A while ago, David Hockney mused on a proposal to tax the works of art stored in artists’ studios. ‘You’d only have to say they weren’t finished, and you are the only one who could say if they were,’ he suggested. ‘There’d be nothing they could do.’ This is the state of affairs examined in Unfinished, a thought-provoking little exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery.
Once upon a time, it was as clear whether a painter had completed a picture as it was whether the gardener had thoroughly mowed the lawn. Indisputably, Perino del Vaga downed tools for some reason halfway through his ‘Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist’ (1528–37). That’s obvious. Some parts are depicted in fine detail, others remain merely drawn outlines on the panel. Yet someone kept it because, even as it is, it’s beautiful.
This is where the topic begins to get complicated. There was a rather crass definition of ‘finished’ that was upheld, for example, at the 19th-century Royal Academy. It meant, roughly, ‘neatly and smoothly brushed all over’ (or polished, in the case of a sculpture). Thus the young Constable was told his landscape required more ‘finish’. But there are many other ways to bring a work to a conclusion.
It seems Rembrandt was the first to proclaim the Hockney doctrine: that a picture was finished if and only if he, its creator, said so. But this generates paradoxes. Why did Rembrandt leave his etching ‘The Artist Drawing from the Model’ (c.1639) as evidently ‘unfinished’ as the Perino del Vaga, with large areas of the plate just barely sketched in outline but about a third carefully elaborated? Perhaps he wasn’t happy with the composition — but in that case, why did he go ahead and print it? Surely it couldn’t be that he actually liked the image as it was? But its blend of ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ was fascinating enough to have influenced Picasso’s meditations on the theme of artist and model in ‘The Vollard Suite’.
Move on to the late 19th century and the question gets even more complex. In the case of a late Cézanne such as ‘Turning Road (Route Tournante)’ c.1905 there is, just as in the Perino, plenty of bare, unpainted surface. Did Cézanne intend to add more, and die before he was able to do it? Was he happy with it as it is? Had he even decided? It is impossible to say, but it looks fabulous as it is.
By that time, conventional taste had concluded that Michelangelo’s unfinished works were much better that way. The master himself would probably not have agreed, but he did regard the life of an artist as an unending struggle for perfection.
Michelangelo would also have seen the point of the current exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum: Drawn from the Antique. This investigates how the remains of ancient Greek and Roman art were a basis of art education from the Renaissance until the day before yesterday — and a source of inspiration that for artists continued throughout their careers.
According to a 16th-century anecdote, Cardinal Farnese met the septuagenarian Michelangelo one winter day near the Coliseum. He asked him where he was walking to through the snow. ‘I am still going to school to learn,’ the great man replied, meaning that his destination was the ruined amphitheatre.
Only in the 1960s and ’70s did most art schools throw out their casts of classical sculpture. Until then, as Drawn from the Antiqueillustrates with evocative images, students had for centuries learnt to comprehend the human body by copying these hallowed objects (traditionally, before they were let loose on living models). In a tenderly affectionate pen-and-wash drawing of around 1595, Federico Zuccaro depicted his deceased elder brother Taddeo assiduously studying ancient sculptures as a young artist in Rome, half a century before.
‘A Painter’s Studio’ (c.1646–50) by Michael Sweerts, a Flemish painter living in Rome, shows artists working from three sources: a naked life model, a plaster cast of a flayed cadaver and casts of ancient carving. These last are a wonderful jumbled pile of heads, limbs and torsos — much like the Soane Museum itself, which is a sort of architectural and sculptural collage, unified, like Sweerts’s painting, by the drama of lighting.
There was, however, a danger in excessive copying just as there was in the insistence on a smooth ‘finish’. It could be deadening and, in a great deal of 18th- and 19th-century art, certainly was. Michelangelo pointed out the pitfall soon after having seen the newly rediscovered Laocoön in 1506. This was, he apparently exclaimed, ‘a singular miracle of art’ but, he went on, ‘we should grasp the divine genius of the sculptor’ rather than simply imitate the work. In other words, art cannot be reduced to a simple and easily taught formula.
