Thursday, May 28, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: El Greco by Fernando Marias

El Greco: Life and Work - a New History

by Fernando Marias
Thames & Hudson/349 pages/$100

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 2014, the Prado Museum mounted an exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of one of Spain's greatest artists - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, of one of the greatest artists to work in Spain. El Greco and Modern Art at the Prado surveyed the career and legacy of the Renaissance-era painter who was "rediscovered" during the first years of the twentieth century, as the revolution of Modernism began to gain momentum.

Was Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco, really an ancestor of Modern Art?  Picasso is known to have studied El Greco's Vision of St. John, while he worked on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Franz Marc, writing in the Blue Rider Almanac, acknowledged "the case of El Greco, because the glory of this painter is closely tied to the evolution of our new perception on art."

El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1608-1614

As compelling as these testimonials are, it is open to question whether El Greco's art fitted in with any "perception on art" other than his own.

El Greco is best understood as an "eccentric" painter. This is the view of Fernando Marias, author of what is surely the most definitive biography of El Greco. Marias uses "eccentric" in its sixteenth century connotation.

To be eccentric for the Spaniards of that time was to be different in life habits or  attitudes from the accustomed norms of society. Highly individualistic, perhaps, but not purposefully flamboyant or peculiar.

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

In reflecting on the use of "eccentric" to categorize El Greco, we ought not to think of him as a Salvador Dali figure, cultivating outlandish personal traits to flaunt in the faces of those who rejected him. Marias maintains that El Greco's eccentricity was "a quality that he deliberately strove for." Yet, this was a feature of his life-long act of self-definition and ambitious personal goals. Marias writes:

Since his arrival in Spain, or perhaps even before, El Greco had developed a new vision of art, one in which the painter ... had the right to give expression to his art with liberty, free from the asphyxiating requirements of iconography or the demands of clients, so often lacking in taste and understanding.

Marias has made a life-long study of El Greco. The present edition of this insightful, lavishly illustrated biography is based on an earlier version, published in 1995. Marias displays a fine command of literary style, as can be seen in the above-quote. But it should be noted that the exhaustive research which Marias has devoted to his task does not always make for easy reading.

El Greco, Portrait of an Old Man (believed to be a self-portrait), 1595–1600

Much of the scanty details of El Greco's life come from the court records of the many, many lawsuits in which he was involved. Most dealt with the payment promised him for works of art created for his clients in Spain. Like Michelangelo, El Greco was forced to devote much time and effort dealing with recalcitrant clients, unsatisfied patrons and demanding creditors. That was a depressing reality of his life and Marias' narrative reflects this.

Fortunately, Marias has been able to use two key sources, not available to earlier scholars. In 1967, El Greco's personal copy of Georgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568) was located. This was followed in 1981 by the discovery of a copy of De Architectura by Vitruvius which El Greco had also used. Both volumes were heavily annotated by El Greco, providing direct access to his thoughts on art.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, aka El Greco, was born on the island of Crete in 1641. Crete, or Candia as it was called, was a colony of Venice's maritime empire. Culturally, Crete was a last bastion of the Byzantine Empire. The artists of Crete, closely organized into a medieval guild, painted in the traditional Byzantine style, albeit infused with elements of Western art due to the influence of Venice.

Several of El Greco's early paintings have survived. These testify to the fusion of artistic schools, Byzantine and Venetian, going on in his homeland. However, it is extremely telling to note that hallmarks of his future style in Spain are already present in some of his first efforts. 

El Greco, The Dormition, ca. 1566

In The Dormition of the Virgin, painted around 1566, El Greco showed his debts to late Byzantine iconography. The Dormition or death-bed scene from the life of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, is more important to the Greek Orthodox rite than to the Latin form of Catholicism practiced by the Venetians. El Greco infuses a Venetian sensibility to the Dormition by the way he shows the spirit of the Virgin Mary ascending to Heaven. Here, also, is a foretaste of his greatest paintings from the years in Spain, notably The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.

In 1567, El Greco traveled to Venice in search of the patronage and professional success unavailable to him in Crete. Fame, of a sort, El Greco gained but alas not the degree of success which Titian and Tintoretto had attained in Venice. El Greco made a close-study of both of these celebrated painters and may have worked for a time in Tintoretto's studio. But he failed in his attempt to gain favor in Venice and later in Rome, where some ill-advised comments on Michelangelo lost him a place in the household of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the most influential patron of the arts in Italy.

El Greco, The Modena Triptych, 1568

The decade El Greco spent in Italy, despite all the frustrations he encountered, was crucial in his maturation as an artist, A key work in understanding El Greco's transformation from a painter of Byzantine-style icons to a practitioner of Italianate art is The Modena Triptych, painted soon after he arrived in Italy. Though small in scale, the triptych was illustrated, front and back, with vivid narrative scenes from the New Testament. Several of these episodes would feature in the mighty works of devotional art El Greco later created for the churches in Toledo, Spain.

