The Art Gallery of South Australia has a diverse ‘International’ collection that contains work from the ‘East’ and ‘West’. The following 5 works of European art range from the late 16th to the early 19th Century and contain works by Bartolomeo Passarotti, Peter Brueghel II, Claude Lorrain, Angelica Kauffmann, and Theodore Gericault. Whilst some may not consider these as ‘major’ works of the respective artists, nonetheless, they are beautiful in their own right. Furthermore, they stand as excellent representatives of the individual artist’s work as well as the period and genre from which they come.
BARTOLOMEO PASSAROTTI – The Coronation of the Virgin, with Saints Luke, Dominic, and John the Evangelist (c. 1580)
Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592) was born in Bologna from where he primarily worked throughout his life and career. He exemplifies ‘Mannerism’, a style of art that evolved in the later years of the High Renaissance from approximately 1520. Passarotti belongs to the second period of ‘Mannerism’, with contemporaries that include Giorgio Vasari and Agnolo Bronzino. Vasari described the period as ‘la maniera moderna’ (in the modern style). However, ‘mannerism’ is not easy to clearly define. Taking the later works of Michelangelo as a source of inspiration, ‘high maniera’ is characterized by deliberate exaggeration and ornamental elegance, which is often quite colourfully vibrant. Subsequently, it is often regarded as prefiguring ‘Baroque’ art. Furthermore, in ‘high maniera’ the figures often have a relatively unemotional gaze that is ‘cool’ and ‘aloof’. In Passarotti’s painting, however, there is a suggestion of smiling benevolence and happiness from the three saints, as befitting the subject matter, the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’; although the bull, on which sits The Bible looks with his central single eye a bit alarmed. Meanwhile, the naked cherubs supporting the Virgin in the middle of the painting seem to be having a rollicking good time.
PETER BRUEGHEL II – The Village Lawyer – or – The Tax Collector’s Office (c. 1615)
This small painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), is a terrific piece of satiric art. Peter Brueghel II was the oldest son of Peter Brueghel the Elder. After the death of his father (1569) and mother (1578), Peter and his siblings went to live their maternal grandmother in Antwerp, were he studied under the landscape artist Gillis van Coninxloo. By 1589 he was operating as an independent ‘master’. His large studio in Antwerp made numerous cheap reproductions of his father’s work for local sale and export. Despite the studio’s success he was often in financial difficulties, probably due to excessive drinking. Peter Brueghel II painted landscapes, religious works, and village scenes, often in the style of his father. The above painting is one of his original and most popular works, and has a rather intriguing history. For a start is has a number of titles, including – The Village Lawyer, The Tax Collector’s Office, The Payment of the Tithe, The Lawyer of Bad Cases, and The Notary’s Office. Arguably, The Village Lawyer is more accurate as the figure behind the desk is wearing a lawyer’s bonnet, and all the papers on his desk look like requests and decrees. The peasants lining up have chickens and eggs for their payment, which was common practice, but generally, tithes (taxes) we paid in grain. What is truly wonderful as well insightful are the respective characters in Brueghel’s almost cartoonish satiric portrait of this aspect of contemporary village life. The detail is terrific – the nervous peasants, including the one hiding behind the door on the left; the notary who is just writing and not paying attention to anything else (the figure of calm in this mini-storm); the woman bending over, face hidden, and looks like she is holding something in her mouth as she searches for something in her basket; the old man and his companion holding out a piece of paper (a bribe?) to the sturdy man standing at the right who is scrutinizing the peasant energetically explaining something in the lawyer’s ear – the painting is full of drama and hidden possibile narratives. That this is a room full of secrets and hidden agendas is clear by the number of characters whose mouths are obscured. There is also the strange arm and hand right in the middle of the painting that seems to be reaching for the basket of eggs, but judging by the position of the arm as well as the single booted leg with a red stripe, they don’t seem to belong to the peasant standing behind. Is there another character hiding? All this only adds to the wonderful mystery and drama of the painting.
CLAUDE LORRAIN – Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum (c. 1634)
Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682) is generally regarded as one of the finest landscape painters of all time. Considered French he was actually born in the independent Duchy of Lorraine. He spent little time in Lorraine or France, but lived most of his life in Italy, mainly in Rome. He was quite prolific with his paintings, watercolours, drawings and engravings. By the late 1630s he had established himself as Italy’s premiere landscape artist with a secure and highly profitable international reputation and demand. His popularity remained high for the rest of his life. Stylistically Claude Lorrain belongs to the ‘Baroque’ period of ‘Western’ Art. By the beginning of the 17th Century landscapes had gone out of fashion. Whilst not singular, Claude Lorrain re-invented the form and genre, and in a way that is unique to himself. In virtually his work there is a particular serenity and grace. The English ‘Romantic’ artist, John Constable, who was very influenced by Claude Lorrain, describe him ‘as the most perfect landscape painter the world has ever seen’, and that in his landscapes ‘all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart’. In regards to the above painting, a ‘Capriccio’ is an imaginary landscape. Lorrain uses the ruins of the old Roman Forum to create an ‘arcadia’, a romantic ‘pastoral’, a glimpse of ‘A Golden Age’. The figures are dressed in contemporary 1630s clothes, and are either relaxed or getting on with their business amidst the Roman ruins – all is serene in this setting sun.
