The Vulnerable Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Art

When ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, by John Everett Millais, was first exhibited in 1850 the art world was scandalized, perturbing Victorian sensibilities. One notable critic, the novelist Charles Dickens, suggested that viewers of Millais’ painting ‘[H]ave the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting’ (Baldaque, 178). Millais was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a small group of Englishmen who sought to emulate the artists of the Middle Ages and early Italian Renaissance and rejected the established traditions of the art academies. Although Dickens decried the Pre-Raphaelite’s regressive stylistic preferences, he and Millais both had a keen interest in contemporary life. The Pre-Raphaelites were heavily interested in portraying modern life, as they understood it. The original Brotherhood (consisting of Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti) was dissolved by 1853, only four years after its inception; however, thanks to subsequent artists like Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse, the symbolic and stylistic ideals of the PRB would endure for nearly forty years. In that span of time, one dominant trope in Pre-Raphaelite art retained its prominence: the concept of the vulnerable woman. In this paper, I’ll be focusing on the work of the original Brotherhood, as well as their contemporary Ford Madox Brown.

The Pre-Raphaelites were at their apex during the height of the Victorian era (1837-1901). The trope of the vulnerable woman in Pre-Raphaelite art can best be understood within the context of the broader cultural sensibilities of the time. Victorian women were believed to be devoid of sexual passion, and any divergence from this culturally ingrained notion was met with hostility and disgust. In pre-modern times, men and women were seen as being equally prone to licentiousness; however, by the mid-18th century, cultural mores began to change. Sexual promiscuity was seen as a symbol of aristocratic decadence that threatened middle-class virtue, a concept borne out of Protestantism (Cott, 223). The subsequent British Evangelical movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries advocated chastity for both genders, stressing that women had the greatest power to affect moral change. Notable female thinkers like Hannah More (an evangelical herself) fought against the notion that women were merely objects meant to sate men’s sexual desires, advocating that women emphasize their moral and intellectual abilities rather than their ”mere animal” capacities (Cott, 224). As a result of these religious and cultural changes, women began to be seen as bastions of social goodness, earthly embodiments of spiritual wholeness.

By the time the Pre-Raphaelites formed in 1849, the notion of the chaste woman was thoroughly entrenched in the zeitgeist of the 19th century and had become a moral pillar of the Victorian era. The original members of the Brotherhood (Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti) were evangelical Christians, and their views concerning the fair sex were thusly affected by their religious persuasion. The Brotherhood was founded with the intent to restore the tradition of sacred art in England and sought to emulate artists who predated the Raphaelistic tradition, which they viewed as being too secularized and spiritually barren (Sussman, 46). The Pre-Raphaelites and other advocates of artistic ‘primitivism’ (i.e., a revival of medieval and early-Renaissance religious sentiments) desired to use art as a means of religious education and moral advancement (Cooper, 407). Fra Angelico, a 15th-century Italian painter and Dominican monk, received adulatory praise from the Pre-Raphaelites for the sanctity of his paintings. John Ruskin, an art critic and avid defender of the Brotherhood, stated that Fra Angelico’s figures possessed the ”the silence of ineffable adoration”; Hunt even labeled him as an ‘Immortal’ (those who the Brotherhood deemed as divinely inspired) in the second edition of ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, published in 1914 (Cheney, 15). The Brotherhood’s paintings were meant to inspire and be cherished for their subtext, not only their beauty. Being of deeply religious character, the Pre-Raphaelites considered it their solemn duty to help illuminate, and hopefully ameliorate, social ills through their paintings. Because Victorian society held social grace and chastity as the ultimate virtues of femininity, women were understood to be constantly vulnerable to temptation and corruption; a fall from their spiritual pedestals would result in a degradation of society, according to Victorian mores. A fallen woman, as understood by the Brotherhood and Victorians at large, deviated from the socially accepted ideal of womanhood when her sexual appetites overrode her cultural responsibility of remaining chaste and sexually passionless (Nead, 34).

