Some artists are irremediably linked to a painting, maybe two, and sometimes even three. They are communicating vessels, a flash in mind in the form of an image evoked every time we hear their names.
It happens to El Bosco and his The Garden of Earthly Delights. Something similar happens with Girl with a Pearl Earring and its author, Johannes Vermeer. These two cases illustrate how intimately linked author and work are in the collective imagination, that popular wisdom that makes us know a little of everything and that, when it comes to painting, creates these particular associations.
It also happens to Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon we are talking about. Two works come to mind when someone hears his name: La Giocondaand The Last Supper. They are two paintings that the entertainment world has used for countless products (from movies to novels of all kinds), increasing the preponderance of these two works when relating them to their artist even more.
However, Da Vinci is more than those two paintings. For example, the one we have below, known as Le Belle Ferronière, undoubtedly passes as one of his best works despite not enjoying the same fame as the other two.
In this portrait, we can observe a woman placed in a three-quarter position whose face is frontal and establishes eye contact with the artist and, therefore, with the viewer who watches the painting. It can be guessed that she has her hands folded, a classic pose in this type of Renaissance portrait. In addition, in his gesture, we can see a certain innocence but also attention to the person he is observing.
We can see that on her forehead, she wears a small jewel, like a necklace, around her head, which gives personality to the young woman. She undoubtedly belongs to the wealthy class of Milanese society (the picture was painted during Da Vinci’s stay in the Italian city of Milan).
There are small details that explain what was going through Da Vinci’s mind at that time. For example, his interest in optics and in how light worked on objects. If we look at the model’s left cheek, which is the exposed one, we can see slight echoes of red in the curve of the jaw.
It is a reflection of the dress of the same color, an effect that occurs when an intense light falls directly on a colored surface, creating reflections that can permeate nearby objects or, in this case, the face of the young woman.
That dress is another crucial point of the painting. We can observe some bows and gray strips of a vaporous texture. Although it does not reach the virtuosity that Flemish artists would display, Da Vinci’s work with the red cloth is more than remarkable, and its richness in craft is a clear indication of the high social status of the person being portrayed. Also, the necklace, a tailored ribbon, is another added value that reflects his place in the social hierarchy.
Da Vinci’s mastery of using shadows allows La Belle Ferronière to show much more pronounced modeling, thanks to the contrast of the luminous face with a dark background in which nothing is visible. The absence of a landscape or anything behind the model places one hundred percent of the viewer’s attention on the young woman portrayed.
There is an obvious parallel, or echo, between La Gioconda and Lady with an Ermine. However, in the case of this painting, the absence of the technique of sfumato (something that Da Vinci had not begun to explore, or at least to capture in his works) has caused that today the portrait is below in terms of popularity.
How the renegade Italian artist revolutionised image making forever
Caravaggio was an artist who divided opinions during his own lifetime. His method of presenting human figures with realistic and often rugged features met with fierce criticism.
Moreover, the stories we know of his life — including tales of brawling, debt and murder — have come to shape readings of his art as dramatic, untamed and impassioned. As such, his paintings seem to echo his reputation as an unflinching and controversial character.
Yet despite the defiant air with which he lived his life, Caravaggio became a hugely influential force on the succeeding generations of artists and has become one of the most revered painters in Western art.
Caravaggio developed his artistic reputation in Rome, where moved from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years became notorious for his distinctively unpretentious style.
Painting in Italy at the time had evolved from the High Renaissance style exemplified by the “perfect” forms of Michelangelo into a style of painting that took stylisation and exaggeration as a norm, known in art history as Mannerism.
The significance of Caravaggio in the story of art lies in his rejection of Mannerist artificiality and self-conscious “facility” — most especially the search for a kind of effortless grace in depicting the human form.
Against this grain, Caravaggio painted humans without pretence: his figures are weighty, corpulent, earthy and palpable. His methods often involved painting directly on canvas without prior preparation, and he would sometimes cover entire paintings with new compositions if he wasn’t happy the first time.
