Archive for the ‘Art Commentary’ Category


Beauty and Desecration 1  —  Roger Scruton

July 21, 2014
The West's great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

The West’s great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.


At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality — however achieved and at whatever moral cost — that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch — something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.

In a seminal essay — “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939 — critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. 

We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars — for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France — from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society — as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty — as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. 

But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze — shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha — who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature — such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. 

Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.”

But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies.

I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry — these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. 

Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.


Alonso Berruguete’s ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ — Mary Tompkins Lewis

June 24, 2014


Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford. A recent article reblogged from the WSJ.


The ancient story of Abraham and his beloved young son Isaac is threaded through the sacred narratives of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, and has long raised unanswerable questions about sacrifice, authority and blind obedience to divine will. As recounted in Genesis 22, God commanded Abraham, in a test of faith, to take Isaac to the mountains of Moriah and slay him.

Without question, the aged patriarch set out and, once there, bound his unknowing son to an altar in preparation. Just as he was about to slaughter him, however, a heavenly messenger stopped Abraham in the act, as his faith was irrefutable. Finding a ram caught by its horns in nearby thickets, father and son sacrificed it instead before returning home. The powerful passions the story evokes, though scarcely relayed in the brief biblical passage, have resonated in its poignant retellings in poetry, song, drama and especially in art.

Abraham’s binding and sacrifice of Isaac appear often in early Renaissance art in Florence, a turbulent period in which Christian theologians saw the story as both a prefigurement of Christ’s death on the cross and a parable about faith and divine intervention. The large figural group of c.1418 by the sculptor Donatello captures the harrowing struggle between faith and family the image came to embody as well.

Created for a niche on the Campanile of the Florence Cathedral and now installed in the Cathedral Museum, it counts among its descendants the polychromed wooden sculpture of “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1526/32) by the Spanish artist Alonso Berruguete, once part of an elaborately carved and painted retablo, or altarpiece, commissioned for the monastery of St. Benito in Valladolid.

The son of the painter Pedro Berruguete, Alonso seems to have studied as a young man with his father in Castile but, atypically for a Spanish artist in this period, left for Italy in the early 1500s to work in Rome and Florence, where he would have seen the Donatello sculpture that helped shape his own. According to the Renaissance artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, Berruguete was in Rome with Michelangelo shortly after the momentous discovery there in 1506 of the antique sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons.”

This impassioned Hellenistic depiction of another tormented family—the Trojan priest and his two young sons who suffered a horrific death as punishment for trying to warn fellow citizens of their impending doom—would also have huge implications for Berruguete, who was commissioned to execute a copy.

In his Italian paintings, which are marked by elongated figures, pulsating movement, distortions of space and scale, and strikingly fervid imagery, the Spanish artist captured the earliest strains of the Mannerist style that would ultimately challenge the ideals of Renaissance art. After about a decade abroad, Berruguete attempted to establish himself in Spain as a painter, where his highly inventive art had few parallels, but soon turned primarily to sculpture to produce the monumental and richly carved church decorations favored by his Castilian clients. For the massive San Benito project, which included paintings, polychromed reliefs and free-standing figures set in a large architectural format, the memory of all Berruguete had seen in Italy was crucial.

The framework of the altarpiece, which was crowned by a semidome, recalls the 1506 plans of the architect Donato Bramante (whom Berruguete knew in Rome) for the Vatican Belvedere. Pope Julius II would install the “Laocoön” and another recent discovery, the celebrated, ancient “Apollo Belvedere,” in the courtyard of the Belvedere. Likewise, the retablo’s complex monastic program, in which Old Testament prophets and New Testament saints coexist in a visionary world, draws on formal and iconographic precedents in Michelangelo’s Sistine frescos, while countless individual figures within the altarpiece also recall the Renaissance master’s early work and that of his contemporaries.

But it is in Berruguete’s exquisite and excruciatingly emotional “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” intended to fill a niche in the predella, or lower register, of the altarpiece, that the lessons of the Italian Renaissance as transmuted through the Spanish artist’s uncompromisingly original imagination find their most redolent form.

The sculpture is housed today in Valladolid’s Museo Nacional de Escultura. Though isolated, along with related figures, from the fragments that have been reassembled in an adjoining gallery too small to hold the retablo in its entirety, its staggering power as an image is scarcely diminished.

Unlike Donatello’s more narrative work, in which the protagonists’ dawning awareness of their redemption draws us around the sculpture, we are stopped in our tracks by Berruguete’s freeze-frame of the final moment before the angel’s arrival. An anguished Abraham arches back in utter despair at the task that awaits him; the silent scream of his mouth agape, his furrowed brow, his loving caress of his son’s hair, and especially his inconsolable gaze toward the heavens signal the depths of a father’s agony and impending loss.

The gaunt, squared profile of his torso, where skin stretches tautly across protruding bones; the sinewy arms that bind him to his son, like the serpentine, gilded banderole they share; the tensely muscled leg and cramped, suspended (and now partially broken off) foot dangling precipitously, and pointlessly, in midair—all suggest not so much the approach of old age as the despair that consumes him body and soul.

At the other end of the sculpture’s unsparing emotional spectrum is the patriarch’s young son, as beautiful as he is haunting. Though modeled after one of Michelangelo’s idealized male nudes, Berruguete’s Issac, crouched in terror above the requisite sacrificial woodpile, is charged with a violent expressive tension that rejects any hint of a classical canon and hews instead to the pathos of the “Laocoön.”

In painfully physical terms — the powerfully sculpted arms and body that are forcefully constrained; the clenched, folded legs and crushed right foot that struggle to support him; and the innocent, youthful face contorted by fear, bewilderment and a soundless, open-mouthed wail (perhaps suggested by traces of red pigment near his ear?) — Berruguete gives ruthless plastic form not to the unfolding, sacred narrative but to a volcanic outburst of feeling that seems to defy its moral message.

His “Sacrifice of Isaac” is closer in spirit to Donatello’s ferociously expressive last works than to the earlier sculpture Berruguete knew on the Florentine Campanile, and to the stirring intensity, or terribiltà, of Michelangelo’s later art. Yet it transcends its sources in Renaissance Italy to manifest the growing Spanish belief that, at its most profound, emotionally honest and devastatingly real, art can offer a glimpse of the soul.


Gustave Courbet: Woman with a Parrot – 1866 New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

June 23, 2014


Courbet was no stranger to controversy. He was a man of strong political views which occasionally erupted into activism, in particular during the revolutionary year of 1848 and the Commune in 1871. He was anti-intellectual, anti-clerical and anti-establishment and these socio-political opinions had an impact on the subject matter he chose to depict. All this gained him a reputation as a provocative firebrand but he nevertheless exhibited regularly at the Salon, protected by powerful patrons; indeed at the 1849 Salon he was awarded a gold medal.

However, in contrast to the warm reception afforded to some of his work, Courbet was more than capable of upsetting just about everyone with other canvases; three years before he completed Woman with a Parrot he submitted a painting entitled Return from the Conference for the notorious 1863 Salon. The jury that year were particularly uncompromising rejecting huge numbers of paintings; the subsequent uproar from spurned artists resulting in the establishment of the Salon des Refusés where rejected paintings were shown. However Return from the Conference depicting drunken priests was too much even for the Salon des Refusés to stomach – it was eventually purchased by a devout Catholic who destroyed it.

The critics found plenty to criticise when they were confronted by Woman with a Parrot at the 1866 Salon, complaining about the model’s ‘ungainly pose’ and the artist’s lack of taste. The principal problem however was the blatant sexuality of the painting in which a young woman can be seen sprawled across a couch, her legs slightly splayed, the tresses of her luxuriant hair spread out against a disarranged white sheet, part of which has, perhaps fortuitously, entwined itself around her upper leg. Most of the sheet has become a tangled heap leading to questions in the mind of the viewer as to how this might have come about. The young woman is diverted by the eponymous parrot whose outstretched wings, revealing its striking plumage, echo the massed locks of her hair.

Why the parrot? As a result of some curious labyrinthine medieval logic (the call of some parrots was thought to resemble the word ‘Ave’ used by the archangel Gabriel to greet Mary at the Annunciation) the parrot became one of the many attributes of the Virgin. By association the bird later came to be used as a secular companion to women. Their sumptuous and exotic appearance and provenance (and the consequent expense of acquiring one) enhanced their allusive use by some artists as a pointer to those qualities in the sitter. By the 18th century, a bird that had flown its cage came to be associated with a fallen woman. The parrot therefore came to embody both the exotic and the erotic.

