Art Book Reviews

Art Book Review: “Rendez-vous with Art” by Philippe de Montebello & Martin Gayford

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Thursday, December 25th, 2014

A Quiet Passion for Art

Philippe de Montebello holding Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child (c.1290-1300).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Philippe de Montebello holding Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child (c.1290-1300).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like a proud father gazing admiringly at the latest addition to the family, Philippe de Montebello holds the small panel painting of the Madonna and Child at just the right angle to benefit the camera.  As then director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he might have arranged for the photo shoot on the occasion of his visit to the conservation laboratory soon after the new arrival–the museum’s first Duccio di Buoninsegna–was brought home in 2004.

When the painting appeared on the market, de Montebello had to consider whether it was worth the $45 million he knew it would cost.  Of the many factors that went into his decision, the physical encounter with the actual object seems to have been a deciding one, assisted by what he describes to co-author Martin Gayford in Rendez-vous with Art as “the irrepressible need…to have taken possession of the object of desire.”

For de Montebello, this direct engagement with artworks forms the core of his personal enjoyment of them.  It motivated him some fifty years ago to seek employment at The Met, less out of interest in the museum itself than for its contents.  He wanted to “enjoy their physicality, hold them, move them about, and above all share [his] passion with…many others.”  Not surprising then that this photograph became the frontispiece of Rendez-vous with Art, a book in which de Montebello–now director emeritus of that encyclopedic museum in New York City, in collaboration with his sidekick–art critic and writer–Gayford, continues to share his enthusiasm with others.

Rendez-vous with Art book jacket

The seed for the book was planted when the publishers, Thames & Hudson, approached de Montebello about writing something for them and he demurred.  They turned for help to Gayford, one of their writers, whose skill at entering into dialogs with artists produced such winners as Man with the Blue Scarf, his story of posing for Lucien Freud.  This time, however, his subject was to be an art connoisseur, and first they had to meet.

The initial conversation happened over lunch in Paris, where Gayford caught up with de Montebello, abroad at the time.  The chemistry was right and by the end of their amiable chat they agreed to develop something together.  Several months later, when life brought Gayford to New York, the two met again and tossed around some ideas, among them the question, “What is a museum?”  Next stop would be The Met and de Montebello’s choice for the greatest work of art in the world.

Whoever chose the title–Rendez-vous with Art–opted for the French spelling of the first word with its meaning of appointment but also perhaps because of its etymology.  It derives from the imperative form of se rendre, to present oneself, and translates: Present yourself!  Rendezvous (one word, no hyphen) in English carries the additional connotation of assignation or tryst, a meeting between two lovers.

In the book, art is the object of desire that commands de Montebello and Gayford to present themselves.  They obey its directive over the course of many months whenever the peripatetic museum director alights in a city accessible in time and space to the art critic, whose base of operations is England.  For the greater good, de Montebello engages in his least favorite activity, talking about artwork he loves while immersed in its magic.  Gayford holds a microphone under his nose, capturing the precious words that they will later integrate into an ongoing narrative that frames one man’s emotional response to art within each object’s historical context and current museum placement.

Fragment of a Queen's Face, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, reign of Akhenaten.  From Middle Egypt, probably el-Amarna/Akhetaten (c. 1353–1336 BCE, yellow jasper, 5⅛ x 4⅞ x 4⅞ in [13 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photograph by Bruce White. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fragment of a Queen’s Face (c. 1353–1336 BCE, yellow jasper, 5⅛ x 4⅞ x 4⅞ in [13 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm]).  Middle Egypt.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photograph by Bruce White.  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The reader is grateful for their efforts and the opportunity to eavesdrop on those exchanges, the first of which occurs at The Met in front of a pair of full lips.  Carved in yellow jasper by an Egyptian artist millennia ago, they are all that is left of what was once the portrait of a queen (or princess), and their perfection captivates de Montebello.  He declares the fragment “one of the greatest works of art” ever and admits that if somehow the sculpture were to be completed, it would cease to be for him the source of intense pleasure that it now is.

This first visit to a beloved object establishes the format of the book: a dialog in front of a work of art–each part indicated in print by the actor’s initials (as in a script) in different typefaces–and a third voice (mostly Gayford’s, in yet another font) that binds together this collage of conversations by setting the stage for each day’s events, providing additional art historical information and occasionally ruminating on the nature of museums.

Connecting objects like the yellow jasper lips with works they will later visit, the writers note that all art displayed in museums is fragmentary and forever incomplete, wrenched as it was from some other context.  Constantly changed by the effects of time, the company it keeps in museum galleries and the varying perspectives of its viewers, art–once it leaves the hands of its maker–can never be known again in its original form.  Underscoring the inevitability of this, in the penultimate chapter the reader learns that the director thought to call the current book The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.

Considering all the knowledge, ideas and opinions de Montebello accumulated during his time in the museum world, and that those interests inform many of his exchanges with Gayford, that other title deserves a book of its own.  In the aptly named Rendez-vous with Art, the more compelling story is his love affair with art and the solace it affords him.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (1425-1428, gold and tempera on wooden panel, 76⅜ x 76⅜ in [194 x 194 cm]).  Image courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (1425-1428, gold and tempera on wooden panel, 76⅜ x 76⅜ in [194 x 194 cm]). Image courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid.

For a work of art to attract de Montebello’s attention, it must be well crafted but also embody some ineffable quality that eludes description.  Musing about The Annunciation (1425-1428) of Fra Angelico, after noting such fine qualities as “its clear tonalities, its lyricism and grace; the wonderful bipartite treatment in which both the damnation and the salvation of mankind are evoked,” he admits that what repeatedly brings him back to the painting is that it “makes [him] feel good,” adding that “there’s something so serene and uncomplicated about it…looking at this makes me feel better.”  Such serenity might not be so easily attainable surrounded by the crowds they encountered at popular museums like the Prado, where The Annunciation currently lives.

Quieter viewing circumstances greeted them on their visit to the Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, a side trip occasioned when de Montebello’s travels brought them to Amsterdam during renovations at the Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt’s Night Watch might have been one of their choices.  Instead, they found themselves in front of another Dutchman’s paintings.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662, oil on panel, 45⅛ x 54⅞ in [109.5 x 139.5 cm]).  Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662, oil on panel, 45⅛ x 54⅞ in [109.5 x 139.5 cm]).  Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

In The Mariaplaats with Mariakerk in Utrecht (1662), Pieter Jansz. Saenredam used one-point perspective to create a rapidly receding view of an expansive plaza but neglected to use that schema when he sized the figures scattered throughout his composition.  Though inaccurate according to principles of perspective, the tiny figures in the foreground nonetheless enhance a sense of distance that the eye finds pleasing.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650, oil on panel, 26 x 33½ in [66 x 85]).  Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650, oil on panel, 26 x 33½ in [66 x 85]). Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

In The Interior of St. Janskerk at Utrecht (c. 1650) displayed at the Boijmans alongside The Mariaplaats, Saenredam again depicts a deep as well as broad space, this time bare of any suggestion of human presence.  While the stillness of the plaza in the first painting appeals to de Montebello, it’s the emptiness and silence of the church interior that prompts him to reflect on the beauty of that painting’s surface.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565, oil on panel, 23⅝ x 29⅜ in [59.9 x 74.6 cm]).  Image courtesy of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565, oil on panel, 23⅝ x 29⅜ in [59.9 x 74.6 cm]).  Image courtesy of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Several galleries away, they stopped at The Tower of Babel (c. 1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which Gayford in his role as narrator describes to the reader.  Although little else will be said about it, de Montebello refers back to the Saenredams and explains, “I’m enjoying the fact that I’m looking into the distance behind the Tower–how many miles?  I love space.”

