a painting in the louvre

Selected works from The Louvre: All the Paintings

Month: May, 2013

The Shock of Recognition, Almost

8064320taddeogaddiEntry 14 May 27, 2013

When I started my Louvre book project in August 2012, one thing that especially interested me was attempting to compare looking at the book’s reproductions with looking at the original works in the museum. In my blog posts I have often included references to my efforts at comparisons, but I’ve been limited by the fact that I haven’t been back to the Louvre since last August, the visit I made just before I was given the Louvre book.

It has occurred to me that a proxy for actually being in the Louvre might be to visit other galleries and museums. The current exhibit at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, has been of special interest over the last few months because its focus on the Renaissance in Florence means that it covers much of the same ground in place and time that I’ve been working through with the Louvre’s Italian collection, which begins with Cimabue’s Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (ca.1280) and contains works by many artists of the Florentine Renaissance, including Giotto. I wrote about Cimabue in blog post 3 and about Giotto in blog post 4. Cimabue is not represented in the AGO exhibit, but I was able to see several works by Giotto, although none of them were works I have in my Louvre book. The exhibit also contains four paintings by the Master of the Codex of St. George (14th century), whose Virgin and Child on a Throne (ca. 1320) is in the Louvre’s room 4, on the first floor of the Denon wing; in addition, the magnificent Codex of St. George itself, for which the artist is named, is in the AGO exhibit.

I had hoped I might find a painting in the exhibit that I had seen in the Louvre last August, but there wasn’t one. I was disappointed, too, that there wasn’t a single painting that I could compare with its reproduction in my Louvre book. The only Louvre holding that is in the AGO exhibit is an illuminated manuscript page from the Laudario of Sant’Agnese (ca. 1340). A further disappointment was that the Renaissance artists prominently featured in the exhibit, with the exceptions of Giotto and the Master of the Codex of St. George, have no paintings in the Louvre.

Of course, seeing a painting on loan from the Louvre to the AGO is not equivalent to seeing a painting in the Louvre. There are similarities: in both instances, the painting would be on display in a building dedicated to artworks and their conservation, it would be available for public view such that a visit would almost certainly include negotiating through a crowd of gallery goers (see blog post 12, on visiting the Mona Lisa), and it would be accompanied by information about its origins and history. But there are many differences as well, the difference in the size of the two buildings, the difference between a traveling exhibit and a museum’s own collection, and, of course, the difference between traveling across a city and traveling across an ocean to reach the object I wish to see.

The closest the exhibit brought me to experiencing what makes seeing a painting different from seeing a reproduction of it came in the third room of the exhibit area, a large room filled with artwork on display on all four walls, on room dividers, and also in a number of display cases and room dividers. As I entered and looked around for the first time, I noticed on the wall to my left a painting of St. Francis of Assisi, a large-scale painting, several feet high and across. It was a scene I recognized: Francis was kneeling before a small figure in the sky above him, and he was receiving wounds on his hands, feet and side that mirrored the wounds on the body of the crucified Christ. The arrangement of the figures and landscape around him, with a small hill behind the kneeling saint and a small building next to him, was also familiar. I was reminded of Giotto’s St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata and excited by the possibility that I was in its presence.

I wasn’t, although I learned that Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1290-1366), the artist who created the painting in the AGO exhibit, had been inspired by Giotto. I have reproduced the Gaddi painting here, from the Harvard Museum. If I had taken a moment to think, I might have recognized from what I had learned from my Louvre book about the Giotto painting (see blog post 4) that the AGO work couldn’t have been Giotto’s, because his includes three much smaller images along the bottom edge depicting other scenes from the life of the saint. Moreover, despite the imposing size of Gaddi’s work (measuring 212 cm by 149.5 cm), Giotto’s, had I seen it when I was in the Louvre last summer, might have left an impression with me of its even larger dimensions, 313 cm by 163 cm.

But perhaps I’ve got it all backwards. After all, I didn’t see the Giotto in the Louvre, but only in the Louvre book. The original is still waiting for me in the Louvre; in the meantime, I have seen its echo, or its shadow, or perhaps its spirit, alive, in Toronto, at the AGO, and it gave me something very like a shock of recognition.