Originally published in The Spectator
At the Louvre the other day there was a small crowd permanently gathered in front of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. They constantly took photographs of the picture itself, and sometimes of themselves standing in front of it. No such attention was given to the other masterpieces of French painting hanging nearby, including many by Delacroix. This painting from 1830 — with its glamorous, bare-breasted personification of liberté, Tricolore in hand, followed by heroic representatives of the working and middle classes — has become an international shorthand for France itself.
Whether or not this is a valid symbol of the country, it is a misleading guide to Delacroix’s own feelings about his native land, its revolutionary traditions and the modern world he watched developing around him in 19th-century Paris. He may have supported liberté, but fraternité and égalité not so much. A truer indication of his opinions is probably to be found in the mural that he painted in a half dome of the library of the Chamber of Deputies at the Palais Bourbon: ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’.
An exhibition next month at the National Gallery will present Delacroix as the apostle of modernism — and rightly so. He was revered as a predecessor by the impressionists and post-impressionists. A couple of hours before I was strolling through the Louvre last week, I was able to climb the scaffolding in the church of Saint-Sulpice where his wall paintings are currently under restoration. From a foot or two away, Delacroix’s vivid, vibrating colours and bold brush strokes looked startlingly reminiscent of those of Van Gogh or Gauguin.
There is, however, a paradox about the notion of Delacroix as the forerunner to the avant-garde of the 1880s and ’90s. He was a romantic pessimist, inclined to think that civilisation would always decline and barbarism inevitably return. It would be an exaggeration, Kenneth Clark thought, to say that Delacroix sympathised with Attila, but — Clark went on — he gave the leader of the Huns, trampling on the remains of ancient Roman culture, ‘the same irresistible energy’ as the lions and tigers he loved to paint.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was, like many highly creative people, a bundle of contradictions. He was an ardent lover of big cats, an artist whose images of tigers, Clark thought, were truer self-portraits than the pictures he made of his actual features. Meanwhile in everyday life Delacroix was an anglophile dandy — one of the first Parisians to wear suits cut in the English style — who aimed at a frigid self-control. ‘The mask is everything,’ he noted in 1823.
The contrast between Delacroix’s carefully preserved exterior and the swirling emotions within was summed up in a celebrated metaphor by his friend and admirer Charles Baudelaire. The painter resembled, Baudelaire wrote, ‘A volcanic crater artistically concealed beneath bouquets of flowers.’ He wanted to hide, as the poet put it, the ‘rage in his heart’ behind a glacial façade, but also — as the scholar Lee Johnson added — ‘his vulnerability and shyness’.
Delacroix suffered throughout his life from poor health, possibly caused by a tubercular infection that affected his throat and lungs. Furthermore, he was also plagued by a weak digestion, perhaps resulting from highly strung nerves. At work, carefully wrapped up against the cold in an old jacket buttoned to the chin, slippers and a muffler around the neck, he resembled neither a tiger nor a dandy.
He was a child of the French Revolution, but probably an illegitimate one. His ostensible father, Charles-François Delacroix, was minister of foreign affairs in the republican government. However, Charles-François Delacroix was impotent for many years as a result of an enormous growth on one of his testicles. This was removed in an operation — without anaesthetic, of course — in mid-September 1797. Eugène was born seven and a half months later. A persistent rumour claims that his true father was the great statesman Talleyrand, Charles-François Delacroix’s successor at the foreign ministry.
In 1805, Charles-François Delacroix died leaving only unwise investments and large debts. The painter came of age in the France of the restored monarchy, which he deplored (hence his support for the revolutionaries of 1830, which ejected the reactionary Charles X). But, like the heroes of his friend the novelist Stendhal, Delacroix deplored not just the stuffiness and corruption of Paris in the 1820s, but also the modern world itself with its new wealth and mass public. ‘I have never loved the crowd,’ he wrote in 1820, ‘nor all that the crowd feeds on.’
