Woman in Art/Chapter 8 - Wikisource, the free online library

CHAPTER VIII

Decoration In Painting. Sibyls, Muses, and Virtues. Roman Ideas Absorbed from the Greek. Concerning the Birth of Genius. Frescoes by Raphael. Ideal Woman In Modern Decoration.

To whatever age, tribe, or country we look for the beginnings of art, we find symbolic decorations. It has been practiced by all peoples in response to universal instinct. Decoration needs a motif, a subject or figure singly or in repetition, be it to grace the family soup bowl of the aborigine, or to add a fearsome and compelling expression to his copper countenance. Or it may be six or eight wave lines around his sun-baked clay jug or bowl to indicate its use for water; or it may be the egg and dart, egg and dart motif used by the early Greeks and by Americans of today.

During the Middle Ages, when Greek art lay buried in Roman graves and forgetfulness, many a monk or hermit spent his time and eyesight drawing and painting borders and capital letters of hand-written vellum books.

The period of the Renaissance represents a seed-sowing that, ripening, had like flowers of forest and field scattered the vital seed broadcast with compelling innate force. So was Europe seeded for art and a broader civilization.

Objective decorations signify observation, a mental development, as the form of hut or tent, lion or hawk, of lotus or lizard. Subjective decoration implies thought—a higher mentality. Hence the master painters (and not a few would-be masters) have enriched the world with Sibyls, Muses, Virtues, and hours of the day and night in forms of female loveliness. Wisdom has been represented by a strong-featured woman of sincere countenance acquiring more wisdom from scroll or open book. Faith with uplifted eyes has clasped the cross to her heart, as Christianity has threaded its troubled way through the developing era of faith. Charity has been nursing babes through various centuries and schools of art to this twentieth century. Music with lute and lyre would seem to turn the dissonant into concord. Love continues to be the mischievous Cupid (or stupid) with bow and quiver lurking somewhere, aiming, or letting the arrow fly at random, watching as womanhood plucks his dart from her wounded heart. Such symbols have given the world exquisite art. Such, too, have shown the appreciation or desire for perfection in woman, so that man has anticipated the future of the race and made his idealism bud and bloom in angel form, humans with the ethereal element suggested by wing attachments, more or less of the earth, earthy, and more becoming to cherubs than to women. To mankind of our century the angelic in womanhood consists in attributes of soul rather than in featrered appendages by which

"Our souls can neither fly nor go
To reach eternal joys."

There were years that seemed to require a visible manifestation of spirit and sainthood; not having printed examples and precepts, they needed something to stimulate the spirit.

Everything has its place in the economy of human development. Fra Angelico, the last and greatest Renaissance painter of symbols, had less need to characterize his angels with wings than had others, for he expressed the angelic soul in the angels that have immortalized his name. We know the man so well in his handiwork, that it verifies a truism by Ruskin.

"You may read the character of a man as of a nation, in their art. A man may hide from you himself, or misrepresent in every other way, but he cannot in his work; there be sure you have him to the inmost.

"If the work be a cobweb, you know it was made by a spider; if a honeycomb, you know a bee fashioned the perfect cells; a worm-cast is thrown by a worm, and a nest is wreathed by a bird."

There you have the open secret for him who having eyes sees the man or the creature in his work. It is the hallmark of soul, of mind, of instinct.

Fra Angelico had his conception of how an angel of pure love and spirituality might look if in rapt adoration her soul were poured out in praise. His angels, musical and adoring, on the walls of San Marco, must have exerted a sweet and purifying influence on the Brotherhood; even the brilliancy of drapery with gold and silver accessories, such as borders and wings, must have added greatly to the somber walls, otherwise devoid of color and beauty.

Few of the Renaissance painters used brush and pigment according to fancy. Their patrons were almost entirely of the clergy and fraternities. Little was done by way of embellishment on secular subjects till the reign of the Medici in Florence, and Julius II, in Rome. Mythology and meager facts of profane history served as subjects now and then—and some were very profane. Woman was dominant in the art of that period and the reason is obvious.

When we speak of woman as art motif, the implication is that she figured in art expression other than easel pictures, portraits and what we may call literature in art. We have considered her as a motif in sculpture and in Michael Angelo's sculptural paintings; let us go back to the site of Pompeii; beautiful and profligate when buried alive, her now uncovered ruins give an inkling of a broken and vanished Greek art in decoration.