He’s not alone.  Research has found that regardless of whether they’ve ever been to one, people prefer pictures of the savanna, a landscape with slightly elevated areas that look out over large, grassy fields interrupted by few trees.  From such overlooks, Pleistocene humans could quickly detect any large animals whose presence might mean for them danger or dinner, depending on who spotted whom first.1

The Dying Lioness from Nineveh, Assyrian period.  From the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (660 BCE, alabaster mural relief, 6½ x 114/5 in [16.5 x 30 cm]).  British Museum, London.

The Dying Lioness from Nineveh, Assyrian period.  From the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (660 BCE, alabaster mural relief, 6½ x 114/5 in [16.5 x 30 cm]).  British Museum, London.

Perhaps something primal also draws de Montebello to the stone relief carvings of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) hunting lions in an Ancient Middle East gallery at the British Museum, images of scenes glorifying a monarch that leave little room for feline victory.  Singling out for the highest praise that of a dying lioness, de Montebello explains its appeal: “You can almost hear the startled, weakened roar of pain, and observe the lower part of her body, her sagging back already paralysed by the arrow in the spine, leaving her hind legs dragging behind, limp, useless.”

Once again it is the skill of the artist that most impresses de Montebello.  Although the lions are not depicted naturalistically, they have been “observed with a piercingly accurate as well as sympathetic eye…their suffering…rendered with incredible specificity as to the condition of each.”

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562, oil on panel, 46 x 634/5 in [117 x 162 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562, oil on panel, 46 x 634/5 in [117 x 162 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Contrast this with his earlier stated feelings about another gruesome image, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) by Brueghel the Elder, where the tortured and dying are fellow humans: “it is a painting from which, seductive as the paint layer is, I can’t but recoil.”  Pictured in the lower left corner, a wagon with a load of skulls resonates on a personal level, reminding him of Nazi concentration camps.

Indeed, though many of the visited masterpieces elicit extensive reflections on that imperfect construct, the art museum, the gold to be mined in Rendez-vous with Art is de Montebello’s unabashedly personal responses to his long-standing favorites.  When he compares museum goers who have knowledge of art history (a group to which he obviously belongs) to those more plentiful ones with none, he reminds the reader that “most people react and ‘feel’–or not–in front of works of art.”

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1507, oil on two panels, each 82 x 32 in [209 x 81 cm]).  Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1507, oil on two panels, each 82 x 32 in [209 x 81 cm]).  Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Relating that observation to himself while standing before Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1507), he turns to Gayford–his able interlocutor–and wonders aloud, “Why should I be ashamed…of simply asking you if you have ever seen a better-looking Adam or a more adorable Eve?”  Acknowledging that he could go on about one art historical point or another, de Montebello reveals some of what he finds pleasing about the first couple: “Dürer has so engagingly endowed his classically inspired figures with tender sensuality; and I love Eve…You see: no art history here, just my own very personal response.”

Before good fortune landed him at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello was a young man with a craving to spend as much time as possible around works of art.  Decades later, the former student at the Institute of Fine Arts now holds a professorship there, eminently qualified to discourse at length on all things art historical.  Yet he still claims his right to wander among the objects of his desire like everyone else, responding not as an academic but as the passionate art lover he has always been.
1 Anjon Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2014), 48-49.

Special thanks to Martin Gayford and Philippe de Montebello for taking time out of their busy schedules to discuss the book.

Rendez-vous with Art
by Philippe de Montebello
& Martin Gayford
Published by Thames & Hudson


Book Review: “Ribera” by Javier Portús

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Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Through Spanish Eyes

by Javier Portús

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[Image 1: Book cover.]

When the Chief Curator of Spanish Painting (up until 1700) at the Prado Museum in Spain decides to write a monograph on Jusepe de Ribera as part of that institution’s series spotlighting several of its art stars, it’s a given that he assumes the artist belongs in his country’s pantheon.  Lest there be any doubt, the note on the inside front dust jacket of Javier Portús’s Ribera claims the painter and printmaker as a “leading figure in the baroque Spanish tradition–alongside El Greco, Velázquez and Zurbarán,” and names him José rather than the more Italian, Jusepe.

In the very first paragraph, under the chapter heading “In Search of an Identity,” Portús acknowledges this inherent bias and addresses the tradition of categorizing Ribera as a Spanish painter even though the artist left Spain when he was barely twenty and never returned to the land of his birth.  Aware of the exalted status of artists in Italy, Ribera chose it over a Spain that was “‘a pious mother to foreigners but a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons.’”

[Image 2: Map of Iberian Peninsula, 1270-1492.]

Born in Xátiva, Valencia, in 1591, Ribera vanishes in the record for the next twenty years.  No documentation has so far been uncovered beyond his baptismal certificate, dated February 17, 1591, that indicates his whereabouts prior to June 11, 1611, when a record of payment for a painting places him in Parma, Italy.

There are, however, documents indicating that when Ribera was six years old, his father remarried and did so again ten years later.  It’s likely that the reasons for the remarriages were the deaths in childbirth, or from illness, of the boy’s first two mothers.  Perhaps the second loss, before the boy was sixteen, prompted the fledgling artist to leave home and seek his fortune where his work would be more highly regarded, a possibility that squares with recent scholarship that pushes back the date of his arrival in Italy–specifically Rome–by several years.

By 1613, Ribera was well enough established to receive an invitation to a meeting at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.  During his subsequent three years in that city, he came in contact with the legacy of Caravaggio, an artist who had fled the city by 1606, leaving behind many followers and plenty of artwork to impress and influence the young Spanish immigrant.  That Ribera led “a disordered life” there suggests that he fell in with the artists who once accompanied Caravaggio on his nightly rounds and got into street brawls and entanglements with the law.

Portús picks up his narrative in Rome, laying out his position regarding Ribera’s national affiliation, first by noting how the painter’s style evolved from Caravaggesque tenebrism and undefined space to lighter-colored, multi-figured compositions in architectural settings, and then by drawing attention to the manner in which the artist signed his name.

[Image 3:
Denial of St. Peter (c. 1614, oil on canvas, 64.2″ x 91.75″ [163 x 233 cm]).  Galleria Corsini, Rome.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Denial of St. Peter (c. 1610, oil on canvas, 37″ x 49.4″ [94 x 125.4 cm]).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127″ x 130″ [322 x 340 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.]

That Caravaggio’s tenebrism had a strong impact on Ribera’s early works is readily accepted by Portús, who finds in the younger artist’s “painterly technique and…enthusiasm for chiaroscuro effect” a direct link.  He seems to miss the other commonalities between the master and the newly minted artist that continued well into Ribera’s later years, similarities that include more than just the raking light that originates on the left.  Caravaggio’s theatrical compositions placed gesturing, three-quarter-length figures, wearing dramatic facial expressions, in an undefined space, characteristics evident in the paintings Portús selects to connect the two painters.

In his Denial of St. Peter (c. 1614), Ribera borrows the denying saint’s pose directly from Caravaggio’s painting of the same name (about 1610) and includes figures around a table, a common theme among the Caravaggisti and traceable to Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which is also the source of Christ’s pointing finger in the younger painter’s Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1616), which Portús mentions in his comparison of the two artists’ work.

[Image 4:
The Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1616, oil on canvas, 55″ x 90½” [171 x 289 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127″ x 130″ [322 x 340 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Raising of Lazarus (1608-9, oil on canvas, 149.6″ x 108.3″ [380 x 275 cm]).  Museo Nazionale, Messina.]

The curator, in noting the power of tenebrism to heighten emotions, sees a qualitative difference between the “tumult and anxiety” in Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus (1608-9) compared with the toned down emotional content of Ribera’s version, observing too the contrast between the “deliberate crowding” in the former and a “clear distinct space” for each figure in the latter. It seems strange, though, that the writer would choose a painting with a compositional format so removed from Ribera’s and from the more relevant Caravaggios with their three-quarter-length figures in shallow space.