So with the parrot, Courbet suggests a daring mix of references, no doubt designed to ruffle the feathers of the Salon committee. However, Courbet’s contemporaries loved it: Cézanne apparently kept a photo of it in his wallet and Manet produced his own version of the image.


The Power Of Art — Gregory Wolfe

May 30, 2014
A Blue tit at a reflection pool at the Woodland Feeding Station Hide in Worcestershire UK

A Blue tit at a reflection pool at the Woodland Feeding Station Hide in Worcestershire UK. “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” Hans Urs von Balthasar

Gregory Wolfe is the founder of Image and the Director of the Center for Religious Humanism. He also serves as Writer in Residence and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University.

He served as a judge in nonfiction for the 2005 National Book Awards. Among his books are Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography (ISI Books) and Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel (Notre Dame). A collection of his editorial statements from Image, entitled Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery, was published in the fall of 2003 by Square Halo Books. He has co-edited God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Paraclete). Another collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, was recently published by ISI Books.

His website is


I came across these words of a character in Mark Helprin’s recent novel, A Soldier of the Great War. An Italian professor of aesthetics, a man who has been scarred by the cataclysms and tragedies of the modern world, tries to explain the power of art:

My conceits will never serve to wake the dead. Art has no limit but that. You may come enchantingly close, and you may wither under the power of its lash, but you cannot bring back the dead. It’s as if God set loose the powers of art so that man could come so close to His precincts as almost to understand how He works. But in the end He closes the door in your face, and says, ‘Leave it to me.’ It’s as if the whole thing were just a lesson. To see the beauty of the world is to put-your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone-on the other-side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.

I no longer (if ever) bought the argument that art can save our souls. But I do credit it with being able to redeem our age or to give us a true image of ourselves by showing us the horror and the boredom to which we can descend — not to mention the glory to which we may be privileged to glimpse.

It was Eliot himself who formulated the best response to those who want art merely to depict idealized forms of beauty. “We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal. It is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.” Eliot’s perception is the natural extension of Dostoevsky’s prophecy that “Beauty will save the world.” Just as Christians believe that God became man so that He could reach into, and atone for, the pain and isolation of sin, so the artist descends into disorder so that he might discover a redemptive path toward order.
Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World

Toward the end of my undergraduate days, I came across a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture which I found startling and even a bit disturbing. Solzhenitsyn begins his address on the nature and role of literature with a brief, enigmatic quotation from Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Solzhenitsyn confesses that the phrase had puzzled and intrigued him for some time. And yet, he told the distinguished audience, he had come to believe that Dostoevsky was right.
Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World  

Politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint. My own vocation, as I have come to understand it, is to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture in order to discover how the imagination may “redeem time.”


“Dostoevsky not only preached, but, to a certain degree also demonstrated in his own activity this reunification of concerns common to humanity–at least of the highest among these concerns–in one Christian idea. Being a religious person, he was at the same time a free thinker and a powerful artist. These three aspects , these three higher concerns were not differentiated in him and did not exclude one another, but entered indivisibly into all his activity. In his convictions he never separated truth from good and beauty; in his artistic creativity he never placed beauty apart from the good and the true.

And he was right, because these three live only in their unity. The good, taken separately from truth and beauty, is only an indistinct feeling, a powerless upwelling; truth taken abstractly is an empty word; and beauty without truth and the good is an idol. For Dostoevsky, these were three inseparable forms of one absolute Idea.

The infinity of the human soul–having been revealed in Christ and capable of fitting into itself all the boundlessness of divinity–is at one and the same time both the greatest good, the highest truth, and the most perfect beauty. Truth is good, perceived by the human mind; beauty is the same good and the same truth, corporeally embodied in solid living form. And its full embodiment–the end, the goal, and the perfection–already exists in everything, and this is why Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world”
Vladimir Soloviev, The Heart of Reality



The God of Beauty 2 – Paul Johnson

March 4, 2014
There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it -- there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh -- no English artist ever did it better -- he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.


It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable of enjoying beauty, and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich man. The poor of West Africa, who have little but their native pride, may well be happy to observe that their small country is capable of creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe’s largest, and that the black African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as munificently as the white Westerner.

The 8,000 medieval parish churches which we still possess in England — the greatest single item in our national dowry of art – were built and paid for by a society most of whose members had few material possessions. They now constitute a monument to their generosity and magnanimity, which we will continue to use and enjoy so long as we have the sense to preserve them. They give us as much satisfaction as they give to God, for whose glory they were erected. And do not the souls of those medieval men and women, now in Heaven, rejoice that their churches, created with so much sacrifice, still sound forth God’s praises?

Early in the century, both the Protestant and the Catholic communities of Liverpool, a city then famous for its religious fervor, decided to build new cathedrals. Paradoxically, the Protestants chose a gifted young Catholic architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and he produced for them the design of a masterpiece in Edwardian Gothic. With prodigies of effort, the work was financed and built, and finally completed in the 1980s, long after sponsors and architect were in their graves — as usually happens in the case of cathedrals.

But this marvelous building, the finest erected in Europe this century, survives to do them honor, and to honor too the resolution and faith of the Anglican Church in Liverpool. The Catholics of the Edwardian age also chose a fine architect: the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, an Anglican by conviction but a Catholic by artistic sentiment. He designed a glorious church, on the scale of St Peter’s, in the most sumptuous Baroque, to be built of marble. This was an even greater labor and expense than the Anglican cathedral, but the immense crypt was in due course completed. Then came the war, which halted construction.

Some time after the war, Archbishop Heenan — later cardinal — estimating that the cost of completing the project was more than the Catholics of Liverpool could bear, decided not to complete it. Instead he commissioned and built a much cheaper thing, by a meretricious Modern Movement architect, with a peculiar tent-like roof, which has led the jeering Protestants of the city to christen it ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’.

The Catholics, who were barely consulted by Heenan in making his decision, now hang their heads in shame that they must worship in such a hovel, already showing signs of decay. They are indeed poor, but they would have found the money for Lutyens’ magnificent basilica. I reproached Heenan at the time, as being a man of little faith.

I told him about the church which our parish priest had insisted on building, against much advice, when I was a child, and how the money had been found to complete it. He expressed contrition, and maybe it is still not too late to resurrect Lutyens’ ambitious scheme, for the glory of God in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall see.

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that among the most privileged of human beings are those who have the honor to erect a great church to God. They must be considered the most fortunate of artists, and dearest to their maker. Most, as I say, do not live to see their work finished, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being among their number. But there are exceptions. Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St Paul’s, supervised its main construction, and lived to see it completed.

This immense work brought him little material reward, caused him endless heartache and anxiety, brought him opprobrium and eventually dismissal, and received surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime. But at least he saw it finished, and thereafter he came once a year, to sit under its dome, to pray, to meditate and to rejoice. Those must have been cherished moments – both to him and to God.

However, no good purpose is served by designating a hierarchy of God’s favor for creative geniuses. All artists endear themselves to him by depicting his creations to the best of their ability. Painters are often genuinely pious men and women, despite their wild notions about the Deity. It is common among them to kneel down and pray in dedication before beginning a canvas, and kneel down in gratitude when they have completed it. Sometimes they have misgivings about their failure to use their talents exclusively to praise and explain God’s works – thus Botticelli, one of the purest and most gifted of them all, came bitterly to regret his secular works, with their voluptuousness and riot. He is even said to have destroyed some.

But that was foolish – as foolish as the iconoclasts who, in most faiths, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, have gone around destroying works of art in churches, as vain, idolatrous and blasphemous. It is not for any one or any group of us to decide that people have been wrong to worship God in their chosen fashion.

Far more likely it is that God takes particular pleasure in seeing our attempts to use our skills to replicate the beauty he has created. God is the greatest of all connoisseurs. All my life I have been a landscape painter, after a fashion, as my father was before me. I now regret not having painted more, but I chose to earn my living by writing and the demands of that trade are exigent and for many years I painted little. During the last decade I have tried to make up for lost opportunities by painting what I see wherever I go in the world, even if I only have a few snatched minutes for a quick sketch. The results have been rewarding far in excess of my expectations.

