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CHAPTER V

Women of the Renaissance In the Work of Early Masters. Character and Art Give Birth to Poetry. Broadening of Woman's Influence In Flanders.

Painting was a newer art five hundred years ago, when a painter's equipment was knowledge and use of the engraver's tools, of the mixing of pigments, and of the Bible, from which most of his subjects were drawn.

Judging from some early pictures, development was unequal as well as slow. Some faces do not give the pleasure nor accent the refinement or mentality we might hope for. True, the faces of Barbara and Margaret are beautiful, but we must realize that the ideal of the artist was doubtless added to the natural beauty of the model. The eloquence of spirit is essential to great expression, be it in Goethe's drama, Giotto's portrait of Dante, or Lincoln's Gettysburg Speech. The true, the rugged, the lovely, all express beauty when in harmony with their nature and necessity.

Artists of palette and brush have often preserved the features and fashions of their loves and friends, happy or unhappy, who served as models for beauty, for Saints, Madonnas, or Magdalenes. Notice for, not of, beauty.

Leonardo da Vinci painted the portrait of the wife of his friend and called it "La Belle Joconde." It did not satisfy him. Perhaps it is not a fair example or type of a woman of her day, yet it may be, for the artist painted on it many times during four years and was still dissatisfied with it. It seems to be a face into which one can read his own interpretation, yet of it Vasari said, "It is rather divine than human, as life-like as nature itself." As a portrait it seems most worthily to represent the genius of the great Leonardo, so why may we not consider it worthy of the original—the woman herself? The attributes expressive of an attractive woman are there—intelligence, sweetness, and modesty—and some people are drawn to it while others are repelled; we read that the people of her day considered it a marvel.

In the Uffizi Gallery is a Madonna and child with angels. Barring the angels, it seems a real portrait of a womanly woman and her baby, rather than a picture of a model—an imagined Madonna. It has the feeling of real life, so we may safely let it present to us a true woman of the fifteenth century. The true woman? Yes, with the serene sweetness that comes to the heart of woman whom love has satisfied. The painting is a masterpiece by Sandro Botticelli. The painting is his, the charm of the woman must have been hers, but how few could, or have caught that charm in the transfer of spirit to canvas. Thought is moved to emotion as one looks into the beautiful, peaceful face; a throb of motherhood touches the heart; the sacredness of love is hers; the illusive shade of responsibility is there. You are looking at a painting, yet feel a vital something that quickens your own vitality. Spirit touches spirit. The mother inspired the painter, the painter the canvas, the canvas—after five hundred years—gives of its recorded spirit to your spirit. Is art developing? Is the ideal gliding down the arm and spirit lifting the heart of him who holds the brush? Is true beauty manifesting in the life of humanity? Yes, but not in all; development is sporadic.

"The Coronation of the Virgin," by Fra Philippo Lippi, is a beautiful picture in its entirety, a central panel and two wings. In the sixty-three faces representing priests, vergers, angels, and singing girls, not one is beaming with joy or happiness befitting the occasion; rather the faces seem stolid and lacking in interest. The color scheme and grouping are most satisfactory, but your enthusiasm gleaned from some other canvas fails to enthuse, for there is little or none in the stolid faces to call it out; hence the picture of beauty and interest is lacking in charm, although it is a most worthy representation of the work of that renowned ecclesiastical master.

But our subject is merely to trace by means of art as best we may the unfolding of woman's character during the centuries when there was little or no written history, and that little gave scant reference to woman unless as sovereign or court favorite.

The romance or poetry of the Renaissance depicts now and again a woman of unusual education and achievement. Such pen pictures prove that there were women of advancing mentality, of discernment, taste, and moral fiber, outside of court circles; in fact there seems to have been but slight morality in court society as we know of it. That human nature varied then as now we do know.

Dante's boyhood friendship grew into a life-long romance and love which death seemed not to part, even with the passing of his spiritualized Beatrice, who was ever an angel to him; yet his true wife and mother of his several children was stalwart, practical, energetic, yet with an ungovernable temper and rasping disposition that doubtless reconciled him in no small measure to his exiled life.