The trope of the vulnerable woman in Pre-Raphaelite art was present as early as 1851 when Millais exhibited his painting ‘Mariana’ for the first time. This painting was accompanied by a Tennyson poem, inspired by the character Mariana in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”.

John Everett Millais, Mariana (1851)

Millais, like the other Pre-Raphaelites, had a great appreciation for literature, especially British literature, and much of his work was intimately tied to it. In this painting, Mariana is longing to be reunited with her lover who was lost at sea. Symbology, so cherished by the Brotherhood, is integral to understanding this scene. The autumn leaves are symbols for the passing of time, and her longing for her lover is suggested by her arched back and the knitting needle thrust into the table. Millais instills the scene with a sense of yearning, portraying a woman who has fallen victim to the tribulations of the world, hopeless and forlorn. The annunciation scene in the stained glass (a glimmer of Millais’ evangelical bent) contrasts the peace and serenity of the Virgin with the longing and desperation of Mariana (Fowle). Much like her lover, but in a figurative sense, Mariana has been swept out to sea and has lost her bearings, powerless and ungrounded without an anchor in her life. Millais’ most poignant representation of the vulnerable woman is perhaps ‘Ophelia’, completed in 1852.

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Like ‘Mariana’, ‘Ophelia’ is a literary painting, but based on the work of William Shakespeare rather than Tennyson. Elizabeth Siddal, a model favored by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and for a time Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife, portrays the tragic character of Ophelia (Bradley, 141). “Ophelia” embodies John Ruskin’s belief that art should have a moral imperative. Viewers would have drawn a connection between Ophelia’s mistreatment (and subsequent suicide) and the abuse women in Victorian England endured, which occurred despite their supposed religious purity. In a sense, Millais exposed the double standard that plagued Victorian society: women were considered bastions of cultural goodness and were expected to act accordingly, yet they were still under the yoke of patriarchal tyranny. Millais, like many of his contemporaries, believed women had been forced into depravity and suffering by modernity. The tragic suicide of Ophelia was the perfect analogism for the crumbling social values Millais perceived.

William Holman Hunt, the second founding member of the Brotherhood, is perhaps best known for ‘The Awakening Conscience’, a painting which he hoped ‘[m]ight be said to have done not a little in calling attention to the class concerned’ (Bullen, 58).

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Hunt, like Millais, was an evangelical Christian, but it appears he was not always so religious. In a letter addressed to his good friend John Ruskin, Hunt states that he was ‘[a] contemptuous unbeliever in any spiritual principles’ until he was given a copy of ‘Modern Painters’ (a work by Ruskin) by a friend attempting to convert him to Roman Catholicism (Landow). His religiosity no doubt contributed to the heavily symbolic paintings, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ in particular. The painting has a certain earnestness, a product of his intense faith, which he claims separated him from Rossetti, who was ‘[t]oo absorbed with Dante and French literature’ and Millais, who ‘never read anything’ (Landow). In Hunt’s painting, a kept woman (i.e., a mistress) realizes she has been led astray and suddenly begins to rise from the lap of her partner. Like Millais, Hunt loved to analogize. The cat and mouse beneath the table symbolize the couple: the woman is the mouse, a representation of the meek attempting to escape from the clutches of sin, and the man is the cat, manipulative, depraved, and predatory. The woman’s gaze and sudden upward movement imply a sense of urgency and some kind of epiphany leading to an “awakening”. Hunt’s painting is hopeful and revelatory and implies that the woman will find some absolution. In Victorian England, prostitution was rampant and institutionalized, and evangelicals like Hunt were determined to see this social malignancy eradicated. Hunt, more than his fellow brethren, believed that Divinity guided his brush (Landow).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, named after the famed Italian poet Dante, was the third member of the Brotherhood, and his paintings were generally more sensual than those of his compatriots. However, much of his work was just as religiously inspired as Hunt’s, though it was presented less earnestly. Women feature prominently in Rossetti’s paintings and in two in particular the notion of the vulnerable woman is well represented. The first of these paintings, ‘The Annunciation’ (‘Ecce Ancilla Domini), painted in 1850, draws on the tradition of annunciation painting and the Renaissance tradition of fresco.

