The Rebirth of the Old Masters

From Renaissance to Rococo: Masterpieces at the SBMA

If you enter the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from State Street, walk past the fountain in Luddington Court and through the ancient Greek and Egyptian art into the McCormick Gallery, the first thing you’ll see is a stark reminder that fine art wasn’t always so gloriously easy to access. Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga looms in front of you. This magnificent gallery within the gallery is the opening image of the museum’s extraordinary Renaissance to Rococo exhibit, and in it the cardinal himself stands front and center in an enormous room with 200 of his 800 paintings. Although two servants hold a Raphael for his approval, and a few invited noble visitors can be seen wandering around, the cardinal’s exclusive private gallery is about as far from a public museum as you can get. He may have taken vows, but poverty clearly wasn’t one of them.

The picture was commissioned to convey the fact that the cardinal’s wealth and position have brought him a treasure trove of valuable art, but the artist has included a message of his own as well. Panini, with his skill at mimicry and miniaturization, also “owns” all these works by representing in a single picture nearly every kind of painting available at the time. A Madonna ascends to heaven over the cardinal’s head, just one of many religious paintings; portraits of kings, queens, nobles, and other cardinals stare serenely out into the hall. Dramatic scenes from history and the Bible invite us to hear their stories, while an occasional landscape gives us repose. The great room in which they all hang feels deep and real; its pillars and archway demonstrate perfect Renaissance perspective. Chiaroscuro adds even more depth, putting sculptures, people, and architectural details into suggestive relief. Today, the cardinal’s hundreds of valuable Renaissance paintings are dispersed in collections and museums across the globe, but through this painting, and throughout the marvelous exhibit it heralds, we can all enter into a modern-day version of the cardinal’s incredible gallery, and for us it’s as easy as walking in off State Street.

The extraordinary collection of Renaissance art currently on view at the SBMA was begun in 1927, when Hartford banker Frank C. Sumner gave the Wadsworth Atheneum more than a million dollars for the express purpose of buying masterworks in Europe while the dollar was strong and the continental market was in a mood to sell. The director of the Wadsworth Atheneum at the time was Chick Austin, a man of great learning, taste, and resourcefulness whose instinct for identifying the undervalued aspects of the European tradition would create an important art historical legacy in the elaboration of both the high Renaissance proper and subsequent movements such as Baroque, Mannerism, and Rococo. By the time Austin retired in 1945, the Wadsworth Atheneum collection was already among the most distinguished in the world, and his successor, Charles Cunningham, kept expanding it with judicious acquisitions until his retirement in 1966.

Power, Culture, and Change. The 60 works from this longterm project represent the cream of the Atheneum’s crop, and the SBMA, sponsored by Lady Ridley-Tree, is the only venue in the Western states for the traveling exhibition. Like Panini’s great painting of the cardinal’s gallery, the show is at once an expression of power and taste on the part of its collectors, and of the complex and shifting relations among the old masters of the Renaissance and afterward as they learn from and engage one another in the ongoing evolution of Western art. Through the exhibit we can see how the great patrons of the Renaissance viewed the world, and how the great artists they employed viewed each other and advanced the art of painting.

The process of masters learning from masters is particularly visible in two paintings on the same subject: Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (from 1594-1594) and Francisco Ribalta’s The Ecstasy of St. Francis: The Vision of the Musical Angel (from 1620-1625). Caravaggio’s first major work on a religious subject portrays Saint Francis as a real, suffering human being, rather than an idealized paragon of virtue. In Caravaggio’s depiction, Saint Francis lies enraptured in a dark cell, comforted by an angel, with divine light shining down on his face. Ribalta’s version shows Caravaggio’s influence both in subject and treatment — the angel who comforts St. Francis by playing a lute recalls one of Caravaggio’s favorite subjects, music-making, and Ribalta’s grim cell offers the same stark contrast between earthly darkness and divine light from above. In his Saint Francis, painted a full generation later than its inspiration, Ribalta confirms Caravaggio’s rugged style as the direction that painting would take next — away from the even light and classical proportions of the Renaissance and toward the severe contrasts and emotional realism of the Baroque.

Orazio Gentileschi, another friend and follower of the innovative and often shocking Caravaggio, moved in a similar Baroque direction, as is seen in his Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. Judith’s face reveals a complex mixture of fear, horror, and determination as she holds the sword she used to kill Holofernes, the Assyrian general whose head she and her maidservant try to conceal. The maidservant, too, shows both terror and repulsion as she looks over her shoulder. (In case you’re wondering why you never read about Judith in your Bible, it’s because the Book of Judith is part of the Old Testament Apocrypha, books of ancient origin but not considered canonical by all Jewish and many Christian authorities.) Although technically in a narrative mode, this startling painting really functions more as a group portrait of emotional states than as a conventional instance of visual storytelling. This emerging interest in the contrasting emotional states of specific individuals is a touchstone of humanism. This show makes tracing the influence of Caravaggio on Ribalta and Gentileschi easy, and the result is a sense of the way in which the Renaissance is a process and not a state — an ongoing, constantly shifting dialectic of technique and taste that implies all manner of often contradictory things about history and society.