El Greco's hopes of being appointed court painter for Philip II of Spain were soon dashed after his arrival in 1577. Instead of royal preferment, he had to contract his services for religious paintings and portraits to a wide-ranging network of clients. Many possessed limited financial resources and El Greco had to submit to a rigorous assessment process after each devotional painting was completed. The cash-strapped churches of Toledo constantly sought to have their fees reduces by making carping criticisms of El Greco's "eccentric" works of art.

It would be fruitless to attempt a brief survey of El Greco's career in Spain, which Marias handles so brilliantly. A look at two of his works will suffice: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and the ensemble of paintings for the Oballe Chapel in Toledo.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586-1588 

El Greco painted The Burial of the Count of Orgaz a decade after he arrived in Spain, for a parish church in Toledo. By virtue of its quality, it deserves to hang in a cathedral. It is a work of stunning dualities: earth and heaven, body and spirit, death and eternal life.

The striking realism of the bottom, earthly, half of the painting sets the stage for the upper, heavenly part. By softening his brush strokes and using cooler shades of color - except for the red dress of the Virgin Mary, who is reaching down to embrace the soul of the deceased count - El Greco created a vision of the celestial realm as imagined by the aristocratic mourners below.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is now recognized as one of the greatest treasures of Spanish art. Consequently, it never travels to international exhibitions. However, by an incredible stroke of good luck, I had the chance to visit Spain in 1979 in the company of an art scholar who was determined to see El Greco's masterpiece. The experience of viewing The Burial of the Count of Orgaz remains one of the defining moments of my life.

To fully grasp the magnitude of El Greco's achievement, it is necessary to focus on the late-career ensemble of paintings he created for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Toledo, better known as the Oballe Chapel. It was the last of El Greco's great projects, completed by his son, Jorge Manuel, in 1615. 

Even by the standards of Spain during the early seventeenth century, the building and decoration of the Oballe Chapel proceeded at a glacially-slow pace. Construction began in 1595, funded by the Oballe family, who had made a fortune in the Spanish colony of Peru. El Greco joined the project in 1607 after the original artist, Alessandro Semini, had died. The financial complications of the assessment process were marked by the acrimonious disputes that characterized El Greco's entire career in Toledo. These continued after his death, contributing to the financial ruin and imprisonment of Jorge Manuel.

The Oballe Chapel, however, can only be appreciated by the results, not by the "backstory" of its creation.

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

El Greco's masterful treatment of the Oballe Chapel artworks can be appreciated by studying their placement in the 2003 Metropolitan Museum exhibition. Soaring in majesty in the center is The Immaculate Conception, with the Virgin Mary rising-up to receive divine grace in the form of the dove of the Holy Spirit. To the left is a powerful portrait of St. Peter and at right, in full church vestments, is St. Idelfonsus, the patron saint of Toledo.

These works were not closely placed, side-by-side, however. The portraits of the saints were positioned on adjoining walls, each at an angle to create a grotto-like effect, centered upon the stunning depiction of the Virgin Mary. 

Positioned above, and completing the ensemble, was one of El Greco's most remarkable paintings, The Visitation. This painting showed the Virgin Mary being greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, a key moment in Christian sacred history. Now in the collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington D.C., El Greco's Visitation is truly an Impressionist work of art.  

El Greco, The Visitation, 1607-13

El Greco's Visitation cannot be fully appreciated by looking at it straight-on, at eve level. Even today, it appears half-formed, almost incomprehensible. But when viewed from below, as El Greco intended, the meaning of The Visitation is readily apparent. The painting guides the viewer's sight line down to the dramatic central image of the young woman, born without sin, who will give birth to Jesus, redeemer of human kind.

To a believing-Christian in Toledo in the early 1600's, the experience of visiting the Oballe Chapel would have been spiritually overwhelming. Even today, with the component paintings separated, El Greco's visual plan is a revolutionary synthesis of concept and articulation. Fernando Marias writes:

El Greco also demonstrated the sculptural possibilities of living, moving, paint, and showed how daring his compositions could be. He rejected static contemplation of a dynamic work of art and demanded that the painting be seen in motion, as if it were a real and living being.

Whether one looks at a El Greco masterpiece with the eye of art or the eye of faith, Marias' statement above is undeniably valid. "Real and living being" is in every brushstroke of El Greco's works. 

El Greco, The Immaculate Conception, 1607-13

The fluttering wings of angels, the look of spiritual rapture on the Virgin Mary's face, even the numinous quality of the Toledo landscape over which these sacred beings soar on their way to heaven, have a vitality that carries us, the viewers, to the celestial realm that is their destination.

Marias concludes his final reflections on El Greco with a cautionary check on speculations about what beliefs, creeds and convictions motivated his artistic expressions. The comments which El Greco made in his copy of Vasari's Lives testify to his intelligence and ambition. Yet the truth remains that the inner El Greco remains an enigma. His paintings are not, Marias asserts, "reducible to his own personality and personal beliefs."

