Saturday, August 5, 2017

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Visitation to Art - Reflections on Masterpieces by Sargent, French Classic Drawing and Della Robbia

Henry James and American Painting
June 9 - September 10, 2017

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age
June 16 - October 15, 2017

By Ed Voves

You never know the direction that art will take you. Great art can lead us to make journeys of discovery that we are not aware of until much later. Sometimes, the act of recognition comes in dimly remembered dreams. On other occasions, art grabs our attention, snapping us wide awake.

Recently, a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York spurred my thoughts from a painting set in Venice by John Singer Sargent to a French seventeenth century drawing to reflections on one of the great episodes of Christian history.

This incident, called the Visitation, is part of the "infancy narrative" in the gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 1, verses 39-56). Mary, bearing the unborn Jesus, journeys to see an older relative. Elizabeth, long the childless wife of Zachariah, is pregnant too. Her child will be the future St. John the Baptist.  

According to St. Luke, Mary had earlier been told by the Angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the Messiah - and that Elizabeth has received glad tidings as well.

And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.

The Visitation is a key moment in Christian sacred history, depicted countless times in all manner of artistic media. Elizabeth, upon greeting Mary, realizes that her younger relative will give birth to the Messiah. Elizabeth is the first person to identify Jesus as redeemer of all humanity.

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:  And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

In addition to its religious implications, the Visitation happens to be a fascinating example of human nature in action. It is an encounter of youth and age, a meeting between women with different expectations and fears relating to the lives of their unborn infants. And possibly a degree of mutual rivalry might be lurking in the emotional mix too.

Human nature is very much in evidence in John Singer Sargent's painting on display at the Morgan's exhibit, Henry James and American Painting. Sargent's A Venetian Interior, painted between 1880 -1882, shows an encounter between two woman in the shabby interior of a once grand Venetian palace, the Palazzo Rezzonico. It is a secular version of the Visitation, featuring the interaction of a veiled  woman and a younger woman, who is clearly making an appraisal of her older compatriot.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's A Venetian Interior, c.1880

What is going on here? The Venetian working class women used the hallway of the Palazzo Rezzonico to escape the fierce summer heat, string beads and have a chat. Sargent's studio was located on an upper level of the beleaguered building. We will never know what the veiled woman is saying or why the younger woman regards her so skeptically.

Sargent was not a religious painter in 1880. His controversial murals, Triumph of Religion, painted between 1890-1919 for the Boston Public Library, were a decade in the future. Yet there is an encounter taking place in this painting, as in depictions of the Visitation. The incredible shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom of the Palazzo Rezzonico just as beams of heavenly light streamed on to countless works of art with sacred themes.

I came close to missing the parallels between Sargent's painting and the Visitation. However, I was able to study a sketch showing the Visitation on view in another exhibit at the Morgan, Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age.  

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca.1645 

On the Morgan's gallery walls, The Visitation by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) seems impressive but hardly a show-stopper. De La Hyre was highly influential in his day, but his overly didactic style works against the human drama of Mary's encounter with Elizabeth. A similar painted version of The Visitation by de La Hyre (not on view in the Morgan exhibit) undermines the power of the meeting to an even greater degree.

De La Hyre's Visitation sketch, on the other hand, gets more than just an honorable mention. Once we look past all the billowing drapery, the dynamics of human interaction once again take center stage.

The connection between Sargent's painting and de La Hyre's drawing is not obvious. Yet, de La Hyre's sketch helped me see that Sargent's painting also portrayed a dramatic encounter, a meeting of minds and spirits. And, as it turned out, I had recently seen two other representations of the Visitation that made the same point. 

Luca della Robbia, The Visitation, c. 1445

The centerpiece of the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence was a magnificent nearly life-size depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. This glazed terracotta statue group by Luca della Robbia was assembled from several interlocking parts which had been fired separately in the kiln, no mean feat as any ceramic artist will tell you.

Technical mastery aside, the real wonder is that Luca captured the spirit of the encounter. We see  the loveliness of the young Mary and the wonderment showing through the lines and wrinkles of Elizabeth's careworn face. There is something more, too.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation 

Look at Luca's Visitation for more than a moment or two and I think you will discern an element of doubt, of concern, of questioning in the eyes of Mary and of Elizabeth. These sentiments are elusive and intangible. Yet they make their presence felt.

And why not? Would Mary and Elizabeth not question the angelic revelations surrounding the improbable circumstances of both their pregnancies. A virgin giving birth? A barren old  woman with child? Would their instinct or "radar" not be sensitive to the possibility that what God decreed, other human beings might doubt? And what would Elizabeth think after realizing that Mary's son, rather than hers, was destined to be the "Lord."