Not only have I accumulated a large stock of sketches and finished paintings, from all continents, but the quality of the rendering has improved. I feel, increasingly, that I am painting for God, as much as for myself and my friends. God gave me this certain, limited talent, and I am serving him by seeking to improve it while making a record of what he has created in the world. To me at any rate, painting is prayerful. It is also one of the most innocent of enjoyments. And it instructs. There is no doubt that painting forces us to look very closely at what God has done and so to grasp the design of nature, just as painting a building gives us a marvelous insight into the intentions of the architect.

Hills and mountains, rivers and waterfalls and lakes do not just come into existence haphazardly. They are formed over long periods by powerful natural forces, and studying them closely while painting enables one to understand these processes and so paint better. No one who spends long hours and days painting landscapes can be without considerable knowledge of the way God has made the world, and of the relationships between beauty and purpose in natural forms.

For a long time I was singularly inept in drawing, and still more painting, trees, so that I almost despaired of them. But they are among the finest of God’s creations – noble things, so full of majesty and honor, and so varied. So I persevered and made a special, painstaking study of their structure, and at long last I began to understand how God designed them, and how it was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art. So I improved and now take enormous pleasure in painting trees, albeit with occasional failures still.

What I have undoubtedly neglected is the human form. I like to put figures in my landscapes, as my father taught me, just to indicate scale, and I am often ashamed at how poor they are. So I often tell myself that I must go back to life-class and really master the human form by drawing it patiently and industriously. So far this has not happened, and the months and years go by, and I realize yet again the importance of resolution and persistence and will-power in all schemes of human improvement. I say to myself now: ‘I will find time to carry out this resolve, as soon as I have finished this book.’ For who can deny that the human form is in many ways the finest of God’s works of art?

The scriptures tell us that God created man in his own image. We do not know exactly what this means, and it certainly cannot mean that God looks like a man in an ordinary visual sense. We are left with a mystery, but perhaps we can begin to solve it by studying and painting the human form with the diligence its radiant beauties merit. There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine.

That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

Studying the works of God and trying to reproduce them visually brings us close to our creator. It is one way to know him. But it may be that the musician gets even closer. The universe is an exercise in harmony as much as in shape and colour and texture, and none can doubt that there are celestial sounds as well as visions. Then again, all creation is a series of abstractions as muchas a series of material realities, and these abstractions can be expressed musically as well as mathematically and algebraically.

Composing, reproducing and hearing sounds of exquisite beauty and profundity can give us extraordinary insights not just into beauty, but into goodness itself. After hearing a great symphony, telling us, but entirely in abstract terms, of truth and justice and heroism, we arise better men and women. The musicians in the orchestra feel it, the conductor feels it, the listeners feel it. The mood may not last, but it is much to have felt it at all. It is akin to the lifting of the heart and spirit we experience at a religious ceremony when we have concentrated our thoughts well and meditated deeply. So music works on our minds, and God listens too.

It must be a fine thing to have composed the music which has so held players and audience and so raised their minds to God. That is why, I think, Jean Sibelius told me, in the summer of 1949, ‘to compose is often an agony but it is the quintessence of privilege too’. Many composers have been deeply religious people, humbly rejoicing in this privilege — none more so than Joseph Haydn, whose long, industrious and painstaking life, so modestly conducted amid so many difficulties and setbacks, is a model of artistic integrity in God’s service.

Or there is the case of Anton Bruckner, childlike and wholly innocent in his devotion to God, who spent so many hours seated at the organ, alone with his music and his maker, and then poured forth his prayers in vast symphonies, few of which he ever heard performed. His ninth, last and greatest he dedicated, quite simply: ‘To Almighty God’.

In contrast to architects, painters and composers, writers have a mixed record in God’s service. They are so numerous and varied that it is risky to generalize in any way, but it is remarkable how many writers, in all civilisations, have tended to take a critical view of established order and sought to subvert it. It is probably the single most striking characteristic of the mind which wishes to express itself through the written word.

Now, of course, in subverting order they may be carrying out God’s purpose, and there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament where that is exactly what its more passionate writers are doing. But I have spent my entire working life among writers and I know very well that the cast of mind which they habitually possess, and which harbors huge resentments of the world as it exists, is not necessarily motivated by selfless altruism. To praise God is not usually the writer’s intention in picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a word-processor. More likely it is to express a grievance or work off a resentment or articulate a personal longing or simply to rage — in addition to making money, of course. Writers are sinful and fallen and unsatisfactory man writ large.

It will be, for me at least, one of the great points of interest of the next world to see how God, in his justice, sorts out all the giants and pygmies of the pen. How will Voltaire fare? Some Christian polemicists write as if he were already in Hell, but I am not so sure. A man’s writings have to be judged in their effects, if any, over many generations, and these may be contradictory and, in aggregate, difficult to assess. We may be sure God will do them justice, however, and this may often in the end surprise us.

Where will he place Tolstoy, that astonishing combination of humility and arrogance, wisdom and madness, piety and destruction? He will have difficulty with Milton, too, who sought — so he said — to justify the ways of God to men and ended by writing a masterpiece whose hero was Satan. I do not know how Shelley will fare, he who professed atheism and practised a kind of exalted pantheism, who preached socialism and was a monster of personal selfishness. The fact is, nevertheless, that men and women have been uplifted and inspired by Shelley’s poetry and become better people in consequence.

How will God reward or punish, sanctify or damn the immense mass of gifted men and women who have given contradictory messages to the modern world? All will come up for judgment – the Baudelaires and the Hugos, the Hemingways and the Joyces, a mad genius like Ezra Pound and a calculating operator like Zola, the reckless like Rimbaud and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints like Chesterton.

I cannot imagine how God will arrange Sartre and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Rilke, Yeats and Lorca in any order of sanctification or devilry which makes sense. But it will undoubtedly be carried out: therein lie the fascinating things to come. What evil have their writings done — then and since? What good — in their lifetimes and thereafter? The heavenly computers will whirr and deliver and the notices of judgment will be posted, and the writers, disheveled, apprehensive, ashamed or defiant, struggling or abject, will be brought out to be given their laurels or punished, in front of all the watching world.

But there are also those writers who have not sought to tell the world what to do, to create Utopias out of their own unaided intellects and incited people into trying to bring them about, but instead have simply set themselves to portray God’s universe and his people in loving words. They will have a smooth passage through the storms of that tremendous judgment day. There are writers who, by their modest genius, or even merely by their carefully husbanded and honed talents, have sought chiefly to enable their readers to see God’s creation with fresh eyes — have taught us to look, again and again, at the world around us and the way humans behave.

To teach us about the universe, to encourage us to explore and value and treat tenderly all its manifestations and inhabitants, is a salient work of art in itself and an act of worship. Such writers are dear to God, and they are valuable to us too: for the understanding and reverence we bring to the world around us is a salient part of our duty, as we are beginning to discover.


The God of Beauty 1 – Paul Johnson

March 3, 2014
The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter's itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

Jesuit educated (at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford ) Paul Bede Johnson is an English journalist, historian, speechwriter and author. He was educated. Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. I’ve enjoyed several of his more than 40 books (Intellectuals, Modern Times, The Birth of the Modern). This is a chapter from a little gem of a book, The Quest for God.


When I was a child, I always associated the notion of God with beauty. There were several reasons for this. The first was that, in our house, the only things which seemed to matter, which were treated as important, were religion, education and art. My father was headmaster of an art school, and a practicing painter. He produced watercolors mainly, but also etchings, drypoints, lithographs and other kinds of prints, and at his schools the pupils were instructed in sculpture and pottery as well. In our house was an art room (it was always called that, not a studio, regarded as an un-English expression), where my father worked.

Art and education were intermingled and both were sacrosanct. My father’s very limited resources were primarily devoted to the education of his children, and great significance was attached to our schooling, and our performance at school. But even more important was religion: that is, attending church, prayers, holy pictures and statues, fasting and abstinence, keeping the commandments and pious practices. I became aware of this order of priorities at a very early age.

The second reason I associated God with beauty was our local church. Shortly before I was born, our parish priest, an ambitious and energetic man, decided to build a new church and bought a virgin site, not far from our house. He consulted my father at every stage of this undertaking, from the original design, throughout the construction, and during the completion and decoration of the building. The church was conceived on the largest possible scale. No architect was employed, but our priest, sometimes accompanied by my father, travelled in Europe to look for models, and eventually hit on a compromise between two which had taken his fancy.

