Entering The Conversation That Is Art.

Understanding the visual language of artists.

Article on the Visual Language of Art

Georges Seurat, The Circus. 1891 Musee d’Orsay

Every discipline has it’s tools. Writer’s craft with words to stimulate the senses, rouse the emotions, and spark our ideas. Construction workers use tools to make an architect’s drawings a physical reality. Teachers use books, imagination, and dialog to inspire their students to learn.

When we want to know more about art, how to read it, understand it, and enjoy it…we need to know more about the tools that the artist uses. While artists educate themselves about color, line, shadow, and perspective to create their works, we, the viewers, educate ourselves about these same things so that we can engage with art works intelligently.

Art is a visual language, and to appreciate art fully we must learn its language. In this next series of blog posts I’ll explore the tools that artists use to help decode the visual language of art.

Article on how to understand the Visual Language of Art

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, around 1480, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Everyone has the potential to respond to and find enrichment in art, but often that potential is untapped. When we lack experience and knowledge at decoding the visual language of art we are quite literally, toddlers. Walking in a museum we look at a work, we decide if we like it and move on to the next…normally feeling out of our element and not understanding what all the fuss is about or what we were ‘supposed’ to see.

We are held back from enjoying art due to ignorance and our fear that we appear ignorant. Unless we grew up in a household of artists, this feeling of being ‘out of our depth’ in a museum is pretty much the norm. All of us start in that place, we don’t know the language. It’s like me sitting with the Russian side of my family and only getting snippets of the conversation.  The solution to this discomfort is simple enough, learn a bit more of the visual language of art, and exponentially our enjoyment of art will grow.

Love and knowledge go hand in hand. When we love we want to know more, as our knowledge base grows our love and appreciation for what we see will deepen. As we learn more of the language of art we begin to be able to enter the dialog and we learn even more, which deepens our dialog…and so it goes.

Art is a two way conversation between the artist and the viewer. Normally when we interact with art the artist isn’t standing next to the work guiding us through his part of the conversation. We must allow the work itself to speak. The key to all good conversation is the ability to listen, to really hear what is being said.

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Bruegel Resists, A Painting With Many Stories to Tell.

Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents

Article on Pieter Brugel's Massacre of the Innocents

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer. 1565. Believed to be a self portrait.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish Northern Renaissance painter  who lived from 1525 to 1569, dying when he was 44. Of his children, two sons also became famous painters.

Bruegel was known for his landscapes and genre paintings. In fact, he was a pioneer in genre painting, or painting the common people. He used to go about in peasant clothing so that he could get to know and observe how the common people lived..which is where his nickname, Peasant Bruegel, originated. He painted people with an unsentimental, straight forwardness that treated his subjects with both respect and humor. Often his paintings were a combination of landscapes, genre painting, and social commentary all rolled into one…today’s work would qualify as all of the above.

Bruegel lived in the Netherlands during the rule of Philip II of Spain. This made the Netherlands part of the Habsburg Empire which stretched onto every known continent. When Philip was crowned King of Spain he was also King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, and due to his wife, Queen Mary Tudor, King of England and Ireland. He was additionally the Duke of Milan, and most relevant to our story he was Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands.

Article on Pieter Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents

Hans Eworth, Portrait of Philip II of Spain and his wife Queen Mary Tudor.1558 Woburn Abbey

AND he was Catholic…very Catholic. Philip felt that he was the chief defender of the Catholic Church throughout Europe (small wonder as he ruled most of it). His Catholic religious fervor drove him to fight heresy where ever he found it, with whatever means he had at his command, including the infamous Spanish Inquisition. This meant he was at war with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, while also sending his invincible Spanish Armada against Queen Elizabeth in England, who had restored Protestantism to England after her sister, Mary’s (Philip’s wife) death.

