a painting in the louvre

Selected works from The Louvre: All the Paintings

Month: July, 2013

“Physical sensation through vision is the key”

38617_9741_00238616_9741_001Entry 20 July 10, 2013

I’ve had Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) on my mind ever since I came across the information back in January, when first looking at his two-sided painting, The Battle of David and Goliath (16th century), that da Volterra was the artist who accepted a papal commission to put pants on the nude figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. He’s a recurring presence in my blog, actually, having already shown up in blog posts 8 and 9, but each time I considered writing just about him I turned back. It was in part because I felt it was more his notoriety than his artwork that attracted me and in part because my only source for his notoriety was Wikipedia, which is rather notorious itself.

I decided to add him to the blog this week because something in the June 29th issue of the Globe and Mail made me think of his Battle of David and Goliath. In an interview, Toronto theater mogul and art collector David Mirvish was speaking about being in the presence of some of his best loved paintings, large-scale color-field works. He emphasized the physical impact of the experience. “Physical sensation through vision is the key,” the journalist Sarah Milroy reports him as saying. Mirvish went on, according to Milroy, to criticize “encyclopedic museums, where a smattering-of-each is the curatorial rule”; he wanted the private museum he plans for his collection to give paintings “their own space”. It is not surprising that Mirvish also sees deficiencies in other ways of experiencing his favorite works; Milroy writes, “He talks, too, about the difficulty of writing about colour-field painting, or doing justice to it in print reproduction, given the often gargantuan scale of the works and their vaporous visual effects.”

The concerns expressed here have relevance both to the Louvre’s display of da Volterra’s Battle of David and Goliath and to my experience of approaching it through the Louvre book, the Louvre website, Wikipedia, and other online and print sources. Although not gargantuan, Da Volterra’s work is quite large: 133 cm. by 172 cm., that is, 4.3 ft. by 5.6 ft. Moreover, it is two-sided: different perspectives on the same scene, with David about to strike off Goliath’s head, give views of the figures from front and back. Da Volterra painted in oil on two sides of a piece of slate; according to the Atlas Database, he was attempting to demonstrate that painting had the potential of creating effects similar to sculpture’s rendering of three dimensions. In addition, the Louvre displays the two-sided painting on a gold-embossed wooden base designed in 1715 to accompany the work when it was given in 1715 to Louis XIV. Housed for several years at Fontainebleau, The Battle of David and Goliath was restored and installed in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in 2007.

I did not see the painting when I was there, so I’m dependent on print reproductions and online images for my “physical sensation through vision.” In this particular instance, I have to humbly agree with Mr. Mirvish that a print reproduction presents difficulties. My first sighting was of a reproduction only 2 in. x 2.5 in. Moreover, the two-sided painting is not visible in the Louvre website’s photographs of the Grand Gallery. Perhaps my expectations have sunk so low that I’m not a reliable judge, but I have found some online images helpful in getting a sense of scale. Here’s one from a photography blog, which includes a number of museum visitors in the frame: http://www.google.ca/imgres?imgurl=http://no-onions-extra-pickles.com/wp-content/uploads/louvre-gallery.jpg&imgrefurl=http://no-onions-extra-pickles.com/how-art-history-affects-my-travels/the-louvre-grand-gallery/&h=768&w=1024&sz=350&tbnid=lq2_2pGhKbCQZM:&tbnh=95&tbnw=127&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dgrand%2Bgallery%2Bof%2Blouvre%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=grand+gallery+of+louvre&usg=__Feat7qBX-A-WXTVSDIPeK0od1Kk=&docid=f-T6y5ZBwB7ScM&sa=X&ei=oQjkUbXJFceCrgG3jYC4Dw&ved=0CDYQ9QEwAQ&dur=362.
Here’s another link, this one to a 2007 newspaper article about the work’s mounting in the Louvre: http://www.thearttribune.com/A-Daniele-da-Volterra-redisplayed.html. As good as they are, these online images nevertheless seem to me to demonstrate that the physical sensation of a painting is usually, if not always, better when the viewer and the painting are in the same room.

But the brief information on artist, title, dimensions, etc., that accompanies the painting in the Louvre book, the sort of labeling provided by the Louvre itself for most works, would never have been enough to lead me to the discovery of da Volterra’s place in art history. For that, I needed a work on art history, even one as notoriously unreliable as a Wikipedia entry. In fact, I have often thought that I should acknowledge in the blog how often I have found a Wikipedia entry on one of my one-painting-only artists. It’s not Wikipedia’s fault that so few of them carry with them the sort of notoriety that da Volterra does.