So the church had a large Gothic tower joined to a series of Romanesque domes, and three-and-one-half in number, the half-dome covering the high altar, and the other three the nave. The edifice was built of stone and in order to carry its immense weight, in a part of Staffordshire riddled with old mine-workings and liable to subsidence, a thick raft of concrete was placed under the foundations.

Most local Catholics did not believe in the ability of the parish to carry through and finance this immense undertaking — and non-Catholics were scandalized by our audacity and pride. Even my father was worried by the responsibility of it all, and by many other aspects of the design and construction. But our priest was a man possessed by a vision and he was determined to carry it through, no matter what.

And he did carry it through, at remarkable speed. The main construction period coincided with the Great Depression, when there were thousands out of work in the neighborhood and the evidence of dire poverty was everywhere. This made it more difficult to borrow money or to raise funds to finance what was known as ‘the Debt’. On the other hand, it may be that it was easier and cheaper to get labor at this time, and to spur it to exceptional efforts, and this explains why the church was so soon completed.

At all events, by the time I came to consciousness the church was nearly finished, and the internal decoration was proceeding. My father was much involved in this, and so was I as a small, wondering and rapt spectator. It was as though, in a modest way, I was a witness to the topping-out and the embellishment of the great basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. As the church was so near, I was in and out of it many times a week. It was not so much that I was fond of it as completely dominated and overawed by it. It was, physically and in every other way, a huge presence in my life.

My father often drew and painted it and so, in due course, did I. It did not occur to me, in my childhood, that God and art had separate existences, since both were so intimately united in the church itself. Only later did I perceive there was such a thing as secular art, and even then it seemed to be more a tributary of religious art rather than an autonomous entity.

God presided over everything, it appeared, but he had a particularly close connection with any artistic endeavor — architecture, of course, painting, sculpture, but also brass- and ironwork for the church fittings, stained glass for the windows, needlework for the vestments and altarcloths, and various kinds of precious metalwork for the holy vessels. God was also somehow involved in the casting of the massive bronze bells, and the elaborate process whereby they were hoisted to the top of the great tower, so that they could ring out over the surrounding countryside, proclaiming triumphantly that the magnificent church had, indeed, been finished.

The association between God on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other, was thus impressed upon me from the earliest age, so that I took it quite for granted. Hence, when I studied theology at school, what attracted me most among St Thomas Aquinas’s various proofs of God was the fourth one, from beauty.

St Thomas argued, as I recall, that we were aware, through our senses, not just of beauty but of degrees of beauty. It follows from this that there is an absolute beauty, and that thing or being is God himself. We love God, in this life, as the very epitome of goodness, which we perceive from his works and from the love for us which radiates from him. But we cannot — yet — see God and we thus have no conception of the absolute beauty which is him. That, I imagine, will be among the chief delights of Paradise, the contemplation of an effulgent and myriad-natured beauty, which is perpetually changing and modulating, yet permanent in its serenity and power.

I suppose we shall all — if we get there! – be beautiful then, and one of the characteristics of salvation will be the acquisition of power to enjoy beauty in ways we cannot now even imagine. Heaven will be a celestial academy and gallery of living art, whose beauties will penetrate and envelop our very souls. We will walk among and converse with those Raphael madonnas and Botticelli angels and Michelangelo and Donatello Davids. But it is the beauty of God himself which will most entrance us.

God, it is clear, gives us a foretaste of his beauty in the universe he has created. Its beauty, like its energizing forces, radiates from him. Indeed, the fact that God rejoices in beauty is one reason why he created the universe in the first place. The universe, like God himself, is living beauty, constantly changing its form with fresh delights. It creates beauty by its motions. The starry heavens were the first intimations of beauty which penetrated the minds of primitive men and women, who had no possessions and hadnot yet taught themselves to make things, but already possessed the power of ecstasy.

During those long nights of distant antiquity, they lay on the ground and contemplated with wonder and satisfaction the movements of the stars. It was almost certainly then that they grasped what beauty is about — an intimation of God. The stars taught them that God was there, and that he was even greater than the stars because he had made and arranged them and set them in motion. So beauty did indeed lead men to God, as St Thomas later argued.

The universe, from its inception — from that first Big Bang — has had an awesome beauty but, as it expands and develops, its beauties multiply and intensify. We can see this ourselves, as the number and variety of flowers increases, and we and nature together produce finer specimens. Human beings, always beautiful, become more so as new and healthier generations succeed each other. The girls are prettier than ever before, and there are more of them to catch the eye. The young men are taller, stronger, more handsome.

The universe is so full of beauty that it is difficult for one limited human being to take it all in. We travel more than ever, and have far easier access to the splendors of the world than any of our forebears, but it is beyond our power, even in a lifetime, to absorb more than a fraction of what God has provided for our delectation. God is, if anything, too generous, as Martin Luther is recorded as observing in his Table Talk: ‘Dr Luther, holding a rose in his hand, said: “Tis a magnificent work of God: could a man make but one such rose as this, he would be thought worthy of all honor, but the gifts of God lose their value in our eyes from their very infinity.”

God provides us, then, with countless models of beauty, and it seems to me manifestly part of his purpose for us that we should learn to reciprocate, by producing beauty ourselves. It is one important way in which we return God’s love for us. We cannot give him power or possessions, for he has everything of that kind already, but we can give him beauty of our invention, and he rejoices in it, however inferior it may be to his own inventions, just as fond parents enjoy the drawings of their tiny children.

Artists of all kinds are dear to God. He endows them with their skills and, in rare cases, their genius, and delights in the way they make use of them. Woe betide an idle artist, neglecting God’s gifts! — a point Milton makes in one of his greatest sonnets when he writes of ‘talent which is death to hide’.

Some visitors to Rome, seeing the marvelous works of art created there under papal patronage, especially from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, deplore the expenditure of so much time and money and energy on mere artifice. They see the glories of papal Rome as materialism triumphant, sanctified secularity, paganism enthroned. That is an arguable point of view and throughout the millenniums of belief austere souls have sought to praise God without any aids of beauty.

But to my mind, and I think to most people’s, to create beauty is one way in which we respond to God and praise him. To erect buildings and to adorn them with art specifically so that God may be worshipped in them is a worthy occupation for a pope and his cardinals. And it is no bad thing, incidentally, for an ecclesiastical ruler to have the physical means to overawe his secular rivals. Not long ago I was in Rome with Margaret Thatcher on a private visit, and Pope John Paul II kindly arranged for her and one or two of her friends to be shown the Sistine Chapel, reopened after the most extensive restoration in its history.

It was a rare privilege to see Michelangelo’s frescos without the perpetually milling crowd which fills the chapel throughout its official opening hours. It was a still rarer experience to see Margaret Thatcher, this Queen of Politics, this outstanding exponent of the art of ruling, quite overcome — rendered speechless, in fact — by the splendor of beauty brought into being by a genius under ecclesiastical patronage. She saw that the church can command, as well as the state!

No pope or archbishop should be deterred from erecting monuments to Almighty God by mere difficulty or expense. We have to think of future generations, as well as our own. And we have to think what God himself wishes. The catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.


Old Subject, New Approach — Richard Cork

May 13, 2013
By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the Annunciation, Jan van Eyck created an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.

By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the Annunciation, Jan van Eyck created an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.


Mr. Cork’s latest book is “The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals” (Yale, 2012). This article was printed in the WSJ a while back.


Nothing in the Bible story is more astounding than the pivotal instant when, quite suddenly, the Virgin Mary receives an unexpected visitor. Brandishing a resplendent pair of wings, the Angel Gabriel descends from heaven and gives the young woman some shocking news: She will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God.

Most Renaissance painters who tackled this popular subject ensured that a sizable gap divorces Mary from Gabriel. But when Jan van Eyck took up the challenge, he broke through to a radical alternative. Based in Bruges as court painter to Philip the Good, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, van Eyck was renowned as a pioneer of naturalism in the new medium of oil paint.

And in a tall, narrow painting made about 1435, executed with mesmerizing precision and a wealth of meanings, he removes the setting from the Virgin’s home. Instead, “The Annunciation” now occurs in a richly detailed church. By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the subject, van Eyck creates an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.

