It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gombrich: The Pre- Raphaelite Ideal

Gombrich: - The Pre- Raphaelite Ideal

This is Chapter three of E.H. Gombrich's "Preference for the Primitive"

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

Raphael: "The Entombment", 1507

Raphael: "Disputation of the Holy Sacrament", 1509-10

Raphael, "Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple", 1511-12

Raphael: "Transfiguration", 1516-1520

When it [painting] first began to revive after the terrible devastations of superstition, and barbarity, it was with a stiff lame manner, which mended by little, and little till the time of Masaccio, who rose into a better taste, and began what was reserved for Rafaelle to complete. However this bad style had something manly, and vigorous; whereas in the decay, whether after the happy age of Rafaelle, or that of Annibale one sees an effeminate, languid air, or if it has not that it has the vigour of a bully, rather than of a brave man: the old bad painting has more faults than the modern, but this falls into the insipid.
---- Jonathan Richardson (1667-1745)

There were, no doubt, many collectors and eccentrics with antiquarian interests who gladly would have swapped the most interesting piece in their collection for a work of Raphael, who was still considered the prince of painters.

But which Raphael?

This crucial question arose among the foreign artists who foregathered in Rome to absorb the standards of perfection embodied in the works of the great masters, that very perfection that had always been seen to be uneasily poised between strenuous effort and culpable decadence. The question of where the line ought to be drawn between the ascending and the descending curve of art became a matter of acrimonious debate, particularly in relation to Raphael. Once more it may have been Vasari himself who had prepared the way, by distinguishing three manners in Raphael’s development: his early works, when he was still a follower of the style of Perugino; his learning period in Florence, and his mature achievement that owed much to the example of Michelangelo. We hear that not all artists were willing to accept this reading of Raphael’s development. Some of the earlier works, notably the Entombment and the Disputà seemed to them more pure and more lovable than the works of his last years, such as the Heliodorus and the Transfiguration.

The quote from Richardson belonged to the previous century, but I've pulled it into this chapter since it bears so strongly on Gombrich's discussion of Raphael.

Jonathan Richardson, self portrait

BTW - Richardson was  a formidable character -- a tradesman who became a leading portraitist of his time, a major collector of old master drawings, as well as the author of the first book of art theory in the English language.

So when he speaks of a "manly, vigorous" style, as opposed to an "effeminate, languid air", this is a distinction that we may believe he has lived by.

Regarding the late and earlier periods of Raphael, I would have to agree with Vasari that Michelangelo seems to be the difference. The  dynamic, expressive masses of the figures depicted in the  Sistine Chapel seem to inhabit Raphael's "Transfiguration".  The artist became less lyrical and more dramatic over the two decades of his career. But on the other hand, I would agree with those who found the earlier work more 'lovable'. His "Transfiguration" does not seem to be a good fit for his temperament and makes me wish that Michelangelo had painted it

Beauty, what a wondrously strange word. First invent new words for every single artistic feeling, for every single work of art. Every one of them glows in a different colour and for each of them there are different nerves in the structure of man. But you apply the artifice of reason to weave out of this word a strict system and you want to force all men to feel according to your rules and precepts ... We, the children of this century, have been granted the advantage of standing on the peak of a high mountain so that many countries are spread out to our eyes all around and our feet. So let us make use of this good fortune and let our eyes roam with a friendly gaze over all the ages and all the nations intent on sensing in all this variety of feelings and creations what is human in all of them. -- Wilhelm Wackenroder (1773-1798)

Most of Gombrich's text, so far, has been  related to ideas about art rather than specific examples, so I've been skipping past it.

But I can't ignore the Romantic young Herr Wackenroder whose attitude so much resembles my own. Gombrich calls it the first formulation of Malraux's "Musee imaginaire". (though we must note that Gombrich would probably  not consider this a positive contribution to the discipline of art history)

Preferring neither the 'primitive' nor the sophisticated, he scans "all ages and all nations".

