New Haven, Yale School of Fine Arts
( Originally Published 1915 )
PROBABLY the most comprehensive group of early Italian paintings in the world is the Jarves Collection of Primitives at Yale University. In the various galleries of Europe we find more famous single pictures of early art but nowhere is there quite so complete a history in consecutive examples. When James Jackson Jarves, between 1850 and 1860, collected in Europe one hundred and sixty pictures to represent the development of the great Italian schools of painting and brought them to America he did us a service of incalculable value. Nevertheless, through our ignorance, it has taken a half century for us to recognize that we have the collection and also that it would be greatly to our credit to know the pictures.
We can no longer laugh at the "wry-necked" madonnas or shapeless bodies of the saints when we realize that the queer, childlike efforts of the early artists were the forerunners of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance. Then, too, the fact that we, in our public and private galleries in America, have fine examples to represent all the stages in the growth of the art of the world is just cause for pride, if we use these treasures in gaining honest culture.
Sassetta, an artist of Siena, has often been called the Fra Angelico of Sienese painting, though his interpretations of the early religious legends have very little of the naive seriousness of the angel painter of Florence. In his picture of "Saint Anthony Tempted by the Devil in the Shape of a Woman" (Fig. 19), he has given the saint a worldly wisdom that is delicious in its quaint naturalness. The expression of fretful resentment on the girl's face tells plainly that her charms, if she ever had any, have been lost on the holy man. His reproof—he is undoubtedly telling her to go home and attend to her household duties—is evidently most distasteful to her. The charming simplicity of the scene is delightful. Could anything picture the gloom of the forest more vividly than the narrow road losing itself in the darkness of the trees? And was ever a retreat more solitary, guarded as it is by an unexplored wilderness?
Sassetta, whose real name was Stefano di Giovanni, was really discovered by our own art critic, Mr. Bernard Berenson, for until the latter's researches, Sassetta was lost to the world.
A pupil of Sassetta, Sano di Pietro, became one of the leading men of Siena, but unlike the Tuscan painters, he made very little advance in his art over that of a hundred years before. He could tell a lively story with his brush and could combine his colors with gold most skillfully. In the "Coronation of the Virgin" (Fig. 20) he has used a favorite subject of his time and has given it with a most craftsmanlike precision. The men-saints in the picture are undoubtedly prominent citizens. of Siena, but the women-saints are as alike as china dolls, except the dainty angel musicians at the foot of the throne. They may be the artist's progressive daughters.
The Sienese school is wonderfully well rep-resented in the Jarves collection. We must remember, however, that, excepting a few men, the art of Siena did not fulfill the promise of Duccio, its founder, therefore these pictures are interesting mostly to special students of art. If Duccio had had a Giotto to follow him, as Cimabue did, it might have been otherwise.
We have noted the place that Fra Angelico held in the religious art of Italy in discussing the fine example of his work in Boston (see. Fig. 18), and now we have an equally fine painting by his contemporary, Gentile da Fabriano (1360?-1470?), in the Jarves collection. It is indeed a treat to find one of Gentile's rare and signed pictures. He painted the `'Madonna and Child" (Fig. 21) before us about 1420, after he was fifty years old. The calm dignity of the Madonna resting in the quaint Gothic shrine, with the little Christ supported on a ledge in front of her, shows how well Gentile understood the true exaltation of motherhood.
Da Fabriano was first trained under Sienese influence, with its careful finish in detail and color; then, being invited to decorate the ducal palace at Venice, he absorbed some of the marvelous color sense of the men of the island city and also gained in calmness of bearing in his figures from his assistant, Jacopo Bellini.
The jewel-like quality of his art shows the Flemish influence that had come into Italy. Gentile though, like his name, had a delicate, graceful manner of his own, combined with a broad human element that marked him as one of the most original artists of his day. Roger van der Weyden, the famous Flemish artist, declared after seeing Gentile's frescos, that he was the greatest man in Italy. At least we agree that Gentile marked great advancement in the study of nature. He recognized in his pictures that the sun was an important part of a landscape, even though he put it in as a gold ball.
Now look again at the Virgin and note how delicately he has brought out the significant traceries on the halos and the border of the Virgin's robe. The fruits and flowers and pat-tern on the pillow mark him as no mean student of nature.