[Image 5: The Communion of the Apostles (1651, oil on canvas, 157.5″ x 157.5″ [400 x 400 cm]).  Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

Having compared and contrasted Ribera’s early Caravaggesque style with that of its originator, Portús goes on to illustrate how that style gradually evolved over time, retaining its naturalism.  He uses the large-scale Communion of the Apostles (1651) done the year before Ribera’s death to chart those changes, particularly in the way the painter has brightened his palette and opened up space with a blue sky populated by flying angels and an arcade receding to some unspecified place.  Portús sees the drapery across the top as the artist’s allusion to the painting’s artificial nature, though it could just as easily be read as a stage curtain pulled back to reveal the dramatic event.  Marveling at Ribera’s skill, the writer points out the interplay of the five hands’ participating in this first offering of holy communion, as well as the parallel action of the kneeling St. Peter’s left hand with the right foot of the standing Christ.

[Image 6: The Immaculate Conception (1635, oil on canvas, 67.7″ x 112.2″ [502 x 329 cm]).  Church of the Convento de las Agustinas Recoletas de Monterrey, Salamanca.]

To further note Ribera’s gradual move away from a Caravaggesque style, Portús cites two other paintings–The Immaculate Conception (1635) and St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven (1646), both undeniably different in appearance from early works.  The reader will discover in a matter of pages, however, that these paintings were contemporaneous with others that continued to include many elements from Ribera’s Rome years.

[Image 7:
St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven (1646, oil on copper, 126″ x 78.75″ [320 x 200 cm]).  Real Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro, Naples.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127.2″ x 135″ [323 x 343 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.]

In fact, a closer look at the composition and figures in the St. Januarius demonstrates Ribera’s memory of Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which he would have seen in the chapel where it did (and still does) reside in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.  First and most obvious is the quote of Caravaggio’s open-mouthed boy, wearing white and looking back over his shoulder at the impending execution.  Ribera mirrors that expression and pose in his young man in red on the left, who looks out at the viewer.  Less direct but clearly related is the placement of a foreground figure in each lower corner to frame the action.  Like Caravaggio, Ribera positions one with his back to the audience and the other stretched out on the ground, body facing forward and head turning back toward the unmarred saint.  Tumult abounds in both pictures.

The debate about Ribera’s nationality takes on new complexities once he relocates to Naples, where he is documented by 1616.  The bustling city, capital of a Spanish viceroyalty, offered the artist opportunities to market himself to his compatriots, particularly the procession of viceroys who came and went during the 36 years Ribera lived there.  Through commissions and sales to patrons who moved between Naples and Spain, the painter spread his influence to at-home Spanish artists, the names of which Portús lists as he picks up the thread about nationality with a focus on Ribera’s signature.

[Image 8: Balthasar’s Vision (1635, oil on canvas, 20.5″ x 25.2″ [52 x 64 cm]).  Palazzo Arcivescovile, Milan.]

In Spain, writers like Francisco Pacheco claimed the artist as their own; in Italy, he was known as lo Spagnoletto, a nod to his place of origin.  A diminutive with negative connotations, the nickname translated to the Spanish el españoleto but was bypassed by Ribera when he settled on signature styles.  Portús points out how the painter signed an unusually large number of works compared to other artists of that time and chose the more dignified español over the well-known españoleto to emphasize his association with Spain.

The curator delves into a variety of signature issues in trying to discern whether Ribera identified himself as first and foremost Spanish.  Whatever else the proliferation of signed works might indicate, they show that Ribera was “greatly concerned with leaving written evidence of the authorship of his work,” and Portús finds plenty of examples to prove that point.

Often the signatures call attention to themselves as integral parts of the composition.  In the small canvas, Balthasar’s Vision (1635), Ribera painted “Jusepe de Ribera español F. 1635″ in the same script used by the hand that writes on the wall.

[Image 9:
Drunken Silenus (1626, oil on canvas, 72.8″ x 90.2″ [185 x 229 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of signature.  Drunken Silenus (1626, oil on canvas, 72.8″ x 90.2″ [185 x 229 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]

In the Drunken Silenus (1626), in the lower left corner, a snake–that symbol of envy–tears apart a scrap of paper on which is written the artist’s name.

[Image 10: The Communion of the Apostles (1651, oil on canvas, 157.5″ x 157.5″ [400 x 400 cm]).  Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

In The Communion of the Apostles, in the lower left, the piece of paper is so large as not to be missed.

[Image 11:
Large Grotesque Head (1622, etching, 8.5″ x 5.7″ [21.7 x 14.5 cm]).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head (c. 1630, pen and brown ink with brown wash over some black chalk on paper, 611/16″ x 41/16″ [17 x 10.4cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Signed works like these are more abundant after 1625, but the desire to publicize his prowess as an artist is already evident several years earlier in etchings Ribera created and circulated to advertise his wares and generate income.  Unlike paintings, prints lend themselves to mass production and widespread distribution, and Ribera exploited both attributes to reach potential customers throughout Europe.

These mostly signed works also constituted a showcase for the artist’s drawing skills and his command of the printmaking process.  Portús sees the etchings, seventeen in number and created prior to 1630, as vehicles for Ribera’s “highly questing creative spirit,” observing in them “an unequivocally Riberesque world…of narrative resources, human types, varied subject matter and different emotional climates.”  In the Large Grotesque Head (1622), the artist explores a particular type and in the drawing of a Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head (c. 1630) he displays a touch of whimsy and playfulness, though a darker meaning might lurk nearby.  Might those little men represent obsessional thinking and/or auditory hallucinations?

[Image 12:
Calvary (c. 1618, oil on canvas, 132.25″ x 90.5″ [336 x 230 cm]).  Collegiate Church, Osuna.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜” x 53″ [100 x 134.5 cm]).  Detroit Institute of Arts.]

If Ribera identified himself as Spanish, his paintings anchor him firmly in the Italian Baroque and were seen as such by two practiced connoisseurs, Philip IV and Diego Velázquez, when they selected his artwork while redecorating El Escorial in the late 1650s.  His “thoroughly Italianate” style qualified him as the only Spanish painter to be displayed in the company of such Italian masters as Titian and Veronese.

Straddling both worlds began to pay off for Ribera soon after he landed in Naples, with commissions for paintings that arrived at their destination–the Collegiate Church in Osuna, Spain–by 1627.  Among these was a crucifixion, Calvary (c. 1618), a tour de force in tenebrism and emotion, whose colorful fabrics bring to mind those in Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595-96).

[Image 13:
-View of the nave of the Certosa di San Martino, Naples.
-Paintings of the prophets Joel and Amos above the church arches in the Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

A decade later, Ribera would execute in Naples a series of prophets for the Certosa di San Martino, a monastery on a hill overlooking the city.  The painter met the challenge of devising compositions that conformed to the irregular spaces into which they were to be placed by relating each figure to its surrounding architecture.  Portús mentions that although a number of Ribera’s paintings did find their way to religious institutions like the Osuna church and Carthusian Monastery, commissions like these were rare.  Instead, the artist specialized “in medium-size and small paintings, conceived for private collections and chapels and easily transportable,” mostly of a sacred nature.

[Image 14: St. Bartholomew (c. 1613, oil on canvas, 49.6″ x 38.2″ [126 x 97 cm]).  Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence.]