Unfortunately, Gombrich also relates that "Wackenroder, to put it crudely, knew little about art and probably did no care for it all that passionately. What mattered to him  was to find an argument with which to comp;bat - and if possible, to rout - the rationalism of the Enlightenment"

Not only was Wilhelm not really a monk -- he wasn't really an art lover, either.   Ouch!

 Thomas Stothard, "Pilgrimage to Canterbury", 1806

William Blake, "Sir Jeffrey Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims", 1809

There is a letter by John Hoppner which well sums up this ideal of a neutral style of representation, allegedly free of all period character. The subject Stothard’s composition of the Canterbury Pilgrims, about which Hoppner writes in 1807: 

‘In respect of the execution of the various parts of this pleasing design it is not too much praise to say that it is wholly free from that vice which the painters term manner and it has its peculiarity, besides which I do not remember to have seen in any picture ancient or modern that it bears no mark of the period in which it was painted, but might very well pass for the work of some able artist of the time of Chaucer. This effect is not of any association of ideas connected with the costume, but appears in a primitive simplicity and a total absence of all affectation either of colour or penciling.

Nobody who looks at Stothard’s painting today is likely to endorse the verdict that it is entirely free of manner, and indeed of a period style. Thus Hoppner’s opinion only confirms the truth that the ideal of an art without artifice is a will—o’—the-wisp. If that were not the case, two artists as utterly different as Stothard and — as we shall see later — John Constable could not be connected with the same ideals. Nor could they be joined with yet another contemporary of even stricter views,William Blake.

It is somewhat ironic that it was precisely Stothard’s painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims that is associated in our minds with the accusation of plagiarism levelled against it by William Blake, who claimed — probably rightly — that be had thought of the subject before, and blamed the engraver with having commissioned Stothard to supply the invention. In exhibiting his rival scheme 

 Blake presented his own artistic creed: ‘Clearness and precision have been the chief objects in painting these pictures ... The Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colours. Mr. Blake’s practice is unbroken lines, unbroken masses and unbroken colours. Their art is to lose form, his art is to find form and keep it’.

I'm a bit surprised at Blake's succinct assault upon the "Venetian and Flemish practice" that I far prefer to his own. Presumably his critique of "broken masses and broken colours" would also apply to Stothard's work which appears to be a thin, clumsy variation of Titian, Rubens, Tintoretto etc..

Gombrich presents the two as exemplars of "the increasing popularity of outline drawing" that reflects the "pious innocence and the absence of showmanship" of the new "Romantic ideal".

Domenichino, 'Saint Agnes", 1620

Domenichino, "Diana" (detail), 1616-17

Guido Reni, "Toilet of Venus", 1622

I only respond to early painting, it is this alone which I understand and can grasp, and this alone about which I can speak. I do not want to talk about the French School and all the later Italians, but even in the school of Carracci I very rarely find any painting which means something to me ... I must confess that Guido’s frigid Graces  have nothing very attractive for me, and that the flesh of Domenichino , with its rose and milk tints, cannot charm me at all. When we come from the French, Flemish or quite modern works, the style of these paintings appears to us to be grand and noble. But coming from the contemplation of early Italian and German paintings it is difficult to linger in front of them. I cannot judge these painters, unless you would call it a judgement that painting in their time had ceased to exist. Titian, Correggio, Giulio Romano, Andrea del Sarto etc., these are the last painters for me......Karl Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829)

Sebastiano del Piombo, "Martyrdom of St. Agatha", 1520

Schlegel does not explain why the Reni and Domenichino paintings are  not attractive to him, but since the above piece was singled out for his highest praise, I am mystified - unless it's just that he prefers a more seriously dramatic subject.