El Greco began his career painting Byzantine icons. While he rebelled against the stylistic formality of the maniera greca, he continued to do what the Icon painters of Byzantium had always done: create a visible space for belief, an interface for humans to commune with the Divine.

El Greco, Portrait of a Doctor (Rodrigo de la Fuente), details1588 

Wherever he went - Venice, Rome, Toledo - El Greco never stopped being Doménikos Theotokópoulos.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Introductory Image:
Cover art for El Greco: Life and Work - a New History by Fernando Marias, courtesy of  Thames & Hudson Publishers

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Vision of St. John, 1608-1614.  Oil on canvas: 87 1/2 x 76 in. (222.3 x 193 cm); with added strips 88 1/2 x 78 1/2 in. (224.8 x 199.4 cm). Metropoltan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1956. # 56.48

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) Portrait of an Old Man, Ca. 1595–1600. Oil on canvas:  20 3/4 x 18 3/8 in. (52.7 x 46.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924.  # 24.197.1 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Dormition of the Virgin, ca. 1566. Tempera and gold on panel: 61.4 cm × 45 cm (24.2 in × 18 in). Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, Ermoupolis, Syros, Greece.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Modena Triptych, 1568. Tempera on panel: Height: 37 cm (14.5 in); Width: 23.8 cm (9.3 in) (central panel). Galleria Estense  Modena, Italy. # 8095.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586-1588.  Oil on canvas: 480 cm × 360 cm (190 in × 140 in). Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain.

Gallery view of the 2003 El Greco exhibit, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Visitation, 1607-13. Oil on canvas: 96.5 cm. x  71.4 (38 in. x  28.1 ) Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington D.C. # HC.P.1936.18.(O)

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) The Immaculate Conception, 1607-13. Oil on canvas: 348 cm × 174.5 cm (137 in × 68.7 in).  Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain  # DO1277,_Toledo)#/media/File:Inmaculada_Oballe_El_Greco.jpg

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614) Portrait of a Doctor (Rodrigo de la Fuente), details1588.  Oil on canvas:  96 cm. x 82.3 cm. Museo del Prado, # P000807

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Greek and Roman Art by Susan Woodford

Greek and Roman Art

By Susan Woodford
Thames & Hudson-Art Essentials /$16.95/176 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

When we use the word classical to describe the art of ancient Greece and Rome, we are taking a big risk.  "Classical" promotes the idea of timeless, carved-in-marble permanence. Even ruined temples like the Parthenon or an "unarmed" statue like the Venus de Milo are envisioned as somehow safeguarded from the long attrition of the centuries. This is obviously not so - nor was it the case even when such classical masterpieces were first displayed in Athens, Corinth and on the seven hills of Rome.

Change and experimentation defined the art of the Greeks and Romans. This is the theme of a new volume in Thames and Hudson's "Art Essentials" series, Susan Woodford's Greek and Roman Art.

Woodford, a scholar well-versed in the intertwined civilizations of Greece and Rome, expertly analyses a select group of ancient masterpieces. Woodford emphasizes the dynamism of Greek art and of Roman art, too, though not to the degree exercised by the bold artists of Hellas. 

Before proceeding with a review of Woodford's Greek and Roman Art, it is worthy to ask why Thames & Hudson published another book for the general public on this subject when it has already produced one of the greatest works in the field aimed at non-specialists. As I mentioned in another Art Eyewitness post, John Boardman's Greek Art in the World of Art series is a true classic. Yes, the word is deserved!

Boardman brilliantly charted the fascinating course of Greek art following the fall of the Bronze Age palace kingdoms like Pylos and Mycenae around 1200 B.C. The primitive, yet vigorous, creative steps during Greece's "Dark Age," followed by Geometric art, the Orientalizing period, the Archaic Age, the "Golden" fifth century B.C. and the Hellenistic era expansion - Boardman expertly handled each in progression. The latest edition of this exceptional book only adds to its laurels.

Woodford takes a bold, alternative approach to Boardman's narrative. By focusing on a few works of exceptional merit and then showing how the progressive development of Greek and Roman art occurred, Woodford presents an original and much-needed introduction for the general reader. I suspect Greek and Roman Art will prove quite insightful for those already familiar with ancient art. 

Woodford's first chapter deals with the challenges of carving the human body in marble. When Greek merchants and mercenary soldiers began journeying to Egypt following the Dark Age, they observed impressive statues such as the limestone figure of Tjaysetimu(British Museum) created at some point between 664-525 B.C.

Standing figure of Tjayasetimu, Egypt, 26th Dynasty, ca. 664-525 B.C.

Lacking the skill of the Egyptian masters, the first Greek sculptors used repetitions of certain shapes in order to depict a coherent bodily form. With excellent charts and crisp, clear commentary, Woodford demonstrates how the early Greeks achieved success with the rigid, yet startlingly alive, figure of the Kouros (Youth). This imposing statue, created around 590-580 B.C. will be readily recognizable to visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Marble Statue of a Kouros (Youth), Attica, Greece, ca. 590–580 B.C.