As time went on, his dislike focused on the bourgeoisie, often a bugbear for intellectuals and artists, in France and elsewhere. An acquaintance recalled that ‘among all those men who had a profound, ineradicable contempt for the bourgeois’, only Flaubert disdained them more than Delacroix. Even his perfect manners scarcely concealed his loathing for the middle classes who represented, he believed, a ‘wholly new barbarism’. He was, in other words, a snob both socially and intellectually.
‘Commercialism and love of pleasure are,’ he gloomily noted in 1857, ‘to the present way of thinking, the most compelling motives of the human soul.’ When the idea of progress — the ‘great chimera of modern times’ — was mentioned, he would ask where the contemporary equivalents of Raphael or Phidias were.
As it happened, Delacroix knew more geniuses than most people do, in any age. Chopin, Stendhal, Baudelaire and George Sand were among his circle (Balzac he knew but didn’t much like). He was an example of another paradox: the insider who feels like an outsider. One of the plagues of the modern age, Delacroix felt, was journalists — and in particular art critics, who were, it is true, unreasonably rude about his work. Delacroix was resolutely opposed by the artistic establishment of his day. It took him no fewer than seven attempts before he was elected, very late in life, to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Yet he was loaded with well-paid commissions through the assistance of friends such as the politician and writer Adolphe Thiers.
So it is that some of Delacroix’s most majestic achievements are now hidden away in government premises. He painted a huge cycle on the theme of the rise and fall of civilisation in the library of the Palais Bourbon (seat of the French National Assembly). At one end Orpheus teaches the arts of civilisation to the — slightly dubious — ancient Greeks; at the other, Attila destroys them. This, and his depiction of a scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in the dome of the library at the Palais du Luxembourg — seat of the Sénat — are not easy to visit these days because of the new barbarism of international terrorism.
They are evidence of another paradox. Delacroix was in many ways the final representative of the line of grand public pictures descended from Raphael and Michelangelo. The late works in Saint-Sulpice are the last great religious murals in the European tradition, but they were painted by a despairing agnostic. Delacroix believed that after death mankind faced ‘night, dreadful night’ — or so he told George Sand. He thought Voltaire had been correct to declare that while alive humanity was faced with a stark choice between being ‘convulsed with anxiety or lethargic with boredom’. There, too, he perhaps anticipated the predicament of the modern age.
Originally published in The Spectator
On 7 February 1506, Albrecht Dürer wrote home to his good friend Willibald Pirckheimer in Nuremberg. The great artist was having a mixed time in Venice: on the one hand, as Dürer explained, he was making lots of delightful new acquaintances, among them ‘good lute-players’ and also ‘connoisseurs in painting, men of much noble sentiment and honest virtue’. However, there was also a very different type lurking in the early 16th-century Serenissima: ‘the most faithless, lying, thievish rascals such as I scarcely believed could exist on earth’.
Dürer hints that among these latter were painters, perhaps including some whose works will be seen in a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, In the Age of Giorgione. Conceivably one who got on the wrong side of Dürer was the shadowy genius himself, Giorgione of Castelfranco.
Of the great masters of the early 16th century, Giorgione (c.1477/8–1510) is by some way the most elusive. Unfortunately, he did not write home to Castelfranco — a fine fortified town in the Veneto — or if he did no correspondence exists. Indeed, not much survives at all, either in the way of evidence or of art. He died young, probably in his early thirties and of the plague. Giorgio Vasari, author of the greatLives of the Artists, tells us that he ‘took unceasing delight in the joys of love’, which is plausible enough given the amorously poetic mood of some pictures by — or attributed to — him, and his development of a new sort of nude.
Apparently, it was Giorgione, whose name just means ‘big George’, who first combined the anatomy of a classical marble Venus with the delicately fleshly sensuality made possible by the oil medium (especially practised in the softer-focused fashion he may also have pioneered). Vasari also relates that the ‘sound of the lute gave him marvellous pleasure’, and Giorgione himself sang and played so well that he spent a lot of time performing — which may help to explain why there are so few of his paintings now.