Portús soon delves into the “Riberesque” world depicted in those compositions, one “in which joy or happiness is hard to find, in which laughter creates a sinister effect and tenderness is rare.”  At the same time, themes of “piety, stoicism, devotion, austerity, meditation and drama abound,” with “cruelty and the grotesque” an integral part of much of his work.  Most of those qualities, particularly the last two, are quite evident in the bloodless but flayed St. Bartholomew (c. 1613) who holds in his right hand the instrument of his torture and drapes over his left arm his recently removed skin, replete with facial features and hair.  The theme of flaying remains of interest to Ribera, who comes back to this saint in future paintings and also explores the myth of Marsyas and Apollo.

Of Ribera’s style, Portús notes its naturalism, as seen in the specific human types that populate the artist’s compositions, and its “precise and descriptive pictorial idiom.”  He describes how the painter clothes his humble characters in earthy-colored, outdated garments that emphasize their poverty, and gives them bearded–they are mostly male–expressive faces with wrinkled, weatherbeaten skin.  Portús traces this rejection of the prevailing Renaissance preference for idealization to certain antique Roman sculpture, while missing the possible influence of Caravaggio’s depiction of religious figures as ordinary people who sometimes reveal their dirty feet.

[Image 15:
Smell (c. 1615, oil on canvas, 45.25″ x 34.65″ [115 x 88 cm]).  Private collection, Madrid.
Sight (c. 1615, oil on canvas, 44.9″ x 35″ [114 x 89 cm]).  Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico, DF.]

Among Ribera’s secular subjects, a series of the five senses dates to his early years in Rome and reappears in later paintings that dramatically demonstrate the evolution of his style.  A long-standing traditional theme in Western art, the senses presented opportunities for innovation that, according to Portús, Ribera exploited by situating all the figures behind a table, directing their gaze toward the viewer (except for the blind man in Touch [1615]), and giving them objects and behavior that illustrate the pictured sense.  Light streams in from the upper left, illuminating the detailed depiction of still-life objects, facial features and cloth.  Portús notes that in Sight, Ribera equipped the character with a telescope, a device only recently invented by Galileo.

[Image 16:
Touch (1615, oil on canvas, 44.85″ x 35″ [114 x 89 cm]).  Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California.
Touch (1632, oil on canvas, 49.2″ x 38.5″ [125 x 98 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

When the painter returned to the theme of the senses some fifteen years later with his 1632 Touch, he retained the trope of using a blind man perceiving a sculpted head to emphasize the absence of sight.  What Portús calls the “unnecessary” portrait painting on the table in the 1615 version, echoed by a similar object in the later one, is ascribed to Ribera’s need to keep the composition of this sense parallel with that of the others in the series.  It might also refer to the paragone, that age-old competition between sculpture and painting for highest artistic honors.

The most immediate differences between the two paintings occur in the lighting, range of color, pose, attire and detail with which Ribera renders it all.  The raking light from the left that divides the background diagonally in the first work is replaced by a mostly dark backdrop that lacks any direct relationship to the light that picks out the details in the face, hands and sculpture.  Where the blind man, wearing what might be a sculptor’s smock, turns from the viewer in the earlier version, he now wears tattered clothing and faces front, handling a less classical head.  Finally, Ribera has aged him by greying his beard and wrinkling his skin.

[Image 17: Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48.88″ x 38.75″ [124 x 98 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.]

The general layout the painter devised for picturing the senses became a handy template to be used freely in subsequent single-figure paintings.  Using a limited palette, Ribera represented three-quarter-length philosophers and saints against a dark background, sitting or standing behind or near a table adorned with still-life objects symbolic of the subject–all depicted with remarkable detail.

Counting over thirty paintings of philosophers done by the artist, Portús writes about them at length, concluding that anyone standing before them “might believe they are in the presence of a collection of ragged ‘secular saints.’” In comparing a couple of Ribera’s philosophers to similarly presented saints, he observes that the clothing of the saints is considerably neater.

[Image 18:
Democritus (1614, oil on canvas, 40.15″ x 29.9″ [102 x 76 cm]).  Private collection, London.
Democritus (1630, oil on canvas, 49.2″ x 31.9″ [125 x 81 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

In revisiting one philosopher in particular, Ribera again provided an opportunity to compare the changes over time in his thinking about his subject and his art.  The Democritus (1614) from his Rome years has a similar palette and lighting scheme as the contemporaneous Touch, while the Democritus executed in 1630 displays changes comparable to those associated with the 1632 Touch.  In both renditions of Democritus, Ribera has associated philosophy with poverty by emphasizing the torn clothing.

[Image 19: St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (1626, oil on canvas, 142.5″ x 64.5″ [362 x 164]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]

Having focused mostly on paintings from Ribera’s years in Rome, Portús now moves with him to Naples, where the painter relocated around 1616, married and added to his repertoire large-format canvases of saints, many of which are shown at the moment of their martyrdom in various stages of exposure.  As the writer puts it, Ribera “discovered one of the methods he would apply with great frequency and success [to transmit] feelings of religious devotion: description of flesh…[that endows] the human body with special significance as the scenario of saintliness.”  Portús attributes this change of focus to Ribera’s encounter with a different client base, by implication less sophisticated.

An early example of Ribera’s exploitation of flesh’s potential for expressiveness is his St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (1626).  In this vertical composition, the artist has raised the saint’s arms to expose his brightly illuminated bare torso, making it the center of interest and a testament to the vulnerability of the body, appropriate for a scene where St. Jerome is being called to his maker.  The lighting, gestures and threatening dark clouds heighten the drama and make practically audible the trumpet’s ominous blare.

[Image 20:
Magdalena Penitent (1637, oil on canvas, 38.2″ x 26″ [97 x 66 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.
St. Mary the Egyptian (1641, oil on canvas, 52.4″ x 41.75″ [133 x 106 cm]).  Musée Fabre, Montpellier.]

Two paintings of penitent women–their creation separated by just a few years–demonstrate the impact bare skin can have on the expressive tone of a composition.   In Magdalena Penitent (1637), a fully clothed Mary is shown with the furrowed brow and lowered upper eyelids of sorrow as she leans her head on her prayerfully clasped hands, which in turn are supported by a skull they partially embrace.  Her remorse is as evident as her beauty.

In the starkly different St. Mary the Egyptian (1641), who is often confused with Mary Magdalene, Ribera places this patron saint of penitents in a barren environment near a skull and crust of bread.  Hands joined in prayer, Mary of Egypt gazes upward, her ascetic penance underscored by the heavy brown cloth that doesn’t quite cover her weathered skin.  By exposing her flesh, Ribera infused the scene with the same sense of vulnerable mortality that he did in his St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment, a feeling absent from his lovely Magdalena Penitent.

[Image 21: The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639, oil on canvas, 92.1″ x 92.1″ [234 x 234]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Further exploiting the expressive potential of nakedness, as Portús observes, Ribera arrived at a formula for his martyrdom narratives, key elements of which are nude or partially draped male saints whose nakedness and expressions of meditative acceptance stand in sharp contrast to those of their clothed torturers, intent on their murderous tasks with sadistic glee.  In some of these paintings, figures populate the background, variously watching or not.

In one example, The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639), two diagonals bisect the picture and meet at the saint’s spotlighted rib cage, which comes into view as his body is slowly hoisted up–his wrists tied to the crosspiece of his crucifixion.  Among the spectators, expressions range from the amused interest of the man on the right who supports his head on his hand to the knowing look on the woman in the lower left who holds a baby and stares out at the viewer, implicating all in this act of torture.

[Image 22:
Scene of Torture (1637-1640, pen and brown ink, brown wash, 5⅜” x 10⅝” [13.6 x 27.2 cm]).  Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
Torture Scene (N.d., drawing, no dimensions).  Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa.]