In those days men of talent and taste were wont to give to women of their admiration and love a literary setting, as did Petrarch to his Laura, Abelard to Heloise, and others, thus assuring us of exalted womanhood, if not perfect.

It was not mere beauty of color and curve that captured the eye and mind of the great Florentine master of chisel and brush; one cannot read his sonnets without knowing that the goddess of his heart exercised an influence far nobler than the art it helped to ennoble.

Let an early sonnet acquaint us with a high-souled woman, to whom it was written:

"When divine Art conceives a form and face,
She bids the craftsman for his first essay
To shape a simple model in her clay:
This is the earliest birth of Art's embrace.
From the live marble in the second place
His mallet brings into the light of day
A thing so beautiful, that who can say
When time shall conquer that immortal grace?
Thus my own model I was born to be—
The model of that nobler self, whereto,
Schooled by your pity, lady, I shall grow.
Each overplus and each deficiency
You will make good. What penance then is due
For my fierce heat, chastened and taught by you?"

In another sonnet Michael Angelo soliloquizes his appreciation of Vittoria's spirit and its divine source.

"The beauty thou discernest, all is hers;
But grows in radiance as it soars on high
Through mortal eyes unto the soul above;
'Tis there transfigured; for the soul confers
On what she holds, her own divinity;
And this transfigured beauty wins thy love."

Now and again his sonnets have the tone of a scripture like this:

"Thy beauty is no mortal thing; 'twas sent
From heaven on high to make our earth divine."

The sonnets came to the artist as came his sculptural motifs, through clouds of disappointment, and the sometime failures that must be the accidental notes in life's harmonies for soul enrichment. In later years the inspiring helpful spirit left this world. To the great man, it was as he wrote, "an irreparable loss." His art flowed from the point of his pen into the lines wherein we find his appreciation of her spirit-value to his life work:

"Her soul that fashioned mine has sought the skies;
Therefore unfinished I must meet my end,
If God, the great Artificer, denies
That aid which was unique on earth before."

Can we now ask "what is beauty?" Does it not speak for itself in our poverty of words?—"I am Spirit."


Gentile Bellini, Carlo Maratta, Lorenzo Lotto, and Carlo Dolci and a number of others must have found lovely types for portraits or else painted their own ideals of sweet, high-minded maids and matrons.

So far something is missing in our art examples, something emphatically characteristic of womanhood; something beside regular features, spirituality, saintly poise, and beatific thoughtfulness.

The Renaissance was a world-awakening. It was spring-time for the civilized world, a new life put forth in response to a universal urge. Mentality and activity bestirred as with new blood; new veins of research and uplift began to be worked; thought began to assert itself in science, religion, literature, adventure, no less than in art.

The flora of nature is variously beautiful: cyclamen, roses, heliotrope, and violets luxuriate en masse in Italy. Lilies-of-the-valley, huge pansies, and forget-me-nots lavish their dainty color and sweetness in the moist valleys of the Ural Mountains and of Switzerland; and the mountain rose fears not the snows. The Cherokee Rose revivifies the nude skeleton trees of our southland, but cannot survive in Canadian forests.

From this we realize: One may choose according to his taste for a transplanting, but for a glorious ensemble, view the flowers in their native clime. Hence, we venture north beyond the Alps in search of what we did not find in Italian art.

There was art in Flanders at this same period. Innate characteristics of national differences develop principally because of environment and religion.

From earliest times Holland has had to fight to keep her land from going out to sea, or from Spanish greed, jealous of her commerce and industries. Perforce, her people, battling the scourge of the sea and rigors of keen winters on limited land, were a hardy race and big hearted, because hardships, sorrows, and trials are bonds of sympathy to our human nature. In their art we see a
Woman in Art - The Seven Pleiades.png

Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elihu Vedder

THE SEVEN PLEIADES

broader grasp of life because it pictured their lives; a domestic folk living their religion, believing that cleanliness is next to godliness, that no service is too menial if honest or of necessity. Their portrait painters, true to life, brought out the strong national type, the practical, kindly, common-sense variety of womanhood that makes life comfortable and neighborly. Principles, moral and religious, were not merely personal but of a radiating influence that made for uplift in their country, environment and spirit, hence the art of The Netherlands illustrates an unconscious development in much that their painters recorded.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find the broadening of woman's interests, sympathies, and benevolence in her solicitude and care for the aged, sick, and orphaned.

