Six Days of Advent: The Census at Bethlehem

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. If this looks a little cold even for December in Antwerp, bear in mind that he was painting at the beginning of the Little Ice Age.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child…” (Luke 2:1-5)

The ruined castle in the far distance of Bruegel’s painting was based on the towers and gates of Amsterdam. 
The Jewish writer Titus Flavius Josephus recorded that Quirinius (Cyrenius), Legate of Syria, and Coponius, Prefect of Iudaea, were assigned to do a tax census of their respective provinces for the Empire in 6-7 CE:
Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’s money…

Chaos at the government office… the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the Roman Empire, the natives were frequently revolting. Censuses—with the inevitable taxes that followed—caused rebellion from Gaul to Pannonia to Cappadocia. In Judea one Judas of Galilee led a violent resistance. His group, which Josephus labelled “The Zealots,” preached that God alone was the leader of Israel and urged a tax rebellion against Rome.
Citizen and provincial censuses were conducted differently, but that sacrificial bull at the right in the Census Frieze from Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (2nd century BC) might give some clue as to why the Jews found the practice so annoying.
In 2 Samuel 24, the young King David decided to take a census of his people over the objection of his general, Joab. God was clearly angered by this, but why? The answer may lie in David’s need to number his own strength instead of relying on God. However, a census is often a tool of a totalitarian government, as was certainly true with the Romans.
Bruegel painted the actors as his friends and contemporaries, underscoring the universality of the story. But to us, the Flemish Renaissance peasant seems as strange and marvelous as would Biblical-era Bethlehem.
The genealogies in Luke and Matthew are meant to spell out the Jesus’ legitimacy for the throne of David on both sides of his family. That is reinforced in the passage above, which also brings us (and the Holy Family) back to Micah 5:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.
Bruegel hid the main actors in his play in plain sight. Now that I’ve shown you the Holy Family, you can find them in the painting.
When it comes to artistic representations of the Holy Family’s arrival at Bethlehem, one painting stands above all others: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Census at Bethlehem, 1566. As always, Bruegel hid the main figures of the play in plain sight. He subsumed them in the greater action of life, neatly reflecting that the drama at Bethlehem concerned an unknown family at the farthest outposts of the Empire. The players were not exotic; they were the faces of his friends and neighbors.

Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, 1543, Cornelis Massijs. Same schtick, totally different outcome.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Six Days of Advent: The Annunciation to Joseph

The Dream of St. Joseph by Georges de La Tour.
Most of us aren’t even aware that there was an Annunciation to Joseph. The Merode altarpiece, below, pretty much reflects our impression: we’re there (in the guise of the donors) listening as the Angel Gabriel drops his world-changing news, while Joseph whittles obliviously off to one side.

The Mérode Altarpiece, by Robert Campin and assistant, 1425-28, shows Joseph’s usual place in our thinking about the Assumption; he’s off to one side, whittling.
Had the Angel of the Lord not spoken to Joseph, there would be no Christmas story. Mary would have been (quite legitimately) abandoned by him and quietly exiled, stoned, or worse. But few artists bothered painting his side of the story.
I posted my own painting of the subject recently; I imagined it was as if a bomb had gone off in Joseph’s life. Historically, those few artists who bothered followed the Bible account more closely and painted him sleeping.
Joseph’s Dream, c.1790 by Gaetano Gandolfi could betaken as an Annunciation of the Virgin Birth. However, the angel is pointing toward the wilderness and Joseph has a staff. That probably means he’s about to become a travelin’ man, as in the Flight to Egypt.
Any idea that he was significantly older than Mary is a myth, similar to the Penitent Magdalene (and equally suspicious as to motive). But that is what the church taught, so that is what artists frequently painted. No surprise, then, that they actually preferred painting Mary, who was presumably younger and prettier and fully awake when Gabriel stopped by.
The Dream of Saint Joseph, 1642-43, by Philippe de Champaigne. I hesitate to pass judgment on paintings, but that dangling angel actually makes me wince. I’m almost certain Mary feels the same way.
The Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph bearing three different messages (in Matthew 1:20-21, Matthew 2:13, and Matthew 2:19-20). Each time, his vision was in the form of a dream; two of these dreams relate to the Flight into Egypt. Is there some confluence between the dreams of this Joseph and the dreams of his namesake, who rose to be Vizier of Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers?
Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin isn’t an Annunciation, but it does show Joseph acting on his dream. Raphael painted this in 1504. Perugino painted almost the exact same painting in 1503 or 1504. One of those dudes owes the other an apology.
Georges de La Tour was almost alone in projecting serious thought onto the subject of Joseph’s first vision. His Joseph has fallen asleep while reading Scripture (which ties him to the standard iconography of Mary). A childlike angel gently touches his arm.
De La Tour used candles to describe his subjects’ souls; although we can’t see the flame itself, this one is elongated and smoking, implying that the wick is overlong. That, combined with the shadow of the scissors on the table, tell us that de La Tour was painting an old man at the end of his days. (It has been proposed that this might in fact be a painting of the Infant Samuel waking the priest Eli. It works charmingly either way.)