Ribera’s personal interest in such scenes of torture shows up in drawings he executed “for which no sources have been found in the Scriptures.”  An undated one, apparently in pen and brown ink with brown wash, shows a tree festooned with miniature figures–easily mistaken for acrobats–involved in a hanging.  A man in a small audience, with a child hanging onto him, indicates the performance to a newcomer who tips his hat in friendly greeting.  No one seems troubled by the unfolding events.  In another ink drawing, the executioner is about to hack into his defenseless victim who is stretched out between, and tied to, two sets of posts.

[Image 23: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1617, oil on canvas, 70.5″ x 52.75″ [179 x 139 cm]).  Collegiate Church, Osuna, Spain.]

As mentioned earlier, flaying held a particular fascination for Ribera who explored that form of torture in at least five versions of The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.  The Rome 1613 portrait of the saint holding his skin was followed in 1617 by perhaps the artist’s first Naples edition, which has an almost clinical quality to it.

[Image 24: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1628, oil on canvas, 57″ x 85″ [145 x 216 cm]).  Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence.]

Over the years, Ribera would create additional compositions portraying St. Bartholomew, each exemplifying his stylistic preferences at the time.

[Image 25: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, oil on canvas, 79.5″ x 60.2″ [202 x 153 cm]).  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.]

[Image 26: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1634, oil on canvas, 40.9″ x 44.5″ 104 x 113 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.]

In the 1634 version, he simplified the composition by eliminating figures and zooming in on the face of the emotionally detached executioner who regards his victim with curiosity as he sharpens his knife.  St. Bartholomew looks heavenward as if seeking out some source of comfort in this moment where his faith is being tested.

[Image 27:
Apollo and Marsyas (1637, oil on canvas, 71.6″ x 91.3″ [182 x 232 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of Marsyas’s face, flipped.
-Detail of Study of Noses and Mouths (c. 1622, etching).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.]

In discussing Ribera’s treatment of emotions, Portús isolates his special interest in those “related to devotion, piety, cruelty and pain,” recalling drawings and prints like the Study of Noses and Mouths (c. 1622) to illustrate the artist’s “penchant for these themes and for the grotesque.”  The curator connects the wide-open mouth of that etching to the victim’s scream in Apollo and Marsyas (1637), a distinctly different response to the slicing knife from that of St. Bartholomew in the 1630 version of his ordeal.

[Image 28:
-Detail of Marsyas’s face, flipped, Apollo and Marsyas (1637, oil on canvas, 71.6″ x 91.3″ [182 x 232 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of face, flipped, The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, oil on canvas, 79.5″ x 60.2″ [202 x 153 cm]).  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.]

Portús observes that in Ribera’s depiction of mythological subjects, “their facial expressions…invariably reveal all the horror…[while] the attitude of the saints is always one of piety and acceptance of torture,…a highly effective means…to convey religious feeling.”  This difference is apparent in the faces of Marsyas and St. Bartholomew; the former screams in agony and looks directly at the viewer, while the latter contains his anguish and rolls his eyes upward in an attempt to mentally escape his pain.

[Image 29: The Trinity (1635, oil on canvas, 89″ x 46.5″ [226  x 118 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Using the emotionally expressive figures in the colorful St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven as a bridge back to his opening thesis about Ribera’s later change in direction toward a less tenebristic style, Portús attributes the appearance in the 1630s of an “extension of the artist’s palette toward warm, sumptuous tones…[and] an engaging, relaxed, expansive piety…expressed through marked chromatic sensuality” to the Neo-Venetianism that was sweeping across Italy, and with the arrival in Naples during that decade of a number of classicizing artists.  He cites The Trinity (1635) as one of several works that exemplify this shift.

A close look at that painting reveals more about the fluidity with which Ribera moved among his stylistic options than about any fundamental transformation in his artistic practices.  Warm, high-value colors distinguish the heavenly sphere from the lower-register darkness out of which angels emerge and carry the body of Christ, whose pale skin and white shroud contrasts dramatically with the shadowy background.

[Image 30:
St. Jerome in His Study (1613, oil on canvas, 48.4″ x 39.4″ [123 x 100]).  Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
St. Jerome Penitent (1652, oil on canvas, 30.4″ x 28.3″ [77.2 x 71.8]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Ribera’s style continued to mature with time and practice and while there are noticeable differences between St. Jerome in His Study (1613)–his first signed painting–and St. Jerome Penitent (1652)–the last signed one completed before his death in 1652 (a comparison with which Portús ends his discourse), he never abandoned the tenebrism of his youth.

In St. Jerome Penitent, the saint bares a softly-modeled, anatomically descriptive right shoulder and boasts a head of shaggy grey hair with matching beard.  Even at this late date, Ribera found uses for his earliest technique of zooming in close on brightly lit, half-to-three-quarter-length figures accompanied by identifying still-life objects.  In this St. Jerome, he applied paint with short, confident brushstrokes that follow the contours of forms and animate the hair, hallmarks of the adept and brilliant painter he had become.

The mature Ribera sharply contrasts with the younger one, however, in the degree to which his subject now engages with the viewer, as Portús astutely points out.  In the 1613 St. Jerome in His Study, the saint is occupied with his writing, unaware of the observer.  In the later St. Jerome Penitent, the figure is positioned closer to the picture plane and looks through it–if not directly at the audience at least in its direction.  The 61-year-old Ribera seems to have evolved not just as an artist but also as a man far more conscious of the power of relationship.

[Image 31: Magdalena Ventura (The Bearded Lady) (1631, oil on canvas, 77.2″ x 50″ [196 x 127 cm]).  Exhibited at the Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

The life of Jusepe de Ribera came to an end on September 3, 1652.  No contemporary writer chose to immortalize this Spanish-Italian artist with a biography that would have preserved vital facts about his life.  In the absence of such a record, posterity has been left with no information about his psychologically formative childhood years nor about his early training as an artist–where or with whom that might have been.  Perhaps a new generation of art historians will be inspired to rummage around the archives of Xátiva and Valencia in search of the missing pieces that will finally fill in the blanks of this great artist’s life.  Meanwhile, art lovers can continue to marvel at the enigma who painted with such veracity the stunning portrait of Magdalena Ventura (The Bearded Lady) (1631).

Brown, Jonathan.  Paintings in Spain: 1500-1700.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
_____________.  Velázquez: Painter and Courtier.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Marandel, J. Patrice, ed.  Caravaggio and His Legacy.  New York: Prestel Verlag, 2012.
Peréz, Alfonso E., and Nicola Spinosa.  Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.
Portús, Javier.  Ribera.  Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2011.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]


Book Review: “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood” by Sigmund Freud

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Thursday, October 17th, 2013

A Case Study of
Psychoanalysis as an
Art Historical Method

Freud's Leonardo bk cover

Turn-of-the-nineteenth century Vienna was a fertile time for scientists, intellectuals and artists as the planets aligned to create what has been called “The Age of Insight.”  The mind became an object of intense scrutiny for practitioners of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and the literary and visual arts.  New methods that were developed in pursuit of understanding human nature from a biological perspective found usefulness in the study of art and artists.

One resident of the city, Sigmund Freud, created a system of indirect investigation into the psyche using personal experiences like dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, and artistic productions.  Calling his method psychoanalysis and taking it beyond the confines of his medical practice, Freud applied it everywhere without reservation, writing about jokes and everyday missteps, romance and war, and creativity and art.

Ever curious about Italy and its artists, Freud wrote a book-length analysis of Leonardo da Vinci based on a memory the artist had included in his Codus Atlanticus.  In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, the doctor uses psychoanalysis with great conviction to answer intriguing questions about this Renaissance master and scientist.