Jan de Bray and Franze Hals painted from life the good mothers, needlework in hand, as they sat in council three hundred years ago, the burden of helpless little ones weighing on their motherly hearts. It was the time when Holland was giving refuge to families whom persecution had driven from their native England. They still had in mind the trials of adverse political winds blowing from the Spanish Main. Their water-gates had not been free so very long. For fifteen years they extended hospitality mingled with sympathy and helpfulness.

It is but little more than three centuries since an hundred and one of those Pilgrims landed on an unknown shore, and even yet we trace the spread of example, principle, and tolerance, gathered in large measure from the Netherlanders who gave our ancestors shelter in time of need.

Portraits and domestic scenes painted by Rembrandt, de Hooch, and Van der Meer speak of the thrift, enterprise, and home life of the people of that period. Strength of features, poise and bearing are emphatically of the Dutch type, the type that could and did build a New Amsterdam on the western shore of the Atlantic. Their painters portrayed Netherland people; scenes they were familiar with and loved, not primarily for foreign galleries or prizes, but because of a national appreciation of everything Dutch. Nor can we blame them; rather we thank them.

They literally made the most of their land. They dyked and dammed and locked encroaching waters from the lowlands. Building materials were brought from a distance; tidal waves wiped out their fortifications and cultivated fields time and time again; they planted, drained, and drudged; learned the value of work, of patience, of persistence.

What had all this to do with art? It made Dutch art individual, characteristic; and to this day it portrays the out-of-door life and interests; their environment was sea and sky, ships and long, level distances, of acres of perfect tillage—colorful in spring and summer, with wind mills and mast heads piercing the green of pastures and pollard willows; environment that nourished invisible yet personal powers. Their pleasures were simple, often uncouth, and vulgar, but culture and refinement grew upward, not downward.

It is true, Italy had a more beautiful outer world, more historic setting, more ancient art and noted buildings. The Creator of the World avoided monotony and man tries to follow the example. Like the seasons each country has its own charm. The people of sunny Italy seem to have been more churchly in their seeing and interests. They had eyes for saints and sinners, painters and prelates, pictures and palaces, but the charm of our beautiful world was to be discovered later.

Even the industrious Flemings could not see beyond Flanders. There seem to be four steps in the progress of their art, each with a distinct interest and value. First the churchly or scripture subjects, painted with reverence, if not with full knowledge, are still preserved to us in Van Eyck's own colors in the oil method perfected by the brothers Jan and Hubert, which have endured for four hundred years in their first brightness, and may last as many more. Perspective, proportion, and values are the other steps, a knowledge of which painters everywhere were striving for. A contrasting womanhood we find at this period in an Italian princess, a Medici, grafted, by marriage, with Henry IV, onto the throne of France.

Peter Paul Rubens, one of the five greatest colorists of the world, was not so far in time from the Van Eycks and Memling but that he profited by their contributions to the chemical knowledge and equipment of the painter, to which he added more glowing color, a mastery of which he gleaned during a lengthy visit at Venice. Titian was master of color there, with Tintoretto and Veronese as close seconds. Rubens returned to Antwerp enamored of Titian's use of color and the substantial element of flesh, wherewith that master clothed the mythological beings he conjured out of the recks of time. Afterward he raised that last accessory to the nth power in the series of Medici paintings now in the Luxembourg Gallery. With due reverence and admiration for the masterpieces of Rubens that, fortunately, survived the late World War, we refer here only to the type of woman that expresses his ideal or the ideal of those for whom he painted, and the paintings represent a voluptuous age and type.