Take The Supper at Emmaus, painted by Caravaggio in 1601. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. The two companions were not aware before, but nowthey see.
On their faces and in their body language we see the sudden awareness of Christ’s identity. This transformation is the central conceit of the painting and its dramatic intention.
Caravaggio dared to present the Biblical story at a dinner table that was clearly contemporary and familiar, using ordinary men as models with worn clothes and wrinkled features, and eschewing any attempt at idealisation.
His tendency to show apostles as dirty and unkempt was a point of criticism often levelled by those who felt such religious subjects required a more hallowed approach. Yet his technique was quickly seized upon by other artists who were impressed by the gravity and directness of his painting style.
Caravaggio became known for a technique of extreme chiaroscuro: that is, a heavy use of shadows and light to add dramatic depth to his scenes. This leaning towards shadowy, and sometimes brooding depictions was another break with the Mannerist tradition, which as the 16th century progressed had moved towards a lighter, more pastel-toned colour palette.
One of the clearest ways we can see this influence is through Caravaggio’s frequent creation of abstract settings for his paintings. That is to say, the way he often placed his scenes against a dark background that contained little or no hint of a location.
A painting like The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows the moment when Thomas the Apostle declared he would not believe in Christ’s resurrection unless he could “put my hand into his side”, is set against an entirely black background. All of the drama is at the front of the painting, where the key elements such as faces and hands are highlighted against the backdrop.
The term for this style is tenebrism, a style of painting characterised by the use of light foregrounds contrasted against the background. The term is derived from the Italian “tenebroso” meaning “darkened” or “obscured.”
Now look at this painting, Christ Displaying His Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Galli was a member of the Caravaggisti — followers of Caravaggio who used his dramatic techniques as a basis for their own work.
In a similar mode to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, this painting shows a pale-skinned Jesus in a three-quarter view. The lower half of his body is cloaked in a white linen cloth, which is draped over his left arm and wrapped around his waist in rich folds.
There is much of Caravaggio in this work. The almost pitch-black background, the invisible light source that illuminates little but the main subject of the work, gives a distinct sense of the figure of Christ emerging from the shadows with the exact place or time of day impossible to determine.
Influence beyond Italy
Numerous artists beyond the borders of Italy were also captivated by the new stylistic developments occurring in Italy which Caravaggio had spearheaded.
The Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, after travelling to Rome and Naples in the first quarter of the 17th century, adopted many of the techniques that Caravaggio mastered.
Indeed, artists from across Europe gravitated to Rome to explore and share in the various aspects of chiaroscuro and tenebrism that Caravaggio had pioneered.
Adam Elsheimer from Germany was one such artist. Another was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who made his way to Italy in the early 1600s. Painters like Titian and Tintoretto were instrumental in Rubens’ development, as was Caravaggio, whose Entombment of ChristRubens went on to produce a copy of.
Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes also condemned — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. He deliberately sought to create heightened drama in his scenes, utilising the vivid language of highlights and shadow to sharpen the details of gestures or facial expressions.
Take a work like Judith Beheading Holofernes(c.1599). Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status – and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.
Yet for Caravaggio, the bloody reality was of more obvious interest. In his work he chose to show the actual moment of the assassination.
Some two decades later, deeply influenced by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi created her own version of the scene, perhaps the most macabre depiction of the story ever painted.
In this work, Gentileschi gives us the most direct view possible, allowing us to witness the bloody force of the sword along with fierce attention paid to the harsh truthfulness of the slaying.
Caravaggio’s critics would later claim that his treatments of important Biblical subjects were disrespectful and indecent. But this did not stop his influence from extending to the generation of Baroque painters who followed him.
Few other artists of the era had such a mastery of narrative drama and physical gesture, and fewer still had the power to inspire and influence later artistic generations as far as the Romantics and Modernists.
The unexpected discovery of one of the most famous statues in history
The Venus de Milo has the incongruous distinction of being one of the most well-known objects in art and yet it remains an enigma.