The first German edition of the book, published in 1910, was followed by four more (1919, 1923, 1925 and 1943).  An English translation titled simply Leonardo da Vinci appeared in 1916, followed by an additional two (1922 and 1932) before the one under consideration here.  In 1964 Alan Tyson, working under the general editorship of James Strachey with Anna Freud and Alix Strachey for The Standard Edition, translated the text with an expanded title for this first American edition.

In his book-length essay, Freud takes as his starting point Leonardo’s description of an event from his childhood, using a flawed German translation of the original Italian, to understand why Leonardo traded art for other inventions and took off in pursuit of scientific knowledge.  In typical Freud writing style, the psychoanalyst anticipates all manner of resistance throughout the piece, beginning by assuring those who would question his motives that his intentions are not “‘[t]o blacken the radiant and drag the sublime into the dust’” but rather to further understand a man that he referred to as “among the greatest of the human race.”

Before he tackles the childhood memory, Freud describes Leonardo’s struggles with his art, beginning with the perfectionism that made each painting a major endeavor of upwards of several years and left more than a few unfinished.  He cites Vasari and later art historians who quote Leonardo’s contemporaries on the subject, and mentions several specific paintings as examples, including the Last Supper, where the artist’s frustration with the rapid execution required of fresco painting resulted in the technical disaster that has challenged conservationists ever since.

From there Freud begins an elaboration of Leonardo’s personality based on observations by those who knew him in some way, maneuvering closer to his primary thesis by proposing that the artist “represented the cool repudiation of sexuality.”  He finds evidence for this in Leonardo’s own words as quoted by Edmondo Solmi, an Italian philosopher of Freud’s time.  Soon enough the psychiatrist addresses Leonardo’s homosexuality, declaring that even though the fledgling artist had gotten into trouble with the law for it when he was in Verrocchio’s studio and surrounded himself with beautiful young boys once he was a master, for sure he never actually engaged in sexual activity.

In another secondary source, Freud finds Leonardo averring that “[o]ne has no right to love or hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature.”  Applying that to the artist’s assumed abstinence, he notes that in this case “[t]he postponement of loving until full knowledge is acquired ends in a substitution of the latter for the former.”  Thus, for Leonardo, investigating took the place of creating art and of producing much of anything else.

In his element now, Freud asserts that around age three most children go through a period of “infantile sexual researches” usually precipitated by the advent of a new sibling, which invites the question: whence babies?  When repression puts an end to this phase, various outcomes are possible.  Freud believed that Leonardo’s unconscious resolution was perfect; by channeling his sexual drive into non-practicing homosexuality and allowing his investigative instinct to reign supreme, the artist-scientist avoided a neurotic resolution, freeing his libido to “act in the service of [his] intellectual interests.”

After establishing this psychoanalytic foundation, Freud provides information about Leonardo’s childhood, noting that the artist was illegitimate, initially lived with his mother, and when five years old went to live with his father, who had recently married.  That these inadequate bits of biographical data are poor substitutes for having the analysand before him doesn’t seem to deter the doctor from basing his conclusions on them.

Finally Freud presents the memory, translated for this book from the German text he quotes, Marie Herzfeld’s translation of the Italian original as it appeared in Nino Smiraglia-Scognamiglio’s edition of the Codex Atlanticus.  Her version erroneously rendered nibio as vulture when in fact it means kite, a much smaller, non-carrion-eating raptor with the ability to hover in the air due to its long, forked tail.  She also omitted dentro (within), which alters the action of the all-important tail.  These changes have been indicated in brackets in the rendering of Leonardo’s words that follows.

It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures [kites]; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture [kite] came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against [within] my lips.

After extolling the virtues of psychoanalysis as a tool for deciphering this passage, Freud points to the obvious erotic content, noting that “tail” (coda in Italian) is a common slang term for penis.  He then goes on to construct an interpretation of the memory that defies Occam’s razor.

Although he acknowledges the similarity between Leonardo’s memory and the dreams and fantasies of women and passive homosexuals, Freud opts to see it as a symbolic representation of the baby suckling at its mother’s breast.  He supports this hypothesis by pointing out that in Egyptian mythology a mother goddess, whose name was Mut (similar to the German mutter for mother), was pictured with a vulture’s head, adding that at the time all vultures were believed to be female.

Freud concludes that the memory represents the overdependence on, and eroticization of, Leonardo by his mother, who used him when he was quite young as a substitute for his missing father.  In the rest of the essay, Freud looks first for confirmation of his ideas to Leonardo’s art–in the special smiles that grace the faces of his women and in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, with its hidden vulture.

As further support, the psychoanalyst pulls in his theories on infantile sexuality, the phallic mother, homosexuality and the Oedipal complex.  He finds indirect evidence in Leonardo’s writings for a negative relationship with his father, linking it to the artist’s homosexuality and his rejection of religion.  Freud even finds meaning in Leonardo’s obsession with flying machines, citing the connection between dreams of flying and sexual performance.

In the final chapter of the book, feigning humility, Freud addresses possible objections to his “pathographical review of a great man,” admitting the limitations of applying psychoanalysis to the biography of someone about whose early life so little is known.  He nonetheless confidently asserts that he has accomplished what he set out to do, showing how the circumstances of Leonardo’s childhood, combined with his inherent capacity to repress and sublimate his primitive instincts, resulted in a celibate artist-scientist forever torn between his art and science.  Although Freud was well satisfied with his conclusions, their unfavorable reception seems to have discouraged him from tackling other art historical subjects.

Freud came to this particular project via a long-standing interest in Leonardo–once remarking in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess on the artist’s celibacy and left-handedness–and had read Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky’s historical novel, Leonardo da Vinci, which he cites in the text as though it were a historical document.  His other bibliographical resources include volumes written on Leonardo by an assortment of scholars as well as a long list of his own publications.

Not unlike Leonardo, Freud was enticed away from his original career path by his curiosity.  Born in Moravia in 1856 but resident in Vienna from age three until he fled Austria for London in 1938, Freud studied biology and medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1882.  Three years later, a trip to the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and time spent with the celebrated expert on hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, changed his professional direction from clinical neurology to medical psychology.  With his Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud moved even further away from the laboratory, confining his research to observations of his psychiatric patients and reflections on his own experiences and psyche.  Out of that work, he developed the practice of psychoanalysis and his theories about the unconscious.

When he decided to pursue an analysis of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud turned to writings by prominent art historians, among them the German Jean Paul Richter (1847-1937) and the Frenchman Eugène Müntz (1845-1902), whose methods happened to be at odds with each other.  Richter, a disciple of Giovanni Morelli (who believed art was best studied by looking at objects with a well-practiced scientific eye), published in 1883 The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, a two-volume work, first in Italian, then German and English, the last of which Freud consulted.  Müntz, on the other hand, believed in the importance of archival research and, opposing Morelli’s focus on connoisseurship, based his studies on documents he unearthed in Italian archives.  His monograph Léonard de Vinci, released in 1899, was one of Freud’s references.

If the psychoanalyst was aware of the caldron of ideas that simmered close by, especially in the Vienna School but also elsewhere, about how best the discipline of art history should be practiced, his bibliography doesn’t reflect it.  The ideological stew included empiricists who looked to science as a model for the investigation of artworks as physical entities in documented contexts, philosophers who approached the study of art from a metaphysical perspective–more concerned with ideas than things, and a new breed of cultural historians, who occupied a middle ground between the two, finding value in each and adding ethnography and psychology to the mix.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66″ x 44″ [168 x 112 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, 66.

Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, page 66.

