held with Raphael, Michael Angelo chose Piombo for the competing artist. Very anxious that his young protégé should succeed, he drew in the figure of Lazarus himself in “The Raising of Lazarus” which Piombo painted. Raphael’s picture was his immortal “Transfiguration.”

As we examine the three scenes of “St. Zenobius” (Fig. 60), by Botticelli (1447-1510), we smile at the quaint simplicity of the artist.

On the left he represents a funeral procession stopping while St. Zenobius restores the dead to life. The center scene represents a company journeying with the relics of a martyr. The leader of the band has fallen from his horse and been crushed to death. St. Zenobius meets the company and brings the dead man back to life. On the right are three scenes. In one St. Eugenius, while very sick in his little room, hears that his relative has died without receiving the last sacrament. St. Zenobius brings him blessed salt and water and tells him to go with it to his relative. St. Eugenius is seen as the single figure running to the group in the foreground. There he sprinkles the corpse with the holy water and his relative revives.

This panel is one of four that formed part of a chest. The colors are as fresh as the day they were painted, four hundred years ago. Botticelli probably represented the art of the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici better than any of his contemporaries. He could picture religious. or mythological scenes, and as Ruskin says, “He was the only painter in Italy who understood the thought of the heathen and Christian equally.” His figures show that he had little knowledge of the anatomy of the human body, yet he was a great master of line. To really understand the beauty of Botticelli’s work one must see his “Spring” in Florence and his Madonnas. His painting of the “Calumny of Apelles” is, says Vasari, “as fine a production as possible.”

The fresco of “St. Christopher” (Fig. 61) is only attributed to Pollaiuolo, yet in comparing it with his “Hercules Killing Nessus” (see Fig. 22) many of the same characteristics appear in both, such as the muscular development of the knees and neck of St. Christopher and Hercules, and the rather peculiar growth of the hair. Mr. Berenson believes that the fresco was designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo and executed by his brother Piero. He also states that this is the fresco that Vasari refers to as painted for San Miniato-fra-le-Torri in Florence.

The story of St. Christopher is one of the quaintest and most fascinating of all the legends of the early saints. He was born in the fourth century in Canaan and, as he grew up, because of his great size, was called Offero, the bearer. His pride was in his size and strength. He stipulated that he would work for no one who feared an enemy. At first he was the follower of a great king, but he soon found that the king feared the devil. Then he hunted up the devil and became his follower, but again he discovered that whenever, in their wanderings, they came to a shrine of the Crucified One the devil made a wide detour to avoid passing that way. Offero accused the devil of being afraid and left him to find the Savior. An old hermit advised him to fast and pray, but Offero refused. The hermit directed him to a deep wide river, often swollen with rains and where many were lost in crossing, and said, “Go there and carry people over.” Offero went, and year in and year out he carried everyone in safety. At last Jesus saw the faithful work of one who would neither fast nor pray. He came one stormy night as a little child to be carried over the river. Offero took him on his shoulder, and with his palm-tree staff started over. The child grew so heavy that the giant nearly perished. On the opposite bank he placed his burden on the ground, saying, “I feel as though I had carried the whole world on my shoulders.” Then Jesus answered, “You have carried the Maker of the world. From hence-forth thou shalt be called Christ-Offero, the Christ-bearer.” He went as a missionary of the cross and was martyred at Samos. He is the saint of earthquakes, fire and tempest, and often with his pictures is the inscription, “Whoever shall behold the Image of Saint Christopher shall not faint or fail in that day.”

Lorenzo di Credi 1450-1537) was one of the followers of Savonarola and, obeying the orders of the great preacher, burned all his pictures of mythological subjects. Most of his remaining works are small easel pictures of religious subjects painted in oil on wood. The “Madonna and Child” (Fig. 62) in room 30 is on wood. Di Credi had very little imagination, yet his sincerity and technical ability give to his pictures a ring of truth that holds us. The expression of sincere devotion in the kneeling Madonna is so genuine that it begets in us a like feeling. We forget the stiff doll-like baby in the spirit of adoration that hovers over the scene.

That Savonarola’s influence on the artists of his time deepened the spiritual significance of their art is unquestioned. He no doubt had many works destroyed that we regret to-day, but by far the larger proportion were works that did not ring true and the artist felt it. That Savonarola was not a destroyer of true art has been proved by several incidents where, through his inAuence, masterpieces were saved.

All of di Credi’s pictures are in a wonderful state of preservation—what a pity that such technical knowledge in preparing pigments could not have extended to the greater masters of his time.

The “Portrait of a Young Man” (Fig. 63), by Hans Holbein, the younger (1497-1543) bought for the Metropolitan Museum in 1906, is a splendid example of Holbein’s early work. It is hard to realize that a boy of twenty was such a master of portraiture, yet if the date 1517 on the wall at the left in the painting is correct, Holbein could scarcely have been out of his teens. When we remember that he was only just of age when he painted that great masterpiece, “The Meyer Madonna,” it is not surprising, for the homely faces of Meyer and his wife are superb pieces of portraiture. In them the young artist in a simple straightforward manner has expressed strong genuine emotion. In the portrait of the young man we again find the outspoken character sketch of an honest artist. Holbein has not hesitated to record a certain discontent in the small eyes regarding us from the corner of the eyelids and in the full lips parted with a dissatisfied query. The young man’s attitude is that of a certain personal impatience because of pro-scribed restraint. He was probably the son of the bailiff of Lucerne or he may be Ambrose Holbein, the artist’s brother. That he is passing the period of youth is seen in the suggested double chin, the well-set nose and the enlarged hand. The character of the rings—the one on the index finger is either an Egyptian intaglio or a signet ring with a coat of arms—suggest that he may be a classical scholar. Certainly his whole bearing is that of one who knows his own importance. His costume of simple low-tones in black, green and red is very attractive against the fine quality of the flesh tints. The longer we sit looking at this portrait the more we are convinced of Holbein’s understanding of the personal element in character. The picture is painted on paper like the artist’s “Adam and Eve,” in Basel, Switzerland, belonging to the same year-1517.