“Modern life is embodied by experience given over to the transitory, the fleeting, the contingent.” -Charles Baudelaire
The radical movement of an art representing the familiar as it were – of an art closer to life – completely opposed contemporary expectations. Straying away from academic dogmas, aspiring artists of the Belle Époque admired the masters, allowing for their influence to take effect and yet, made great strides to define their own manifesto. Impressionism, as the style came to be called, captured moments of real life, full of sparkling color and ephemeral light, leaving its audience with a vague, sketchily executed impression. Claude Oscar Monet fathered this forward-thinking, unconventional movement that shocked the artistic community. Jean-François Millet, however, reigned just before the real beginnings of the avant-guard change. He was a Naturalist, a Realist: he depicted real life without imaginative idealism. Both styles stress an importance of color over form, enabling freer execution: the artists did not blend the colors imperceptibly, but left the brushstrokes clearly visible all over their canvases. Their motifs centered on the simple and ordinary, choosing to depict the humanity of their own day, just as they saw it – its ugliness as well as its beauty.
In Man with a Hoe, 1860-1862, French painter Jean-François Millet masterfully glorifies the everyday hero. A man, tired and dirty, leans on his tool in a moment of solace from his strenuous labor. This centered figure, the Everyman, faces left, cheating his body toward the viewer. His large brown boots appear hulky and heavy, almost stone-like, seemingly weighing him down. Painted in the same yellow-brown as the ground, his shoes appear to be an extension of the earth itself, making a statement about the close bond between man, earth, and therefore, god. The figure wears dark, ruffled blue-jeans, spotted with dirt and mud. Only slightly illuminated, a single suspender hangs from his waist. His creamy-white long-sleeved shirt, although tucked in, droops over the denim waistline, loosened by the peasant’s drudgery. The garb is yellowish from sweat and soil. The man’s dark burnt-brown complexion, the result of overexposure to the sun, is vaguely illuminated by a mustard-yellow on his lips, forehead, nose and cheeks. Although his face it lit, the blots of light color give him no definition, and hence, no individuality. His large, brutish nose bulges from his face. His mouth gapes open, releasing an exhausted sigh or perhaps gasping for air.
Shaded, dark, and indistinct, the farmer’s eyes stare beyond the edge of the work, looking downward with fatigue. His head with its short, messy mop of dark brown hair wearily gazes. The Everyman stands shoulder width apart, legs straight, back slumped and arched over. He rests atop the wooden handle of the hoe; its iron blade planted into the ground. His posture, along with the slightly angled position of the gardening tool, creates a triangle of focus, forcing the audience’s attention to concentrate on the image of the utterly jaded figure.
The horizon splits the background: a grayish-pink sky above and brown earth below. Millet smoothly paints the empty sky, suggesting clouds with thin white strokes. He pays closer attention to the detailed depiction of the ground. Worked soil surrounds the peasant; a thin trench outlines his progress. Beyond the trench grow patches of dandelions and other weeds. The untilled grass marks the work that lays ahead. Placed neatly behind the man lie a folded periwinkle garment and a hat. Discarded, these objects allude to the temperature: an overtly agonizing heat. In the middleground, at right, a figure stands among smoking stacks. Toward the center of the scene, a cow followed by another working figure plow the field. A path recedes to a single tree. Distant violet hills separate the sky from land.
In Millet’s savage, rugged reality, void of beauty, the farmer transcends hopelessness and destroyed ambition. Turning rocky, thistle-ridden earth into a productive field is backbreaking labor. The subject’s hard, incorrigible conditions seem never-ending. This man, however, upholds dignity and courage in the face of a life of unremitting exertion. Ennobled, he stands as a symbol of the laboring class, a tribute to the peasant’s plight. He paints an accurate, detailed, unembellished portrait of contemporary life, rejecting idealism and its academic standards.
Comparatively, French Impressionist Claude Oscar Monet explores nature’s immediacy through the mutability of light, atmosphere, and climate in his Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891. Monet arranges a simple, basic composition of two off-centered solitary wheatstacks amidst a crisp, clear winter. The sun powerfully illuminates the scene. From beyond the left side of the work, it shines, directly lighting the two stacks to create a warm, red-orange glow. The consequent blue and violet shadows angle obliquely. The larger haystack at right stands before the more distant, and hence, smaller at left. The line of their shadows connects them. The open snow-covered field of muted pinks and purples recedes into an illusionistic, logical sequence of receding planes. Parallel bands of field, hills, and sky solidify the work. The backdrop, faint hills along the left bank of the Seine River and Giverny houses shrouded by a line of poplars, is fairly indecipherable close up, but becomes clear when contemplated from a distance. In contrast, the solidly formed geometric structure of the stacks prevents the surface from simply melting together. Light envelops the stacks, illuminating them without the use of contour lines. The juxtaposition of the light colors of the sky and the dark colors of the wheatstacks produces a pop effect, allowing the forms to jump out at the viewer. The forms are more harshly treated, otherwise they threaten to dissolve into the colored light. Flecked with blues, pinks, purples and reds, the reduced palette appears frozen and dormant like the season itself. The harmonious colors unify the canvas. The pinks in the sky echo the snow’s reflection and the blues of the wheatstacks’ shadows.