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Six Days of Advent: The Annunciation to Mary

The Annunciation Triptych, 1440, by Rogier van der Weyden, has the compressed version from the Gospel of Luke, almost in comic-book form—Zecheriah praying in his lonely temple, Gabriel surprising Mary while she reads Scripture, Mary meeting with Elizabeth, in whose womb the young John the Baptist leaps in recognition.
The story of the Incarnation opens not with the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, but with his appearance to an old temple priest. Zechariah reacted with all-too-human skepticism to the idea that his post-menopausal wife would give birth to a son who “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah.” 
Virgin of the Annunciation, 1512, by Matthias Grünewald, also shows Mary at her studies, but clothed in the most exuberant pleats, which reinforce the ecstatic nature of the moment.
A few months later, Gabriel returned to Israel, this time to Nazareth in Galilee, to talk to a young woman who was engaged to be married.
In contrast, Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, 1476, is taking the news with remarkable composure.
 “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

The angel Gabriel in Sondro Botticelli’s 1481 fresco seems to be leaning over an imaginary wall for a friendly chat.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (from Luke 1:26-38)

In Hendrick Terbrugghen’s 1624 Annunciation, Gabriel has dirty feet.
Mary understood that being pregnant by someone other than her betrothed threatened her engagement, her reputation, and even her life (as she could be stoned for adultery). The early Renaissance painters would have understood her predicament better than we, for whom illegitimacy is no big deal.  If the Baby Jesus were conceived today, sadly, nobody would much notice.
Albrecht Durer’s Annunciation from The Life of the Virgin, 1502, sets the scene in an amazing series of arches that suggest the very heavens themselves.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