At the same time Philip began to get reports from his half sister Margaret, that the Netherlands was in crisis. Philip had appointed Margaret as Regent in the Netherlands to rule on his behalf. The Protestant Reformation was taking hold throughout the Netherlands and Philip was being pressed to address the issue. A series of events led to a break in other conflicts and Philip decided to send 10,000 men under the Duke of Alva to address the problems in the Netherlands.

Article on Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocent.

Print of the Duke of Alva presiding over the Council of Trouble, 1616

Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alva was a distinguished war veteran and a trusted ally of Philip. In the Netherland’s he became known as the Iron Duke due to his heavy handed policies.  Although Margaret had called to Philip for aid in dealing with the Protestant problem, she found the Duke’s tactics so harsh she  resigned from her role as Regent in protest.

It’s hard for us to put ourselves into a world where church and state were one and the same, and reading the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity during this era is sobering. As the official religion was Catholicism, anyone who converted to Protestantism committed heresy and treason. The soldiers of the Duke treated everyone as if they were traitors. Rumors of plundering and violence spread from village to village. Soldiers were quartered in homes, and the support of the troops was a burden.

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Would a Prayer Nut Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolution?

The Hidden Carvings of Medieval Prayer Beads. (Prayer Nuts)

Article on Prayer Beads, aka Prayer Nuts

Prayer Bead, Boxwood 1500-1525, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan.

I’m fascinated by some of the ‘miniatures’ in art, like the incredible details in manuscripts, or the shading and realism of a woodcut. Another astounding and often overlooked example of an artist working in miniature is the prayer nut.

Article on Prayer Beads

Prayer Bead (Prayer Nut) 1525-1550, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Prayer nuts were all the rage in the 1500’s. Rosaries are a beaded loop meant to aid the devout in saying their prayers. In our culture we think of prayer beads in connection with Catholics and the Rosary. In reality many faiths use prayer beads.

A prayer nut is an additional larger bead that can be opened and contains carvings within to aid in personal devotions. Some prayer nuts are extremely intricate, containing 50 figures of more. Sizes range from the size of a walnut to that of a golf ball. Made from boxwood, the outside of the prayer nut is either covered in intricate geometric designs, or sometimes encased in fine metals.

Article on Prayer Beads

Prayer Bead (Prayer Nut) out of Boxwood. Gift by J. Pierpont Morgan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The small balls open up to reveal scenes from the life of Christ, most often scenes of the crucifixion and passion week. Many also contain scenes of the nativity narrative. There are the two half spheres that artists had to work in, and then often additional panels that were opened to reveal the second half of the sphere. These panels provided additional room for carvings.

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Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Shepherds

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Murillo.

Welcome to our 25th day of art on Nativity.

This work is by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a Spanish Baroque painter who spent his entire career in Seville, Spain. Known for his religious paintings, peasant children, and lively street scenes, Murillo’s works were very popular, both in his life time and after.

Churches were the largest patron of the arts during the 1600’s, and during the Counter Reformation the Catholic Church  invested heavily in art. There was a need for works that communicated the reforms the church was making and to reinforce key doctrinal points.

Murillo was a devout Catholic with deeply held religious convictions. He was also a man with great imagination who could inject compassion and realism into Biblical figures making them come alive. His paintings allowed people to insert themselves into the story and identify with the characters, drawing them into a deeper devotion and understanding.

Article on Murillo's Adoration of the Shepherd

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Adoration of the Shepherd, 1646-1650. Hermitage Museum, Russia.

Imagination is a powerful tool of both art and religion. In Murillo’s works we see a master combine the two to give us a powerful painting of the Incarnation. There are 7 figures in this painting, 5 of which are highlighted by light.

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Rembrandt’s Dream of Saint Joseph

The Dream of Saint Joseph by Rembrandt

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, the extraordinary Dutch Master, was both a painter and etcher. After a quick unsatisfactory trip to University at 14, he began an apprenticeship in art…the rest is, as they say, history. Early in his career he found success and always was able to work as an artist. He did end his life in poverty, but that was due to a lack of money management, not a lack of work.