Monet’s haystacks – mundane, hardly beautiful, mute things – appear mysterious. The haystack, an ordinary element in northern France’s agricultural landscape, at the time, was an unlikely subject for a painting. Structurally complicated, built according to specific guidelines, these enormous stacks of harvested grain rose fifteen to twenty feet. They stored ears of grain, using hay or wheat to cover them from the elements until threshing season. Wheatstacks were a village’s most important commodity, representing wealth, productivity, sustenance, and survival.
Creative understanding during the late nineteenth century followed highly technical Classical ideals. Works resembled a colored photograph in manipulating paint to refine as much exacting detail as possible. Artists were expected to illustrate certain subjects: either religious episodes, mythological stories, or historical accounts. Any deviation from these standards proved unacceptable and, consequently, unsuccessful. Hence, popular belief argued that painting demeaned itself by depicting aspects of everyday life. The new radicals daringly continued with their ordinary themes and sketch-like paintings. The purposely visible paint strokes which characterized their art left popular critics criticizing their “unfinished” work.
Both these works, on display at the Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles, California strongly renounce traditional neoclassicist values. Their ideas were set against the ideal, the transcendent. The artists, Monet and Millet, use raised, broken brushstrokes of oil paint to create nuances of light. Monet even goes so far as to use an impasto method to simulate the thatched texture of the wheat. Both were not linearly invested; they used light against forms to demonstrate perspectival space. Moreover, they chose, as their subjects and focus, the themes of contemporary rural labor, Monet with his haystacks, and Millet with his peasant worker. Previously, servants were illustrated in subservient positions, and the agricultural landscape was by no means elevated to the status of a the central image of a work of art. Artists, at that point in time, fled the urban decay of the commercialism and industrialism of the city for the serenity and solace of nature. Built by man, but created by nature, the topography of Wheatstacks alludes to the industrialism Monet attempted to leave behind. Far from the commotion of the modern city, Millet too references the industrial pollution with the billowing smoke of Man with a Hoe.
Charles Baudelaire’s vision of modernism encompassed an understanding of the uncontrolled spontaneity of life. The manner in which Monet documents ephemera – the shimmering views, the dissolutions of form through layer upon layer of thick paint – proves that representation of this lapse of time required prolonged and personal examination. These “instant glances” and “quick looks” entailed more than mere momentary study. Embracing the language of paint, Millet similarly captures a moment of utter exhaustion. These masters laid down pigment on a two-dimensional surface with an unfinished quality. They diverge from the finished and illusionistic approach. Even Monet’s haystacks were once living things, but they are now dry. These haystacks serve as a metaphor for Monet’s now dry paint. The bright, unmixed colors, the quick, short strokes, the flickering of light and shadow, simply, the paint against paint – this is how Claude Monet and Jean-François Millet became painterly painters.
Discussion of Joanna Woods-Marsden’s “Ritratto al Naturale”:
Questions of Realism and Idealism in Early Renaissance Portraits
“Find the painter who could be trusted to produce an acceptable image,” says Italian writer Matteo Bandello, however, the trick, according to Woods-Marsden, was to appease the commissioner. As portraiture became a norm within the spheres of the elite, artists were still pressured by their patrons to render these likenesses under an idealized guise. In rejecting mimesis, these representations were somewhat dishonestly embellished. Garish facial features were muted, distinguishing characteristics were accentuated, and depictions in profile harked back to ancient imperial images.
[Left] Andrea Mantegna, Portrait of Cardinal Lodovico Trevisano
c.1459-1469, Tempera on wood, 44 x 33 cm
Gemдldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany
[Right] Antonio Pisano (Pisanello), Portrait of Leonello d’Este
1441, Tempera on wood, 28 x 19 cm
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy
Andrea Mantegna, in example, with his “relentless realism” was dismissed as a proper portraitist. His sitters did not earnestly receive his brutally accurate illustrations. Contrariwise, the contemporary Antonio Pisanello captured his upper class clients “in heroic and panegyric terms.” Although Italian noblemen praised Flemish naturalism for its verisimilitude, they most assuredly preferred the pretentious and glorified flair of the Italians.
Function must also be considered in the complete understanding of these works. Many portraits served as a means of propagandizing the reigns of these rulers. Adorning walls of palaces, castles and those of their allies, they also had a tendency to serve as surrogates in the absence of the sitter. Portraits worked to placate political ambitions and social magniloquence.
“There she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges.”
TITIAN, Venus of Urbino, 1538, Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm, Uffizi, Florence
We still know too little about the way in which paintings were actually discussed in the sixteenth century. As such, modern interpretation remains inherently ambiguous. Our modes of response and analysis create a critical debate over ways of perceiving and understanding the imagery of the past. Tantalizingly enigmatic is the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian. In a work of overt sensuality, he masterfully flaunts his virtuosity of technique. In focus, Director of Warburg Institute in London, Charles Hope and Columbia University Art History Professor David Rosand take opposing stances in clarifying the meaning behind Titian’s natural nude. Regardless, Titian’s mysterious Venus of Urbino, 1537-1538, triumphantly hails his artistic genius.