At first, our eyes are caught up in the intensity of the encounter between Angel and Virgin. In this thin panel, we grow conscious of how very close these figures are to one another. Although the ecclesiastical setting could hardly be more formal, their encounter feels like a private moment, no doubt reflecting van Eyck’s own awareness that Mary is now being impregnated with the seed of the Christ child. Rays of golden light shoot down from an upper window, bearing the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. One ray descends directly onto the crown of the Virgin’s head, piercing her so that Jesus can be conceived.

No wonder she seems so apprehensive and confused. Van Eyck makes no attempt to invest her with poised, spurious glamour. She is a real woman, with a long nose, protruding ear and the beginnings of a double chin. Her head is tilted, probably to acknowledge and receive the golden ray. This diagonal inclination makes her look unsteady, and both her hands are raised as if in shock. But there is also something worshipful about these blanched, wavering fingers. Directly below them, lilies soar up from a vase to symbolize the Virgin’s purity. Painted with consummate skill, the flowers affirm the principle of vitality and fresh growth.

As for the Angel, van Eyck has transformed this divine messenger into a magnificent apparition. Gabriel’s extraordinary rainbow wings echo the dove flying down through the church. Yet they are far larger than the bird’s wings, and shimmer with an iridescent glow. The Angel’s elaborately woven cope looks like a priest’s vestment of the 1430s. So it must have given Gabriel a contemporary appeal to viewers at that time, and the fabric is dominated by an enormous dianthus flower, said to be the flower of God. The petals spring to life through van Eyck’s virtuoso handling of light.

The same luminosity illuminates the Virgin’s face, strikes the crystal scepter clutched by the Angel, and dances all over the bejeweled accoutrements he is wearing with such pride. The colors appear to glow from within, and this sense of ecstasy is embodied above all in Gabriel himself.

His smiling, tender face glistens as much as his fair, curly hair. He looks transported with excitement, and lifts his pale, slender index finger in a gesture of friendly beckoning. With amazing boldness, he pushes his left leg toward Mary’s body. It seems at first like an invasive movement, making us wonder if the Virgin might feel threatened by Gabriel’s proximity.

But there is nothing remotely alarming about this radiant messenger, and the words that issue, in Latin, from his parted lips confirm his innate gentleness: “Hail, full of grace.” Although Mary seems hesitant, she responds by declaring: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” Yet her words are not addressed simply to the Angel. Van Eyck paints them upside-down and back to front, so that God may read them more easily from his heavenly vantage.

As well as evoking a God of Love rather than a stern God of Judgment, this inexhaustible painting is packed with references to the old Scriptures and the victory of the new faith, Christianity. Why did van Eyck set his “Annunciation” in a church? As our eyes travel over this superbly convincing location, we realize that he is telling us a great deal about the larger meaning of the dramatic event occurring here.

At the top, God stands isolated in a stained-glass window and personifies the ancient Jewish belief that He was alone. But gradually, as we move down the church, the old insistence on a solitary deity is replaced by the Christian Trinity. Symbolically ranged behind Mary’s face are three windows, announcing the triple identity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.

Hence van Eyck’s readiness to make Gabriel such a glittering figure. He is heralding the advent of the new religion, and the wall-paintings above him depict Old Testament scenes regarded by medieval theologians as events that prefigure Jesus’ life and fate. After the baby Moses is handed to Pharaoh’s daughter, the adult Moses receives the Ten Commandments. And on the church floor, violence erupts. The victorious David hacks off Goliath’s head, while Absalom — tucked away behind a prayer-stool — hangs by his hair from a tree as a grim prophecy of Christ’s crucifixion.

Nearly five centuries after it was painted, “The Annunciation” became the focus of a battle between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and an obsessive American multimillionaire. In June 1930, Hermitage officials were appalled by Stalin’s decision to sell key paintings in its collection to wealthy foreign collectors. But Andrew Mellon, the U.S. secretary of the Treasury, bought “The Annunciation” with 20 other Hermitage paintings before locking them away in a basement near his Washington home. And in 1935, after the U.S. government brought tax-evasion charges against him, Mellon suddenly announced that he would found a great gallery in the capital.

Six years later, the National Gallery of Art was duly inaugurated by President Franklin Roosevelt. And one of its star paintings is undoubtedly “The Annunciation.” Its impact today prompts many visitors to scrutinize this luminous image with a sense of wonder, just as Christians have always marveled at the infinitely mysterious miracle of the Virgin birth.


El Greco The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586), A Vision of Faith — Mary Tompkins Lewis

May 3, 2013
El Greco (1541-1614) The Funeral of Count Orgaz, 1586. Oil on canvas, 460cm x 360cm. Location: S. Tome, Toledo, Spain  His pictorial language defies the laws and logic of material reality to conjure another realm.

El Greco (1541-1614) The Funeral of Count Orgaz, 1586. Oil on canvas, 460cm x 360cm. Location: S. Tome, Toledo, Spain His pictorial language defies the laws and logic of material reality to conjure another realm.

Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford and is a writer for the WSJ where I found this a few weeks ago.


At the center of Spain and of ancient Castile, and less than an hour from Madrid, Toledo has always existed in another world. Countless settlers have been drawn to the city’s impregnable perch on a mountaintop, and they have shaped its cultural history: Romans, Visigoths, Moorish caliphates and, in the medieval period, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities all left their mark on monuments that fill the small city.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos — the 16th-century painter from Crete known as El Greco — left his adopted home some of its greatest treasures, including his magisterial painting of “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” On a monumental scale (almost 16 feet by 10 feet) and in astonishingly original form, the canvas reflects not only centuries of Toledo’s history as a cultural melting pot, but the profound faith and tolerance that sustained it.

The cobblestone streets of the old walled city lead to the massive Toledo Cathedral, a spectacular mix of Gothic, Mudéjar and later Baroque designs. In its shadows lies the little parish church of Santo Tomé that once counted El Greco among its congregants. Visitors today enter through a side door that opens into a small funerary chapel where the “Burial” hangs.

Below, a lengthy Latin inscription serves as an epitaph for Don Gonzalo de Ruiz, the 14th-century Lord of Orgaz, whose remains are interred in the church. Ruiz’s celebrated generosity included, as bequeathed in his will, an annual contribution to Santo Tomé to be collected, in perpetuity, from his subjects in the nearby town of Orgaz. According to local legend, he was rewarded for his munificence by the miraculous appearance at his funeral of St. Stephen and St. Augustine, who gently laid his body to rest in his tomb.

In 1586, in an effort to honor the church’s historic benefactor and to reinvigorate the charity of Orgaz’s residents, whose payments had recently lapsed, the parish priest, Andrés Núñez de Madrid, commissioned El Greco to commemorate the fabled event.

As stipulated in the contract, the artist depicted the visionary final moments of the burial rites, the presence of many onlookers, and above, an “open heaven of glory.” The greatest miracle of the painting, however, is the staggering imagination and expressive power El Greco brought to his prescribed task. His early training as an icon painter in Greece, his subsequent study in Renaissance Venice and Rome, and his efforts, after arriving in Spain in 1577, to attract prominent patrons, all figure in El Greco’s canvas, where both Eastern and Western traditions combine to transform his memorial into a cogent contemporary parable.

The composition is clearly divided into earthly and celestial domains and, as the art historian Sarah Schroth has described, two recognizable European types — the “All-Saints Picture” of a sacred realm filled with divinities, angels and saints, and the motif of the “Last Judgment,” in which the dead are judged for eternity — are beautifully conflated in the upper register. Enshrined at center is the triangular grouping of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and Christ in Judgment, a familiar Byzantine motif.

More than its blended iconography or august, prayerful figures, however, the painter’s pictorial language defines El Greco’s vision of heaven: The amorphous, billowing clouds, silvery palette and mannered, phantomlike personages who float in indeterminate space and time (including, prematurely, Spain’s King Philip II) defy the laws and logic of material reality to conjure another realm.

Such exquisite details as the twisting, nude Lazarus who rises from his grave at far right; the noble figure of St. Peter, in a luminous yellow cloak, from whose endless fingers dangle the keys to eternal life; and the mist-shrouded vision, at far left, of the biblical patriarchs David, Moses and Noah suggest the wealth of invention and artistry El Greco summoned.

In contrast, the painting’s lower, terrestrial register reflects a burgeoning Spanish taste for naturalism, a gift for portraiture the painter had honed in Italy, and the reality of the Toledo El Greco knew.