The Greeks, however, were not satisfied with the Met's Kouros and they commenced upon what Woodford calls the "bumpy road to realism."

Woodford studies two slightly later examples of the Kouros model, both in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, to demonstrate just how difficult was this journey. 

The progressive development of the Kouros statues is displayed on the page format of the book (below). We soon grasp Woodford's point. The much more naturalistic pose of the ca. 530 B.C., Anavyssos Kouros (left-hand page) was compromised by the stylized handling of the braided hair which had not seemed such a problem with the Met Kouros sixty years before. Two decade later, the now almost completely realistic Aristodikos Kouros (extreme right) demonstrates how its skillful sculptor had solved all the problems of the earlier statues except one - its basic pose. Even for a grave marker, the Aristodikos Kouros is truly a "stiff."

Each step forward, each successful handling of a detail lacking in realism exposed a new problem. An underlying pattern emerged with marble sculpting in sixth century Greece which would challenge artists in all media during the ancient world - change, emergence of a problem, solution of that problem and emergence of another. Woodford notes that "failures" were as important a driving force as was success. She writes movingly about the artists of Greece:

They could have endlessly repeated the same proven formulae, as the Egyptians did, and run no risks, but their restlessness and sense of adventure spurred them on from one problem to another. Each problem led to a solution on a higher level of complexity until finally the Greeks produced solutions that carried such conviction that they left an impress on all later western art and eventually reached the far corners of the world.

The carving of the famous Kritios Boy during the first decades of the fifth century B.C. seemed to have addressed the earlier chain of problem-causing solutions. The "at-ease" pose of the Kritios Boy, balancing his weight on one leg and looking very-much pleased with himself, marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Greek art. 

Kritios BoyAttica, Greece, ca. 480 B.C.

The creation of the Kritios Boy also coincided with rise of democratic government in Athens, where this magnificent statue posed, before the invading Persians knocked him off his pedestal in 480 B.C. Significantly, the Athenians did not try to repair the Kritios Boy. Instead, they commissioned new statues full of motion and dynamism. The lost-wax method of casting bronze statues was a preferred medium for this vigorous democratic art form.

Making bronze statues presented a whole new set of challenges, solutions and new problems which Woodford cogently explores. But the chief problem with a bronze statue, like silver plate and gold jewelry, is that its value in times of economic crisis and war made it a prime target for melting and recasting into coinage.

Back in 2015, the Getty Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. mounted Power and Pathos, a sensational exhibition of surviving bronze statues from both Greece and Rome. These ranged from portrait busts of Hellenistic kings and Roman consuls, their brows furrowed by affairs of state, to the delightful Dancing Faun, a Roman copy of a famous third century B.C. Greek original.

Dancing Faun, Roman copy of a Greek statue, 3rd Century B.C.

Most of the great bronze statues of antiquity did not share the good fortune of Dancing Faun. We only know Myron's incredible Discobolus or Discus-thrower from Roman marble copies. Several versions of the marble Discobolus survived but, rather comically, there was a dispute over how to position the severed-head of the British Museum's copy. The version displayed in Italy's National Roman Museum, (which introduces this review) shows it correctly.

Ancient bronzes that did survive the smelting furnace were buried or lost at sea. Roman ships, weighed down with the loot from conquered Greek cities often sank en route to Italy. The discovery of iconic bronze statues like the Zeus of Artemisium has transformed our knowledge of ancient art and science. 

For the recovery of ancient painting, the "blessings" of adversity also held true. Without the horrific destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D., we would know little indeed about Greek and Roman painting. Likewise, the resilience of Greek ceramic vessels, whether whole or in shards, preserved the basics of this major form of ancient creative expression.

Bedroom from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, ca. 50–40 B.C.

Woodford's pattern of artistic development - change, emergence of a problem, solution of that problem and emergence of another - does not hold true for ancient painting. Too little has survived for us to follow the "march of progress" which Woodford traces so brilliantly in her discussion of the Kouros statues.

Change and experimentation certainly characterized Greek vase painting. But it cannot be asserted that the later red-figure method is de facto superior to black-figure. The artist known as the Berlin Painter was a master of both techniques. His signature work, which gives him his modern name, is a red-figure depiction of a satyr and the god Mercury. It is a great work of art because the Berlin Artist was a great vase painter. The same holds true for Exekias.

Exekias, Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game, Attica, Greece, 540-530 B.C.

Exekias painted a scene from the Trojan War showing Achilles and Ajax relaxing from the carnage by playing a board game. Created around 540 B.C., this superlative black-figure painting was never surpassed - and rarely matched - by red-figure painting, though the Berlin Painter as his best was certainly Exekias' equal. This stunning work of art combines the primal vigor of Archaic era art with a haunting, psychological probity that pulls the viewer into the scene. 

