Arts: Portraits Eye to Eye

(Here is an art exhibit that I reviewed in 2011. Enjoy the observations.)

Eye to Eye: European Portraits 1450-1850, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. A survey of 31 portraits representing a variety of styles. These works are on loan from a private collection. January 23 – March 27, 2011. For more information please visit www.clarkart.edu

There’s nothing quite like a fine portrait painting. They certainly are and have been universally embraced. The good ones penetrate the subject’s psyche and exhibit a multitude of the artist's talents and disciplines while illuminating their subjects in the painterly style of the times along with unique dress, presentation and demeanor.

In this fine exhibit, the curator has brought together 29 paintings, one relief and one terra cotta bust from four centuries of European art. And while it showcases the remarkable abilities of less-known artists like Giovanni Battista Moroni and the Netherlandish Ambrosius Benson, it also has Portrait of a Young Man by Peter Paul Rubens and even a small painterly sketch of his own brother by the later-Renaissance master sculptor/architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Phew!

“Many artists of the 16th century depicted idealized female heads,” says one descriptive wall tag. And indeed throughout this show, the human portrait, either from the waist up or less, is idealized in 31 distinct ways. Case in point: The marble relief is a side view with hair fashioned like a Classical Greek statue. Awesome.

The variety in this exhibit is refreshing and its scale is just right so as not to overwhelm the viewer with quantity, but to give him quality. Shouldn’t all exhibits be that way?
There is everything from Portrait of a Young Woman Holding Apples and Grapes by Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472-1553), with the bejeweled subject dressed in an elaborate embroidered costume and a feathered hat. She looks dispassionately to the side as if to avoid our proletarian gazes. In the distance is a landscape with cliffs, a castle atop the cliffs, and at their base a minutely-painted cathedral. Cranach paints the portrait in a style beyond the borders of classical Renaissance, as it to escape the strictures of the Italian style.

Left: Detail, Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Young Man, 1613-15. Right: Detail, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Young Woman Holding Grapes and Apples, 1528.

Then there’s the small hyper-realistic Portrait of a Man at a Window from 1550 by Benson of a young man in simple black garb holding his gloves in one hand and touching his cap with the other in an endearing gesture. His beard is stunning in its detail and you wonder what ever happened to the kinds of great talent that made these works, even a mostly unknown painter like Benson. And yes, there’s another one of those tiny landscapes out the window painted in scrupulous detail.

What this exhibit reveals is that portraiture certainly has never fit any single format. The luxuriant brocaded outfits of some of the aristocratic female subjects, with pearls strung through their hair and and jewels around the necks, highlight an era long gone among the wealthy few.

But in Jusepe de Ribera’s Philosopher With Globe (Anaxagoras?) from 1630, the Spaniard depicts an aged, grizzled scholar in the simplest drab robe with a globe and tattered book nearby, accurately portraying the materially humble spirit of the inquiring mind. “Ribera’s elite patrons would have enjoyed puzzling through the visual clues to identify the subject,” says the wall tag.

In the small canvas A Saint Holding a Cross from 1635-40, Ribera shows us the subject in the simplest way – a small dramatically side-lit portrait of the saint wielding the mighty Christian symbol rendered in elementary blocks of light and shade.

Jacques Louis-David is strangely represented in separate husband-and-wife portraits with hyphenated names too long to mention here. Interestingly, these are simple portraits, not very detailed, relatively static, the woman looking downright frumpy, perhaps a quiet respite for the painter of the famous Napoleon on his rearing horse, one of the most meticulous and bright canvases of the last 500 years.

In Parmigiano's Portrait of a Man of 1530, we have a simple, even dour portrait that seems only to want to focus on the subject's humanity, sans embellishment. In contrast, in Alonzo Sanchez Coello's Portrait of Elizabeth de Valois of 1564-70, the stunning garb proves once again that 'clothes make the woman'.

Even the frames speak volumes about the times in which the artworks were made. Most are relatively simple, but two, including that on Moroni’s Portrait of a Young Woman, are elaborate gold three-tiered affairs of intertwined leaves, fruits and flowers. The frame itself is a work of art, the kind of thing we haven’t seen made in hundreds of years. Who were these people who created such beauty? They seem to be from another world.

One of the facts that is always striking when you see such a show is how truncated the lives were. Parmigiano lived only 37 years, Ribera 61, Moroni 53 and Alonzo Coello 57. But they produced such masterful art. What a paradox, as if they knew their time was short – as everyone did in those times – and so they focused their energies entirely on the era beyond their own, to make timeless art.

The Bernini is hardly a finished work, perhaps the most sketchy of the whole show. It was “painted quite rapidly” says the tag, with “smears from the artists’ fingers” on it. That’s a great touch and it humanizes the work even further than its common style. Look, Bernini's actual fingerprints! But the significance of such a work goes beyond its artistic refinement

It is simply a rare work from a master not known for painting, and a big surprise to see in this exhibit.

Perhaps the best picture for overall originality is the diminutive foot-tall oil on panel by Thomas de Keyser (Dutch, 1596-1667) Portrait of a Young Woman (The show has many overlapping titles from one painting to the next. Yet why are so many of the subjects unnamed? Hmmm…).

She has an elegant modulated black outfit, its tones nuanced, her neck rung by one of those classic Dutch collars (called a “ruff”). It even has an amazing diaphanous detail that is divine in its execution. This picture is so minute in its detail that is hard to imagine how it was done except with extreme patience and discipline that came from the what we know as Old World craftsmen. It appears that much of de Keyer's work certainly was done with a single-hair brush. There is no other way to explain it. And its frame is 8-sided, setting it apart from the rest of the exhibit.

This exhibit shows many things. First, for anyone who has sought to master the art of painting it is yet another example of what painting really was and how it never will be again unless some ancient spirit is awakened in our arts.

Second, it is a pristine example of the power of art as more than description, but a series of discreet, discrete and personal artistic experiences involving the viewer, the long-gone subjects and the long-gone artists, case studies in form, universal expression and the human condition along with a reflection on the passage of eternal time.

Third it shows that the portrait is an crucial archetype of art, a genre of painting that can never, ever get old. The way that Rubens subtly models his Portrait face in such original detail makes you realize that great artists – and even good ones – can always find new ways to describe their subjects.

Fourth, the barbarians today say that this type of art is ‘old fashioned’. Yet that is quite the opposite of the truth. It is revolutionary and never has been equaled since the time of its making. Rubens gives us a portrait that is not just dazzlingly descriptive, but idealized in a way that transcends the centuries. These are truly timeless artworks.

The Clark Art Institute is slowly becoming one of the pre-eminent art museums in America. To live near it is an ongoing treat. Exhibits like these are becoming commonplace and it is a tribute to the museum’s founders, Sterling and Francine Clark and its quality staff. Kudos for another great show…

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