A virtual portrait gallery of the city’s 16th-century elite stretches across the canvas like saints in a Byzantine frieze, and includes at right the dignified figure with downcast eyes of Antonio de Covarrubias, the revered canonical scholar, humanist and friend of El Greco who might have contributed to the painting’s complex doctrinal imagery. The artist himself may look out at us just to the left of center, and most scholars agree that his young son, Jorge (identified by the birth date inscribed on his pocket square), points with a didactic gesture to the mystical event in the foreground.

But it is El Greco’s studied, and more naturalist style here, as captured again in breathtaking details, that compels us to believe in miracles: Who could doubt the presence of the early Christian martyr St. Stephen, for example, after catching a glimpse of his radiant reflection in the cold steel armor that serves as shroud to the deceased? The weight of Ruiz’s body, as cradled by the benevolent saints, the bowed heads of many who surround him, and the limpid air and crisp forms of the lower register further ground us in that realm’s earthly aura.

Yet El Greco also takes pains to link the two spheres, not so much to unify his picture as to underscore its implicit message. Flaming torches on either side, the slender staff of a crucifix at right, and the awe-struck gesture and skyward gaze of the priest in a diaphanous white surplice (an image of rapturous faith and a superlative display of painterly skill) draw our eyes upward. At the very center of the composition, an angel ushers Ruiz’s tiny, spectral soul through the narrow chasm leading to eternity, literally enacting the painting’s promise of salvation.

In his wildly expressive, Mannerist heaven and eloquent, earthly realm, hints of El Greco’s deeply idiosyncratic later style abound, one that would perfectly parallel the increasingly abstract theological tenets they embraced. In them, as already in his “Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” we become not so much viewers of their imagery as witnesses to their ideals.


Sinners and Saints By Bruce Boucher

February 20, 2013
According to a legend popular in Caravaggio's time, after Christ's death his faithful female disciple Mary of Magdala moved to southern France, where she lived as a hermit in a cave at Sainte-Beune near Aix-en-Provence. There she was transported seven times a day by angels into the presence of God, "where she heard, with her bodily ears, the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs." Earlier artists had depicted Mary ascending into the divine presence through multicoloured clouds accompanied by angels; Caravaggio made the supernatural an entirely interior experience, with the Magdalen alone against a featureless dark background, caught in a ray of intense light, her head lolling back and eyes stained with tears. This revolutionary naturalistic interpretation of the legend also allowed him to capture the ambiguous parallel between mystical and erotic love, in Mary's semi-reclining posture and bared shoulder. The painting was immensely influential for future treatment of the theme by artists such as Rubens and Simon Vouet (who adopted Carvaggio's earth-bound Magdalen but reintroduced the angels), and of course Bernini and his celebrated Ecstasy of St Theresa

According to a legend popular in Caravaggio’s time, after Christ’s death his faithful female disciple Mary of Magdala moved to southern France, where she lived as a hermit in a cave at Sainte-Beune near Aix-en-Provence. There she was transported seven times a day by angels into the presence of God, “where she heard, with her bodily ears, the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs.” Earlier artists had depicted Mary ascending into the divine presence through multicoloured clouds accompanied by angels; Caravaggio made the supernatural an entirely interior experience, with the Magdalen alone against a featureless dark background, caught in a ray of intense light, her head lolling back and eyes stained with tears. This revolutionary naturalistic interpretation of the legend also allowed him to capture the ambiguous parallel between mystical and erotic love, in Mary’s semi-reclining posture and bared shoulder. The painting was immensely influential for future treatment of the theme by artists such as Rubens and Simon Vouet (who adopted Carvaggio’s earth-bound Magdalen but reintroduced the angels), and of course Bernini and his celebrated Ecstasy of St Theresa

A biography and an analysis of the Italian painter who used the outcast as models for his religious works. Caravaggio A Life by Helen Langdon.


One memorable scene in Derek Jarman’s film ”Caravaggio” [a poor film, mostly unwatchable: dj]shows the painter struggling for inspiration as he composes his masterpiece, ”The Marytrdom of St. Matthew”: models and hangers-on fill an improbably large studio while Caravaggio barks orders like a film director. It is a clever if simplistic metaphor of artistic creation, reflecting the criticisms leveled at the painter during his life, for Caravaggio was commonly held to paint only what he saw, invoking nature as his guide.

Like all cliches, Jarman’s interpretation contained a nugget of truth: Caravaggio did undermine the conventional hierarchies of art, glorying in an earthy naturalism too strong for his politer contemporaries. Yet this rebel was also courted by connoisseurs and prelates; he hungered after the status of a gentleman and was as much concerned with his rapier as his brush. Dead at 39, Caravaggio transformed painting while losing himself in a legend even more outlandish than his own life.

Helen Langdon’s ”Caravaggio: A Life” disinters the man and artist from romantic fantasies spun around him and retells his stormy career from impoverished obscurity to celebrated notoriety. Her readings of his paintings are informed by an intimate knowledge of the period; deftly interweaving artifact and milieu, she re-creates the demimonde so lovingly depicted by him and reaffirms his achievement by placing it in a new and more objective context.

Langdon employs a familiar though risky strategy, if only because what is known of Caravaggio’s life would scarcely fill a dozen pages, and her book is occasionally overwhelmed by extended discussions of prostitution or Counter-Reformation piety. Yet, given such a tale of gambling, murder and flight, no one could seriously complain. Langdon’s narrative reads like a chapter from Manzoni’s classic novel, ”The Betrothed,” depicting a society in which violence was never far from the surface.

Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, first learned his craft in provincial Lombardy among artists struggling to convey naturalism and directness at a time when Rome and Florence were dominated by artistic fashions more idealized and self-referential. His training proved a saving grace when he reached Rome in 1592; he brought to his work a talent for simplicity and close observation that contrasted with the high art of the day. He later said a still life required as much skill as figurative painting, and his work was often so vivid as to make critics believe he always had a model before him.

An early painting of the penitent Mary Magdalene seemed so lifelike that it was once believed to have been a simple study of a girl drying her hair, only retrospectively dignified with a religious title. Under the patronage of the influential Francesco Maria Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio experimented with highly colored genre paintings of cardsharps, musicians and gypsies, works that reminded contemporaries of the Venetian painter Giorgione.

When given the opportunity to demonstrate his skill on a larger scale, Caravaggio elevated the commonplace through his revolutionary canvases on the life of St. Matthew. Rejecting the ideal art of Raphael and Michelangelo, he placed the saint among the tricksters and rogues of his own day, even displacing Christ to the far corner of the canvas. A hard, cold light streams down on Matthew and renders his conversion all the more powerful by his isolation among the indifferent crowd. As Langdon reminds us, Caravaggio created a highly personal view of biblical times, couched in the fashions of contemporary Rome, thus transforming the present into an echo of biblical truth and simultaneously opening a debate about the role of naturalism in history painting.

The St. Matthew cycle brought him success, which proved as difficult to handle as failure. A subsequent altarpiece of the death of the Virgin was rejected as lascivious and shocking, for his model was reputed to be ”a dirty old whore” from the Roman slums. Caravaggio’s ”deviant” art was matched by mood swings and violence, and in one sense his early biographers were right when they drew an analogy between his somber paintings and his character.

Contemporaries observed that he was ”proud and satirical . . . always ready to argue or fight”; he brawled with allies and adversaries alike. As major commissions began to elude him, his life spiraled out of control. Finally he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a longtime adversary, during a murky street fight. Not lingering for justice, Caravaggio fled Rome and began a four-year exile, during which, as a later biographer wrote, ”fear haunted him from place to place.”

His last years were spent on the run in Naples, Malta and Sicily, where he produced a clutch of masterpieces whose themes dealt with persecution and death — an extension, perhaps, of his troubled state of mind. His late painting ”The Resurrection of Lazarus,” in Messina, seems like a reprise of his earlier altarpieces, pared to bleak essentials and with its protagonists caught in a harrowing struggle between light and dark.


Remnants Of A Pre-industrial World – Derek Jeter

December 3, 2012
Think of a portrait as a landscape

Think of a portrait as a landscape

Mary Tompkins Lewis was announcing in the WSJ recently a new exhibition at the Frick Collection in NYC:

A suntanned traveler from Southern California is currently residing in the Frick Collection, thanks to an exchange program between that august New York institution and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Peasant,” one of two paintings and several drawings of the rough-hewn Patience Escalier that he produced in 1888 in the southern French city of Arles, attests in astonishingly original form to the Dutch artist’s ambition to capture in his portraits of rural types the fortitude and quintessential character of the common people of the countryside.