With their shields framing the action, Achilles and Ajax lean forward to concentrate on the game board. Their muscles are relaxed, but their brains are fully engaged. Here we see the Greek mind at work in all of its restless, competitive striving. The intellectual force that would lead to the fifth century Golden Age is at "play" here, not just two warriors. 

By contrast, Woodford shows a later amphora decorated with the same scene. Amazingly, the game between Achilles and Ajax appears on both sides of the vase, one done in black-figure, the other in red-figure. Neither come close to Exekias' powerful handling. 

Unknown Artist, Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game, 525-520 B.C.

It's a case of "too much." Too much stylization, too many special-effects.  Like a master film maker, Exekias clears the deck and lets the story draw the viewer in. Twenty-five centuries have passed and the game keeps going, engaging us with the same intensity as it does for Achilles and Ajax.

Woodford concludes Greek and Roman Art with a brief, but perceptive, survey of art among the non-Greek inhabitants of Egypt and Rome's other provinces. In the case of Egypt, the "fortunate survival" scenario reoccurs, as with Pompeii. In Egypt, the dry, arid conditions preserved paintings, fabric art, documents and much else which otherwise perished in Greece and Italy.

Mummy-portrait from Rubaiyat, Egypt, ca.160-170  A.D.

Of these "survivors," the mummy portraits from Egypt, created at the height of Rome's rule, are the most important. Painted with the encaustic wax technique, the best of these memorial portraits show Greek technique, Roman pragmatic realism and Egyptian concern for the afterlife seamlessly combined in tour-de-force masterpieces.

The same accolades apply to Woodford and her wonderful book. I wish she could have found room to discuss the role of coins in the diffusion of art throughout the Greco-Roman world. This topic would certainly make for another, much-needed volume in the Thames and Hudson's Art Essentials and Woodford would be the perfect guide.

For the time being, I am confronted with the happy "hardship" of finding room for Woodford's Greek and Roman Art among the "essentials" on my bedside bookshelf. It's going to be a tight squeeze, but I will definitely be placing this superb volume in the company of my battered copy of Kenneth Clark's Civilization and other "classics."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                 Book cover and page-spread images, courtesy of Thames & Hudson, Publishers. 

Introductory Image:
Roman-era copy of Myron's Discobolus or Discus-thrower,  Marble: 125 cm. (49 1/4 in.)  National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy

Standing figure of Tjayasetimu, Egypt, 26th Dynasty, ca. 664-525 B.C. Limestone: 125  x  32 cm. British Museum # EA1682 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Marble Statue of a Kouros (Youth), Attica, Greece, ca. 590–580 B.C. Attica, Greece. Marble: 76 5/8 × 20 5/16 × 24 7/8 in. (194.6 × 51.6 × 63.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1932. # 32.11.1 © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kritios BoyAttica, Greece, ca. 480 B.C.  Marble:  86 cm. (33 1/4 inches) height. Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece. University of Michigan open access images, aict GS036 full 1336 2948 0 default

Dancing Faun, Roman copy of a Greek statue, 3rd Century B.C. Bronze: 71 cm. (28 in.) height. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, ca. 50–40 B.C. Fresco: 8 ft. 8 1/2 in. × 10 ft. 11 1/2 in. × 19 ft. 1 7/8 in. (265.4 × 334 × 583.9 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1903. # 03.14.13a–g © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exekias, Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game. Attica, Greece, 540-530 B.C. Black-figure painted amphora: 61 cm. (24 inches) height, diameter at mouth 27.8 cm. Vatican Museum, Rome. Cat. 16757.  

Unknown Artist, Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game, 525-520 B.C. Black-figure painted amphora, red-figure on reverse: 55.5 cm. (21 1/8 inches) height. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Mummy-portrait from Rubaiyat, Egypt, ca.160-170  A.D. Leaf-gilded and encaustic paint on lime wood: 44.4 x 16 cm. (17 1/2 x 6 1/4 in.) British Museum. #1939,0324.211 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Art Eyewitness Review: Victorian Radicals: from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement

Victorian Radicals: 

from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement 

Yale Center for British Art
February 13–May 10, 2020

DelMonico Books-Prestel/280 pages/$65

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Charles Dickens took up his pen in the June 15, 1850 issue of Household Thoughts to warn the good people of Great Britain of a new danger. If not stopped, this peril would lead Victorian society to the "lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting."

This peril did not arise from a new disease afflicting the slums of London nor a worsening level of the stench of the River Thames. Moreover, the socially-sensitive Dickens did not have to report a rise in the mortality rate of eight-year old chimney sweeps or child prostitutes. Rather, the threat was posed by a group of young artists who signed their paintings with an enigmatic acronym, PRB.

The initials stood for Pre-Raphael Brotherhood. The striking art works of the "PRB" have been touring the United States over the last year in the Victorian Radicals exhibition. Currently, the exhibit is in "suspended animation" at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, waiting for the Covid-19 quarantine to be lifted. Fortunately, DelMonico Books/Prestel has published an especially beautiful catalog of Victorian Radicals to help art lovers deal with the pangs of being "locked-down" from seeing works of art which so infuriated Dickens.

