Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Earthly Delights by Jonathan Jones and Raphael by Paul Joannides

  Earthly Delights, a History of the Renaissance 

by Jonathan Jones
Thames & Hudson/336 pages/$39.95


by Paul Joannides
Thames & Hudson/320 pages/$23.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The alchemy of genius during the Renaissance inspired the minds and guided the hands of Europe's painters and sculptors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In a few short decades, artists ceased being regarded as mere craftsman or servants. Instead of wearing the livery of an arrogant duke or worldly bishop, they were clad in the aura of the "artist as hero.",

People are fascinated by flawed and troubled protagonists. The more faults and doubts, the more suffering, the more smoldering sexual desires, it seems the more public interest is generated by their lives and struggles. 

The Renaissance, as interpreted by Jonathan Jones in his just-published book, Earthly Delights, serves a heaping helping of all-of the-above. 

Jones, the art critic for the Guardian newspaper in Britain, explored the themes of private passion and creative vision in earlier books about the Renaissance in Italy. Now, with Earthly Delights, he travels to Bruges in Flanders, to Nuremberg in Germany and to Holland to examine the artistic and personal travails of Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Jones frequently shifts his attention, returning to their compatriots in Italy, making Earthly Delights a gripping, page-turning excursion, continent-wide in its scope.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500

North and south of the Alps, Earthly Delights focuses on the private lives and personal viewpoints of these Renaissance men - and women. Jones reveals how the embrace of the "new" - in life styles, sexuality, and free-thinking opinions - informed the sensational artistic achievements of titans like Dürer and Michelangelo, as well-as eccentric, lesser-known figures such as Piero di Cosimo.

Piero di Cosimo, Return from the Hunt, c. 1494-1500

From these introductory remarks, it might appear that the primary concern of Earthly Delights is to reinterpret the Renaissance to heighten its relevance to gender concerns of the twenty-first century. That would be a natural assumption but a misleading one. Earthly Delights is a book that is both judicious and challenging in its verdicts on the still-controversial people and events of the 1400's-1500's. 

The Renaissance, as related by Jones, was a epoch-changing reconfiguration of European culture. Jones is not alone in his estimate of the importance of the Renaissance, though some scholars maintain that the artistic and scientific developments of these centuries were little more than "late medieval" additions. Jones in Earthly Delights, like the outstanding 2019 book, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissancecontends otherwise:

The 15th century was when modern history began. Renaissance perspective, with its new clarity about space and objects, played its part in that European "discovery" of the world. But before you turn away from it on that score, consider that, while some conquistadors undoubtedly cast only dead, gold-addled eyes on new lands, the drive of Renaissance culture, fueled by news from new worlds, was investigative, curious and attracted to what was different.

"Embracing the new" during the 1400's initially involved utilizing innovations in technology and technique such as the printing press and oil-based pigments. The authorized Christian content of religion and culture was little affected. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, was printed with movable type and marketed in 1455, but made to look like a deluxe hand-copied text of sacred scripture.

As news spread of the voyage of Columbus to the "Indies", another revolutionary event occurred. In 1495. Aldus Manutius established the first modern publishing firm, the Aldine Press in Venice. Manutius dispensed with large format editions like the Gutenberg Bible. Instead, he printed small, octavo books, less expensive, easy to read and offering a great variety of titles. The resulting availability of pre-Christian authors placed a host of provocative ideas into circulation, thus challenging the once-ironclad censorship of the Christian Church. 

European scholars began questioning long-accepted wisdom. However, these "humanists", with their Aldine Press books in hand, were not the first to focus on their studies with a Renaissance perspective. Well before the first Gutenberg Bible was printed, visual artists had begun to create unsettling visions of heaven and earth and - and hell.  

Hieronymus Bosch, The Haywain, 1512-15

Jones is an astute historian, experienced in ferreting-out little-noticed details that can turn an old story or an often-seen artwork into a startling revelation. He begins with Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, dating to 1434.

Giovanni di Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruges, is believed to be the subject of van Eyck's oil painting. This iconic work has been interpreted in many ways - a celebration of Christian marriage, a "show-off" display of mercantile wealth, a brilliant investigation of light and optics. One of the signature works in the collection of the National Gallery in London, the Arnolfini Portrait continues to pose some weighty questions.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Arnolfini is a strange, ascetic looking man and the position of his right hand is distinctly odd. He is holding his hand as if giving a religious benediction. 