When artists retire

“This was the first window I did,” said Gowing. “The window represents Holy Communion with grapes standing in for wine, and to my delight, John found glass that looked just like matzoh, the original communion bread. He painted in the air holes and edges. To date, John still hasn’t ever seen a matzoh in person, but I keep meaning to send him a box.”
A graduate of Pratt Institute, Toby Gowing had a successful career as an illustrator, specializing in books for young-adult readers. From there, she moved to painting luscious still lives on Chinese antiques, which she sold throughout the Northeast.
The feeding of the five thousand, by Toby Gowing, John Warda and Lynn Julian. “The landscape in the background is typical of the Judean hills,” said Gowing.  “In all the windows John and Lynn picked certain greens and other colors to create continuity in the project.”  There will be eight windows in all.
When she told me she was retiring, I was baffled. Accountants retire; artists do not. Still, Gowing has a knack for listening to the still, small voice of God, and she has hardly been bored. Among other projects, she was asked by Louise Jasko of Monmouth Worship Center in Marlboro, NJ, to design windows for their newly built sanctuary. Gowing collaborates with glass artisans John Warda and Lynn Julian of White Haven, PA, who execute and install the windows.
Gowing’s painting for The feeding of the five thousand, above.
Gowing feels her illustration background is the primary skill she brings to window design, and her painting and drawing chops allow her to accurately communicate her ideas to Warda. “He never asks, ‘Is this a fish or a flower?’ but he has told me when certain shapes or placements just won’t work,” she says.
A detail from the Four Seasons window, below, shows the collaborative nature of these windows. Artists John Warda and Lynn Julian sought the perfect glass for the crocuses, the nest, the branches, and the leaves.
“This is the most recent window, in which I was asked to make the Bible itself the subject,” said Gowing.  “By choosing Ecclesiastes 3:1 as the verse, I had opportunity to make the background (the four seasons) colorful and lively as a counterpoint to the plainness of the book pages. The red bookmark ribbon is a subtle reference to the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ, which runs as a scarlet thread throughout the whole Bible. By continuing the line of the ribbon into the upper left hand corner through the movement of the pussy willow branch, and down to the bottom of the window through the tree branch which holds the birds nest, I remind the viewer that the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not confined to the pages of the Bible, but courses through all the seasons of our lives.”
How did she make the move away from oil painting? “I undertook a period of studying stained glass, particularly windows done by Tiffany studios, so that I could understand how to design for a new media,” said Gowing.  “Tiffany was a painter, and his approach in windows is painterly. This appealed to me.”
Gowing’s painting for the Four Seasons window, above.
The glass designer can’t think primarily as a painter. “When I design, I am always thinking, ‘How will this work out in glass?  Will this line flow so that the leading will make sense and also add to the composition?  Is it possible to make this shape in glass?’” said Gowing.  She frequently talks with Warda as she works. “I ask him if a type of glass exists which would carry a particular image or create an effect.  There are thousands of types of glass which may be purchased, but we are limited by budget and time.”
John Warda installing The feeding of the five thousand at Monmouth Worship Center.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

A New Status Quo

The Death of Marat, 1793, by Jacques-Louis David, is imbued with both emotional connection and revolutionary fervor.
Jacques-Louis David was not merely a painter; he was, above all, a revolutionary. Moreover, he had perfect pitch for the sentiments of the age.
In the 1780s, as French opinion stiffened against the Ancien Régime, David was painting severe neoclassical history paintings in reaction to the Rococo fantasies of the monarchy. His pen-and-ink-drawing, The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791) was an attempt to turn those history-painting skills toward the current crisis.
The Oath of the Tennis Court, 1791, was David’s portrait of the formation of the National Assembly. It brought him to the attention of the Jacobins.
This work brought him to the attention of Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins. (As a member of the Committee of General Security, David was directly involved in the Reign of Terror.) On July 13, 1793, David’s friend, the journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat, was assassinated by Charlotte Corday.  The Death of Marat is David’s most celebrated painting, and for good reason: it vibrates with personal feeling rather than intellectual ideals.
Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804, 1805-07, Jacques-Louis David.
David admired Napoleon’s classical features and Napoleon esteemed David’s skill. This led to a remarkable series of portraits of the Emperor—Napoleon crossing the Alps on a fiery steed (he had, in fact, ridden a mule), Napoleon crowned in Notre-Dame, Napoleon up all night in his study, writing the Code Napoleon.
General Étienne-Maurice Gérard, 1816, by Jacques-Louis David. At the time, both painter and subject were exiles in Brussels.
Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, David, a convicted regicide, fled to Brussels. There he painted his fellow exile, General Étienne Maurice Gérard. Again, David shifted to meet the times. The overblown allusions and antique coloring of his revolutionary period are gone; now he examines his subject with a deepened sense of realism.
Although the enormous social changes wrought by the American and French Revolutions could not be entirely undone, the powers that defeated Napoleon wished, as much as was possible, to return Europe to its prerevolutionary dynastic structure.  
The Eltz Family, 1835, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, is set in front of the Alpine village in which Dr. Eltz had recently built a house. 
One genie that couldn’t be put back in the bottle was the rising middle class. They were not particularly interested in aping their betters’ mania for classical allusion. Nor were they interested in the emotionalism of the Romantic portrait. Rather, they went for what the newly-wealthy have always wanted—a display of their economic success in a swirl of clothing and furnishings.
Portrait of Monsieur Bertin, 1832, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. M. Bertin was a respected upper-middle-class man of commerce and letters in the restored French monarchy.
This week I considered new forms portrait painting that reached maturity during the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. These posts are based closely on the Royal Academy of Art’s 2007 show, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Selective Roman virtues

Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1783. A Welsh former lady’s maid, Sarah Siddons went on to be recognized as the greatest tragedienne of her age. As an actress she was outside social mores. She was painted by both Gainsborough and Reynolds, whose portrait of her is more typical of a male “status portrait” of the time.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, women  were essentially invisible in the public sphere. This was in part due to society’s selective embrace of Roman values.
The ancient Romans, although in some ways progressive for their time, were explicitly patriarchal. The paterfamilias maintained strict authority over his family and household. Nevertheless, Roman women did have important rights and privileges, such as the right to carry on business, remarry, and own property. Women played a prominent role in the official cults, including the Vestal Virgins, who were Rome’s only full-time professional clergy.
Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps), 1789, painted by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who was the most famous woman painter of the 18th century. This is a more typical female portrait in that the subject’s social status is conveyed by her dress and surroundings.
What a surprise that the men of the Enlightenment selectively chose what Roman virtues to apply! Once again, we can look to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile for insight into their interpretation of Roman patriarchy.  Émile, as the ideal man, is educated to be self-governing.  Sophie, the ideal woman, is educated to be ruled by her husband.

Rousseau’s theory of sexuality is still repeated by some today:

Who can possibly suppose that nature has indifferently prescribed the same advances to the one sex as to the other and that the first to feel desire should also be the first to display it. What a strange lack of judgment! Since the consequences of the sexual act are so different for the two sexes, is it natural that they should engage in it with equal boldness? How can one fail to see that when the share of each is so unequal, if reserve did not impose on one sex the moderation that nature imposes on the other, the result would be the destruction of both and the human race would perish through the very means ordained for its continuance. Women so easily stir men’s senses and awaken in the bottom of their hearts the remains of an almost extinct desire that if there were some unhappy climate on this earth where philosophy had introduced this custom, especially in warm countries where more women than men are born, the men tyrannized over by the women would at last become their victims and would be dragged to their deaths without ever being able to defend themselves.
Is it any wonder that Mary Wollstonecraft felt compelled to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792? Not that it had much of an immediate impact: Feminism would not get traction until the middle of the 19th century.

Mme de Wailly, sculpted by Augustin Pajou, 1789. After the second century BC, the wearing of togas by respectable women was a faux pas associated with prostitution and adultery. Women wore the stola, which was a long, pleated dress, worn over an undergarment called the tunica intima. In other words, real Roman matrons did not wander around with their breasts hanging out.

This week I am considering six forms of portrait painting that reached maturity during the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. These posts are based closely on the Royal Academy of Art’s 2007 show, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Enlightenment family values

Sir Robert and Lady Buxton and Their Daughter Anne, 1786, by Henry Walton.
Those of us who look with dismay on recent trends in family structure might be surprised to learn that we are not the only age that has redefined family relationships.
Prior to the Enlightenment, very few children appeared in paintings. Unless you were the Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, a royal prince, or a bit player in a grand historical melodrama, the chances of you appearing in a portrait were slim. Of course, that reflected the role of children in society in general.
The Braddyll Family, 1789, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The strong pyramidal structure emphasizes their familial stability, and if you missed that they embody virtue and citizenship, then the copy of the Medici Vase (a famous Roman antiquity) is there to remind you. 
That changed with the need to explain society in terms of intellectual, rather than religious, values. To the eighteenth century man of letters, the family was the cradle of virtue and good citizenship. Children were no longer seen as stained by Original Sin; rather they became symbols of innocence. The child’s relationship with his parents changed (at least in the homes of the educated classes). It was less formal and more affectionate.
Gainsborough’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, 1756. Thomas Gainsborough painted his daughters many times. They are exquisitely affectionate portraits.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a great impact on the attitude of the Enlightenment toward children. “If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated,” said Rousseau. Rousseau believed that the countryside was a more natural and healthy environment for children. He believed children learned from the consequences of their actions, so their teachers should be more along the lines of a Roman tutelary deity—keeping the kid from hurting himself—than an old-fashioned pedagogue.
If any of this wants to make you snort milk up your nose, bear in mind that Rousseau gave up each of his children as newborns to a foundling hospital. Like all the best educational theorists, he was an idealist, not a practitioner. Nonetheless, his ideas influenced child-rearing across Europe, although in practice they were modified to meet the exigencies of reality.