Here's what he prefers, in general:

No confused crowds of people, but rather a few isolated figures, but finished with that application that springs naturally from the feeling for the dignity and sacredness of the most exalted of our hieroglyphs, the human body. Severe, even spare forms in sharp outline in clear relief, no painting of chiaroscuro and dirt with gloom and cast shadows, but pure proportions and areas of colour with lucid chords, draperies and costumes which seem to belong to these people as simple and naive as they are in their heads where the light of divine artistic inspiration shines most brightly. I want to see ever where despite the necessary variety of expression and individuality of feature, everywhere and in all respects that childlike, kindhearted simplicity and confined personality that I am inclined to regard as the original character of man. That is the style of early painting, the style which, to confess my one-sidedness, pleases me alone, unless some great principle justifies an exception as in the case of Correggio and of Raphael.

As Gombrich points out,  Piombo's depiction of St. Agatha having her nipples torn off is hardly exemplary of "childlike, kindhearted simplicity" - but I can appreciate the difficulty, if not impossibility, of making generalizations about your own taste.  And it's good to let yourself be surprised and  contradicted -- because the world of art is very large --and one human mind is very small by comparison.

 Giovanni Bellini, San Giobbe altarpiece

Here's  another one of Schlegel's favorite painters.

And if I were standing behind these two tourists in the Gallerie dell' Academia this morning, I would probably get down on one knee and swear that I only like exactly this kind of painting, just as Schlegel has described it.

I feel like I'm in heaven!

But then when looking at this - 
or  any one of  thousands of other great paintings,
I would immediately forswear myself.

It's  important to note that in the above quotes,
Schlegel is not passing any kind of moral, historical,
or intellectual judgment.

He does  not speak like an art critic
of the 20th C.

He speaks as an art lover
telling us what he likes and what he doesn't.

Unfortunately, Gombrich does not share any more direct quotes,  he just tells us that Schlegel recommended that art students not follow the example of the later paintings by Raphael, like the "Transfiguration" (shown above) which was then temporarily hanging in the Louvre.

Thus the distinction which we find Schiegel making between the art lover, who can freely declare his preference, and the artist who has to acquire his craft from a master, is highly significant. For, after all, Schlegel was right. He was right at least as long as the imitation of nature was seen as a necessary skill. It goes without saying that, for societies in the eighteenth century, a painter was a person who could represent a human figure, a hand, a foot, with unerring accuracy, and / that if he were unable to do this, he would be considered a laughable bungler. This is the moment, in other words, to remember that the term ‘primitive’ is always relative to a skill. The time had not yet come when the scrawls of the untutored would be elevated into the realm of art under such designations as ‘art brut’. Hence the emotional attacks on the routine of the academies were bound to fail.

I find the above passage truly puzzling.

First because the art academies of the 18th C., like Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy for example, were not just teaching "unerring accuracy" in the representation of human figures. They were teaching a set of narrative and compositional preferences that might be called a style.

Second, because Gombrich has not shown us where  Schlegel ever used a word like "primitive".

It is Gombrich himself who is equating "old school" with "primitive" -- leading him to tell us about the "scrawls of the untutored"

Ingres, "Madame Riviere", 1806

Yet Gombrich  then relates this quote from 1806:

Here, in another manner no less hateful  for being Gothic, M. Ingres endeavors nothing less than to push art back by four centuries to return us to its infancy and resurrect the style of Jan van Eyck. -- Chaussard

Gombrich notes that Ingres was known to study Flaxman not Van Eyck.

But even if Flaxman was a hero to a group that called itself "primitif", I'm wondering whether anyone applied that term to Ingres.


Moretto da Brescia, "St Giustina", 1530

Franz Pforr, "Rudolf Von Habsburg and the Priest", 1809

"..less primitive than awkward. The Emperor, in strict profile,  seems to offer his mount with a limp gesture to the priest, who looks at him with an expressionless stare"

I'd say it's limp all over, and appropriate only to illustrate a grade school history text book. But as we learn below, it was made to exemplify the qualities found in the painting shown above it as well as 16th C. German masters.

