Posts Tagged ‘Velazquez’

Orazio Gentileschi was born near Florence in 1563.  From 1626 on he lived in England and worked for the Stuart king Charles I, who on the occasion of the birth of his son in 1630 commissioned Gentileschi to paint “The Finding of Moses” as a gift to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.

As moderns we are accustomed to seeing all art—musical, literary, pictorial—as invention. We know that the artist constructs his work. He plans out his composition.  It’s always been done that way.

Let’s take apart this invention, this construction called “The Finding of Moses.” 

What a lovely English landscape we have here in the background, with meadows leading to a river–the Nile/Thames–and a verdant hill on the other bank.  The women are gathered in front of a stand of tall trees, in full summer foliage, possibly maples or elms.  Not a palm or papyrus reed in sight.  Gentileschi had never been to Egypt and neither had Henrietta Maria, so all’s well with the English shrubbery here.

The pharaoh’s daughter, in gold-yellow, is eight heads tall. We know that our ancestors, including royals, were shorter than we are now. No matter, tall looks commanding and besides, a tall figure will display more fabric, which allows the painter to create a more colorful painting.

The figure on the left is Moses’s mom, a slave and also six heads tall. Gentileschi wants her tall because that way the he aligns the tops of the heads in a horizontal line. Thinking ahead, we now notice that on the right the bodies are also aligned in a straight vertical line. He clusters the figures together into a compact geometry, which makes the composition cohesive and easy to read.

Now what about all these arms?!  The two women pointing over yonder to the Nile/Thames clarify where the baby was found. Compositionally these two arms lead the viewer into the center of the drama.  Three more arms converge on the center of attention, the baby in a basket. And what long arms they are. Gentileschi gets away with this anatomical distortion because the bodies are kneeling.  If the two women in the font were to stand up, their hands would dangle at their knees.  No matter. Composition rules.  Composition directs the viewer’s attention. That’s what counts.

The baby is contentedly lying high on bedding piled up in the basket.  So high, that it would have tipped over while floating in water.  No matter.  You’re a painter; therefore you invent what needs to be invented to make the picture work.  The picture works if it FEELS right to the client and the occasion.

The baby is naked.  And it’s a boy!  The ancient Egyptian princess, dressed in 17th century English royal garb, is pointing to his genitals.  Queen Henrietta Maria must have been pleased to project a parallel into this painting between Moses and her own newborn son. Gentileschi knew his craft, technically and politically.

Perhaps an ambassador described the charms of this painting to Philip IV, king of Spain, who might have expressed a desire to have a painting by Orazio Gentileschi. The king was known to appreciate art, visiting the studio of his court painter Velazques to sit quietly in his own regal chair just to watch Velazquez paint.  Gentileschi, ever the diplomat, then painted a copy of “The Finding of Moses” for Philip IV and engaged his son to personally deliver it to the king in Spain.

Notice that he changed the overall composition.  He makes two alterations to change the composition from a rectangle to a quarter of a pie. The two arms pointing to the Nile are gone and the woman at the far right who is kneeling while holding the basket is now heavily draped and conspicuously plump compared to the other women in the group.  She is plump because she has to support the curve of the composition.

This painting hangs in the great central gallery at the Prado.  Eight women in a painting!  You can see from a long distance away that this has to be a Gentileschi.

His daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, will be next.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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Copying an admired work of art is a highly recommended exercise for any art student and for any artist at any age.  We know that as a student Matisse spent many days at the Louvre copying paintings,  by Chardin, for example, and that he continued the practice as a mature artist.

Or take Picasso.  In 1957 Picasso—at the age of seventy-six—did more than fifty variations (“riffs”) on Velazquez’ Las Meninas, a painting he greatly admired.


So when we took Chardin’s Still Life with Peaches and Mug (Cup) as our subject for study we were following an honorable tradition.

One of the students in that class copied and then riffed on the motif by plopping a hand full of peonies into the mug.  Peonies?  Or a riff on peonies?  Pure invention!

You may think the peonies are a decorative embellishment, an indulgence of prettiness.

But I think this is witty. I see drama. It’s the centripetal vs the centrifugal.

The cluster of fruit with pear and peaches reads like a classic still life, perfectly executed as if were a 19th century submission for entrance into the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It is serene and balanced, rendering the spheres convincingly three-dimensional with faithful observation of shadow gradations and reflected light.

If you try to stay centered in this serenity, good luck, because the turbulence at the right is coming to get you.

The petals of the peonies are as exquisitely articulated as the peaches, but they are of a different vitality.  Where the round fruits say “centripetal density,” the peony petals are centrifugally chaotic.

Notice that the flower petals do not touch the fruit. The student/artist shows us these ordinary objects arranged on a shelf, fruit and flowers, but they are of two different domains. The knife cuts right through the divide. If the flower petals overlapped the fruit spheres, this “still life with fruit and flowers” would be just what you’d expect, harmonious.  It would be uneventful.

At its best, the work of copying an admired painting is not an act of obedience, but a conversation. My guess is that Chardin would enjoy this conversation and would encourage more of “le riff” on his paintings.

Drawing by Selina, graphite on paper, 12”x18”

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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I promise, we’ll move on to other topics besides cropping, but the power of cropping cannot be underestimated.

This face was one of four studies on the same page. The model was a magazine add with strong shadows, selling jewelry of all things. In setting up the exercise, I stressed that we were not after a likeness of this beautiful woman, but were using her as a point of departure for expressive studies of the face.  We already know that beauty and expressiveness are incompatible, a major thread in these conversations.

1304AlejandraFaceThe page as a whole did not work because the faces were too similarly drawn and were all the same size.  What to do?  CROP!  You can see the edges of the strips of paper we used in cropping.  The result is an expressive face.

But wait, there’s more.  What if we crop even more radically!  What if we slice the image through the eye on the right edge.  That’s the image at the top of this post.  It’s far removed from literalness, from illustration. Now we have a provocative image. It’s truly an image, in the sense that it is more than what it represents.

Let me point out just three things that make this image so rich.

1304AlejandraFaceCropLines*The left half of the page is all texture.

 *The contour of the face is varied, so that as we trace it we travel over three different “landscapes.”

 * One eye is in the middle of the page. Uncanny! There’s a study of this phenomenon (I can’t remember the author’s name now) that shows that portrait artists will compose their subject in such a way that one eye of the sitter is in the middle of the canvas.

 —————————————————————— Velazquez(1599-1663), Portrait of Juan de Pareja

VelázquezJuanDeParejaAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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