There were three topics in da Volterra’s biography that I decided to read more about. The first was da Volterra’s role in clothing the nudes in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which was easy to verify. The second topic was closely associated with the first: da Volterra was said to have scraped away and repainted the images of saints Blaise and Catherine of Alexandria (For more on images of Catherine of Alexandria in the Louvre collection, see blog post 6) that appear to Christ’s left in the Last Judgment in response to criticisms that the arrangement of the two figures suggested some type of sexual intimacy. This second topic, too, was easy to verify from other sources, including the official Vatican website. In addition, I learned that a copy of the Last Judgment by Marcello Venusti (1512/5-1579) is in the collection of the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; there are reproductions available online.

The third topic that interested me was the statement in Wikipedia that “According to Daniele’s will, the marble knee of the missing left leg of the Christ from Michelangelo’s Deposition was in his possession at the time of his death.” My adventures in pursuit of this marble knee will be the subject of my next post.


When Something You See Prompts You to Read Dante and to Even Consider Reading Herodotus

D3S_2019 - PretiEntry 19 July 7, 2013

The Louvre’s collection of Italian paintings, at least the 14th-17th centuries part of it that I’ve been looking at for almost a year now, contains far more works on religious subjects than on secular ones, which explains in part why I have written so many more blog posts about religious paintings than on artworks devoted to classical mythology, history or contemporary society. But I have also been influenced by my academic interests: I’m a medievalist by training; my doctorate examined the background in monastic spiritual writing of late medieval secular love poetry, especially of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Last week I was definitely tempted out of my comfort zone by the intriguing title of a 1685 painting by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Thomyris Immersing the Head of Cyrus in a Vase of Blood (1685). The incident was unfamiliar to me, as was the name of Thomyris; I thought I knew a little about Cyrus, a name I have associated for years with the Bible’s Book of Esther, which tells the story of a lovely Jewish girl whose marriage to the Persian king Cyrus helped to save her people from persecution. How could such a good man, I wondered, have suffered such a horrible end?

Simple, really. It isn’t the same Persian king at all. The Book of Esther’s Ahasuerus, or Assuerus, is Xerxes I, who was in power 485-465 B.C., while the Cyrus of the Preti painting is Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia from 550 B.C. to 529 B.C.; two kings, Cambyses and Darius, ruled in the intervening years. What I thought I had known was gone, but it was readily replaced. A search for Thomyris, under a number of variant spellings, in the online Grove Dictionary of Art revealed that the story of Cyrus the Great and Thomyris had been presented in many paintings through the late Middle Ages into the Baroque era (Rubens, the Master of Flemalle, etc.) and mentioned by a number of writers, especially in works about notable female figures of history (Boccaccio, Eustache Deschamps), although Dante chose to mention her as a parable against pride in Purgatory 12:56. Medievalists, take note.

Clearly the incident was known because of its exemplary power: it represented womanhood, and it represented vices such as pride and vengeance (one painting the Grove characterizes as “imitated into the 17th century” was entitled The Vengeance of Tomyris). But it also had a great sound-bite that echoes down to us from the Greek historian Herodotus (490-480 B.C.-425 B.C.), who concludes the first book of The Histories with the death of Cyrus the Great at the hands of the Massagetae, ruled by Queen Thomyris. After her son and general, Spargapises, was captured in a battle against the Persians, a battle in which Cyrus had successfully used the stratagem of enticing the Massagetae into drunkenness to weaken them, Thomyris sent a message that demanded the return of her son. Herodotus reports her threat: “Glutton as you are for blood, you have no cause to be proud of this day’s work, which has no smack of soldierly courage….give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact…. If you refuse, I swear by the sun our master to give you more blood than you can drink, for all your gluttony.” She made good on her words; after Spargapises committed suicide while still a prisoner, she sent her army against Cyrus’s forces. In the battle that followed Cyrus was killed; his body was brought to the queen, who had the head removed and placed in a container of blood. “See now,” Herodotus has her say, “I fulfill my threat. You have your fill of blood.”

One final curiosity: the Grove Dictionary of Art has no mention of Preti’s painting of Thomyris; rather, it is his religious painting that dominates the dictionary’s account of his legacy. For a quick and impressive glimpse of that legacy, go to http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Mattia_Preti. Don’t forget to check out Preti’s hat.