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Rossetti’s sister who is cowering before the angel Gabriel represents the Virgin Mary. Unlike earlier annunciations, the Virgin is portrayed as meek and frightened, as opposed to refined and regal (as in the work of Fra Angelico). Gabriel holds a lily that leads to the area of her abdomen, referencing the Virgin’s imminent impregnation (Fowle). The Virgin is portrayed as a young girl who has been swept up in a divine plan by no action of her own; her cowering body and meek facial expression reveal her timidity and vulnerability, qualities not usually entertained by the old masters. Rossetti also tackled the idea of the vulnerable woman in his ‘Beata Beatrix’, which is a kind of prophetic construction of Elizabeth Siddal as Beatrice, Dante Alighieri’s lost love. Siddal was a troubled woman, and she and Rossetti had a tempestuous relationship. In Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Beatrice (who died an untimely death) served as a spiritual guide to the heavens. The relationship between Rossetti and Siddal ended very similarly to Dante and Beatrice’s; after miscarrying, Siddal sank into a deep depression and became addicted to the opiate laudanum, and later overdosed, leading to her untimely death (Bradley, 102). After her death, Rossetti (perhaps melodramatically) buried his book of poetry with her, but later exhumed her in order to retrieve the poems for publication (Bradley, 142). The memory of Siddal would haunt Rossetti for the rest of his life. In this painting, the light that bathes Siddal’s face indicates her assumption into the divine realm, a symbolic reference to Beatrice (Fowle). Like other Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Rossetti portrays Beatrice as an innocent character who has been overwhelmed by the tumults of reality. ‘Beata Beatrix’ is an example of the unfortunate conclusion of innocence in an unfair and dangerous world.

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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was disbanded in 1853, but the aesthetic they had established blossomed in the subsequent years. A contemporary of the Brotherhood, and a major influence on their aesthetic, was Ford Madox Brown. His painting ‘Take Your Son, Sir!’, which he left unfinished, is a more ambiguous and less romantic portrayal of the trope of the vulnerable woman in Victorian society. Brown used his wife and child as models for the painting, so it seems unlikely that it is meant to represent bastardy, as some critics have suggested (Treuherz, Bendiner, Thirlwell, 180). The painting is striking because unlike other Pre-Raphaelite artists (or any other Victorian artists, for that matter) the female figure is given great authority and occupies the center of the space, demanding the viewers’ attentions. Brown never wrote about this painting, leaving his intentions for it unclear. However, what is immediately apparent is the stark difference between Brown’s Victorian woman and those of his contemporaries. The woman seems to be drawn and pale, and her body language reflects the burden the child has placed upon her. She seems almost relieved to be passing it on to the father, who we can see reflected in the mirror behind her. The woman’s aggressive posture and resolute nature seem a far cry from the vulnerable women that the Pre-Raphaelites portrayed. Later critics have viewed the painting as a social commentary, though, as aforementioned, there is little evidence to support this claim, only conjecture. Bastardy, adulterous women passing off illegitimate children as their husband’s true offspring, was incredibly taboo in Victorian England. At that time, it was deemed a social evil for a woman to be unfaithful. The painting might be seen in this light, especially since the child Brown portrayed here was born out of wedlock (the couple married shortly after he had begun the painting) (Treuherz, Bendiner, Thirlwell, 181). Her aggressive body language and expression demand shared responsibility for the child. Brown, unlike others in the Brotherhood, was not very religious, even stating that ‘[T]here is [no] passage in the life of Christ that particularly sets my imagination going’ (Bendiner, 106). This irreligious persuasion perhaps allowed him to view women from a different perspective than evangelicals like Millais and Hunt. Interestingly, Brown has given her some gumption, and the Victorian understanding of vulnerability is lessened somewhat by her willingness to confront the father of the child. Her distinct and active character are a direct challenge to the holier than thou aura of Millais and Hunt’s paintings.