Freud seems to have gravitated toward outliers like Walter Pater (1839-1894), a British aesthete whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 1873, had to be recalled because of their anti-religious nature.  In his discussion of specific artwork by Leonardo, the analyst relied on those essays plus the work of two others: Oskar Pfister (1873-1956), a Swedish minister with an interest in philosophy and psychology with whom Freud maintained regular correspondence for many years, and whose discovery of a vulture in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne provided critical evidence for the hypothesis expounded in the book; and German-born Richard Muther (1860-1909), an emotionally expressive writer whose description of images tended toward the “lurid and erotic.”  In fact, Freud’s insufficient knowledge of art history and the scholarship on Leonardo made mistakes inevitable and stood in the way of producing “a meaningful art historical essay on the artist.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30″ x 21″ [77 x 53 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Freud referred to the more mainstream writers earlier in the book when introducing Leonardo, his practices and milieu, but switched over to the others later on when analyzing the latent meaning he espied in the artist’s words and images.  For the Mona Lisa, he liked Pater’s perception that it contained “a presence…expressive of what…men had come to desire…the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work.”  And he turned to Muther for observations on the physical relationship among the mothers and baby, and St. Anne’s perpetual youth in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

Because his interest was primarily psychological, Freud could be expected to seek out those who approached the study of art from a similar perspective.  While there is surely much to be gained through the understanding of artists’ intrapsychic development and interpersonal relationships, Freud’s system of thought–psychoanalysis–contains many flaws, not the least of which is his attribution of adult sexual feelings to infants and children.

In explaining Leonardo’s memory, the doctor first must explain how the vulture’s tail comes to be symbolic of the artist’s intense erotic attachment to his mother and how that desire later morphs into homosexuality.  He does this by invoking the phallic mother who is imagined to possess a penis by the little boy appalled at the thought that someone he loves so dearly should lack such a precious appendage.  This intense mother-son bond  is reinforced by Leonardo’s oversolicitous mother and absent father, and the child’s unconscious identification with the idolized mother.  The boy grows up to be a man who love boys in the same way his mother loved him.  Here Freud confuses homosexuals with pedophiles; the former are attracted to other men while the latter prey on vulnerable children.

Because Freud’s reasoning about such Leonardo mysteries as his perfectionism, depiction of smiling women, and turn from art to scientific research depends so heavily on the Oedipus complex and other aspects of his theory of infantile sexuality, it’s important to know how he came to substitute those assumptions for his empirically based seduction theory of hysteria.

In his work with women suffering from what would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but was then diagnosed as hysteria, Freud came to the unavoidable conclusion that their symptoms stemmed from “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences…[in] the earliest years of childhood,” incidents forced upon them by adults in their immediate family environment.  Since most of his patients were women whose fathers came from prominent Viennese families, his observations were met with a chill that forced him to retract his basic premise and instead attribute his patients’ symptoms not to memories but to fantasies growing out of infantile sexual desires for their fathers.  The construction of the Oedipus complex followed.  Boys, Freud asserted, coveted their mothers, wished to do away with the competition, and feared castration at the hands of vengeful fathers.

Had Freud held to his original discovery, perhaps he would have understood Leonardo’s memory of a visit from a bird that places its long tail in his mouth as a screen memory for oral rape.  On that stronger foundation, the doctor could have constructed a different theory about Leonardo’s homosexual activity in Verrocchio’s workshop and his later predilection for boys.

In The Aetiology of Hysteria, Freud observed a link between adult hysterical symptoms and adolescent trauma, which he then traced to childhood sexual assaults.  Rather than seeing Leonardo’s interest in younger males as a manifestation of his over-identification with his mother, the analyst might have chosen the simpler conclusion, that to avoid intolerable feelings of victimization, the artist unconsciously took the role of perpetrator and re-enacted his abuse with others, a common outcome of early sexual trauma.  With that far less complex connection, Freud might then have been able to link Leonardo’s perfectionism with his need to compensate for the shame he carried as a result of being sexually abused.

In addition to those missed opportunities, Freud was led on a wild vulture chase by a significant error in translation.  His excursion into Egyptian hieroglyphics and mythology in support of his contention that Leonardo’s memory of the bird and the appearance of its image in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (as illustrated by his good friend Pfister) proved the artist’s erotic attachment to his mother, while fascinating, must be disregarded.

It would be unfortunate if at this point one concluded that psychoanalysis has little if anything to contribute to the study of art and the artists who create it, for when Freud briefly left behind his obsession with Leonardo’s “vulture-fantasy” and sexualized relationship with his mother and looked instead at his paintings, he had much to offer.  In associating the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa with Leonardo’s memory of his mother’s adoring gaze, and the mother-and-daughter dyad of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne with the five-year-old boy’s relationship with his adopted mother and paternal grandmother, both of whom lived in his father’s house and took over his care from his single mother, Freud kept it simple and raised intriguing questions.  In expounding on those connections, he assumed kindness and tenderness on the part of the pictured women, but one could just as easily see in these images an unconscious wish for an ideal that never was.

In either case, in directly encountering Leonardo’s art, drawing upon limited but salient biographical data and applying the principals of psychoanalysis, Freud introduced to the study of art a potentially powerful tool.  Had he not abandoned his initial discoveries about childhood trauma and spent his genius on devising convoluted theories to explain hysterical symptoms, he might have come to more convincing conclusions about the life of Leonardo da Vinci and made an important contribution to the field of art history.


– Fermi, Eric.  Art History and its Methods.  New York: Phaidon Press, 2011.
– Freud, Sigmund.  Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.  Translated by Alan Tyson.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964.
– _____________.  On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on Art, Literature, Love, Religion.  Edited by Benjamin Nelson.  New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
– _____________.  “The Aetiology of Hysteria.”  In The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.  New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Italian-English Dictionary.  New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
– Kandel, Eric R.  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.  New York: Random House, 2012.
– Kultermann, Udo.  The History of Art History.  New York: Abaris Books, 1993.
– Onians, John.  Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
– Sorensen, Lee, ed.  “Eugéne Müntz” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Jean Paul Richter” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Walter Pater” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– Simmons, Laurence.  Freud’s Italian Journey.  New York: Rodopi B. V., 2006.
Wikipedia.  “Oskar Pfister.”  Last modified September 21, 2013.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]


Art Book Review: Bad Boy–My Life On & Off the Canvas

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Sunday, August 25th, 2013

From Bad Boy to Artist
Eric Fischl Finds His Way

Book jacket front.  Photo of Eric Fischl © 1993 by Gérard Rondeau.

Book jacket front.  Photo of Eric Fischl © 1993 by Gérard Rondeau.

In consciousness raising groups in the early 1980s, women uncovered rape and incest as common themes in their lives.  During the same period, adult children of alcoholics, supported by alcoholism treatment professionals, began meeting to explore their shared trauma of growing up in dysfunctional families.  Around the same time, unrelated to either movement, illustrations of these survivors’ stories graced the walls of an art gallery in midtown Manhattan.

As he later revealed, Eric Fischl–the artist who created these works–gained his terrible knowledge about such experiences at home as a child.  In an earlier book on his work,1 he described at length the split between what his family looked like from the outside (white, upperclass, suburban) and how tumultuous and ugly it was behind closed doors.

Fischl’s new book explores in greater depth life with a mother whose drinking dissolved boundaries between her and her son and created tension with her husband that violent outbreaks served to discharge.  Written with Michael Stone, Bad Boy–My Life On & Off the Canvas charts the artist’s journey from tumultuous childhood to the relatively peaceful life the artist now enjoys.

Fischl never intended to write an autobiography; that was Stone’s idea.  It grew out of their conversations about the art world in the 1960s when Fischl was attending CalArts with guys whose names would later become synonymous with high-priced, hyped products that most critics came to call art.  Encouraged by his publisher to feature an artist, Stone convinced his friend to be the subject.2

Bad Boy (1981, oil on canvas, 66

Bad Boy (1981, oil on canvas, 66″ x 96″ [168 x 244 cm].  Courtesy of the artist.