There is a complicated tangle of emotions involved in the Visitation story. If I had to pick one word to describe the feelings of Mary and Elisabeth it would be "solemn." There is sense of solemnity in almost every artistic depiction of the Visitation. Joyfulness is there, but not unrestrained happiness. New life is waiting to be born - into a world of sorrows. 

With such thoughts in mind, I was not surprised to find that the best description of solemnity is in a book written by the brother of Henry James, whose interest in art supplies the theme of the Morgan's exhibit. In The Varieties of  Religious Experience, William James wrote:

A solemn state of mind is never crude or simple—it seems to contain a certain measure of its own opposite in solution. A solemn joy preserves a sort of bitter in its sweetness; a solemn sorrow is one to which we intimately consent.

The experience of birth involves pains that lead to new life. Mothers forget the pangs of child birth when they behold their infants. And with each new born child comes an opportunity to redeem this fallen world.                                                                                                                                  
One of the fascinating details I discovered while researching the Visitation, is that the choice of word to describe Elizabeth's relationship with Mary is the Greek term syngenis. This is often translated as "cousin," as in the King James Version. But a more correct translation is "relative" or "kin." As biblical scholars note, Mary and Elizabeth might have been distant relatives, even members of different tribes of Israel. The Visitation may have been an effort to heal the wounds of family divisions or estrangement.

The second artistic rendition of the Visitation comes from a surprising source, St. Michael and All Angels' Church in Haworth, Yorkshire. This is the Church of England parish church where Rev. Patrick Brontë was the "perpetual curate" or minister from 1820 to 1861. Here his novelist daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, lived  and wrote immortal works including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

The current church was built between 1879 and 1881 after the Brontës had died. Only the tower remains of the church the Brontës knew and where all are buried, save for Anne. A set of magnificent High-Victorian stained glass windows grace the church, which my wife Anne and I visited this past spring. The Visitation is one of the scenes prominently displayed.

No one who looks closely at this stained glass depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth can deride it as an example of Victorian sentimentality. There is such a notable feeling of tension between the "cousins" that one might almost conclude that the artist was aware of the syngenis issue. The arms of the two women are stretched to form an embrace that is not reflected in the expression of their faces. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of The Visitation, St. Michael and All Angels' Church

Mary's probing eyes meet those of Elizabeth in an interval of suspended engagement. The stained glass scene of St. Michael's Church shows the moment of decision when human beings decide to love or not to love. We know the outcome to the Visitation story. Mary and Elizabeth do embrace. They do recognize the wonder of new life arising within their bodies.

Many people at moments like this cannot embrace the person opposite to them. They hang back, frozen in an act of judgment, like Sargent's young woman in the Palazzo Rezzonico.   
As I researched the place of the Visitation in Western art, I came across the version of this biblical incident painted by Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557). This Mannerist painter is no great favorite of mine but his rendering of the Visitation is a masterpiece.

Other depictions of the Visitation show servants in the background or Elizabeth's husband, Zachariah, off to the side. Here Pontormo has posed a young woman and an older women facing towards the viewer. They are focusing directly on us. Although these women are not graced with halos above their heads, they bear striking resemblance to Mary and Elizabeth. It is an uncanny  technique of drawing us into the moment of decision, to love or not to love.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528-1529 (detail)

Pontormo would probably have identified these woman as servants. Yet, they serve no supporting role in this painting. The two woman, looking directly at us, are alter egos for Mary and Elizabeth. Their eyes meet ours and the wordless questions are asked.
Will we reach out to embrace the "other" person?  Will we cherish the gift of life they carry within themselves?

That is the message I derived from studying Sargent's A Venetian Interior and Laurent de La Hyre's compelling drawing of the Visitation. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645 

Such thoughts were far from my mind when I walked through the door of the Morgan intent upon learning about  the artistic circle of Henry James and French art of "le grand siecle."   
Man proposes. God disposes. 

As I said at the beginning of this essay, great art can direct us on journeys of discovery over which we have little or no control. But once we get to where we're going, then a pattern of meaning will almost magically appear.The invisible walls which once barred our way crumble, letting the light of spirit stream in.                                                                                                                                       
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd

Introductory and Leading Images: 
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's  A Venetian Interior, c.1880 - 1882. Oil on canvas.  60.7 x 49.8 cm Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA                       

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4

Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) The Visitation, c. 1445. Glazed terracotta. 151 x 148 x 60 cm (59 7/16 x 58 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.) Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia. Displayed  by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Feb. 5–June 4, 2017

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of The Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of Stained Glass Window (c. 1879-1881) of St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire. 

Jacopo Pontormo  (Italian, 1494–1557) The Visitation, 1528-1529 (Detail). Oil on panel. 202 × 156 cm (79.5 × 61.4 in) Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano. Wikipedia images, The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing Gmb

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4

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