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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had an indelible impact on the course of art over the last half of the 19th century and would come to epitomize the romantic sensibilities of the Victorian era. Even Charles Dickens, who so ardently opposed their artistic vision, eventually lessened his disdain, writing to Millais the following: ‘”Objecting very strongly to what I believed to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed objections in (this) same journal. My opinion on that point has not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in which I suppose are higher and better things…” (Fleming). The trope of the vulnerable woman would become a fixture of Victorian art for the next fifty years. It would later transition from the religious, evangelical foundations that drove Millais and Hunt, to the more literary and secularized artwork of Burne-Jones and Waterhouse, the spiritual successors of Rossetti and Brown’s more secularized and literary approach.

 

 

Bibliography

Baldaque, Lourenca. ‘The Pre-Raphaelites in the Dickens-Ruskin Controversy: Resistance and Defense in the Victorian Era’. Revisiones no.7. 2011. pp. 175-184

Bradley, Laurel. ‘Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle’ Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2, British Art: Recent Acquisitions and Discoveries at the Art Institute (1992), pp. 136-145+187

Bullen, J.B. ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism.’ Clarendon Press (1998). Pp. 50-70

Bendiner, Kenneth. ‘Art of Ford Madox Brown’. Penn State Press. 2010. pg. 106.

Cheney, Lana, ed. ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and Medievalism in the Arts.’ Edwin Mellen Press (January 1st, 1992).

Codell, Julie F. ‘Expression over Beauty: Facial Expression, Body Language, and Circumstantiality in the Paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’. Victorian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 255-290

Cooper, Robyn. ‘The Relationship Between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Painters before Raphael in English Criticism in the Late 1840s and 1850s’ Victorian Studies, Vol. 21 No. 4. (Summer, 1981). Pg. 405-438.

Cott, Nancy F. ‘Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850.’ Signs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 219-236

Fleming, G.H. ‘John Everett Millais; A Biography’. Constable. 1999.

Fowle, Frances. Mariana; The Awakening Conscience; Beata Beatrix. Tate Gallery. Tate.org

Landow, George. Replete with Meaning: William Holman Hunt and Typological SymbolismVictorian Web. 8 December 2004.

Nead, Lynn. ‘The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting’ Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), pp. 26-37

Sussman, Herbert. ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and the “Mood of the Cloister”’. Browning Institute Studies, Vol. 8 (1980), pp. 45-55

Treuherz, Julian. Bendiner, Kenneth. Thirlwell, Angela, ed. ‘Ford madox brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer’. Philip Wilson Publishers. 2011. pg.180

David Kassan and Andy Warhol: Portrait Perspectives

David Kassan’s paintings go well beyond what a photograph can achieve. Kassan masterfully conveys the character of his subjects- one can feel the emotional intensity that pervades his portraits- while also effectively communicating the subject-viewer relationship. His portraits are palpably real, almost uncomfortably personal. The emotional connection Kassan establishes with his subjects contributes to the intimate nature of his paintings. In stark contrast, Andy Warhol turned the subject-artist relationship on its head with his acclaimed/reviled celebrity portraits. The subjects he presents us are façades- Warhol does not attempt to capture true character, as Kassan does, choosing instead to convey the subject’s public image.

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Figure 1.David Kassan, “Letter to My Mother”. 2014. Oils on panel.