In 1808, two young artists in far-away Vienna proclaimed their conversion to the same ideal by founding the Lukasbund, the Confraternity of Saint Luke, as a challenge to academic teaching. Their names were Franz Pforr and Friedrich Overbeck ---  they were often repelled by the paintings of Tintoretto,Veronese, and even Correggio and Titian. Too often these revealed to them ‘cold hearts behind bold brushstrokes and fine colours’......

On the other hand, they could hardly tear themselves away from Pordenone’s Santa Giustina (today attributed to Moretto da Brescia).....

 ...but most of all it was the Old Masters of the German school who made them see the errors of their former ways. If they once regarded them as stiff and rigid, they now had to admit that their judgement had been warped by an overdose of paintings with exaggerated and ridiculously affected poses.

 ‘Their noble simplicity and their firm characterization spoke out loudly to our hearts. Here there was no bravura of the brush, no bold handling, everything stood there simply as if it were not painted but drawn, We remained in that room for a long time and left it with admiration and respect. Returning to their colleagues who were copying, they were more than ever repelled by their use of bold brushes and brilliant colours: since brushstrokes are only necessary evils and means to an end we found it ridiculous to boast of them and to attach any value to the boldness with which they are applied. We also found that only a lack of respect for the purpose of art can lead to this kind of abuse, since it will divert the beholder’s attention from the subject of the picture and wants him to concentrate on the cleverness with which a great subject has been played about with’

All this may sound familiar enough. What makes Pforr’s words remarkable is that he had the courage of his convictions. In 1809 he painted two scenes from the life of Rudolf von Habsburg, in which he deliberately seeks to recapture the simplicity of the early German masters.

Franz Pforr  (1788-1812), self portrait, 1810

Here's a much more engaging piece by the artist. When he felt more free to express himself -- and wasn't challenged by the complexity of a multi-figure dramatic tableaux -  he did a pretty good job.

Franz Pforr, "Entry of Rudolf Von Habsburg into Basle in 1273", 1809

"...shows perhaps a little  more understanding of the virtues of German Renaissance art.  There is a certain awkward loquacity in this pageant which recalls the minor masters of the 16th Century, but of course, these masters did not live in the Middle Ages"

This one feels like the artist allowed himself to be decorative.
 Somewhere in between a good painting and a collectible ceramic plate.

Rather than an inability to paint sensually, perhaps he had followed an ideology that scorned it.

As Gombrich suggests,  16th C. painters also depicted scenes that feel Medieval to us,
and so did the designers of  tapestries.

The Unicorn Tapestry at the Met dates to 1495- 1505.
I was a bit surprised when I first realized that it was contemporary
with the youth of  Raphael (born 1482)

Peter von Cornelius, "Joseph Interprets Pharoah's  Dream",1816-7

Here's another German Romantic, one of the 'Nazarenes'.

The most effective, and I would say certain means to lay the foundations for the German art of a new and great age would be the revival of fresco painting as it was practiced from the time of the great Giotto, to that of the divine Raphael in Italy.  Since I have seen the works of those ages ... and compared them with those of our own ancestors, I have had to admit that ours were at least as exalted, true and pure, and perhaps even more profound in the original intention, but that that other ... developed more freely, more perfect and more grand in its own nature ... If my proposal were accepted, I think I could predict that it would become a flaming beacon on the mountain tops, raising the signal for a new noble rebellion in art. Schools would arise as in times of old, which would infuse their truly great art with effective power into the hearts of the nation and right into the people’s life to adorn it, till the walls of ancient cathedrals, silent chapels and lonely monasteries, of town halls, market halls, and even shops would be populated by figures from the old, familiar, national past, resuscitated to the full vigour of life, who could proclaim to the living in the language of fair colors, that the old faith, the old love and the old strength of their fathers had returned and that the Lord, our God, was thus reconciled with his people.... Peter von Cornelius

His painting feels so much like the stained glass windows in late 19th C. American churches. While his nationalistic religiosity seems to be marching straight into World War I.