The Byam Family, Thomas Gainsborough, 1762-66. George Byam and his wife Louisa sat for the original portrait in the early ‘60s. A few years later, they returned with their first child, Selina, and Gainsborough added her to the portrait.
Rousseau and other 18th century thinkers were borrowing from the classical writers in extolling the virtues of the countryside over city life. This extended to their preference for informal gardens in the naturalistic English style over the formal gardens of old Europe.  As one father told his son, “one of the main reasons we live in the country both summer and winter is to teach us from an early age that simplicity, moderation and industry are inextricably bound to our basic happiness.”*
Thus the family portrait on the grounds of an estate was meant not primarily to express the wealth of the sitter, but to place the family in a natural environment, with all the blessings that implied.
This week I am considering six forms of portrait painting that reached maturity during the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. These posts are based closely on the Royal Academy of Art’s 2007 show, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830
*Child of the Enlightenment: Revolutionary Europe Reflected in a Boyhood Diary by Arianne Baggerman, Rudolf Dekker, and Diane Webb. 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Portrait of the artist

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted himself as a man of letters, in his robes as a Doctor of Civil Law at Oxford (1776). Note the absolute absence of any paint on that outfit.

Prior to the middle of the 18th century, fine artists were considered craftsmen. While they may have been very successful and well-paid, they had no particular intellectual pretensions.

The Enlightenment cast artists in the role of communicating the civic virtues. This raised the social status of artists from artisans to gentlemen. Their training moved from the old apprenticeship/atelier model to formal art schools. The Royal Academy of Arts in London is representative. It was founded in 1768. Its mission was to raise the professional status of the artist by establishing a sound system of training and expertise in the arts.

Portrait of a rather emotional French sculptor, Antoine Denis Chaudet, by miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin. I feel like I should give him a cookie.
The Enlightenment also brought us the Cult of Genius, with its handmaidens, Feeling and Creativity. The artist no longer primarily tried to render beautiful images; he was engaged in profound and creative thought.

Meeting of Artists in Isabey’s Studio, 1798, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, in which a bunch of artists apparently get together and talk about art instead of making it. Not that that ever happens.
As counterintuitive as it seems, this is what has landed us in the modern dilemma of having so much banal, boorish, casual and ultimately meaningless material foisted on us as art. The intellectual mind can always be seduced by the idea of transgressing limits, whereas a craftsman generally seeks to raise his standards to the highest degree possible.
The problem with transgression as one’s sole intellectual concept is that it keeps extending the limits. Thus today’s portrait of the artist has become Kanye West and a topless Kim Kardashian on a motorcycle.

This week I am writing about portrait painting during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These posts are based closely on the Royal Academy of Art’s 2007 show, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Monarchs and Militants