David Kassan’s artistic process can be seen in his painting “Letter to My Mother” (Figure 1), completed this year. As demonstrated in this painting, Kassan balances likeness and artistry, never sacrificing one in favor of the other. His work goes far beyond mere representation. The sitter is the artist’s mother, Roberta, and she seems uncannily alive; the skin careworn and translucent, eyes downcast, fingers intertwined. The backdrop is characteristically textured, but still simple enough so as to not distract from the figure. Most of Kassan’s work is similarly composed. The simple compositions allow the viewer to experience the model without distractions, bolstering Kassan’s attempt to establish intimacy. His brushwork is all but eliminated, giving the paint on the figure a very photographic feel. Kassan asserts that his softening of the brushstrokes is meant to force the viewer to think “more about the model’s expression and emotion rather than the movement of a brushstroke… You have the viewer and you have the subject of the piece, and I want nothing in between that connection. I don’t want paint to get in the way of that. I want the paint to prop up this person to be seen, so you can feel their emotion more tangibly and they are in your space”. Kassan is not a painter of flair and fluff- he gets down to the nitty-gritty. The emotional connection established between the viewer and the subject is what is most valued. Kassan’s painting also conflates abstraction and representation. On the surface, his paintings appear photographic- but they are, in a sense, abstracted to fit the artist’s need or message. Kassan often sets his realistic figures against more abstracted backgrounds; for example, in the heavily textured backdrop above the figure in the painting of his mother are Hebrew letters, purposefully breaking up the space; juxtaposed against the figure, this brings the subject forward in the space.

Kassan acts as an intermediary between the subject he portrays and the viewer. His work is more than just artificial representation; the intimacy he establishes allows the viewer to communicate with the subject interpersonally. We are offered a glimpse into the sitter’s psyche, moving us. In Figure 1, Roberta’s stance and her downcast eyes captivate us- every experience, every feeling that the sitter has ever felt is etched in the lines of her face. Most of Kassan’s work is introspective in nature. The power of his paintings is derived from the viewer-sitter relationship. Kassan’s primary objective of capturing the little nuances of emotion and expression is very aptly conveyed in this portrait. As evidenced by Figure 1, Kassan’s handling of oil paint (removal of brushstrokes, the conflation of abstraction and representation) allows him to more effectively represent what he sees. The intricate skin tones, built up slowly and layer upon layer, gives fleshiness to the figure. Through these layers light enters and is reflected back, imbuing the figure with presence and vivacity. His background, which is graphic and fragmentary, textured and tactile, serves as a descriptive patina. In Figure 1, the Hebrew letters hearken back to Kassan’s Jewish heritage. They read: “This painting is my way to spend more time with you”. To the casual observer, who more than likely doesn’t understand Hebrew, these words still have weight. The archaic text lends the painting a certain ambiguity, which both entices and mystifies the viewer, strengthening the subject-viewer experience. As in most of his paintings, the backdrops import a sense of history; both subject and background are integral components in establishing an emotional connection with the viewer. His artistic interjections of self are subtle. Kassan is conscious not to interfere between the subject and viewer; his technique is therefore a means to an end, its goal to enhance the viewer’s experience. Whether we, as the viewers, are aware of Kassan’s personal connection to the model is irrelevant; his paintings are appealing because they are relatable on so many different levels. The viewer is given a glimpse of something that seems tangible and important, and much of this effect is achieved visually, not necessarily thematically.

Figure 2. Andy Warhol, “Gold Marilyn”. 1963. Silkscreen.
Figure 2. Andy Warhol, “Gold Marilyn”. 1963. Silkscreen.

Andy Warhol’s approach to portraiture, contrary to Kassan, doesn’t seek to establish a personal connection between the subject and the viewer- at least, not a connection based on true self. Warhol was obsessed with celebrity- perhaps one of his most iconic portraits is “Gold Marilyn” (Figure 2), completed in 1963, shortly after Monroe’s tragic death. When Warhol first exhibited the painting, critic Michael Fried heralded Warhol’s painting as one of the “most successful pieces in the show”. Warhol’s image was impactful because of its symbolism; upon her death, Monroe became a kind of martyr, the ultimate symbol of celebrity and its effects. It is not meant to inform us of Monroe’s character, but rather sets out to capture the public’s perception of her. In a sense, Warhol is illustrating the myth of Monroe, not Monroe as she truly was. Throughout the rest of his life, Warhol would always use the same image of Marilyn in his paintings, signifying the fixity of her myth.