What to Do about not Knowing

1435_p0005686_0011434_p0005685_001Entry 13, May 22, 2013

I looked at six paintings this week by four artists, or perhaps it was six artists. The count depends on how the Louvre book’s use of the term “Unknown Italian Painter” should be interpreted, a question which I’ve encountered before (see blog post 11). Three of the six paintings this week were attributed to “Unknown Italian Painter.” Since the paintings all have the same date, ca. 1630, and for all three the artist’s life is dated as ca. 1600, it might seem reasonable to think that the designation, “Unknown Italian Painter,” refers here to one unknown Italian, rather than two or three. Moreover, two of the paintings are portraits, and the third is a still life; to me these contemporary subjects suggest a possible single source. Still, there isn’t enough information provided to be sure; after all, the term “Unknown Italian Painter” in the index of the Louvre book is given only once, with page numbers that lead to a work in the 14th century and to the three I looked at this week from the 17th. Obviously, the person whose painting comes from the 14th century can’t be the same person who was working three centuries later, so why isn’t it possible that there were actually two or three persons, rather than one, responsible for the three paintings presented on p. 161 of the Louvre book as the works of Unknown Italian Painter?

The editors of the Louvre book clearly attach importance to the identity of each artist, but life, with all its oddities, tests their powers of classification. For example, some artists with first and last names are alphabetized in the index by the first name and others by the last name. Some artists well known by a nickname or title, rather than their name, appear under their name, while others do not. The issue gets especially complicated when dealing with an artist whose name is not known. The book uses a variety of forms for such artists. The most common is Unknown Painter, accompanied, as in Unknown Italian Painter, with a place or style designation, but there are also several artists referred to as “Anonymous,” and others identified as “Master of…”, with the balance of the name in this case usually referring to a painting or book illustration with which the painter is linked. For example, this week I looked at a painting by someone called the Anonymous Bolognese Painter and one by the Master of the Announcement to the Shepherd. I have found it difficult sometimes to locate information about a work by a painter whose name is not known; searching the Louvre website for “unknown italian painter,” for example, did not lead to any of the three paintings whose creator is identified with that phrase in the Louvre book.

I have spent a little more than 10% of my time over the past several months looking at paintings for which there is no artist’s name given. Of the 198 artists whose paintings I’ve looked at so far, 22 are not identified by name. Half are from the 13th and 14th centuries, that is, the 200 years before 1400, with nine of the 11 before 1400 coming from the 14th century; I expect that the very small number of paintings from before 1300 explains why there are so few anonymous artists represented and that improved record-keeping explains the decline in the number of anonymous painters after 1400.

Paintings by unknown artists sometimes have a history of being attributed to known painters when they came into the Louvre collection, which may explain why they were accepted. Of course, these paintings are by no means the only ones for which questions of origin arise. I have encountered several instances in which a painting attributed to a named artist was formerly attributed to someone else, and there have been instances, too, in which a painting by a named artist is attributed to the artist’s workshop rather than to the artist exclusively.

Of all the designations used for anonymous artists, my favorite is “Master of….” The designations are always mysterious, e.g., Master of 1333, and often quite beautiful in their own right: I like the 14th-century artist, Master of the Rebellious Angels, best, I think, from among the 10 I have encountered so far of the 31 that are listed in the Louvre book’s index. I have included here his painting, The Fall of Rebellious Angels, dated ca. 1330. It was one of the first paintings I looked at from the Italian section of the Louvre book. Back then, I wrote: “The image is very different from any of the other pictures so far. It is like seeing a whole bunch of black spiders dotting a gold surface; there is no large central figure dominating the space. Instead, what dominates is the motion and diffusion of the many, many angels, with their bodies contorted like the limbs of so many spiders as they fall toward a dark hemisphere at the bottom of the frame, which must be where they’re going, although I wonder as I see it if it’s supposed to be hell or the earth.” I went on to say the central angelic figure, which I suspect is St. Michael, reminded me of many of the figures in the paintings of Mexican surrealist Remedios Varo (1908-1963). I have included as well an image that appears on the painting’s reverse side.

Face to Face to Face to Face with the Mona Lisa

parislondon201208 122parislondon201208 129Entry 12 May 12, 2013

Years ago, my photography professor showed me a snapshot he said perfectly captured his experience of visiting the Mona Lisa during a summer trip to Europe. The picture showed a very large, high-ceilinged room whose walls bore many paintings. The paintings were all decorous in their quiet, personal spaces and pointedly arranged at eye level for ease of viewing, but they seemed a little lonely. None of them were being looked at, although the room was crowded with people. All of them were moving toward or lingeringly departing from or standing on tiptoe in front of just one spot at some distance from where the professor had stood to take his picture. There were so many people they blocked the view, but my professor assured me that they were all looking at the Mona Lisa.