Gombrich includes him in a discussion of the 'primitive' because he "rejects the development of the preceding 300 years" --  but were those Mannerist and Baroque paintings really any more sophisticated than the leading artists of the year 1500 ?

 Friedrich Overbeck, "Peter of Amiens Nominates Geoffrey of Boulon as the Leader of the Christian Army: Preparation for the Attack upon Jersusalem", 1825

Overbeck (1789-1869) was one of the sincere young German Christian artists who lived together in a secularized monastery in Rome and were fondly (or derisively?)  called the "Nazarenes" by their neighbors due to their unique dress and behavior.   They were commissioned as a group to decorate the Casino Massimo - a detail of which program is shown above.

Were they  the first  group of young artists to band together proclaiming some kind of ideal that ran counter to the established art practices of their day?

Albrecht Durer, "Adoration of the Magi", 1504

This seems to be the kind of painting that Overbeck was emulating - but without the visual sensuality that may have been a casualty of the Protestant Reformation.

By comparison, Durer feels so light and lyrical,
and much less didactic.

"Italy and Germany", 1811-1828

But freed from history or great ideas, this portrait has a whimsical charm.

This family scene compares nicely with this one done by a Viennese artist a hundred years later.

The placement of the child feels very stiff and uncomfortable -
but given the infant mortality rates from that era,
such anxiety is understandable.

Johann Heinrich Meyer, "Goethe", 1794

All those who are concerned with the visual arts must he familiar with the prevailing passion among many valiant artists and intelligent art lovers for the honest, naïve, if somewhat uneducated taste that reigned among the masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.This bias is bound to remain remarkable in the history of art since it must have important consequences; of what kind they will be, remains to be seen. Will it — as is the hope of those who favour the old, resurrected taste — will it make art flourish again? will its devout spirit rejuvenate and revive it? — or rather, as those opposed to it fear, by exchanging the style of beautiful forms for an attenuated, meagre manner, lucid and pleasing representations for abstruse and melancholy allegories, will not more and more of what is characteristic, robust and healthy be lost? ---Johann Heinrich Meyer, 1817

I stand corrected

Here's an artist/writer (and collaborator with Goethe) referring to the "naive, if somewhat uneducated taste that reigned among the masters of the 14th and 15th centuries." --- which seems synonymous with the word 'primitive'

But just what did he think were  the signs of an "educated taste" ?

 Franz and Joseph Riepenhausen, illustrations from "Genoveva", 1806

Gombrich tells us that Meyer spoke well of these Riepenhausen illustrations, but I'm not finding the "light and shade and pictorial effects" that apparently he preferred..

Apparently the Riepenhausen brothers greatly admired Raphael. Above is their depiction of the artist being received by Pope Julius II.

Here is Raphael's depiction of Julius II  -- and there's quite a difference between the painting done in 1511 and the homage done in 1836..

Raphael has given his subject anxiety  with an other-worldly tension -- while the Riepenhausen brothers have made a prim and proper story board, more fit, perhaps, for the rational ideals of the Enlightenment.

Bertel Thorvaldsen, "Hope", 1817

An impartial visitor to Rome in these years up to 1820 would have found an international community of artists, whok for all their different ideals, still strove after the same aim,  the aim for an art without artifice - what might be called a 'virtuous' style, free of sensuality and meretricis effect.....Thorvaldsen fell sufficiently  under that spell to create a monument in the style of the early fifth century entitled 'Hope'.  This piece goes about as far in the direction of the primitive as Overbeck etc in their most Nazarene  mood

Thovaldsen returned to the ampler forms of classicism in his series of Christ and His Apostles made for a church in Copenhagen, and yet even these Christian images reflect to the full the ideals and aspirations of the Roman colony of artists.

(an interesting discussion of this series can be found here )

Pedimental sculpture from the temple of Aphaia at Aegina,  c. 470 BC 

These must have been  the pieces that Thorvaldsen was restoring in 1816-1818

Surprisingly, it's hard to find good photos of them on the internet.  They must be poorly lit in the Glyptothek, Munich.