In Figure 2, Warhol attempts to capture the cult of personality surrounding Monroe by invoking religious, Byzantine imagery. Much of Warhol’s work attempted to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary; in the case of “Gold Marilyn”, this transformation is religious in nature. Arthur Danto in After the End of Art argues that Warhol, and Pop Art in general, “transfigured the things or kinds of things that meant most to people,” raising the ordinary “to the status of high art”. Pop art was, essentially, trans-figurative. Warhol’s portrait of Monroe is no longer a depiction of reality, but an exalted image, made religious in our minds by the power of public perception. Unlike Kassan’s painting, Warhol’s subject is not meant to be seen as a person, per say; it transcends the banal and takes on a kind of spiritual quality. To Warhol, the idea of Monroe was more important than her personal self. The process of silk screening that Warhol employed reinforced his ideas on the concept of celebrity; the artist’s touch is nearly eliminated, and all that is left is the viewer and the idol. Whereas Kassan’s work is intimate -we are given a glimpse into the life of the sitter- Warhol’s work is more concerned with image, not necessarily the true nature of the sitter. According to Jeanette Wintersen, in Warhol’s works the “Id, the instinctive subconscious self has been replaced by the Ego – the surface self. Photo-Ego is what Andy started. It’s what happens when identity is confused with recognition. How we see ourselves becomes dependent on how others see us. The surface is all there is.” In a sense, the surface becomes the true nature of the person.

Despite their obvious stylistic and thematic differences, Warhol and Kassan’s portraits share one striking similarity: they force the viewer to think more deeply, encouraging introspection. In a sense, both relationships are personal projections, and merely represent different ways of observing a person. Kassan’s attempt to establish a connection between the viewer’s self and the subject’s self is reinforced by his subtle technique and simple composition; Warhol uses similar methods, utilizing simple composition to bring home the idea of Monroe’s importance. Kassan rejects artistic flair in his work, dismissing it as a distraction.Warhol’s paintings are also simple, lacking any readily apparent artistic voice. Both artists attempt to avoid excessive personal interjections in their works though Warhol takes this avoidance to the extreme. The relationship that the artist establishes with the viewer is important to both artists; Kassan achieves this through his highly personal portraits, many of which portray friends or family- however, knowing the personal relationship Kassan shares with his model/models isn’t necessary to understand or respect the work he produces. In Figure 1, we see that all the elements of the image contribute to establishing a connection between the viewer and the subject. Kassan’s mother seems almost shy with her downcast eyes, yet seems to be at peace with herself, as indicated by her relaxed posture and peaceful disposition.

As aforementioned, the viewer/subject relationship found in Warhol’s portraits deal with image, not true personality. But it wasn’t exclusively Marilyn’s image that Warhol was capturing- in all his work, Warhol’s detachment actually gives presence to his paintings. In a way, Warhol’s detachment becomes his trademark. This further creates a sense of detachment from the sitter, placing importance on Warhol’s commercial quality rather than on the sitter herself. Warhol’s personality predominates all his celebrity portraits, in a way that Kassan’s personality does not. Ironically, though Warhol claimed complete detachment from his work, his paintings bear the unmistakable and now iconic features of a “Warhol”. Like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol had a public mask as well, and more than anything he wanted to become a vital commodity. Warhol successfully created a kind of art that shifted the focus from the subject of the painting to the artist behind the painting- not overtly, but by severing the connection between the viewer and subject, placing emphasis on surface and commodity. In this way, Warhol takes the lack of artistic flair a step further than Kassan, but ironically this detachment ends up becoming an unmistakable trademark of Warhol’s that often overshadows the subjects of his paintings.

David Kassan and Andy Warhol’s portraits are effective because they provoke a reaction from the viewer. Kassan achieves the viewer/subject relationship by creating a realistic scene in which the viewer seems to occupy a space with the subject of the painting. The vibrancy and tactility of his subjects breathe life into Kassan’s paintings. His compositional choices and more abstracted backgrounds/texts add a certain ambiguity to the paintings, further drawing the viewer in. Kassan paints personal subjects but attempts to keep his personal interjections limited, so as to not become too obtrusive. Warhol focuses on the surface image of the sitter, placing her against a flat backdrop. She is detached, her personality replaced by the façade of celebrity. As a result of his effort to erase his hand from the painting, the subject actually takes on the artist’s own identity, becoming a symbol of Warhol’s trademark style. Both artists effectively convey two different sides of portraiture, while also sharing similarities that might not be readily apparent to the casual observer.