Dickens' opposition to the Pre-Raphaelites is difficult to credit in the present day. The near-hysteria of his reaction to the PRB group and their attempt to steer British art away from the path of Renaissance masters such as Raphael was remarkable even for 1850.

The Pre-Raphael Brotherhood, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the dread Tribunal which is to set this matter right. Walk up, walk up; and here, conspicuous on the wall of the Royal Academy of Art in England ... you shall see what this new Holy Brotherhood, this terrible Police that is to disperse all Post-Raphael offenders, has "been and done!"

John Ruskin, whose achievements were recently chronicled in a wonderful exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, defended the PRB in 1851.

"They intend to return to early days in this one point only - that, as far as in them lies, they will either draw what they see, or what they suppose to have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making."

Victorian Radicals: from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement deals with a broad sweep of British art history. As the subtitle affirms, the PRB set the stage for the "hands-on" Art and Crafts Movement. The Arts and Crafts credo, voiced most powerfully by William Morris, extolled carefully-made works of art  and artifacts for daily use. Human beings are creative beings, not cogs or interchangeable parts in a soulless assembly line.

Truth to nature! The reward of labor is life! The PRB and the Arts and Crafts artisans were improbable revolutionaries, but revolutionaries all the same.

Victorian Radicals presents 145 paintings, works on paper, and stunning examples of decorative art — ceramics and tiles, jewelry, stained glass and fabrics. 

William De Morgan, "Peacock" Vase, ca.1885

All of the exhibit objects in Victorian Radicals come from the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, founded in 1885 in the English Midlands city which was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. The fact that the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has such an outstanding collection of PRB paintings testifies to the eventual acceptance of Pre-Raphaelite art following the initial abuse and rejection by Dickens and other critics.

In  September 1848, as political revolution swept the continent of Europe, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In place of slavish devotion to the Old Masters, the PRB conceived a bold vision. Just as Millais’ The Blind Girl (1856), addressed all forms of human sensation - sight, sound, hearing, smell and touch - so the PRB aimed to open the minds, hearts and feelings of the people of their time to a world of beauty.

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856

Millais, Rossetti and Holman Hunt were soon joined by Rossetti’s brother William, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens to form the “Brotherhood.” Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1893), an already established painter, proved a ready ally. Later in the decade of the 1850’s, two young Oxford students, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, took-up the Pre-Raphaelite cause.

Initially, Pre-Raphaelite art had a religious orientation. This reflected two controversial aspects of British life during the 1840's: the fascination with medieval architecture, the Gothic Revival, and the liturgical reform moment known as Oxford Tractarianism. By extension, both of these movements, especially that of the Oxford scholars, sparked fears that Roman Catholicism would stage a "revival"  in England. 

For a nation proud - and defensive - of its Protestant heritage, the threat of "Papist" Rome seemed very real. In the event, only one of the Pre-Raphaelites, James Collinson, "crossed the Tiber" and entered a Catholic religious order. 

Several of the PRB paintings in Victorian Radicals, however, demonstrate the influence of medieval pictorial traditions and of the resurgent Roman Catholic Church. This is demonstrated by The Annunciation by Arthur Hughes. Never a formal PRB member but an enthusiastic and well-liked ally, Hughes shows how the Pre-Raphaelites sought to evoke the world view and sentiments of the Middle Ages.

Arthur Hughes, The Annunciation, 1858

The vivid colors in Hughes' painting, especially the purple dress of the Virgin Mary, reflected contemporary events rather than the Middle Ages. In 1856, two years before Hughes painted The Annunciation, a young chemistry student, William Perkin, who was seeking a way to make synthetic quinine, accidentally created the first non-organic dye, light purple in color. 

Perkin's discovery sparked a color sensation, as reflected in Hughes' painting. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is unlikely ever to have worn a purple dress, but for stylish women in Victorian Britain, the 1850's and 1860's were the "Mauve Decade."

Unknown Artist, Day dress, ca. 1865

Hughes' The Annunciation is also noteworthy for the ethereal beauty of Virgin Mary. This, again, was more than an allusion to the Middle Ages.

The young men of the PRB were infatuated with an ideal of feminine beauty or “stunners” as they called the young women who matched their conceptions. One in particular, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddall, was the perfect model of a “stunner” and indeed she posed for several iconic PRB paintings, most notably as Ophelia for Millais. 

Pale-skinned, with reddish blond hair and sensitive eyes, Lizzie Siddall caused Dante Gabriel Rossetti to swoon, as his namesake had done in medieval Florence. The moment is captured in a allegorical drawing by Rossetti, Love's Mirror. Observing a young woman painting a self-portrait, a Renaissance artist catches site of his face and realizes that he is smitten.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Love’s Mirror, or a Parable of Love, 1850–52

Lizzie Siddall had artistic aspirations of her own. Several sketches on display in the exhibition testify to her talent. Rossetti, an unabashed Romantic by nature, was - or seemed to be - the perfect mentor. Everyone, Lizzie Siddall most of all, expected an early marriage and a creative partnership such as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had achieved.