The title of the book comes from a 1981 painting that established Fischl as an artist of note–and notoriety.  By the time he painted Bad Boy, he had already developed what would be his usual method of approaching a canvas.  Starting with “an image or the scrap of an idea”3 he would ask himself journalistic questions to set motivated action within a scene, adding objects and/or characters as answers emerged.

Working in the time-honored tradition of arranging figures in a narrative context, Fischl dared to be different at a time when novelty for its own sake ruled and abstraction was ascendent.  Unable to emotionally connect to nonrepresentational imagery, he struggled dejectedly for several years before painting his way into a more authentic style4 while teaching art at a school in Halifax in the early 70s.

Fischl writes about the inevitability of that transition with the self-reflection of someone who has done enough personal work to achieve the necessary distance from his process of healing to comment on it.  “Feelings lodged in my subconscious were driving my work toward a form of expressiveness that was raw and graphic and troubling–and sometimes cathartic…images would pop out that were increasingly recognizable both as people and things, avatars of my buried past.”5

With the local fishing community of Halifax to provide inspiration, Fischl began painting stories about a fictional family he called the Fishers who eventually morphed into the Fischls.  Using smooth glassine sheets, he would begin by painting in black an object–or person–then ask himself what/who else was present and what might be going on, letting his unconscious lead his brush.

In his explanation of effective narrative painting, Fischl inadvertently also describes the impact of trauma.  “Working toward that moment…the frozen moment…pregnant with some special kind of energy…Finding where to arrest the action…to stop time…The most dramatic moments are the moments just before or just after something happens.”6

With much the same power, a traumatic event freezes time for anyone trapped within it, especially a child.  Overwhelmed by a flood of emotions–primarily terror–and unable to safely integrate within the psyche the awful truth of the moment, the victim’s brain sequesters this unknowable information within the amygdala (a brain organ that among other related functions regulates negative emotions) and effectively stops time, dissociating fragments of the experience in the service of survival.

Those traumatic memories, because they have not been metabolized, are subject to spontaneous, experiential recall.  When Fischl writes, “[m]y portrayals of the Fisher family and their daily dramas had begun to trigger memories of my own childhood,”7 he was describing how something in the present reminiscent of the original traumatic event can call out the raw feelings–sensory and emotional–and hurtle the survivor back in time, forcing the body to react as though it were happening all over again.

Fischl’s creative process, which evolved over time to include photographs that he manipulated in much the same was as he used the glassines, provided a way for him to process and integrate the dissociated memories of a boyhood spent in a violent, alcoholic family, and an entry into manhood marked by the suicide of his mother when he was 21.  The material that found its way onto his canvases was ambiguous enough to enable him to paint it and relevant enough to his own history to give meaning to experiences that can never really make much sense.

Bad Boy and its companion paintings of a darkly erotic nature soon attracted the attention of the art-buying world and Fischl, joining Mary Boone’s stable of artists, found himself hobnobbing with celebrities and making money.  He describes at length the unfortunate transformation beginning in the 80s of an art-appreciating art world into a highly commercial art market; art became a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other investment.  In his coverage of that period, Fischl critiques the novelty-based productions of other artists whose work, like his, was selling like hotcakes.

Thrown into the social and quite artificial environment of art openings, feeling undeserving of the accolades and financial rewards that were accruing, Fischl ran into serious trouble with alcohol and the then ubiquitous cocaine.  How he wrenched himself free of addiction’s grip after a road rage encounter, the story of which opens the book, owes a great deal to his relationship with April Gornik, an artist in her own right, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife.

Fischl’s clumsy initial attempt to score with this woman of his dreams (by insulting her work) reflects how wounded he still was from the turmoil he had not that long ago escaped.  Not surprisingly, within a few paragraphs of that anecdote he writes about his father’s attempts to keep the family together after his mother’s death.

The artist does eventually get the girl who, once won over, remains loyal.  Not an easy thing for two artists to couple and remain so, particularly when the career of one (often the man) advances faster than that of the other.  That Fischl and Gornik have managed to forge a  lasting relationship speaks to their love for, and commitment to, each other.  Eric’s feelings are quite clear throughout the book, the very last word of which (not counting the useful index) is “APRIL.”8

Of great value for art historians and other aficionados, Bad Boy chronicles the development of Fischl’s major projects, from initial idea to final execution.  An artist whose work is always evolving, Fischl early on took to photography and eventually acquired enough photo editing skills to add that tool to his kit.  One day he picked up some clay to get through a block and ended up producing exciting (and sometimes controversial) sculptures.  Influenced by his two-dimensional creations, the sculptures in turn became inspirations for new drawings and paintings.

Eric Fischl.  Photo © Oliver Abraham.

Eric Fischl.  Photo © Oliver Abraham.

Along the way, Fischl has forged lasting friendships with others who share his passion for maintaining integrity in artistic expression and are successful in their own areas of expertise.  Many became the subjects of portraits.  Not unrelated to this honing of interpersonal skills, for the writing of this book he reached out to his three siblings, to friends from his early years, to other artists who knew him way back when and to those who have known him in more recent times, asking each to pen a short piece about him.

Not one to shy away from the truth, Fischl took some risks with those invitations, the results of which are interspersed throughout the chapters under the heading of “Other Voices.”  Reminiscent of what partially motivates attendance at high school reunions, he undoubtedly discovered even more about his younger (and older) self than the demands of autobiographical writing ordinarily reveal.

Fischl’s fearless self-scrutiny stands out in his exploration of a painting session that was about to end in frustrated disaster the summer before he transferred to CalArts.  It began as an abstraction but soon “ground to a halt.”  After “weeks of struggle…[it] culminated in a tantrum.”  The artist, from his current vantage point of considerable recovery, links the “frustrating sense of paralysis and unreasoning anger” with “the same feelings [he’d] experienced watching [his] parents fight, being pummeled and tossed aside when [he] got between them.”9

In a fit of rage, Fischl obliterated with white primer the offending area.  When he stepped back to take stock of the damage, he saw that he had “painted a white cartoon floating bed,” introducing representation into an originally abstract painting but also eliciting from his unconscious an image that would recur years late in canvases like Bad Boy.  Of this he astutely notes, “…the bed alludes to the womb, the birthplace of childhood memory, the place where dreams occur, the setting for sexual fantasies and encounters,”10 but stops short of uttering the still unspeakable word, incest.

At the end of that summer as Fischl continued his struggle to extricate himself from the suffocating confines of his mother’s escalating alcoholism by moving to San Francisco in advance of the school term, his mother, unable to tolerate the departure of her favorite son and close companion, crashed her vehicle into a tree.  Having quickly returned home, the young Eric stood helplessly at his mother’s hospital bedside, in time to exchange a few last words with her before she died.  Overwhelmed by undescribable feelings, the fledgling artist “vowed that [he] would never let the unspeakable also be unshowable.  [He] would paint what could not be said.”11

True to his word, Fischl has painted his way out of the darkness of his early years by adhering to that original promise.  In doing so he has given the world a wide array of disturbing images that force confrontation with, and contemplation of, the darker side of human nature.
1 Danto, Arthur C., et al.  Eric Fischl 1970-2007 (New York: The Monaceli Press, Inc.), 2008.  Fischl acknowledges in Bad Boy incorporating about 2,000 words from the interview with Danto.

2 Fischl, Eric.  Bridgehampton Library Lecture, August 2, 2013.

3 Fischl. Eric, and Michael Stone.  Bad Boy: My Life On & Off the Canvas (New York: Crown Publishers), 2012, 150.

4 Ibid, 85.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid, 101.

7 Ibid, 95.

8 Ibid, 346.

9 Ibid, 35.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid, 38.