The Heritage of Apelles

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(Figure 1): Botticelli, Sandro. The Calumny of Apelles. ca. 1497. Tempera on panel. 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi. ARTstor (artstor.org).

In his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia, the Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder praises Apelles as an exemplar of Grecian artistic fortitude: “[I]t was Apelles of Cos who surpassed all the painters that preceded him and all who were to come after him….He singly contributed almost more to painting than all the other artists put together….His art was unrivaled for graceful charm, although other very great painters were his contemporaries.” Apelles, who worked  sometime in the late 4th century BCE, is known only by anecdotes related by later authors, through whom his legend has resonated down through the centuries. Little is known of Apelles’ life, but ancient texts assert that he was likely born in Ionia and later apprenticed under Pamphilus of the Sicyonian school (Pliny alleges Sicyon to be the birthplace of painting in ancient Greece). After acquiring some publicity, he was entrusted with painting a portrait of Alexander the Great and other such commissions as a Macedonian court painter; for Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Rising from the Sea)Pliny relates the tradition that Apelles used one of Alexander’s consorts (allegedly Campaspe) as his model for the goddess; according to legend, Alexander was so taken by the painting that he granted Apelles Campaspe as a reward for his endeavors. Such is the myth of the man; whether any of these tales is true is a subject of debate. His works must have been revolutionary and breathtaking, regarded as unsurpassed in grace and beauty even five centuries after his death. Apelles came to embody the genius of ancient Greek art, and to the artists of the Renaissance, who strove to emulate the masters of antiquity, he was the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

With the ascension of Neoplatonism in the Renaissance, there was an influx of names, histories, and legends lost to Europe for a millennium. The humanist tradition that catalyzed the resurgence of classical antiquity began with a refutation of the Gothic style in all its applications- beginning with literature and expanding into the arts and architecture. The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the first artisans to challenge the orthodox building practices of the Gothic style; he saw the Gothic arches as solecisms and barbaric corruptions of classical architecture. Brunelleschi’s influence spread beyond architecture and into the realm of painting; his discovery of perspectival drawing, famously applied by Masaccio in The Holy Trinity, was perhaps a rediscovery of methods that had allowed Apelles to deceive the sense of sight. But the true heritage of Greece is the use of light in illusionism. E.H. Gombrich, in The Heritage of Apelles, asserts that the differentiation between light and luster (allegedly pioneered by Apelles) was pivotal to the artistic revolution of the Renaissance and just as important as the advent of perspectival drawing. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the Latin world’s subsequent slide into disorder, the artistic and literary traditions begun by the ancient Greeks were forsaken; the artisans of Europe abandoned the Greek tradition in favor of flat planes and austere mosaics. Yet, the Greco-Roman artistic tradition was not entirely lost- for example, during the Byzantine era, mosaics and such religious icons as Christ Pantocrator dominated the artistic landscape, utilizing the artistic convention of “grazing light”, a lateral illumination which can be traced back to the Pompeiian muralists of classical antiquity. After a thousand years of unreason, the artistic traditions of Apelles finally reemerged, driven by a revived scholarly interest in pagan religion. A number of “new Apelles'” were born; from Masaccio to Jan Van Eyck, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Titian, each of these new artists carried on the tradition of ancient Greece, the tradition of Apelles, as they sought to usher in a new age of beauty and refinement. Apelles’ influence was so poignant and pervasive that he can rightly be called the progenitor of the artistic Renaissance in Europe.

The Calumny: Apelles’ Reemergence

A rediscovered treatise, On Calumny, authored by the Syrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian, gives a detailed description of a long lost Apelles’ painting titled Calumny

On the right of it sits a man with very large ears, almost like those of Midas, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents envy. There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.