Portrait of King George III, 1779, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
The Age of Revolution was a time of great change in the intellectual and political life of Europe and America. Portrait painting—previously considered an inferior art—rose in prominence. On the one hand, portraits reached a peak of representational virtuosity. At the same time, they became overwhelmingly symbol-laden and propagandistic.
The majority of Europe still lived under kings who ruled by Divine Right. Those kings generally were painted in the full splendor of their office, with their authority spelled out with symbols like crown, scepter and orb.
Portrait of Queen Charlotte in Her Coronation Robes, 1779, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Alone among his fellow monarchs, George III’s Divine Right had been clipped by the British Constitution. His authority was also inevitably reduced by the loss of the American colonies. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of him shows him overwhelmed by his coronation robes and by the looming darkness of Westminster Abbey. Likewise the character of Queen Charlotte in her matching portrait is reduced despite her royal setting. She is restrained and modest; in short, a model housewife of her period.
Napoleon on his Imperial throne, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1806
Contrast this with the power and authority radiating from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ radical, domineering portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ingres drew together an absurd variety of classical allusions to lend credibility to the upstart Emperor of France.
In his right hand Napoleon holds Charlemagne’s scepter; in his left  is the hand of justice. He is crowned with Caesar’s golden laurel wreath. His ermine hood, velvet cloak, and satin tunic all conjure imperial imagery, as does the eagle on the carpet beneath his feet. Because the Ghent Altarpiece was in the Louvre at the time Ingres painted, it is presumed that he modeled the pose on its central figure, The Almighty.
George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796, by Gilbert Stuart
Gilbert Stuart, the image-maker for the new American states, chose the opposite symbolism to portray George Washington, showing him as a sober and industrious workman creating a new age. In the new democracy, crown has morphed into cockaded hat, orb and scepter into a dress sword representing democracy.  The rule of law is paramount, represented by both the books and the pen and paper on his desk.
This week I am writing about portrait painting during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These posts are based closely on the Royal Academy of Art’s 2007 show, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

More on that Christian art thing

Knight, Death and the Devil, woodcut, by Albrecht Dürer, 1513
Part of the heated discussion that ensued after my post Friday about the so-called problem of Christian music expressed a general irritation with performers who identify themselves as Christian artists. We’re all aware of the capacity of modern artists to drape themselves over the cross for marketing purposes. However, there has always been a distinction between artists who work in religious themes because that is their marketplace, and those who are genuinely faith-driven.
Albrecht Dürer achieved extraordinary success very quickly. He produced a variety of works including many of a secular nature, and actively sought and exploited the patronage of Maximillian I. None of that indicates a profoundly religious man.
However, Dürer left a large body of writing that indicates that at some time he had a true religious conversion. He became an early and enthusiastic follower of Martin Luther.  His new Protestant sympathies can be felt in his later work, a transition pushed along by the death of his patron in 1519.
In 1524, Dürer wrote that “because of our Christian faith we have to stand in scorn and danger, for we are reviled and called heretics.” And in expressing thanks for the gift of one of Luther’s books, he wrote, “I pray Your Honor to convey my humble gratitude to His Electoral grace, and beg him humbly that he will protect the praiseworthy Dr. Martin Luther for the sake of Christian truth. It matters more than all the riches and power of this world, for with time everything passes away; only the truth is eternal.”
Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (‘The Whirlwind of Lovers’) 1826-7, from William Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
William Blake is another artist whose copious writings make his religious fervor easy to document. However, understanding them is another matter entirely. (I confess I take him in small doses.) His illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy include extensive margin notes in which he argues with Dante’s theology.
Blake was literally a visionary: he saw visions from childhood on. He was a believer, but he hated the church. His contemporaries thought him quite mad. But his poem “And did those feet in ancient time” comes down to us as the great patriotic hymn Jerusalem, set by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.
I kind of like his assessment of the character of Jesus:

If he had been Antichrist Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us:
Gone sneaking into Synagogues
And not us’d the Elders & Priests like Dogs,
But humble as a Lamb or Ass,
Obey’d himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not Man to Humble himself.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, 1601
Compare these two painters to Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, another brilliant painter of religious scenes. His patrons were Cardinal Francesco del Monte and Cardinal Girolamo Mattei, and his subject matter was overwhelmingly religious, but Caravaggio could by no stretch of the imagination be described as a “Christian artist.” A brawler with an extensive police record, he managed to nick a rival in the groin with his sword, severing an artery and killing the poor man. This led to Caravaggio’s exile and ultimately to his death.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!