A fair, polished, delicate young woman poses; her identity poses the entire interpretive challenge. “Is this ‘Venus’ in fact a Venus? Or is she one of the celebrated courtesans of Venice, or merely a common whore?” Her elusive identity makes it difficult to locate the picture within a certain genre. “How indeed, are we to read this picture? How should we respond to this image of the female body?” Critics do not readily agree on who or what is being depicted.
The factual history of the painting is simple and straightforward. Almost a quarter of a century later, Titian recalls his Giorgionesque intervention; he awakens and domesticates Giorgione’s dreaming pastoral deity. “Brought indoors, this nude stresses less her classical poetic degree than her contemporary social function. Her blatant address to the viewer, inviting by sight as well as touch,” complicates our analyses. Her elegant example of visual contrapposto alludes to the classic venus pudica, however, here, she does not cover her breasts, and the contraction of the fingers of the left hand suggest that, rather than covering her genitalia, she is masturbating. Nevertheless, the genre remains essentially aristocratic and courtly in taste, with somewhat erotic mythical decoration.
First mention of the work is found in a letter, written by its patron, sent from Mantua on March 9, 1538. The patron, Duke of Urbino Guidobaldo della Rovere, refers to her as “la donna nuda.” Considering her title, it is in fact odd that he neglects to call her a “Venere.” Although, apparently, at the time, an unidentified nude woman was oftentimes unthinkingly referred to as a Venus. Regardless, the Duke was eager to take possession of the painting when it was still in the artist’s studio. Short of funds, however, he feared sale of the piece to another client. Ironically, had the Venus been specifically commissioned for the duke, it appears unlikely that he would have doubted its eventual ownership. Guidobaldo’s marriage took place four years prior, so, assuming the piece is a marriage tribute seems unconvincing and improbable.
David Rosand’s “So-and-so reclining on her couch” approaches the work as a simple, relatively straightforward depiction of a “woman in her fairest aspect:” a model of domestic virtue. He legitimizes her identification as a protectress of marital love by reading the perpetually blooming myrtle plant in the background as an attribute of the goddess. He also considers the sleeping dog a symbol of marriage fidelity in its trusting nature. Still, addressing Venus as the utmost allegory of marriage love and domesticity, would be a blatant avoidance of her stark nakedness and the all too obvious focal point…
Charles Hope’s “Problems of Interpretation in Titian’s Erotic Paintings” sides with the analysis of the figure as an erotic portrait under a “rather unconvincing mythological guise.” He goes so far as to suggest that this painting may have acted as a ‘pin up,’ acting as little more than a sex object. As a seemingly epithalamic scene, the Venus has no obvious attributes which would associate her with the goddess of love. To him, she is simply an example of Venetian erotica, not a representation of Venus at all. Sanctioned by prestige and the classical tradition, the painting was able to acquire the status of high art, masquerading under the alibi of a classical subject.
A perfect distribution of space, a full and ringing harmony of tints, an atmosphere both warm and mellow, the Venus of Urbino is a quintessential example of Titian’s ability. In my opinion, Hope’s argument is more tenable in that it is less easy to accept that the woman is Venus. To me, she seems merely a woman on a bed with a little dog beside her. Perhaps she is a courtesan, perhaps the mistress of the patron, but it is the attitude of her hand that marks the piece as far too suggestive for any Renaissance standard. In any case, whatever the source of the pose, it is hard to escape the girl’s sexual invitation, which, to me, has nothing to do with matrimony or chastity. Just the same, “the Venus of Urbino is no Venus.”
 David Rosand, Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino,’ “So-and-so reclining on her couch,” in Art History 106C: Painting in Renaissance Venice Reader, ed. Daniel Maze (Cambridge, 1997), 38.
 Rosand, 39.
 Rosand, 39.
 Rosand, 43.
 Rosand, 43-44.
 Charles Hope, Tiziano e Venezia, Convegno Internazionale di Studi, Venezia, “Problems of Interpretation in Titian’s Erotic Paintings,” in Art History 106C: Painting in Renaissance Venice Reader, ed. Daniel Maze (1976), 119.
 Hope, 119.
 Rosand 39.
 Hope, 119.
 Hope, 118.
 Hope, 124.
 Rosand, 42.
GRAPHITE – originating from the greek word to draw / to write, represents the origin of things – the beginning of a preliminary sketch to nearly any work of art. Graphite articulates the onset, right now – starting out, sketching paths, but journeying into something thought-provoking. It is the basic medium, but yet it also sparks ideas whenever confronted with a blank surface. Whether so dark as almost to black, or lightly articulated, graphite encompasses the gradation of tone in a way that translates to how we see the material in our journal – touching upon the often dense problems that art can present, but also the capacity of arts lightness and levity.
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