However, Vasari was writing decades after Giorgione’s death and, as a patriotic Tuscan, he was distinctly hazy about Venetian art in general and Giorgione in particular. Though he did not mention Giorgione, Dürer was on the spot at the time. And his complaint about the younger painters of Venice was that they stole his ideas (he may, as we shall see, have had a point). Dürer specifically excluded the venerable Giovanni Bellini, then aged around 76, from his vilification. Bellini, he wrote, though old, ‘is the best painter of all’.
In making that last judgment, however, Dürer may not have been completely up to speed. In 1506, the elderly Bellini was being challenged by Giorgione, so much so that the wily old fellow eventually incorporated some aspects of the younger man’s style into his own. Indeed, around the time Dürer wrote his letter, Giorgione was influencing so many other artists that it is now very hard to say which are by whom. As Per Rumberg, the curator of the RA exhibition, ruefully explains, ‘Usually the disagreement between scholars about attributions is around the fringes; with Giorgione it’s at the core.’
Wisely, therefore, the exhibition is not simply devoted to Giorgione himself but to his era, in which a new kind of painting emerged in Venice — which, for want of a better word, is dubbed ‘Giorgionesque’. It will contain some pictures that most agree are by Giorgione, others that might possibly be by him, still more that are fairly definitely the work of other artists such as the young Titian and Bellini. One, a portrait of an unknown man from Berlin in a smart violet doublet, is widely believed to be a Giorgione (but, as it happens, Per Rumberg himself believes it is by Titian).
There are a few solid clues, however, to the truth about Giorgione. At the start of the Royal Academy exhibition will be a tiny image of an anonymous man, often dubbed the Terris Portrait, from the name of a previous owner, a Scottish coal merchant. This is close in Giorgione terms to a Rosetta Stone, albeit an ambiguous one. On the back, early in the 16th century, someone wrote the words ‘by the hand of Zorzi da chastel fr[anco]’, ‘Zorzi’ being a Venetian version of Giorgione. There follows a date, which starts ‘15’, but then gets much less legible.
This is a typical Giorgione conundrum. The Terris Portrait is among the most certain among that tiny group of paintings almost everyone agrees on — because of those words on the back. There are no signed Giorgiones, and only one other with a similar contemporary inscription naming him as the artist and giving a date. The snag is in the smudging of the last two digits: some connoisseurs have confidently read it as ‘1510’, others as ‘1508’. Per Rumberg laments, ‘So here we have a date but we can’t read it!’
The consensus at the moment, however, is that the date is ‘1506’, so just about the time Dürer was writing home to Nuremberg. His Italian friends, Dürer confided, advised him not to eat and drink with the Venetian painters (the patriarchal Bellini apart), perhaps in case they took the opportunity to poison him. Their behaviour, in Dürer’s view, was low. ‘Many of them are my enemies and copy my work in the churches and wherever they can find it; afterwards they criticize it and claim that it is not done in the antique style and say it is no good.’
The Terris Portrait supports this charge, but only up to a point. It was painted by someone who had learned the lessons of northern masters such as Dürer, for example in the wonderfully delicate softness of the sitter’s hair in which it seems to be possible to count each strand. Giorgione probably did have a good look at any paintings he could find by Dürer (and might well have disapproved of their lack of classical style).
Giorgione must also have experienced the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who had passed through Venice in 1500. Per Rumberg explains, ‘We are not sure if they met, but the Terris Portrait suggests they did, and that Giorgione learned his lesson.’ The smoky, blurry shadows of the man in the Terris Portrait do indeed make him look a little like a male Mona Lisa.
So Giorgione made his new art out of high-quality ingredients — a touch of Dürer, a soupçon of Leonardo, a solid foundation of Bellini and Roman antiquity. But there is something else you feel in a painting such as the National Gallery’s ‘Il Tramonto (The Sunset)’. In the landscape behind some enigmatic figures, a single sapling is silhouetted against the rosy glow in the sky. The story the picture once told has been lost (and further confused by a 20th-century restorer who added a St George and dragon). But the elegiac mood lingers in your mind. ‘Giorgione was a very quiet artist and very emotional,’ Per Rumberg concludes, ‘interested in very personal encounters.’ That’s perhaps about as close as you can get to defining the Giorgionesque effect.
Originally published in The Spectator