a painting in the louvre

Selected works from The Louvre: All the Paintings

Month: September, 2013

A Change of Plan

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Entry 24 September 16, 2013

Starting in February 2013, a little more than six months after I started my project of looking at all the paintings in the Louvre, I added a second project, a blog about the experience. Although I didn’t admit it, I nurtured a dream that the blog would bring me the kind of public recognition achieved by the Julie of Julie and Julia fame or by the two bloggers I saw interviewed on CityTV’s Breakfast Television this morning, the morning of September 16th, the date I’m starting to write this entry for my blog about The Louvre: All the Paintings. They write at reasonsmommydrinks.com (Why doesn’t that website name trigger a spellcheck challenge from Word?) and were on the show to discuss their new book, which they got a deal for only shortly after starting the blog, apparently.

Despite my superior subject matter—Also from this morning’s early morning television comes the assurance from TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey that no one wants any fewer films at TIFF any more than anyone wants the Louvre to have fewer paintings than it does, book and movie deals didn’t arrive before the return of my students, so I’m going to have to cut back. I haven’t given up working my way through my Louvre book, and I don’t want to give up the blog, but I’ve decided to adjust my expectations. My plan is to spend two weeks each month looking at paintings, followed by a week of selecting a topic and drafting a blog entry, and then a week of putting together the final edited text and the images into a post.

Although this month I have had only a week, rather than two, for looking at paintings—my last blog entry under the old schedule was posted on September 6th, I identified several possible subjects: my 500th painting, which was Philosopher with Eyeglasses (ca. 1660) by Luca Giordano (1634-1705), along with a new calculation of how long it will take to finish looking at all of the Louvre’s 3,022 paintings; all of Giordano’s 10 paintings, since he’s one of only five of the 230 artists I’ve looked at so far with 10 or more pieces in the museum; and the many still lifes (7 of 18 paintings) that appeared on the two pages of the four I looked at this week that weren’t devoted wholly to Giordano.

I bypassed all of these in favor of two paintings on classical subjects, Diana with Orion’s Corpse (ca. 1685) by Daniel Seiter (1647-1705), and Juno and Argus (ca. 1685) by Gregorio de Ferrari (1647-1726). They had a striking amount in common: artist birthdate, composition date, subject matter, even the arrangement of elements in the frame. In both, a goddess resting on a cloud looks down at the body of a slain man, in whose death the goddess has had an important role, and for whose sake a memorial in nature will be created. In both, there are other figures in addition to the slain man and the goddess. There are differences between the works as well as similarities. The hunter Orion was killed by Diana, the goddess who is looking at his corpse, whereas Argus was killed by Mercury in order to set thwart a plan of jealous Juno to keep Io away from her husband Jupiter by putting Io under the guard of Argus with his 100 eyes. In Seiter’s painting, the other figure is an adult male holding a jar and looking up into the face of the goddess, while Ferrari places two winged cherubs and a peacock between Juno and the body of Argus. Orion is memorialized in the stars, while Juno is said to have placed Argus’s eyes on the tail of the peacock, her favorite bird.

I was drawn first to the paintings because I was uncertain about how to read the image of Diana and Orion; there seemed to be something of sorrow in Diana’s concerned expression, and yet she was distanced from the body before her, not only by the space between them but also by the great difference between their bodily attitudes, he sprawled and exposed, she lying above him in a dignified pose. The figures are sensuously rendered, as if there was powerful feeling uniting the couple, and yet this feeling could easily be hate rather than love, as signalled by the clear reversal of gender roles: she is powerful and strong, whereas he is defeated and without protection.

I realized that I didn’t know the story of Orion, that my assumption that he would be a hero mourned in death reflected my familiarity with the constellation named for him, a winter favorite of mine, rather than a thorough knowledge of his place in mythology. When I looked up Orion in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, a book I have loved since first reading it in high school, I discovered another possible explanation for my uncertainty: there are many versions of the death of Orion, not just one, and in some of them Diana kills him deliberately because he has offended her, whereas in others she is tricked into destroying her favorite. Did Seiter find it difficult to choose among them, so that he focused instead on linking an act of violence with the painful realization of loss?