Here's one reconstruction  (that also happens to be better lit) - but I don't know who did it.

Thorvadsen's additions were removed in the 1960's.

This was the only female figure I could find, and it's quite different  from Thorvaldsen's "Hope"

The Aeginan pieces feel more vigorous - while Thorvaldsen's "Hope" feels as cool and delicious as lemon flavored Italian ice.

Houdon, "Diana", 1777

Thorvaldsen seems closer to Houdon, whose 'Diana' was done about 40 years earlier.
(but it's so hard to compare statues through photographs of them)

Antonio Canova, "Hebe", 1796

Canova has that same delicious coolness - but seems more interested in making the marble feel soft and fleshy.

Thorvaldsen, "Venus", 1805

Thorvaldsen also seemed more interested in soft flesh in this earlier version of a female figure.

And this pose is more relaxed -- settling inwards rather than pushing outwards -- and not as stiff as "Hope"

Thorvaldsen, "Apollo", 1805



By way of digression ,  it's really in the young male nude that Thorvaldsen is in his glory.
These pieces feel quite distant from the Aeginean warriors

( it doesn't hurt that some of  them have been so well photographed)

Ary Scheffer

What I have called the 'virtuous' style, the style shunning artifice and sensuality, also demanded an avoidance of nudity, of violent movement or the extremes of dramatic expression  Figures characterized by the noble fall of drapery, and strangely enough, by the well groomed appearance of the head, with the long hair parted and falling over the shoulders...... unlike the saints and gurus of history, they were envisaged as having been careful of their appearance, always brushing their hair and trimming their beards.

This is the kind of Christian art most likely found in American churches - a consequence, probably, of a certain attitude towards religion rather than art.

Rembrandt, Hundred Guilder Print (detail)

Presumably this is the kind of scruffy appearance that Gombrich had in mind.

Caravaggio, "Supper at Emmaus", detail

But it's  not difficult to find Baroque examples of a well-groomed Christ as well.

Ary Scheffer
Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo

And one might note that Scheffer could be more sensual with secular subject matter

In any case, we are entitled to remark that the search for an art without artifice that had sparked off the revolt against academic teaching has ended in a manner more stereotyped and more artificial than any it wished to replace

Except that pieces which feel "stereotyped and artificial" comprise the bulk of production in any style in any age, from the millennia of ancient Egyptian sculpture up through the last century of Dada.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Pre-Raphaelism has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising proof  in all it does, obtained by working everything down to the most minute detail, from nature and from nature only....John Ruskin, 1853

Carlo Lasinio  (1812) from Benozzo Gozzoli (1473) 

We are told that the artists were inspired to adopt their name - at first kept secret - when looking at Lasinio's prints of Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes in the Campo Santo, Pisa.

Here is one of the original frescoes

... and here's details of other work by Gozzoli (in better repair)

William Holman Hunt, "The Hireling Shephard", 1851

Ford Madox Brown, "The Last of England", 1855 doubt his (Gozzoli's) attention to detail and is realism exerted a strong appeal, but it need hardly be said that Gozzoli would have been nonplussed  to see The Hireling Shepherd or  The Last of England.  Unlike some of Overbeck's compositions, these paintings are in no way reminiscent  of fifteenth Century art.  Nor do they express any preference for the primitive as yet.

Gombrich does not explain why Gozzoli would have been so "nonplussed".

Like Gozzoli, both Brown and Hunt offer a plethora of details that describe distinct objects that might satisfy the "proof" that Ruskin mentions above.

Though the paintings appear to be weighed down by all that stuff -- as opposed to lyrically rising above them as Gozzoli managed to do. (though less so in  Lasinio's engraving )

Instead,  they  have  melodramatic intensity.

Will the poor immigrants survive their desperate voyage ? Will the shepherdess succumb to the blandishments of her rustic Lothario ?

Gozzoli's painting is more like a decorative tapestry - Hunt and Brown are more like magazine illustrators.

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