Pompeiian red and green we know to have been the favorite tones for the walls of palaces and villas in that splendid summer resort of imperial and wealthy Romans. In spite of the lapse of time, of earthquake and boiling lava, Pompeii and Herculaneum have been found by excavators to house much of Greek art and ideas. Doubtless the method of mural painting came to Italy with the Greek captives, and their methods and arts have proved to be worth while, considering their survival of time. It is true that those walls, like much of Egyptian art, are with us today because almost hermetically buried from air and dampness, but as a vehicle for color have a staying quality, as is proved by paintings on fragmentary walls on the Palatine. Much of the color on Egyptian walls was of glazed tiles.

We set foot within the ruins of the house of Germanicus to study its murals so wonderfully preserved, and in the atrium we are reminded of the words of St. Paul to his audience on Mars Hill: "I see that you are very religious"; for the first and largest room is supplied with an altar inscribed to their domestic gods. But in the triclinium or dining room we face the art of more than nineteen hundred years with subjects to be found in modern art, game, such as deer, ducks, birds, et cetera, paneled with borders of delicate arabesques of vines and flower motifs, as also are the group paintings in the tablinium, groups representing classic lore, Mercury and Io, Galatea and Polyphemus, and even a street scene in Rome at that period. The frescoes are Greek, the color wonderfully clear and strong, the figures impressive of Greek drawing. On these, as on some Pompeiian walls, the motif is a dancing girl or nymph wreathing herself with flowers, or a cupid with bow and quiver, all in the flat surface, yet not wholly devoid of perspective.

Whether we read, study or travel, the best we can do is to gather and glean from the abundant harvest of past arts, not only because knowledge is power, but because gleaning puts us in touch with humanity's aims and progress, teaching and serving as a comparative scale.

In Italy we glean more for our subject.

First, look at a fundamental fact concerning the birth of genius. In the wonderful fifteenth century, within a radius of little more than two hundred miles, fifty-six of our well-known artists were born; four others were born in the preceding decade, making a galaxy of at least sixty prominent art workers to enrich the century plus the older men whose working years belong to it also.

The brilliant minds of the first magnitude were born within the first decade of the last quarter of the century, and within eight years eight of the most renowned painters of the world came to the uplift of art. Of this group of young men, two were commissioned to work out their art salvation in Rome at the same time. They were the oldest and youngest of the group.

Michael Angelo had several years the start in Rome; the younger, Raphael Santi, so greatly admired the work of the senior artist, that at one time he was in danger of losing his own originality, but a timely order from the pope saved him and his art, and the "Stanza Segnatura" represents Raphael in the full maturity of his manhood and his art.

Easel pictures were rare in those days; wall paintings were the glory of the Vatican, of Rome, of the world, and to this day the works of Raphael add laurels to his fame.

We are considering the decorative in his art at the moment, for such was his order from Julius II. His decorations for the walls, or murals, are masterpieces portraying the idealized subjectives of theology, philosophy, poetry, and jurisprudence—the sciences by which man struggles to appreciate divine truth.

In the world of art Raphael's frescoes are symbolic, corresponding to the allegory in literature; the highest form of decoration.

Raphael's work requires a volume, but in connection with our subject we pass on to the Farnesina Palace, on whose walls the Umbrian master depicted the fable of Cupid and Psyche. The fable, so inwrought with human experience, so applicably and naturally attributed to the invisible subjects, is most delicately and artistically portrayed on the pendentives and lunettes of the ceiling. Raphael made all the designs for the thirty pictures, and the exquisite borders and medallions enwreathed with arabesques, birds, and flowers; but in the actual painting he was assisted by a number of his pupils. There is a group, however, of three graces, one of which is entirely the work of Raphael, and one of his contemporaries declared, "This one figure, with its masterly drawing, refined execution, and exquisite coloring, is enough to redeem the whole, and serves to mark the preeminence of the master over the best of his pupils."

The voices of conscience and curiosity are most delicately made to represent the ethereal, the invisible, by female figures grouped back of Psyche; and at the flight of Cupid one almost hears the parting thrust to the prostrate Psyche, "Love cannot dwell with suspicion." With real appreciation for the beauty and instruction in the fable, the master mind and hand have rendered a beautiful transcription of it into art—allegory into symbolic.

Now for a domestic teaching, also from Italy. Said Kenyon Cox, "The art of Venice differed greatly from the rest of Italy. It was poetic, sensuous, or nationalistic, secular and even worldly, delighting in the pride of life and joy of living."