The Louvre’s “Artwork of the Day”

x200_64541_97-018727Entry 18 June 26, 2013

I didn’t get my idea about looking at one Louvre painting each day from anyone else, except, perhaps, from the person who coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but I certainly can’t claim to be its inventor either. After starting the blog, I did something I should have done before: I looked for other blogs devoted to the Louvre. A Google search revealed that the phrase “a painting a day” is used by a number of bloggers who post one classic painting a day, along with a commentary, with some of them devoted, as mine is, to the Louvre collection. The same search produced links to webpages created by artists who have begun a project of creating a “painting a day” and posting the works online.

I hope to say more about other Louvre blogs in the future. Lately, though, quite by chance, I discovered that the Louvre itself provides a daily feature that presents in rotation single works with commentaries from its many curatorial departments, including my particular interest, paintings. The feature is called “Artwork of the Day”, and there is a link to it on the home page of the Louvre official website (http://www.louvre.fr/en). As I say, it was a chance discovery, but it would have been a much earlier one in my project if I had only searched the home page carefully during my first visits to the Louvre website. The link to “Artwork of the Day” doesn’t appear in the default view of the home page that opens on my laptop screen. When I open the website, what I see, and what I first investigated, were the very top elements of the home page—the list of word links to key areas of coverage and a slideshow of special features, including “A Closer Look” that I wrote about in blog post 7 when describing the troubles I had locating information about Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit. “Artwork of the Day” appears in the next row of elements on the home page; I just had to scroll down a little on the default view. It is the leftmost element in that row, and the day’s image is presented there over the heading “Artwork of the Day.”

The commentaries that accompany each “Artwork of the Day” are much more extensive than those that appear in The Louvre: All the Paintings, but they are available for only 215 paintings, whereas the Louvre book gives a commentary for more than 400 works. In the cases where the same work gets a commentary in both places, it is not the same text, so it is well worth checking whether a work of particular interest has one of the “Artwork of the Day” commentaries. Checking can be done at least three different ways. The first way is to click on the current “Artwork of the Day”. The page that opens contains the day’s image and commentary, but there is also a tab over the image with the words “All works”. That tab opens the webpage of the Curatorial Department from which the day’s image comes; that page contains a search box. The second way is to directly open the webpage that is home to all eight Curatorial Departments, which also has a search box. This webpage can be opened from the Louvre home page through the heading, “Collections & Louvre Palace,” which is also the way to reach the main Louvre website search, a feature I have often mentioned when reporting valuable information—and sometimes frustrating problems—I have had when working with the website.

The third way to reach the commentaries is through the main website search itself. Results for a search are arranged in the following order: first, links to artworks for which there is a commentary, that is, the pool of works written about in the “Artwork of the Day” feature; and, second, a list of relevant works contained in the Atlas Database. (A search done on the French language version of the website gives a third type of result: a list of items from the Prints and Drawings Department.) Since only 215 paintings are included in the “Artwork of the Day” feature, it is not surprising that I have rarely found a commentary available on one of the 461 paintings I’ve looked at so far, especially because the paintings I’m most interested in learning more about are by lesser known artists. The material I’ve included in blog posts has usually come from the Atlas Database, not from the “Artwork of the Day” commentaries. I’ll be checking more carefully in future to see whether a commentary on a painting is available on the Louvre website, but a quick check of some recent artists with one painting confirmed that none of them had a commentary, whereas a check of five artists with multiple works (Francesco Albani, Titian, Domenichino, Guido Reni and Leonardo da Vinci) showed that works by all of these artists except Albani did have commentaries; multiple works by Titian and by da Vinci have commentaries.

The commentary on Guido Reni’s Deianeira and the Centaur Nessus (ca. 1617 and referred to as Nessus Abducting Deianeira in the Atlas Database and the Louvre book) includes, as does the Atlas Database, a brief history of the painting from its commissioning by Ferdinando Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, to its acquisition by Louis XIV in 1662, but it includes a great deal more: the story of the Centaur Nessus’s attempt to carry off Hercules’s wife Deianeira as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the development of Reni’s style, which the commentary traces from Renaissance classicism to Baroque and, finally, to what the commentary calls “a synthesis between classicism and the hues of the Baroque”; and a mention of the location, the Villa Favorita near Mantau, for which the painting, along with three others on events from the life of Hercules, was created. I have included a reproduction of Reni’s painting in this post, and here is a link to the commentary: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/deianeira-and-centaur-nessus.