The Man with the Hammer. As painters focused their technical attention on new ways of portraying the human body, their subjects shifted from traditional images designed for religious contemplation to the more worldly scenes found in classical literature. The Building of the Trojan Horse (1773-1774) by the Venetian painter Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo envisions craft in the service of war; a thrilling, but hardly edifying, theme more fit for a palace than a church. Tiepolo thus followed in his own father’s Baroque footsteps by creating huge, dramatic paintings for wealthy patrons in Italy, Spain, and Germany. Still, by telling this particular part of the Trojan War story, the younger Tiepolo shows a curious ambivalence toward his patrons. The scene shows how the ingenuity of artisans can overthrow the established power of a city, focusing on the muscular arm of a man holding a hammer — hardly a reassuring sight for the members of the establishment who commissioned it. Perhaps it stands as a warning to those in power that intelligence and skill can defeat even a vastly superior force — and that artistic vision can affect the real distribution of power in unexpected ways. The Trojan horse is, after all, a monumental piece of sculpture. In Tiepolo’s wonderful painting, created on the eve of an era of revolution, art appears as the stealthy vehicle of social change.

People aren’t the only powerful forces around us, and humanity looks very small when compared to the vastness of nature. As bourgeois patrons of the 17th and 18th centuries spent more time in the cities, they began to long for the natural landscapes they had left behind and reconsider the relationship between people and their natural surroundings. Of course in many ways this longing is no less contrived than the religious or secular subjects of tradition, and the many distinguished landscapes in From Renaissance to Rococo display a complex interplay of artifice and observation. In this spirit, Claude Gellée, known more widely as Claude Lorrain, transformed an ostensibly religious subject into a meditation on the inherent conflict between urban life and natural beauty in his painting, Saint George and the Dragon (about 1641). Claude’s St. George doesn’t come off as particularly courageous in front of what appears to be a cowering dragon, but he is very small indeed compared to the giant landscape around him. The vulnerable city nestled against the side of a hill certainly seems to need his protection. The anachronism of the knight vs. dragon motif, especially when seen against this gloriously detailed backdrop of trees, sky, and mountains, casts serious doubts on the necessity of battles with nature. As appealing as the myth of the dragon-slayer may be to our collective machismo, Claude seems to hint that perhaps the time has come for human beings to find a more respectful way to live in the natural world.

Natural Gothic. Piety toward the presence of God in nature permeates David Teniers the Younger’s magnificent large genre painting of A Mass in a Grotto (1645-1650). It’s a rocky scene that anticipates Casper David Friedrich’s religiously inspired landscapes by a century and a half. Like Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, this artist was an apprentice to a famous father, and like Panini, he created a wonderful painting of a patron’s gallery (unfortunately for us, it’s not here, but in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). As the instructive wall text (written by the SBMA’s Jill Finsten) observes, the painting combines Teniers’s specialty, genre painting (which shows ordinary people in everyday life), with landscape and religious painting. The vision Teniers offers here, of nature as a kind of accidental Gothic cathedral, is one we as Californians should find especially sympathetic. The Renaissance in art, which began as an elitist affair, thus gradually came to permeate everyday life. As nature begins to look more and more like art or architecture, so do the bourgeois subjects of later painting begin to resemble the kings, queens, and saints of early Renaissance portraiture. The brilliantly talented portraitist Franz Hals, for instance, lived in a Dutch republic, and therefore painted primarily wealthy citizens rather than nobility, including the merchant in his Portrait of Joseph Coymans, which he completed in 1644. Coymans wears clothes fit for his station and sober temperament — a black cloak, white collar, and black hat, no more, no less — and he has a mock coat of arms with three cows’ heads in the background (“Coymans” is a “cow man” — that’s the pun). He has no need to show his great wealth and important position; a fine portrait by an extraordinary painter will suffice.

Lucretia, the young Neapolitan girl in Salvator Rosa’s Lucretia as Poetry (1640-1641), also has a portrait, although she isn’t even rich. Apparently, like the models of today, she just had the right look for this interesting allegory. Her glare challenges us to think about things that aren’t always so pretty, as poetry also often does. Her hair is a mess, and she looks angry, although you can tell how beautiful she is. She carries a pen and a book, and wears a laurel crown, cultivating the same self-consciously distracted look of poets through the ages. Maybe we’ll see her modern counterpart in Coffee Cat.

See the World. Ultimately, these later artists are all challenging us to find beauty in the limitless variety of ordinary things. Still life, for instance, implies that the richness of how light plays on everyday objects too often escapes our notice. We may not see the beauty in a bowl of fruit and flowers if we’re preoccupied with deciding whether or not we’re hungry, and we won’t always stop to admire the nuances of a simple transaction in a marketplace if we are too busy counting our change. Fortunately, the Master of the Hartford Still Life (probably a follower of Caravaggio) who painted the spectacular Still Life with Flowers and Fruit between 1600 and 1610 can show us what we’re missing with precise renderings of eight varieties of flower and six of fruit next to vases that look so real you might think they’ll fall. Similarly, Nicolas Bercham’s A Moor Offering a Parrot to a Lady from about 1665 gives us an ordinary exchange in an exotic setting. For people in the Netherlands, where this painting originally hung, the Italian port illustrated here was distant and dramatic, but the expressions on the characters’ faces, from the moor’s supplicating gaze to the lady’s ambivalent combination of shyness and interest, reflect what happened every day in any busy Dutch marketplace.

In Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Old Man and Death, the tendency of art to broaden its scope reaches a kind of absolute limit, as painting seeks to have the last word in a dialogue with mortality. This painting from 1773, one of the latest in the exhibition, brings us full circle — we have gone from religious scenes piously reminding us of important principles to Aesop’s relatively simple message about death — that it is better than the alternative. The story itself is not nearly as important as the elements the artist uses to tell it. The sense of wind and light over the landscape, and the shocking accuracy of the skeleton (based on a medical illustration), add both humor and humility to the subject. After all, this painting, like all the other masterpieces in From Renaissance to Rococo, issues the same bold command to the viewer: Take the time to look at this world, because life is short. And so we should all also take the time to look at this wonderful exhibition. It may not pass our way again.

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