Creating art over 46 years, it is not surprising that his style changed many times. The work we are looking at today was painted between 1650-1655, when he was in his 50’s. During this time Rembrandt’s style was marked by rich colors and pronounced brush strokes. Rembrandt began to distance himself, not just from his earlier work, but from his contemporaries.  Rembrandt’s unique style was based in his use of light, often used to bring out the emotional state of his subjects.  Additionally, there is little shine to the paint’s surface and the paint itself was applied in layers thick enough to add texture to the painting.

Article on Rembrandt, Dream of St. Joseph

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Dream of St. Joseph, 1650-1655, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

The imagery in this painting would have been familiar to Rembrandt’s audience. The nativity cycle (or stories that were painted around Christ birth) included several that take place after the birth of Christ. As recorded in the gospel of Matthew wise men arrived from the east, and they went to see King Herod. The stars had told them a great king had been born and they had come to worship him. This was not welcome news to Herod, who immediately began to plot the child’s death. But Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and flee to Egypt.

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Are an Ox, a Rooster, And a Peacock the Perfect Image of the Nativity?

Tintoretto's Adoration of the Shepherds

Welcome to day 23.

A man of many names Tintoretto started out as Jacopo Comin, or Jacopo Robusti but came to be known as Tintoretto which means ‘little dyer’ as his father was a dyer. Later the name Il Furioso would be added because he painted with such energy and speed.

The eldest of 21 children, he showed an artistic bent early. His family lived in Venice and so his father took him to Titian when he was 13 to see if he could be trained. The story goes that he only lasted 10 days in the Master’s workshop due to jealousy. When Titian found out that the drawings he was looking at were those of the young, untrained boy he sent him home saying he wasn’t trainable. True or not, Tintoretto admired Titian greatly and was influenced by his use of color and light, and Titian and those in his workshop had unflattering things to say about Tintoretto because he didn’t do what was expected.  This seems to be the recurring theme in art.

Some of the negative comments were due to Tintoretto’s fast, loose brushstrokes and emotional style that would become fashionable later, but in his time were considered lazy, as if he didn’t care enough to work slowly and carefully. His paintings have tremendous energy, as if the painter’s frantic speed while working transferred itself to the canvas.

This work was created for the Scoula di San Rocco. St. Roch was the patron saint of plague sufferers. As the plague regularly swept through Europe, he was a popular saint. The Scoula di San Rocco was a confraternity. That means it was a charitable organization that was run by laity as opposed to being run by monks, nuns, or other clergy in the church. Confraternities were recognized by the church and were able to accomplish a great deal. Consisting of a church and school this confraternity continued to grow in wealth because many came to give alms in the hopes of healing from the plague.

This work was also created during the Catholic Counter Reformation or the Catholic Revival. In response to corruptness within, and the ongoing Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church underwent it’s own revival. They reaffirmed doctrines they felt central to their faith, and instituted stricter rules about training and wealth among the clergy. The Council of Trent, over a 20 year period, continued the work of cleaning up, redefining and invigorating the church.

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Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence

Caravaggio's stolen Nativity

Caravaggio, The Nativity 1609.

Welcome to day 22.

Today’s painting is famous, not just because it is by a master, but because it is on the FBI’s 10 Top Art Crimes. This work was stolen, cut from it’s frame in 1969. The rumors and stories that have circulated since have never been substantiated. It seems clear that the Mafia was behind the theft, but it is unclear what has happened since. At various times, criminals have tried to negotiate lighter sentences claiming knowledge of the work, according to two of these stories, it was destroyed.  Whatever happened, the original painting has been lost, likely never to be recovered.  This somehow seems fitting because much of what we know about the artist is from police records.

