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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