The story of the statue’s discovery is shrouded in romantic mystique, and historians can only speculate on how she might have looked in her original form.
And yet the Venus de Milo continues to engross those who spend time looking at her. Carved in marble, partially nude, and wearing an inscrutable expression on her face — perhaps one of confidence — her story is a remarkable one.
An unexpected discovery
Sometimes known also as Aphrodite of Milos, the Venus de Milo was carved in marble sometime between 150 and 125 BC. The circumstance of the sculpture’s original creation is a mystery, but it is known that at some point it found itself interred in a small cavern or niche on the Greek island of Milos and left for hundreds of years.
Then, in the spring of 1820, a farmer by the name of Yorgos Kentrotas was roaming the rugged countryside in search of stones to use as building materials, when he stumbled upon a sealed chamber in a wall. Removing some of the stones, he found this antique treasure within its depths.
The statue was considerably damaged: split into several parts with its arms missing and a fractured plinth. Moreover, unbeknownst to those who first saw her, she had lost her original decorative colouration — since the sculpture was probably painted in vivid colours and adorned with jewellery as was the custom at the time.
For many years, it was believed to have been created by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. But as the years passed, more evidence was uncovered, namely an inscription found on a fragment of the plinth giving the name of Alexandros of Antioch — which was lost shortly after its arrival at the Louvre in 1821.
Its journey to the museum in Paris began when a French naval officer named Olivier Voutier anchored his ship in the harbour at Milos. Going ashore to hunt for antiquities near an old theatre, he noticed the local farmer Kentrotas had found something interesting.
The Frenchman felt certain that the sculpture was important and convinced his local vice-consul to buy it. They paid a good price for it. The statue came to France in 1821 and was given to King Louis XVIII, who gave it to the Louvre Museum, and there it remains today.
An extreme posture
Two distinct features of the Venus de Milo give the sculpture its memorable and inimitable charge.
The first is the extreme contrapposto posture, which describes the way the figure’s weight is shifted onto one standing leg. This is what gives the whole statue its natural “S-curve”.
In the case of the Venus de Milo, the twist of the hips and the kink in the left leg are unusually pronounced. Look again at the statue and let your eyes explore the shape of the form suggested by the beautifully modelled drapery of her robe.
The second aspect is the low waistline of the robe, which appears to be almost slipping off her hips, giving the sculpture more than a hint of eroticism.
It is this eroticism that provides the basis for the most likely identification of the statue as Venus, the goddess of Love — the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite.
How she might have looked
The Venus de Milo was originally found in several pieces, making her exact original form a matter of conjecture. The three main pieces that were recovered from Milos — the nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and a section of the right hip — seemed to fit together without controversy.
The fact of her missing arms prompted the local Milos farmer to continue to dig. He later found a hand holding an apple, two herms — square stone pillars with a carved head on top — and a further fragment of an upper arm.
Various artists and historians proposed how these parts might be assembled to form the complete statue, with some debate as to whether the stone pillars with heads on top were connected with the Venus statue.
In the latter years of the 19th century, the German archaeologist and art historian Adolf Furtwängler sketched out what might be the most convincing configuration, in which the figure’s left arm is resting on an unadorned pillar, with her hand resting on the pillar holding an apple.
The hand holding the apple, carved from the same Parian marble as the figure, seemed to confirm the identity of Aphrodite or Venus. In the Classical beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris, Paris gave the prize of the golden apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, who in return promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby triggering the Trojan War.
Furtwängler rejected the idea that the herms were part of the original form, arguing that the aesthetic effect of such an arrangement would be “distinctly unpleasing”.
Given the inability of historians to agree upon the sculpture’s original form, the Louvre made the decision to show the Venus de Milo without its arms or an adjacent pillar. Two centuries later, standing alone yet somehow indomitable, the sculpture continues to be an all-important part of the museum’s collection.