Portrait of a Peasant is one of Van Gogh’s seminal efforts, although not as well known as many of his other works. It came at a time when Vincent was knee deep in combat with the Symbolist debates going on in Paris at the time, particularly as it applied to religious imagery:

When Bernard (a fellow painter) defended Symbolism by charting its half-century rise from the scandals of Charles Baudelaire, an early champion of both Delacroix and Wagner, to the heights of the Parisian avant-garde, Vincent took up the gauntlet. In sweeping, vehement terms, he derided the Symbolists’ images as “follies,” “stupidities,” and “sterile metaphysical meditations.” He chastised them especially for turning their backs on the great artists of the Dutch Golden Age who “painted things just as they are.” “Hammer into your head that master Frans Hals,” he instructed Bernard; “hammer into your head the no less great and universal master … Rembrandt van Rijn, that broad-minded naturalistic man.” The argument. escalated to accusations of cultural plagiarism as Vincent dismissed two centuries of French art as nothing more than “Dutch paste solidly stuffed into vulgar French noodles.”

Nothing about the Symbolist tutelage from Pont-Aven incensed Vincent more than the call for religious imagery. Bernard had first reopened these wounds in April by sending some religious poetry for Vincent’s review. Fired by the Symbolist debates in Paris, newly befriended by Albert Aurier, a young Symbolist poet, and reawakened to his own Catholicism by a love affair in Brittany that spring, Bernard arrived in Pont-Aven with a portfolio of mystic religious imagery in one hand and a Bible in the other. Gauguin received the new ideas openly, and soon both artists were busily planning works to plumb the Good Book’s deep well of mystery and meaning.

After such a warm reception, Bernard must have been shocked by the storm of protest that greeted his ideas in Arles. “How small-minded the old story really is!” Vincent fired back immediately. “My God! Does the world consist solely of Jews?” With inexplicable fury, he railed against “that deeply saddening Bible, which arouses our despair and indignation, which seriously offends us and thoroughly confuses us with its pettiness and infectious foolishness.” Only the figure of Christ survived Vincent’s wrath — he called it the “kernel” of consolation “inside a hard rind and bitter pulp.” But he belittled Bernard’s ambition to capture Christ’s image as “artistic neurosis” and ridiculed his chances of succeeding. “Only Delacroix and Rembrandt have painted the face of Christ in such a way that I can feel him,” he scoffed. “The rest rather make me laugh.”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

There are many of Vincent’s rants that are taken out of context to promote an anti-Catholic point of view. The same thing happens with Dostoevsky but many forget that the Church was involved in activities in the 19th century that were objectionable. You can find many debates in our own day that provoke anti-Church sentiments but do not in any way question the love of the Church that those making the statements truly have. Here we seem to have the same phenomena:

The rant spilled across letter after letter, to Paris as well as Pont-Aven. “Oh, my dear boy,” he wrote Theo, “I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting.” He pounded Bernard with the crimes of Christianity, especially the “barbarity” of Catholic conversions in the New World, and mocked its modern-day hypocrisies.

His months in Catholic Provence, with its medieval festivals and mystical devotions, had already roused childhood feelings of Protestant isolation and anti-papist iconoclasm. (He described the Gothic church in Arles, St. Trophime, as “cruel and monstrous” and, worse, “Roman.”) In July, he undertook to reread the complete works of Balzac, as if to inoculate himself against the world of spirits and superstitions that surrounded him.

But the push from Pont-Aven was too strong, the obsession from the past toe deep and unsettled, to resist for long. That same month, even as his letters filled up with bitter denunciations, Vincent tried his hand at the denounced imagery. He painted “a big study, an olive garden, with a figure of Christ in blue and orange, and an angel in yellow.” It was the image that had haunted him through a lifetime of failures and campaigns for forgiveness: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Only now he saw it in the vivid color of the new art: “Red earth, bilk green and blue, olive trees with violet and carmine trunks, green-gray and blue foliage, [and] a citron-yellow sky.” But the effort collapsed. In a fit of panic (he later called it “horror”) that foretold the catastrophes to come, he angrily took a knife and scraped the offending image off. He kept his failure secret from Bernard and Gauguin. To Theo, he blamed it on the lack of models. “I must not do figures of that importance without models,” he vowed. But surely he knew the block lay deeper.

The failed image triggered a fresh wave of resistance. He scolded his colleagues for resorting to the static, fabular world of the Bible, when the world of nature all around them — especially in Arles — offered so many subjects ripe with significance: sowers and sheaves, sunflowers and cypresses, suns and stars — all opportunities to “paint the infinite.” “It is actually one’s duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature,” he declared, taking aim at the Symbolists’ dry metaphysical exercises. “We are in need of gaiety and happiness, of hope and love.” And why confront the terrible, perfect countenance of Christ. he demanded, when sublimity could be found in faces and figures everywhere: “Do I make myself understood?” he wrote Bernard fiercely. “I am just trying to make you see this single great truth: one can paint all of humanity by the simple means of portraiture.”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

Vincent’s single great truth is on display with Portrait of a Peasant and if you are in NYC greatly worth a trip to the Frick Collection on the upper east side to enjoy it.

To many in late 19th century France, these rugged denizens of the provinces represented the moral bedrock of the Third Republic. [Patience] Escalier was a former oxherd from the Camargue, a region of salt marshes and miry ranch lands that stretches south from Arles to the sea, who toiled in his old age at a farm in the Crau, a rocky area east of Arles immortalized by van Gogh in his landscapes. In letters to his brother, Theo, the painter described his humble subject as a real-life embodiment of the heroic workers who had figured in the pastoral paintings of Jean-François Millet, and as a continuation of his own sober studies of solitary Dutch laborers executed earlier in the 1880s, before he moved to France.

The highly literate Van Gogh also drew on such realist novels as Emile Zola’s controversial “La Terre,” published the year before, which traced the bitter realities of rural life that wedded its rustic inhabitants to the soil. The painter feared, however, that Parisian viewers would see in his charged, emotional portraits from Arles (“paintings in clogs,” he called them, using Millet’s words) only caricature or exaggeration, rather than the collective portrayal of humanity in which he hoped to convey, with radiant light and vibrant color, a sense of the eternal.
Mary Tompkins Lewis, Portrait of a Peasant

As Ms Lewis noted above Vincent’s model has a unique essence, one that Vincent expands  upon here:

At the beginning of August, soon after the success of Anquetin’s The Peasant triggered a rush to rustic imagery in both Pont-Aven and Arles, Vincent recruited an old gardener named Patience Escalier to model for him. He described Escalier as “a poor old peasant, whose features bear a very strong resemblance to Father, only coarser.” Vincent painted him hurriedly, placing his deeply creased, sun-brazed face against a cobalt background and dressing him in a bright turquoise blouse and yellow straw hat much like those Vincent himself wore on his painting trips into the countryside.

To Theo and the comrades in Pont-Aven, he advertised Escalier as an icon out of Millet or Zola (“a man with a hoe, a former drover of the Camargue”), a primitive antidote to “highly civilized Parisian” ways, as well as a Daumier caricature, like the amiable giant Roulin. “I dare believe that Gauguin and you would understand,” he wrote Bernard. “You know what a peasant is, how strongly he reminds one of a wild beast, when you have found one of the true race.”

Vincent quickly fell out with his model over payment terms, but the old man’s image lingered in his eye throughout the arguments with Bernard over religious imagery. When he finally lured Escalier back into the studio at the end of the month, he posed the grizzled gardener leaning on a cane, his hands folded in an attitude of prayer. From under his wide-brimmed straw hat, his old eyes stare serenely into the distance with a sad, long-suffering, heaven-fixed gaze. Beyond his sloping blue shoulders, the world is filled with “flashing orange” representing the “furnace” of harvests past, Vincent said, as well as the “luminous gold” of the sunset to come, and the sunrise beyond.

Listen to how Vincent speaks about another portraiture that he did at around the same time, the painter Boch:

To memorialize this brief manna of friendship, Vincent persuaded Boch to sit for a portrait. Despite their previous antagonism, Vincent had been laying elaborate plans for this portrait for some time. “I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend,” he had written Theo after an encounter with Boch in early August, “a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature.” Despite Boch’s dark hair, Vincent imagined painting him as “a blond man [with] orange tones, chromes and pale-yellow” highlights in his hair:

Behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I [will] paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I [will] get a mysterious effect. like a star in the depths of an azure sky.