When we come to Antonio Pallaiuolo (1432?-1498) we at once feel his importance as a link in the continuous development of the Florentine school. From the time of Cimabue, a contemporary of Duccio, until the Renaissance there was a gradual growth, and artist after artist added his influence to the general advance. There were two Pallaiuolo brothers, both excellent goldsmiths, and both made excellent designs with sculpturesque qualities, but Antonio had a better understanding of the anatomy of the human body.
The picture of "Hercules Killing Nessus" (Fig. 22) represents a Greek mythological story set in a real Florentine landscape of Pallaiuolo's time. He has given such a truthful picture of Florence that many of the important buildings can be distinguished; also his portrayal of. the Arno valley with the winding stream growing into a rushing river is a bit of landscape painting truly wonderful. The tense, gaunt figures of the monster and Hercules vividly bring to mind the ancient prowess of the Greek hero.
The story of Hercules and Nessus runs in this wise. After Hercules had married Deianeira he lived quietly with her for three years. During this time they took a journey one day and came to a river where the centaur Nessus carried people across in his arms. Hercules forded the river himself but, foolish man that he was, he asked Nessus to carry his wife over the water. Nessus complied with the request and then took to flight with his burden. Hercules, hearing the cry of the captured Deianeira, shot an arrow at Nessus which pierced his heart. The dying centaur told Deianeira to save some of his blood, as it could be used for a special charm to preserve her husband's love. Not long after this she became suspicious that she was losing Hercules' love because of his attentions to Iole, a fair maiden prisoner. One day Hercules dispatched a messenger to his wife to send him the white robe he used when offering sacrifice. This was the opportunity to use her charm. She dipped the robe in the centaur's blood, washed and dried it. Hercules unsuspecting, donned the garment, but when his warm body touched it the poison penetrated the skin and intense agony gripped him. In his frenzy he hurled Laichas, who brought the robe, into the sea and wrenched off the garment, bringing great pieces of flesh with it. When Deianeira found what she had unwittingly done, she hanged herself. Hercules built his funeral pyre, laid his head on his club, spread his lion's skin over him, and commanded the torch to be applied. Serenely he waited until the flames did their work.
A strange bit of early history was revealed in the picture of "Hercules Killing Nessus." After its purchase in Europe, it was found upon examination that part of the original picture had been painted out—there was no figure of Deianeira at all. This was probably done through the influence of Savonarola, the great Florentine reformer, who held that mythological subjects and all nude figures were sacrilegious. Possibly Pallaiuolo painted it out himself. The upper layer of paint was carefully removed and Deianeira was revealed in all her original beauty.
The "Adoration of the Magi" (Fig. 23), by Luca Signorelli (1441?-1523), is one of the real gems of the Jarves collection. The exquisite yellows and amber-like browns, combined with the low tones of the dark robes set against the vivid blue of the distant sky and neutral gray-green of the hills and plains, make a picture long to be remembered. Humble and sincere are these royal worshipers, but magnificent in the kingly gifts they have brought to the holy Child. Luca has preserved the leg-end of the Wise Men of the East that one was old, one middle-aged and one young, but he has not represented three nationalities or made one a negro. This charming group of contained men and women in its idyllic setting gives us an entirely new understanding of Signorelli. Usually he represents vigorously active people, often filling his composition with
various sorts of bodily motions. In some of his scenes, as in his frescos at Orvieto, his complicated foreshortening has produced astonishing results. He was equal to portraying almost any position the human body could assume. We see a little of his anatomical knowledge in the square shoulders of the young king at the left. He is not afraid to make us realize the muscles and joints under the garments and to show us that he understands the human body. Michael Angelo found inspiration in studying Signorelli's frescos at Orvieto.
The present catalogue of the Jarves collection was made in 1867, before students of art history began a careful study of the relative value of old paintings, consequently many of the ascriptions are erroneous. Many of the paintings labeled by Raphael, Botticelli, Masaccio, and other great masters, would be more correct with a question mark after the artist's name. I understand that a new catalogue is in the process of making.
At the time when Yale University loaned James Jackson Jarves money on two-thirds of his collection the late L. E. Holden of Cleve-land, Ohio advanced him money on the other third. At the consent of the collector the mortgages were foreclosed. Today many of the pictures of the smaller collection Mrs. Holden has kindly loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.