For a painter like van Eyck, such a gesture should have been reserved for a Christian clergyman or a heavenly being, a saint or an angel. The depiction of God blessing Adam and Eve in Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (the introductory image of this review) is a good example of its customary use. 

Yet, here is Giovanni di Arnolfini, a lay person and a merchant, to boot, bestowing a blessing as if he were the Pope. Dürer, in his Christlike self-portrait, painted in 1500 (above), appears to be following van Eyck's lead and Arnolfini's example.

Jones speculates that Arnolfini was a member of the heretical religious sect, the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Rejecting the need for an established church to guide souls to salvation, some of the Brethren also believed in "free" love, or, as Jones states, fornication "without guilt because they were perfectly at one with God."

To include Arnolfini in the ranks of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, based on a hand gesture, may seem to stretch the evidence a bit thin. Jones has more to prove his case.

Along with this Portrait, van Eyck is reputed to have painted Arnolfini's young wife in the same setting, this time without the layer-upon-layer of woolen robes and shifts and petticoats underneath. This portrait would thus be the first nude in European art history since antiquity and confirmation that Arnolfini and his wife belonged to the Brethren or at least engaged in some of their forbidden practices.

Willem van Haecht, The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628

The nude portrait by van Eyck no longer exists - or has not been seen in centuries. But Jones offers substantial proof of its existence, analyzing two, crudely rendered, copies, one with occult details. He also identifies the actual work on the wall of a later painting of an art gallery in Antwerp, 1628. Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck are shown among the host of artists and savants admiring the vast array of art works, including the Arnolfini Nude

If Jones is correct, then one of the key paintings of the Renaissance undermines many of our assumptions about art history. The "shock of the new" took place a lot earlier than Matisse and the Salon d'Automne!

Quite a number of Renaissance masterpieces challenge traditional interpretations. During the process of re-examination, evidence of the religious doubts and anxieties of their creators is often revealed. Botticelli's Mystic Nativity is a case in point.

Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, 1500

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity is one of the strangest, unnerving depictions of the birth of Jesus ever created. It is almost entirely lacking in unified composition. Three zones of activity are shown, with protagonists engaged in seemingly unrelated dramas.

At the top, a hovering choir of angels is drawn upward and away from the central action where a mournful Virgin Mary prays over the infant Jesus. Her husband, Joseph, a doddering old man, sleeps through the miraculous event. Down at the bottom, three pairs of angels and human beings grasp each other, as small devilish imps scamper around their feet.

Detail of Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, showing an inscription in Greek referencing the painting's date, 1500, to St. John's Revelations

On its own terms, this painting is almost incoherent. But Botticelli provided an explanatory banner which Jones lucidly explains. Mystic Nativity, Botticelli states was painted "at the end of the year 1500... in the half-time after the time, according to eleventh of St. John, in the the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the Devil for three and a half years."

As Botticelli applied the last touch of oil paint to the canvas of Mystic Nativity, he was convinced of imminent catastrophe. He was not alone. For much of the period we call the Renaissance, the people of Europe lived in dread and expectation of the End Time.

This belief in a coming Apocalypse was not based on misplaced religious hysteria. The World had nearly ended a century before. The Great Plague, the Black Death, killed a third of Europe's population in the 1340's. Nor was the Plague a nightmare from the past. Over 30,000 people died during an outbreak in Florence, 1527-1531.

Anxiety was not limited to concerns about return of the Plague. The embrace of sexual freedom among the Brethren of the Free Spirit in Flanders and the Rhineland was matched by corresponding attitudes toward homosexuality in Italy, especially in Florence.

Homoerotic ideals certainly influenced the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Jones describes with moving conviction Leonardo's attempts to "use even more subtlety to create a face of transcendental beauty that isn't male or female but something new."

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevera de' Benci, c. 1474-76

Jones is here describing Leonardo's depiction of the angel Uriel in The Virgin of the Rocks. We could, likewise, ascribe the same descriptors to the haunting, ethereal features of Ginevera de' Benci.