He describes calumny as a product of ignorance and “undoubtedly one of the greatest evils incident to mankind… the source of innumerable misfortunes…”.  After this denouncement, he relates the legend of the Calumny of Apelles, in which Theodotus, envious and desirous of Apelles’ skill, spreads false rumor against him. Apelles allegedly reproaches the calumniator by painting the Calumny, a pictorial representation of his victory over the slanderer. Apelles’ skill was thereafter unquestioned, and his fame was assured. The artists of the Renaissance must have seen the Grecian artist as the pinnacle of the artistic and intellectual culture they were trying to revive.

Sandro Botticelli painted The Calumny of Apelles in 1497 CE (see Figure 1 above) in accordance to Lucian’s description. Botticelli was a prolific Florentine painter, renowned for his depictions of pagan gods in his paintings. In the Renaissance, especially in Florence, there was a strong interest in the occult; these supernatural forces were beautifully captured in Botticelli’s works. The Birth of Venus contains the first monumental female nude since antiquity- a syncretic painting, representative of the Neoplatonic thought that dominated the Renaissance. Neoplatonism conflated paganism and Christianity, taking the virtues of each and extolling them. For example, the Neoplatonists saw Venus as interchangeable with the Virgin, an embodiment of love. Many other parallels were made between the scriptures and the ancient pagan religions. Viewed in this way, pagan and Christian beliefs could exist harmoniously. For painters like Botticelli, this new ideology allowed for greater artistic freedom and a means to explore the ancient past. Perhaps the suppression of the Greco-Roman artistic tradition by the medieval Church could be seen as another calumny against Apelles- and the Renaissance his crowning glory.

Continue reading “The Heritage of Apelles”

Exploring the Action Painting of Willem De Kooning

For a contemporary art class, I was tasked with creating a project based on the work of the action painter Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), one of the few Abstract Expressionists who continued to paint human figures. His paintings are made up of erratic and violent brushstrokes, creating a chaotic storm of color and line. De Kooning’s work seems naïve at first glance, but his seemingly simple execution belies the belabored painting process involved in the creation of his art. Unlike some of his contemporaries (e.g. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko), the final painting was less important than the process of making it. De Kooning’s figures were painted and reworked many times over in an attempt to capture what he called the “intimate proportions” of anatomy. He rejected traditional anatomy, warping and interchanging elements of the figure to achieve a new level of intimacy through nontraditional proportions. De Kooning’s female subjects are represented as voluptuous, almost Paleolithic (e.g. Venus of Willendorf), and painted with such ferocity that they appear menacing. The viewer both fears and reveres the figure, reflecting mankind’s ambivalence toward the feminine.

My own work has always been highly representational. However, I found De Kooning’s meditations on human perception and human intimacy fascinating. I can relate to his reluctance to forgo figurative painting. The human figure has always been a wellspring from which I draw inspiration. To me, nothing is as compelling as the gentle curve of the female form or the subtle quiver of the mouth. I think, ultimately, that my desire to capture the essence of a person is driven by my desire to understand them. De Kooning attempted to capture the essence of the people he painted by ignoring physical traits (and to De Kooning, superficial traits) or warping them. My approach differs. I emphasize the physical nature of the person, the beauty of the form, and thereby relay the character of my subject. Though our techniques are different, our goal is the same: to capture identity, personhood, what it means to be human.

For this project, I set out to create a painting as De Kooning would. I found his approach interesting, not just philosophically but technically as well. The figure I painted is female (as my primary interest is female beauty), but it’s a warped and hellish figure with a ghastly smile and wide eyes. I sought to capture the menacing power that De Kooning portrayed in his paintings while maintaining a certain beauty in the feminine form. I found the uninhibited painting process liberating, and I quite enjoyed the tactile quality of the erratic brush strokes and varying thicknesses of the oil paints on the panel. Unfortunately, due to time restraints, I didn’t have the luxury of laboring on the work over an extended period (De Kooning would spend months on one painting), so this project became more of an exploration of De Kooning’s style and subject matter than of his painting process. Pictured below is the final painting.

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Reclining Woman, study in the style of Willem De Kooning