445px-Van_Gogh_Portrait_Eugene_BochWhen Boch finally sat for him, Vincent faithfully rendered  his subject’s razor visage and dark hair (with blond highlights only in his mustache and beard. But he dressed him in a yellow-orange coat and stood him against a background of the deepest blue he could devise — just as he had imagined it. He crowned Boch’s head with a thin corona of citron yellow — exactly the color of the “nimbus” around the Savior’s head in Delacroix’s Christ on the Sea of Galilee and flecked the dark void with stars shining yellow and orange from worlds beyond.

It was exactly the scheme he had tried and destroyed in his Garden of Gethsemane: “a figure of Christ in blue and orange.”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

For Vincent approached the transcendent truths required of Biblical art in another way separate and distinct from his Symbolist colleagues who were all the talk of Paris at the time:

Images like these, Vincent argued, expressed their transcendent truths not in the biblical finery that Bernard urged, but in a new and different garb: color. Whether through “the mingling of opposites” or “the vibrations of kindred tones,” Vincent claimed he could address the deepest mysteries of life –the Symbolists’ grail — without resorting to the follies of religion. He could speak directly to the heart “through the language of color alone.” Thus, the sunset colors on Escalier’s face expressed “the eagerness of a soul,” while the light tone of Boch’s figure against the night sky expressed “the thought of a brow” and “hope upon a star.”

The right color combinations, he insisted, could arouse the full range of human emotions: from the “anguish” of broken tones to the “absolute restfuIness” of balanced ones; from the “passion” of red and green to the “gentle consolation” of lilac and yellow. In describing his colors, especially to Bernard, Vincent adopted the Symbolists’ vocabulary (repeatedly invoking “the eternal,” “the mysterious,” “infinity,” and “dreams”), but defiantly declared himself a “rational colorist” and boasted of the complicated calculations that guided his palette — Seurat-like terms anathema to the Symbolists’ manifesto of sensation.

And he rejected outright Cloisonnism’s relegation of color to a mere element of design — a decorative deduction — rather than the “forceful expression” of “an ardent temperament.”

That temperament expressed itself nowhere more forcefully, or defiantly, than in brushwork. In Pont-Aven, Vincent’s comrades had been developing a paint surface that barely betrayed a brush at all. Following Anquetin’s lead, they had pursued the Cloisonnist rhetoric about “plates” of color and the paradigm of stained glass to their logical conclusion. Where Cezanne had used brushy, thinly painted planes and brickworklike strokes to construct his faceted scenes, Gauguin and Bernard divided their images into areas of pure color and then filled each area with thinned paint applied in smooth, impassive strokes. Vincent surely knew of these innovations through his correspondence with both artists, and even occasionally tried them himself when the urge to solidarity overtook him.

But inevitably his manic brush rebelled. His letter sketches to Pont-Aven continued to show only the coloring-book dogma of blocks of pure color, each with its label of “rouge” or “bleu.”

But in his studio, unseen by his colleagues, his draftsman’s hand tirelessly filled those blocks with flights of brushwork in a pattern book of textures and complex topographies of enlever paint. Sometimes he followed the contours of his subjects with undulating trenches of color, faithfully tracing the spiky needles of a pine tree or the snaking branches of a vineyard. Other times, in the background or on the plates mandated by the new gospel, his brush would break into slathering riffs of strokes, turning a cloudless sky into a churning sea or a plowed field into a scumbled battleground. In one particularly intense eruption of impasto — Vincent himself called such episodes “violent” — he loaded his brush with paint and transformed a picturesque streamside mill into a castle of pigment, shattering every plane — walls, roof, sky, and stream — into defiantly visible paint strokes, each one a silent protest, a shake of his fist, against the orthodoxy issuing from Pont-Aven.
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

In the end Vincent’s approach was eclectic and directed by what he saw and felt:

Simplification and exaggeration, and brushwork, had to serve some deeper emotional truth. In 731px-WLANL_-_Pachango_-_Het_gele_huis_('De_straat'),_Vincent_van_Gogh_(1888) describing how he painted the square in front of the Yellow House — a patch of ill-tended public  real estate — Vincent sheepishly admitted to “leaving out some trees” and shrubs that are not in character…. To get at that character,” he said, the fundamental truth of it.”

This was not “imagining,” he hastened to add, rejecting the Symbolists term as Bernard and Gauguin used it. He imagined nothing, he insisted; only looked and felt. He neither ignored nature, nor slavishly followed it; he “consumed” it. “I do not invent the picture,” he corrected Bernard; “on the contrary, I find it already there in nature; I just have to free it.”

When Rembrandt painted angels, Vincent explained, “[he] did not invent anything.. . he knew them; he felt them there.” So, too, when Vincent looked at the trafficked square, he squinted his eyes and saw not the trompe l’oeil reality of overgrown pathways in un-Dutch neglect, but the riotously blooming oleander bushes — “loaded with fresh flowers, and quantities of faded blooms as well, their green continually renewing itself in fresh, strong shoots, apparently inexhaustibly” — an image of angelic consolation that bore no more relationship to reality, he argued, than reality bore to a colorless photograph.

This was the only theory that Vincent’s refractory art could bear – the inevitable expression of a synthetic intelligence bound forever to a lunging heart. “When I am moved by something,” he said, “these are the only things that appear to have any deep meaning.” And painting those things “absorbs me so much,” he confessed, “that I let myself go, never thinking of a single rule.”

Obsessively introspective and often alone, Vincent thought deeply about questions that preoccupied the writers, artists, and philosophers he read; but his personal theories on art, as on everything else, were neither coherent nor consistent. He never could command consistency from himself (not even within the same letter, much less between correspondents), nor could he keep his ideas isolated  from the swirling currents of his emotions. Even within a single painting, his palette and brush often skidded from theory to theory, from model to model, in pursuit of the emotion that seized him — the only dogma that mattered. “What do these differences matter,” he wrote Bernard, declaring his independence by defending his deviations, “when the great thing after all is to express oneself strongly?”
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life

In the Portrait of a Peasant, we see Vincent’s triumph: the landscape of southern France subtly drawn in one of its subjects:

Van Gogh relished the opportunity to paint his subject late that summer, as he explained to Boch, “in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness.” The peasant is pictured as one with his Provençal environs.

Susan Grace Galassi, the Frick senior curator who coordinated the painting’s presentation in New York, has beautifully described how thick furrows and ridges of paint model Escalier’s craggy, weathered face as if it were a landscape, and how the figure’s domed, yellow straw hat serves as a blazing, surrogate sun against a contrasting field of cobalt and darker Prussian blues. Van Gogh’s heavily impastoed, basketweave strokes, which defy the delicate touches and decorative stippling of his Impressionist peers, make that dense sky palpable. In contrast, the green smock that defines Escalier’s torso is evoked with thinner bands of pale blue, emerald and zinc white.

The figure’s chin is framed with discrete strokes of green, a touch of yellow paint crusts on his lip. Above, a bold lemon stripe and a lighter one in green that the painter Henri Matisse would appreciate streak down the ridge of his nose. We hardly notice Escalier’s impossibly projecting shoulder at left, lightly traced with a squiggly blue line, or the absence of a corresponding limb at right, because our attention is focused on the face at dead-center that stares out at us. Concentric circles of paint that surround Escalier’s hollowed eyes and touches of molten red in their inner corners make his gaze inescapable, even hypnotic; it freezes us into place before him. With the bold vermillion outline that van Gogh often used to secure his figures amid a maelstrom of tactile paint strokes, he renders his subject iconic.

In such emotive paintings of rural types that are threaded through Van Gogh’s brief but prolific career, the intensity of his empathy and enthusiasm for these remnants of a preindustrial world is captured with unmatched power. The unmodulated, saturated tones and vehement handling of paint that characterize the Pasadena painting seem to reflect in raw pictorial terms what drew van Gogh repeatedly to his subject: In a letter about Escalier written that same August to the artist Emile Bernard, he marveled at “how much of the wild animal there is when you come across someone pure-bred.”
Mary Tompkins Lewis, Portrait of a Peasant


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