Instead, tragedy ensued. Rossetti was infatuated with the physical ideal represented by Lizzie Siddall, as much as he loved her. This is evident in his most famous painting, Beata Beatrix, of which he did two versions. 

Rossetti was enthralled with the legendary love story of the poet Dante for Beatrice Portinari. He had Lizzie pose as the medieval Italian beauty, doomed to die an early death. Rossetti, however, could not bring himself to finish the paintings. The work stretched on for years, leaving Lizzie little opportunity or encouragement to develop as an artist herself.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix,1877 (completed by Ford Maddox Brown) 

To make matters worse, other red-haired stunners came to pose for Rossetti. Alienated in art and in love, Lizzie's spirit withered. She died from an overdose of laudanum on February 10, 1862. 

William Holman Hunt, Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti1882–83

It is easy to demonize Rossetti for failing to nurture Lizzie Siddall as an artist - and care for her as his wife. Rossetti had many attractive qualities, including generosity to other struggling artists when he achieved some financial security later in life. He encouraged the great woman photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, though his inner demons eventually sabotaged this relationship too.

Had this been a unique failing of Rossetti that would have bad enough. However, he was not the only Pre-Raphaelite who can be censored for his attitude to women. Another artist in the PRB circle, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), devoted much of his considerable talent to painting femmes fatales, like the vengeful Morgan le Fay from the legend of King Arthur.

Frederick Sandys, Morgan le Fay, 1864

The man who led the Pre-Raphaelites out of the dead-end of misogyny and faux medievalism was an unlikely hero: William Morris (1834-1896). A lover of all things from the Middle Ages,  Morris exclaimed that "the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization." 

Never-the-less, Morris grasped that medieval art could serve as a template for objects of utility for a beauty-starved contemporary world. A brilliant publicist, Morris also had a “head” for business, if unconventional methods. In 1861, he founded a firm to produce decorative arts based on Pre-Raphaelite themes. He made the initial mistake of going into partnership with Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown, and his own boon-companion, Edward Burne-Jones. As the firm floundered and his own capital drained away, Morris bought out the others and reorganized it under his sole direction in 1875.

Morris chose his moment well. The decade of the 1870’s was the high noon of the Gothic Revival and Morris & Co. became a big, marketing success. Morris hired skilled craftsman to produce medieval-themed works, including a number of designs for stained glass church windows by Burne-Jones.

       Saint Mark        
Edward Burne-Jones, designed 1873, made by Morris & Co., 1883

Morris & Co produced works of the highest quality and wide-ranging variety. As well as stained glass windows, Morris and his talented team - which included his daughter, May - created tapestries, wall-paper, hand-produced furniture, carpets, folding screens and embroidery, all exuding the Victorian interpretation of the Middle Ages. 

William Morris, “Strawberry Thief,” 1888

The pinnacle of Morris' devoted effort to revive the Middle Ages was a lavish book, produced to match the standards of printing prior to 1501. This was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted, popularly known as the Kelmscott Chaucer. Conceived in 1892, it was published four years later, after exhaustive - and exhausting - labor. 

The Kelmscott Chaucer displays 87 magnificent illustrations by Burne-Jones who worked devotedly and with a growing sense of concern because of the collapsing health of Morris. The engraving, on wood blocks, was done by Willaim Harcourt Hooper. Morris was personally involved in every phase of the book production, taxing his now fragile body to the limit. He died, as Burne-Jones feared, four months after the first copy of this astonishing volume came-off the printing press.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, The Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896

Morris' death was a tragic loss, but this could not disguise a very real problem with his valedictory work. There was, in fact, a two-fold problem with the Kelmscott Chaucer
Due to its expense, its price excluded all but wealthy private collectors. Copies printed on paper cost £20, those on vellum £126.

By comparison, an English housemaid in 1894 earned between £12 to £20 per year; a gentleman's valet, £70. The average annual wage for all workers in England in the mid-1880's was £46, 12 shillings, less for those in Scotland and Ireland. By 1896, there was some modest improvement in wages and prices, but not enough for the British man-in-the-street to conceive of buying a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, even on the "installment plan."

This economic disparity limited the utility of Morris' masterpiece, making it a book for display rather than for actual reading. On both counts, the Kelmscott Chaucer represented a contradiction rather than the culmination of what Morris believed.

Morris did succeed, indirectly, because the success of Morris & Co. influenced the glorious Arts and Crafts Movement that spread throughout the world, including the United States, in the decades before World War I. The Arts and Crafts Movement provided opportunities for artistic expression and work for greater numbers of creative men and - especially - women than the PRB could ever have achieved.

Where Lizzie Siddall had tried and died, Mary Newell succeeded. It is one of the great treats of Victorian Radicals that this little-known artist based in Birmingham is given the credit that is her due.