But when Leonardo later devoted the same gender ambiguity to St. John in The Last Supper, he was treading on dangerous ground. Jones writes:

Leonardo is at once highly orthodox here and completely subversive. He directly refers to the account in the Gospel - John sits at Christ's right hand because he is the disciple 'whom Jesus loved' - yet the way in which John is depicted rejects any pusillanimously 'spiritual' interpretation of the nature of that love. John is an androgynous, beautiful youth. He conforms to Leonardo's personal homoerotic inconography. He is the lover of Jesus.

Leonardo was always careful to stay in the good graces of powerful patrons, including Pope Julius II, keeping his speculative, heterodox writings unpublished. 

Leonardo succumbed to a stroke in 1519, aged 67. The next year, another, much younger, artist died: Raphael.

If Earthly Delights has one weakness, it is the relative lack of attention which Jones devotes to Raphael. This superb, thoughtful book has a lot of ground to cover and a very full cast of protagonists clamoring for attention. Yet, Raphael is, in many ways, the definitive artist of the Renaissance by virtue of the quantity and quality of his oeuvre.

Fortunately, Thames and Hudson has recently published a biography of Raphael in its prestigious World of Art series. Written by the noted historian and curator, Paul Joannides, it sets a very high standard of scholarship and should be read in conjunction with Earthly Delights.

Raphael was born in the courtly city of Urbino in 1483. He was thus not a member of the circle of artists from Tuscany - Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo - so favored by the artist/writer Giorgio Vasari, himself a Tuscan. 

According to Vasari, Raphael died from a fever brought on by "excessive" sexual indulgence. Joannides discounts this "picturesque" story and attributes Raphael's demise to overwork. Sheer exhaustion from too many demands on his time and talent claimed the life of this hugely gifted artist, especially after he took over the burdens of chief architect of the new basilica of St. Peter in Rome. 

Joannides is able to ground his study of Raphael by detailed examination of the developmental stages of major works like the fresco cycles of the Stanza della Segnatura, including the fabled School of Athens, and the design of the Sistine Tapestries. 

Raphael was a Renaissance "artist as hero." Yet even the greatest of human beings is still very human after all. We often forget or discount the limitations imposed on "immortal" artists by their fragile bodies or overwrought emotions.

And when that happens, we risk losing the secret to success of these "prodigious" Renaissance artists, as Jonathan Jones so astutely judges:

Keeping an open mind is, on their evidence, the best recipe for creative excellence.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images and cover art of Earthly Delights (2023) and Raphael (2022), courtesy of Thames and Hudson

Introductory Image: Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1490-1500.  

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), Self-Portrait, 1500. Oil on panel: 67.1 x 48.9 cm (26 1/2 x 19 3/8 in.) Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Piero di Cosimo (Italian, 1462-1522) Return from the Hunt, c. 1494-1500. Oil on oak panel: 82.2 x 60 cm (32.4 x 23.6 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch, c. 1450-1516), The Haywain, 1512-15. Oil on panel: 147.1 x 224.3 cm (58 x 88 3/8 in.) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Jan van Eyck (Flemish, 1390-1441) Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on oak panel: 82.2 x 60 cm (32 3.8 x 23. 5/8 in.) National Gallery, London

Willem van Haecht (Dutch, 1593-1637) The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628. Oil on canvas: 99 x 129.5 cm (39 x 51 in.) Rubenshuis, Antwerp, Belgium

Sandro Botticelli (Italian, c. 1445-1510) Mystic Nativity, 1500.  Oil on canvas: 108.6. x 74.9 cm (42 7/8 x 29 1/2 in.) National Gallery, London

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, c. 1452-1519) Ginevera de' Benci, c. 1474-76Oil on panel: 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Art Eyewitness Essay: Illuminating Birds, Imagining Nature


Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing

The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel, Philadelphia
May to October 2023

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

Original photography by Anne Lloyd

Autumn is the time for harvest – of flowers and fruit, crops of ripened wheat – and ideas. The year is coming into its final flourish. The time to gather in the thoughts and insights which have arisen from the hard work and ingenuity of countless people is now.

In the case of Art Eyewitness, this means acknowledging the museum curators whose efforts I commented upon in our 10th anniversary essay. In fact, the bounty of wonderful exhibitions is so great that we cannot always schedule a visit in timely fashion to all the special exhibitions we would like to see.