I liked that photograph very much, despite the lack of a clear visual of the painting. After all, I wasn’t dependent on my professor’s testimony for what the Mona Lisa looked like. Even growing up in the self-involved U.S. Midwest of the 1950s, I had seen pictures of Leonardo’s painting all my life; I knew Mona Lisa’s face as well as I did Mickey Mouse’s. What I liked about the photo was that it assured me I would have nothing to regret if I never reached Paris and the Louvre and the gallery in which the Mona Lisa was hanging and the Mona Lisa itself, because, if I did, I would be disappointed by the experience. I wouldn’t see the painting; I would just see the backs of all of those who had gotten there before me.

Since then, I have been to Paris twice and the Louvre twice and in the same room with the Mona Lisa twice. The first time I never got any closer than my professor had ten years earlier: I stepped inside the door, saw the crowd, and turned away to look at other things. However, I wasn’t disappointed; rather, I found that seeing with my own eyes what the photograph had shown me years before was a delight.

The second time was on the trip last summer that started me on my Louvre book project, and during that visit, I decided to try to get closer, just once, to the work itself. It might have been because I was with my husband, it was his first trip to Paris, and I sentimentally wanted for him things I had never wanted for myself; it might have been because I had gotten curious about whether the real thing could be as dispiriting as I had always thought it would be. Maybe I wouldn’t love it, but wasn’t I required to try something before I condemned it as worthless?

So I went closer. The Mona Lisa is displayed in Denon, floor 1, room 6. The painting hangs on a divider that almost spans one of the two shorter sides of the rectangular room; the divider is positioned perhaps 10 feet into the gallery, but there is still considerable space between it and the opposite wall. The day I was there, the Mona Lisa crowd spanned almost the width of the room and filled perhaps half its length as well. I suspect crowd members were not as well dressed as the people my professor photographed, and they formed a busy, shifting barrier to progress toward the painting, but they were not physically or vocally rude. I waded in and found that, amid the shifting currents of the comings and goings of others, I was actually propelled forward so that after a short time I was at the front of the crowd and seeing for myself the Mona Lisa.

Well, not just the Mona Lisa. I’ve included two photos in this post from those I took that day in the museum. I took the photos without flash; although photography is permitted, use of a flash is not. Both photos show that the Mona Lisa and I were not quite face to face; in both, the transparent barrier that covers an inset into the divider, within which the painting hangs, is clearly visible, and it’s no single pane of glass affixed over the painting’s surface but rather a construction that sits inches away from the surface of the painting and whose reflecting surface interferes with a clear view for the eye or lens. In addition, there is a wooden railing marking off a space a couple of feet in front of the divider. There were museum guards stationed nearby. Their principal function seemed to be to direct those who managed to reach the cordon to inch their way between it and the press behind them until they reached the edges where the crowd began to thin out, which would enable them to slip around the Mona Lisa’s divider into the space behind it.

I don’t think visiting the Mona Lisa is a reliable test case for one of this blog’s key questions, which is whether seeing a painting reproduced can ever equal seeing the painting itself. Seeing the Mona Lisa really isn’t seeing the painting itself; its importance has been its downfall. The desire to mark an important object by signs of that importance seems to me to have a weakness. The signs of importance can make it all but impossible to experience the thing itself, to gauge by our own reaction the important thing’s power to impress. It’s rather like Midas and his golden touch, only, alas, our touch buries a treasure in dross. And yet, despite this pious thought, the sight of the Mona Lisa was thoroughly satisfying. I believe my professor shares the credit with Leonardo. Da Vinci created the painting, but my professor prepared me for “the madding crowd”.

If he were alive today, he could visit the Internet and discover that many, many, many others have documented what he saw: the crowd around the Mona Lisa. It’s available on video too: the noisy, shifting, ants-on-an-anthill streaming of the painting’s visitors.

I saw another video of a visit to the painting on the Louvre website. Like the Madonna of the Rabbit, which I wrote about in blog post 7, the Mona Lisa is included in the series of commentaries called “A Closer Look”, which is accessed through the “Learning about Art” tab on the Louvre’s home page. The opening video in the commentary shows the painting from across the room and approaches slowly until the painting fills the screen; the room is empty of all visitors. There is only the camera operator and the Mona Lisa, or, if you prefer, only you and the Mona Lisa.

Well, only you and the Mona Lisa and the Internet device on which you’re playing the video. In proposing to choose between examining my book of paintings and visiting the paintings themselves, I have limited my choices to the only ones available in an earlier time.