By comparison, the painting of Juno and Argus seems devoid of feeling, even the pain of loss that one might reasonably expect when an employer has lost a faithful servant. Absent is the sexual tension that Seiter evokes between Diana and Orion; absent also is the complex mixture of love and violence that the many versions of the story attribute to Diana. In Ferrari’s painting, everything is busy, filled with frivolous details in keeping with the self-involved dowager, Juno. The one touch of feeling I detect is in the decision to drape Argus’s corpse, a choice that forms a powerful contrast to Orion’s nakedness.

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A Companion of Diana

parislondon201208 2114690_s0001542_002Entry 23 August 31, 2013

Over the past month, I have often thought about how wonderful it was last year at this time to spend a week in Paris, which has led me to look again at the things I brought home with me, including photos, 102 of which are of art objects in the Louvre, taken during the one day I spent in the museum.

I have only included two of the photos in the blog so far, one in blog post 12 and the other in blog post 16. In blog post 12, I used one of them to illustrate what the crowds were like around the Mona Lisa. In blog post 16, I used another because, in the background of a statue I had been photographing, a portion of a wall painting by Giovanni Romanelli (1610-1662) could be seen. Only two photos, but they record the only Italian paintings I photographed while I was in the museum, and the second one really doesn’t count as a photo of a painting, because I was aiming at the statue and got the painting by chance. It won’t be much better when I move on to other national collections in The Louvre: All the Paintings; I took far more photos of statues—79—than I did of paintings—23 (seven of these were of the Mona Lisa and the crowd in front of it). The only other paintings I photographed were from 19th-century France, and they all were housed in room 77 of the first floor of Denon.

The rest of the photos are of statues. I like to look at paintings more than I like to look at statues, but in museum visits I tend to take more photos of statues than of paintings. My preferences put me on both sides of a rivalry that some Renaissance Italian painters felt between their art and the art of sculpture. I have mentioned this rivalry before in the blog, in blog post 20, when I was writing about Daniele da Volterra’s two-sided painting of David and Goliath. I said there that “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”. I gave a link to a photo of the two-sided painting in its present Louvre location, which shows that the term “two-sided” doesn’t do justice to the physical impressiveness of da Volterra’s effort.

I have also come across a number of references to this rivalry between painting and sculpture elsewhere in the Louvre book. For example, in the commentary on a Self-Portrait by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo (ca. 1480-1548), Savoldo’s motive is described as “to demonstrate the superiority of painting over sculpture”. The same phrase is used a few pages later in a commentary on Woman in a Mirror by Titian (ca. 1488-1576).

I’ve been wondering whether my preference for photographing statues is somehow connected to this painting/sculpture competition. It occurs to me that, on a much, much humbler scale, I am like the Renaissance painter whose goal is to demonstrate that the visual impression of three dimensions can be captured in a two-dimensional image. But standing in the museum in front of the work of art doesn’t give me an opportunity to create the environment around the object that I’m hoping to recreate in all its glory, including its three-dimensionality; rather, I’m working with the environment that the museum designers have provided. The environment around the statue—the open space it occupies, the depth and textures of the surfaces that bound the space, the play of light within the space—is as much what I’m photographing as the statue itself. The environment around a painting—the painting’s placement on a flat surface, almost as if it is a window into another world—is very different from what typically surrounds a statue in a gallery setting. It occurs to me that the three dimensions the statue occupies are not only in the figure but also in the space that it commands around itself, something like the personal space psychologists talk about so much nowadays.

I have included here one of my favorite images from my Louvre photographs. It is of a sculpture by René Frémin entitled A Companion of Diana (1717), created for Louis XIV’s gardens at Marly, outside of Paris, and housed now in the Marly Courtyard on the lower ground floor of the Richelieu wing. I like that the statue and the wall behind it are both gray and with a smooth stone surface; there is a strong contrast between the activity in gesture and movement of clothing shown in the statue and the monumental stillness of the background. The young woman’s right forearm and hand repeat the strong line of the stone molding behind them, but her extended fingers expressively stand out against the uniformity of the molding’s parallel lines. Light adds a great deal here; there is the brilliant definition of features and details, but the light also provides a strong contrast to the pools of shadow that form wherever the light does not reach.

For comparison, I include a reproduction of the statue from the Atlas Database. I wish I had done better with the dog, but I was lucky in the light and the surroundings that came with the statue on the day I was at the Louvre.