In certain epochs of art we notice a similarity of accessories, as of dress, house furnishings, styles, fabrics, et cetera, and the differences tell us pretty clearly of the country that claimed the artist or the sitter. Thus figuring it out through the centuries that produced the most art, we find a leather age, a wool age, and a silk age. We find it in the costumes of men as well as of women, and notably in the textures of Venice, The Netherlands and Spain. All were wealthy commercial people, lavish in expenditure.

Paolo Veronese portrays his own taste in common with the Venice of his day in a wall painting personifying "Industry."

An intensely practical woman of the New England type was once asked what she thought of this masterpiece of the Renaissance.

"What is she supposed to be doing?" asked the New Englander.

"Impersonating Industry," was the reply, "the woman, the basket, and the spider."

"Humph!" was her contemptuous rejoiner, "She would do it with much more grace had she been sweeping down the web with a broom."

To go back to Venice, this kind of industry was painted in the so-called silk age. The rich brocade of the robe lends almost a statuesque effect to the low-seated figure—a woman of superb physique. Her outer coat is embroidered green velvet, slightly confined by a gold satin girdle clasped at the hip with a huge mosaic medallion framed in Etruscan gold. The wall on which she is seated is architecturally treated; the gray yet warm sky sheds a creamy light, the whole framed in the massive showy gold of the period. The one bare foot is expressive of comfort in the warmth of Italy, also of the beginning of freedom from sacerdotal law governing the nude. The woman's upturned face, perfectly foreshortened, is beautiful in expression.

Guido Reni was a strong painter of womanhood; his handling of pigments, delicate, soft, and true. He left to art two types of woman: the quiet, refined type in deep thought, as a Sibyl. Her finger in the book indicates the student. The quill is suggestive of carefully prepared results, and proves that education underlies the sweet, thoughtful face. It is the most intellectual of that period. More and more intelligence is coming to woman, more and more is taking form. Guido essayed the ideal again in "Aurora" in the Barnerini Palace. The goddess of Dawn guides the steeds of Phoebus through and over the clouds that lie in the wake of departing night. The hours that accompany the coming day are partially draped maids wafted on clouds and suffused with broadening light.

His rainbow is another phase of the ideal.

The painting was a wonder in its early years, and has become an art classic; and who can say that the motif that inspired Guido Reni may not have inspired nineteenth century men in a new world. Spirited horses pranced the name and fame of William Morris Hunt into the foreground of art when he commissioned them with "The Flight of Night," in the state capitol at Albany, New York. Imperfectly prepared plaster was the means of losing that beautiful work to the state and the world.

In this twentieth century a New England artist has shown consummate skill and idealism in "The Triumph of Time," frescoed on the ceiling of the Children's Room of the Boston Library.

The artist, John Elliott, has aerialized rapid-plunging horses each with an attendant in form of a leading or restraining maiden. The action is vigorous, graceful, suggestive. The color scheme of delicate grays slightly flushed with violet and rose possesses strength and balance, the figures most pronounced, and every tone in draperies or flying coursers is faintly echoed in the cumulus clouds of the background and the foreground, that conceal yet half reveal the eternal abyss just ahead of oncoming centuries and millenniums. The powerful horses representing the centuries are in control of strong, intellectual, refined women. Was that a bit of prophecy?

A still more delicate idealism is in the graceful floating Iris, goddess of the rainbow, from the mind of the same artist who painted "Aurora." Seemingly she escapes from the bow bearing the proverbial pot of gold toward the rain-blessed earth. There is a togetherness of the delicate arms and limbs half concealed by wind-wisped fragments of vanishing cloud. It is a thought, caught, and escaped again—an ephemeral glimpse, a pictured idea. The motif a woman.

In spite of constant strife of parties and principles, political and religious, during the Renaissance, each of those wonderful centuries sent brighter beams up and athwart the dark and troubled world, and ever-increasing light was prophetic of a broadening day.

The outcry of man's religious nature for truth wherewith to feed his soul; the hunger of his mind for knowledge; the craving of his spirit for the beautiful, the ideal, and to express his art instinct; all these powers within man were responsible for the new day, as they are today for the centuries to come.

To the end of Raphael's short life, the centuries had bloomed with increasingly refined and ennobling art. His "Sappho" is a pronounced type of his ideal of the poet. His Madonnas express for us his highest thought of spiritual influence on womanhood.