Occasionally Nature – notice the capital N – gives me a nudge, a pointed reminder not to let slip an opportunity to review of an important exhibition. Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing, at the Academy of the Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, is one such exhibit which had to be acknowledged - and applauded.

Illuminating Birds, now in its final days, is devoted to the artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who pioneered the realistic study of avian species around the world. Drawing from the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences, which was founded in 1812, the curators of the Academy spotlighted the achievements of leading artists from John James Audubon to Roger Tory Peterson. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Gallery view of the Illuminating Birds exhibition, showing a 
first edition copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
A detail of John James Audubon's Birds of America,
showing Audubon's depiction of the Black Throated Diver

The exhibition announcements sounded fantastic, but with so many art shows to review, the summer months slipped by - and no chance for a review. With the deluge of autumn/winter exhibits looming and a very full fall book list in the works, Illuminating Birds seemed destined to elude the grasp of Art Eyewitness.

Not far from where we live in Philadelphia is a small garden cared for by a devoted community activist. Anne and I refer to this idyllic spot as the "Iris Garden" because  these beautiful perennials are a special highlight of the year.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021)
Iris blossoms, Philadelphia, spring 2021

Spring is gone and the iris petals are long since withered. Recently, Anne and I decided to check the garden to investigate the status of its mums, another highlight. We were too early for the mums but to our astonishment we caught sight of a hummingbird.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Hummingbird, Philadelphia, Summer 2023

Hummingbirds are drawn to purple flowers, Delphinium, Penstemon (Beardstongue) and Trumpet Flower. I'm not a flower expert but I think the hummingbird we chanced upon was savoring Salvia, a variety of sage.

It was a magical moment, an all too rare encounter of twenty-first century city folk and a winged-denizen of the natural world. Fortunately, both Anne and I had cameras and between the two of us we were able to record the movements of the hummingbird. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Hummingbird in Flight

Normally a hummingbird flutters its wings at 75-80 beats per second (faster during mating season). Remarkably a couple of our photos came close to capturing this incredible feat of aerodynamics.

When we returned home, my thoughts turned to the exhibition at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The subtitle was especially intriguing: Drawing as a Way of Knowing. If my imagination was sparked by a couple of photos of a hummingbird in a neighborhood garden, how much more inspiring and thought-provoking would an intense session of sketching birds in a more remote setting be!

The subtitle was indeed key to grasping the theme of the exhibition: the way drawing informs our knowledge of nature - and hopefully increases our empathy for our fellow creatures.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
An example of the avian art of Ned Smith (1919-1985),
 a noted artist and writer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission 

The animal world has indeed been a major focus of human artists as far back as the Chauvet caves and no doubt much longer. Incredible degrees of authenticity were imparted to the depiction of birds and animals in prehistoric times. With the rise of civilization and urban communities, however, people became increasingly divorced from nature.

For those interested in nature, the "expert" testimony of others, natural philosophers as they were called during the European Enlightenment, was crucial to their understanding. One of the key works in the Academy's exhibition is a kind of notebook called a "common place" book. It was compiled by an Englishman named Joshua Spencer and dates to the early eighteenth century. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Joshua Spencer's Commonplace Book, ca. 1729

Spencer was what we would call today an "armchair naturalist" jotting down notes from his reading of the leading scholars of his day such as Sir Isaac Newton and John Ray. He also drew highly detailed, if imaginative, depictions of animals from accounts by European explorers and travelers.

I suspect that the Egyptian Leaper which Spencer drew, "faced like a ferret, body moving like a cat", was based on an early report of a lemur. It's the kind of naive, if enthusiastic, scholarship that makes the manuscripts and documents related to "natural philosophy" such compelling witnesses to the past.

Spencer's commonplace book sets the stage for the first-hand exactitude of nineteenth century nature artists like Audubon. Their fieldwork, often accomplished under difficult and dangerous conditions, is a theme of the Illuminating Birds exhibition. Our knowledge of nature, especially of avian life, is based on the dedication of these intrepid artists.