ANGELICA KAUFFMANN – Diana and her nymphs bathing (c. 1778-82)
Ever since I read Germaine Greer’s seminal work The Obstacle Race my knowledge, appreciation and respect for female artists from the past has grown. This has been considerably enhanced by the increasing number of such works that are now displayed in numerous art galleries around the world. Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) may not be as well known as her contemporaries and friends Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, nonetheless she was highly regarded in her own time, and was one of the two female founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768; the other being Mary Moser. Born in Chur (Graubunden), Switzerland, she was trained by her father, Joseph Johann Kauffmann, and by the age of 12 she was regarded as a talent child prodigy. She was also multi-lingual being able to speak German, Italian, French and English. After her mother’s death in 1754 she and her father moved to Milan. She travelled throughout Italy gaining considerable success and increasing popularity. It was whilst she was in Venice that she met Lady Wentworth who persuaded her to come with her to London. In 1765 her work was on display at an exhibition by the Free Artists Exhibition, and one of her first commissions was for the the celebrated English actor David Garrick. Lady Wentworth introduced Angelica Kauffmann to London’s high society. She became extremely popular, especially with members of the royal family. Her personal life, however, was not without scandal. In 1767 she was seduced by a Count Frederick de Horn, who proved to be a complete imposter and fraud. It is also possible that she and Jean-Paul Marat had an affair whilst he was living in London at this time. Nonetheless, owing to popularity and friendship with Joshua Reynolds she became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy., and was an annual contributor from 1769-1782. After the death of her first husband in 1781, with whom she had long been separated from she married the Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi. They moved to Rome where she was to remain the rest of her life. It was whilst living in Rome that she became great friends with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who she painted, and who regarded her one of the greatest artists of the age. She continued working right up 1797, and died in Rome in 1807. She was awarded a special funeral that was under the direction of the famous sculptor Canova.
THEODORE GERICAULT – Head of Youth (c. 1824)Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) was an extremely influential French painter and lithographer, and stands as a bridge between ‘Neoclassicism’ and ‘Romanticism’. He was born in Rouen and studied under such notable established French artists as Pierre-Narcisse Guerin. The young Gericault, however, was a rebellious, impulsive and free spirit. He stopped formal studying and between 1810-1815 he was at the Louvre copying and learning from the works of Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. He also spent a great deal of time at the stables at Versailles studying the anatomy of horses. His first major work, The Charging Chasseur was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1812, and was received very favourably. It revealed the influence of Rubens as well as Gericault’s passion to present work based on contemporary subjects. His next major work, however, Wounded Cuirassier (1814) was less well received. Crushed by the disappointment Gericault enrolled in the army and served in the garrison at Versailles. He continued to work through self-imposed study of figure study and construction, gaining a unique and powerful dramatic force. In 1816-17 he travelled to Rome and Naples and was inspired by the work of Michelangelo to attempt large epic paintings. This resulted in his most well-known work, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). The young Eugene Delacroix posed as one of the dying figures on the raft. This painting was based on a real life scandal. It created considerable controversy when it was shown in France, but was more favourably received in England. Gericault suffered from chronic tuberculosis. His final works, however, continued to display his dramatic flair and attraction to controversial and unconventional subject matters. This includes his portraits of the insane, as well as preliminary sketches for more epic and monumental works. Unfortunately his deteriorating health, coupled with some riding accidents, resulted in a long and agonizing decline; he died in Paris in 1824 at the age of 32. This beautiful painting, Head of Youth was a study that may have been part of an intended larger work. It was painted during the last years of Gericault’s life, somewhere between 1821-1824. It reveals the strong influence of Michelangelo, yet is also distinctly a work by Theodore Gericault; unique as it is representative of his position between ‘neoclassicism’ and the relatively new movement of ‘romanticism’ that was to dominate the first part of the 19th Century.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey from 16th Century ‘mannerism’ to 19th Century ‘romanticism’. As with any labels they are merely convenient and conventional descriptors. The real pleasure is, as Robert Hughes articulated, is to be able to actually stand in front of these works of art and allow them to effect you. They are just some of the many wonders on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.