Mary Jane Newill, Bedcover, ca. 1908

Mary Jane Newill (1860–1947) was truly a "Renaissance Woman," excelling in embroidery, book illustration, painting and stained glass design. Her role as a teacher at the  Birmingham School of Art for nearly thirty years, as well as maintaining her own professional studio, was an exemplary achievement. Newill insured that what she had been able to accomplish, others could do as well.

Newill's work with embroidery and book illustration was perhaps the best known of her oeuvre. Her amazing achievement in stained glass design is no less significant.

Mary Jane Newill, Sleepe after Toile, before 1905 (left-hand panel)

I am particularly impressed with the two Sleepe after Toile  panels which illustrated the Elizabethan literary epic, The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spensor. The scene of medieval ships anchored in the harbor of a great walled-city brings to mind William Butler Yeat's poem, Sailing to Byzantium, published in 1928, more than two decades after Newill created the design for Sleepe afterToile. There is no finer testament to great art or a great artist than this.

Newill's Sleepe after Toile is a masterpiece of narrative art. This is a common thread, uniting PRB paintings with Arts and Crafts artifacts. Victorian art was little given to abstraction, one reason that it was scorned or ignored for so much of the twentieth century. But the "Victorian Radicals" had their own tale to tell, their own lessons to teach. 

Once again, it is John Ruskin who best sums-up the still living fire of Britain's Victorian Radicals.

"Fine art," Ruskin proclaimed, "is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the  Yale Center for British Art, the American Federation of Arts and the Birmingham Museums Trust, U.K. book Cover illustration, courtesy of DelMonico Books-Prestel

Introductory Image:
John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl (detail), 1856. Full citation below.

William De Morgan (British, 1839-1917)  "Peacock" Vase, ca.1885. Earthenware, painted in underglaze colors over white slip: 13 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches (34.8 x 29.2 x 28.5 cm)  Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Presented by Bridget D'Oyly Carte, 1949M29, © Birmingham Museums Trust

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856. Oil on canvas: 31 3/4 inches x 21 inches (80.8 x 53.4 cm) Presented by the Rt.Hon.William Kendrick, 1892, courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust   

Arthur Hughes (1832-1915), The Annunciation, 1858. Oil on canvas: 24 1/8 x 14 1/8 inches (61.3 x 35.9 cm) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Purchased, 1892P1 © Birmingham Museums Trust   

Unknown Artist, Day dress, ca. 1865. Woven silk, machine- and hand-stitched: 56 7/8 inches (144.5 cm) length. On loan from private collection, courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British,1828–1882) Love’s Mirror, or a Parable of Love, 1850–52. Pen and ink over graphite with ink wash on paper: 7 x 7 3/4 inches (17.5 x 19.5 cm)   Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Presented by subscribers, 1903-1904, P 491 © Birmingham Museums Trust   

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British,1828–1882) Beata Beatrix, begun 1877 and finished by Ford Maddox Brown, 1882. Oil on canvas: 34 1/8 x 26 7/8 inches (86.8 x 68.3 cm) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Purchased, 1891P25 © Birmingham Museums Trust  

William Holman Hunt (British, 1827-1910) Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti1882–83. Oil on mahogany 11 7/8 x 9 in (30.2 x 22.9 cm) Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery Purchased with assistance of funding from the bequest of HT Wiggins-Davies 1961P33 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Frederick Sandys, (British, 1829-1904) Morgan le Fay, 1864. Oil on composite wood: 24  x 3/4 x 17 1/2 inches (63 x 44 cm)  (Presented by the Trustees of the Feeney Charitable Trust, 1925, courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust

Designed by Edward Burne Jones, glass painted by Thomas G. Bowman, made by Morris & Co., Saint Mark, 1883 (designed 1873). Stained, painted, and colored glass with lead, iron tie bars, and copper ties (in wood frame). Bequeathed by J. R. Holliday. Courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust

Designed by William Morris, printed and sold by Morris & Co., “Strawberry Thief,” design registered 1888. Indigo-discharge block-printed cotton. Presented by Miss K. E. Harris, 1973. Courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust 

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, with coworkers at the Kelmscott Press (London), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted (the so-called “Kelmscott Chaucer”), 1896, bound book with 87 woodcut illustrations on handmade Perch paper, Presented by Colonel Harold Wilkinson, 1934. Courtesy American Federation of Arts, © Birmingham Museums Trust

Mary Jane Newill ( British,1860–1947) Bedcover, ca. 1908. Linen embroidered with colored wools: 90 1/2 x 92 1/2 inches (230 x 235 cm) Purchased with the assistance of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, 1982M35. © Birmingham Museums Trust

Mary Jane Newill, Sleepe after Toile, before 1905. Stained, painted, and leaded glass: 2 panels, each 12 1/8 x 24 3/8 inches (31.5 x 62 cm) Purchased with Art fund support and the assistance of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of Birmingham Museums Trust, 2001M161-2 © Birmingham Museums Trust