There is a dark side, however, to art and science during the early nineteenth century. In the days before high-speed camera lenses, artists in the wild needed to supplement their sketchbook with a  different "point-and-shoot" instrument, the black-powder rifle or shotgun.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Preserved bodies or "birdskins" of 
the Red-winged Parrot (left) and the Scarlet Macaw

In order to study the "birds of America", Audubon needed to shoot them. He was a noted marksman and he killed thousands of birds to compile the stock of specimens required for his detailed examination. So did other artists during the early days of scientific study of avian life.

The preserved specimens of birds displayed in the Academy of Natural Sciences exhibition make for unpleasant viewing. 

The tragic fate of magnificent creatures like the Scarlet Macaw (above) signifies more than just the unfortunate price of "clinical" science. The close observation of nature produced abundant evidence of "red in tooth and claw" behavior. This was very unsettling to sensitive souls who wished to preserve the comforting illusion of God's creation as a refuge from the heartless, human world of the Industrial Revolution.

A new creed, Social Darwinism, harnessed to rigorous, fact-based, scientific method, replaced the engaging pictures of gentleman amateurs like Joshua Spencer and romantic ideas about nature. 

The results of Victorian-era bird watching (and shooting) were methodically recorded and specimens of exotic birds carefully mounted for the edification of the public. According to its website, the Academy of Natural Sciences has 205,000 avian study skins (preserved bodies of birds) and 17,000 tissue samples in its Ornithology Collection. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Gallery view of Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing 

The nineteenth century attitude to the natural world, especially avian life, led to a vast extension of knowledge but also to the ruthless slaughter of birds. Some species were hunted to extinction like the Carolina Parrot or Parakeet, the only native parrot species living in the eastern U.S, and the subject for one of the most brilliant illustrations in Audubon's Birds of America .

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Preserved body of the Great Indian Hornbill

Despite the sobering tone of this essay, Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing is ultimately very encouraging in showing how the interaction of human beings with the natural world can evolve in more positive ways. 

Drawing remains central to the process of knowing and nurturing, as the life of Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) testifies. The son of a brilliant engineer and astronomer from Puerto Rico who came to the U.S. to teach at Cornell University, Fuertes was fascinated by birds from childhood. Over the course of his life, Fuertes set new standards of excellence in depicting birds and mammals in the wild, without adding, unduly, to the carnage of earlier eras.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)

Initially, the young Fuertes used a sling shot instead of a rifle to create his own collection of "study skins". But, in teaching himself to draw, Fuertes developed amazing skills in direct observation and detailed recollection of what he saw.  By his early teen years, Fuertes was painting superb avian portraits and at the age of seventeen, he was inducted as an Associate Member of the American Ornithologists Union. It was but the beginning of a storied career as the greatest American nature artist except for Audubon.

Fuertes took part in a number of high-profile scientific expeditions to Alaska, Central and South America and finally to Ethiopia. The Illuminating Birds exhibition displays several of his portraits of rare bird species from these, still remote, regions of the world when he ventured there.

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2023)
Bird paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes:
the Common Potoo (top) and the Emerald Toucanet

Having survived the rigors of the expedition to Ethiopia in 1927, Fuertes met with his friend, Frank Chapman, curator of the American Natural History Museum. On the drive home, Fuertes came to a railroad crossing not far from where he lived. Local farmers had stacked bales of hay along the tracks, obscuring his vision. Fuertes' car was struck by a train as he tried to cross and he was killed.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
The paintbox of Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Fuertes' death came when he was at the height of his powers as an artist and a naturalist. It was a tragic loss, yet by the time of his death, Fuertes had raised the standard of avian art in the U.S. to heights of accuracy and sensitivity that still command respect today.

In 2002, a colorful parrot, native to the South American nation of Colombia, was rediscovered. It had not been seen in ninety-two years and was presumed to be extinct. The bird, still on the endangered list, was named Hapalopsittaca fuertesi or Fuertes parrot.

City boy that I am, I doubt if I will ever see a Fuertes parrot flying about in my neighborhood - or anywhere else. But thanks to the work of great nature artists like Louis Agassiz Fuertes and this insightful exhibition at the the Academy of Natural Sciences, I am not going to lose sight of the importance of "drawing as a way of knowing."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd.

The introductory image to the essay shows a Purple Glossy Starling from the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.  

The photo of Louis Agassiz Fuertes comes from the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.