Michelangelo da Merisi, has always been referred to as Caravaggio, the town he was from. Sharing a name with the ‘divine’ Michelangelo was probably frustrating.  Caravaggio was by all accounts an angry, temperamental man, who was frequently in bar brawls, arrested for carrying a sword without a license, and then for killing someone with said sword. Fleeing the police from one location to the next is an ongoing thread in his life. Not surprisingly, he died young ,at 37.

If we set aside his personal life, and examine his work, everyone agrees, he was one of the most influential artist of the 1600’s.  His innovative use of light, unflinching realism, and the emotion in his religious work is astounding. When we discussed El Greco and the Mannerists we talked about their pushing against the restraints of the Renaissance. Caravaggio pushed back on the Mannerists. He returned to painting things as they appear, but without the perfection and rigidity of Renaissance painters. When he painted Biblical figures he didn’t  clean them up and present them as serene and beautiful with halos. Many were shocked and felt that his paintings were disrespectful. Sometimes patrons, seeing the finished works refused them.

Article on Caravaggio

Caravaggio, The Nativity, 1609

The Nativity that Caravaggio painted just a year before he died is one that shocked. His Mary has just given birth, she is disheveled and tired looking, sitting on the ground. Her dress has drifted down one shoulder. This is not a Madonna who already looks as if she is on her way to being enthroned in heaven, but a young girl, tired and recovering from labor. Shocking the viewers of his day was not just the realism, but the theological message the painting conveyed. Many felt the Virgin had a miraculous birth with no pain and no breaking of her hymen. Not only was her conception miraculous, so was the birth. Caravaggio’s painting challenged that.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Census at Bethlehem

Bruegel's The Census at Bethlehem

Welcome to Day 21

I love this painting. I’ve been running short on time, and hope to come back to this soon to add some more photos and clean up the post a bit, but I’m on a deadline. There are just so many engaging pieces to this painting, that I’m going to have to skim over. You may have figured out I am partial to the Northern painters, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder is wonderful. He’s a Flemish Northern Renaissance painter, who, once he finished his training, set off to travel and learn. He went to Italy via France and traveled extensively. In 1555 he was back in Antwerp and settled in.

His return to Antwerp was during a period of unrest in both civil and religious arenas. The Netherlands was divided up into 17 areas, and was ruled by the Spanish. Phillip II was the ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty, and he was a devout Catholic. He was determined that the areas under his rule would remain Catholic and he employed brutal means to that end. Many in the Netherlands were sympathetic to the Protestant Reformation sweeping across Europe. Spain was at war with the Turks and needed money, so the people in the Netherlands were heavily taxed. Nearly 1/2 of the revenue Spain collected came from the Netherlands, their taxes being 4 times greater than the people of Spain. Tensions were running high.

This was the world of Pieter Bruegel. Bruegel was a landscape painter, social commentator, and innovator. He included groups of people going about their normal lives, playing games, getting a drink, bringing in the harvest, chopping wood. Many of his paintings focused on the lives of peasants. From this a new kind of painting developed, genre painting. Bruegel was a pioneer, and his works were original and influential. His portrayal of common people was earthy, unsentimental and varied. His paintings give us a glimpse into what day to day life was like in the 1500’s. The clothing, toys, tools in his paintings are an excellent aid to historians.

Many of his images have an edge to them, they are commentary on the injustices that he saw around him. He used satire in his art to make a point. He died in his early 40’s, and in his last illness had his wife burn some of what he had been working on. He believed it might have been too controversial and he didn’t want his family to suffer for his opinion and work.

So this is the context that The Census at Bethlehem was painted. A poor couple, the wife great with child, must travel a great distance because Caesar Augustus has decided he wanted a census, so that he could collect taxes. And, with the birth of this baby, a new religion was about to be born.  The civil and religious connections would have been obvious. As the Netherlands faced heavy taxes from a foreign king, and were persecuted, sometimes tortured, if they harbored Protestant sympathies they would identify with the Jewish couple, trying to live in a Roman occupied area.