Hanging by a Misprint: How I Thought a Second Time about Pietro da Rimini

1443_p0007205_001Entry 11, May 6, 2013

This week a frustrating search of the Louvre’s website for online reproductions of paintings by Pietro da Cortona (Pietro da Berrettini), 1597-1669, led me to a work that I looked at less than a month after starting my Louvre project, Deposition of the Cross by Pietro da Rimini (ca. 1300-ca. 1350). I’m going to include here, with just a few revisions, what I wrote about the painting when I first looked at it.

“Pietro da Rimini, ca. 1300-ca. 1350 Deposition of the Cross. The reproduction was very small, but I was touched by the gesture at the foot of the cross and looked closer. A man is holding a tool toward Christ’s feet, thus catching the deposition in the moment when Christ’s upper body has been freed, but his feet are still fastened. The image of Christ’s cheek touching Mary’s cheek as the body is lowered is also very affecting. The body of Christ is nude (surrounded by people who are clothed), long and treated more as an abstract shape than as a body, except for the things I’ve mentioned, which are both rendered so realistically. The whole picture has something of the same dichotomy between the treatment of the body and the treatment of the soul; the faces are alive, but their bodies are swathed in fancy cloth. There is also a sensitive use of repeating images: the head of the man lowering the body, for example, is in an exact line with Christ’s head and repeating much the same gesture of head lowered to the right side. His body, too, is part of the dynamic of action captured in what is at the same time a very ordered arrangement, with similar human figures on either side of the cross and no landscape material at all. One other thing: Pietro da Rimini’s name doesn’t appear at all in the index. Rather, his picture is attributed to another Pietro, Pietro da Cortona, from the 17th century. This is reminiscent of, but even sadder than, the Unknown Italian Painter from the 14th century, who was assimilated into an Unknown Italian Painter from a later century. What a wonderful experience to look at this painting, and also sad.”

I am sad now to think that I might never have revisited this experience if I hadn’t come across da Rimini’s painting while looking for something entirely different, online reproductions of the works of da Cortona, which eventually I found on the Louvre website, but in the French language version and only under da Cortona’s original name, “Berrettini.” Before trying the French language version of the website, I had looked at the DVD, which does include da Cortona under that name, and then at the book itself, just to be sure that I had located all of da Cortona’s pictures. Three page numbers appear for da Cortona in the index: 24, 158 and 162. The first page number looked peculiar, because it placed one painting so far away from the others. When I flipped back, I found that it was da Rimini’s picture that was on page 24. I had noticed this error when I first looked at da Rimini’s Deposition; I mentioned it in what I wrote back then, but I didn’t remember it when I reached da Cortona’s actual pages last week.

Da Rimini took me back to where I started. His painting appears only seven pages after the works of Giotto, whom I wrote about in my fourth blog post. Between Giotto and da Rimini, the Louvre book presents works by 15 painters; of them, 13 are artists with only one painting in the collection. That is, looking at da Rimini’s work was part of the process that made me interested in this large corps of Louvre painters, those represented by only one work. I am a little discouraged at yet another proof of how little of what I think and write about a particular painting turns out to be easily brought up from memory. I was also impressed by the emphasis I placed on my own visual impressions of the painting; I hadn’t gone looking for alternative reproductions or biographical information or a critic’s explanation.

40-08-12/66There was one other link between this week’s experiences with Pietro da Cortona and the notes I took on Pietro da Rimini: the mention of an artist identified as “Unknown” and the way the artist index of the Louvre book treats anonymous painters. Just as with the Unknown Italian Painter I mentioned when writing about da Rimini (one of four “Unknown” painters from the first month), the Unknown Roman Painter from this week does not get his own index line but instead is grouped together with anonymous artists from two other periods. His Still-Life with Grapes and a Pomegranate (ca. 1630) is notable in itself for the lovely rendering in two dimensions of three-dimensional objects but also as the very first still life that I have encountered in the book. A quick look ahead revealed that I was entering a zone of still lifes. In fact, the painting hangs in Denon, floor 1, room 18, which is entitled “Still-Life in the 17th Century.” The photograph of the room shows the painting, but at an angle; the reproduction here comes from the DVD, because there wasn’t one in the Atlas entry on the painting. I was disappointed with Atlas, because it had taken a lot of experimenting to find the way the French language version of the website rendered terms like “unknown” and “still life”. Score one for the DVD.