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El Greco’s Annunciation

The Annunciation of El Greco

Welcome to day 20 and El Greco.

The burning bush seen by Moses
The prophet in the wilderness
The fire inside it was aflame
But never consumed or injured it.
The same with the Theotokos Mary
Carried the fire of Divinity
Nine months in her holy body.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or commonly called El Greco (The Greek) is a Spanish Mannerist Painter who was born in Greece, trained in Italy, and worked in Spain. All three areas of influence are present in his work. When someone is unfamiliar with El Greco they might mistake his works for that of a much more modern painter as he largely leaves behind the realism that is so much a part of the Renaissance and pursues an expressionist style. It’s been said his art was too strange for the time that he lived in, and in fact, after his death El Greco sank into obscurity. He was ‘rediscovered’ in the later 1800’s and inspired much of our modern art development. Picasso in particular was a fan and El Greco’s influence can be felt in many of his works.

El Greco was from the island of Crete, and his early training was in the Byzantine tradition. After becoming a master in icon painting he felt he had more to learn and moved to Italy. There, in Venice and Rome, he learned the many lessons of Renaissance painting. He particularly enjoyed Titian’s colors, and although he thought Michelangelo could sculpt and was a good architect he said he couldn’t paint. Despite the unpopularity of these thoughts, that he didn’t keep to himself, he continued to work and develop in Italy. 

While El Greco was absorbing the art of Italy, a new style was developing. The Renaissance had emphasized rational thought, scientific observation of nature, and exact representation of what is seen.  Eventually, as an artist he felt restrained, and that the current trends in art had gone as far as they could go, there were no challenges left to solve. Younger artists began to explore other means of expressing familiar themes. Mannerism developed.  Mannerism was short lived, only a few decades, but it transitioned art into its next era.

Michelangelo was the forerunner of Mannerism. His work in the Sistine Chapel had spurred some changes in the younger artist working in Rome. They began to play with perspective, they flattened out spaces, they elongated figures, chose unlikely and vibrant colors, and twisted figures into unnatural poses. In particular the sibyls in the Sistine Ceiling gave life to the new movement. Young artists, seeking inspiration, would even break into Michelangelo’s home to steal drawings.

Mannerism embraced the artificial, as opposed to the natural. They exaggerated lines and colors to heighten emotional or narrative parts of the stories their paintings told.  El Greco took these elements of Mannerism with him when he moved to Spain, and there melded them with the Spanish religious mysticism that was a result of the counter-reformation. The counter-reformation was a movement by the Catholic church to address some of the issues raised by the reformation, and to emphasize the distinctives of the Catholic Faith. Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox church embraced mystical visions and the miraculous stories of the saints. Fervor, devotion, and communion with God that had supernatural overtones were popular, and El Greco sought to make these mysterious experiences and emotions visible in his religious paintings.

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The Annunciation by Titian

Titian, and examination of one Annunciation

Welcome to day 19.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.

Here we have the Annunciation by the Venetian master Titian. Born Tiziano Vecelli, he was an Italian painter who by some accounts lived to be 99 years old, and produced art up till the end.  He is most noted for his use of color and loose brushstrokes.

Titian was trained by both of the Bellini brothers, and painted with Giorgione. In fact, Titian’s work and Giorgione’s have often been confused. The painting we will be examining is from later in Titian’s life, when he has developed a style very uniquely his own. His contemporaries referred to him by the last line in Dante’s Paradise, “The Sun Admidst Small Stars.” Although this painting doesn’t use the vivid colors of his early works, his interest in color is still evident.

ARticle on Titian

Titian, The Annunciation 1557

In this work we have Gabriel rushing in from the left, land raised, body turned, clothes still in motion. In contrast Mary is kneeling with arms crossed in an attitude of humble submission. She may be in the very act of kneeling as one knee appears to be not quite to the ground. Once again, we have no halo, but the white from her veil is glowing in the light streaming from above.

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