How To Study The Paintings In The Louvre
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
ANY other subjects for similar comparative treatment may be found in the Louvre. Pick out for yourself a special theme, such as, for example, the Adoration of the Magi, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, or the Agony in the Garden, and try to follow it out through various examples. Choose also a saint or two, and pursue them steadily through their evolution. Do not think that to examine paintings in this way is to be absorbed by the subject rather than by the art of the painter. Only superficial observers fall into this error. You will find on the contrary that the characteristics of each school and of each artist can best be discovered and observed by watching how each modifies or alters pre-existing and conventional conceptions. In order to thoroughly understand any early picture, you must look at it first as a representation of such and such a given subject, for which a relatively fixed and conventional set of figures or accessories was prescribed by tradition. The number and minuteness of the prescribed accessories will grow upon you as you watch them. You have then to observe how each school as a whole treats such works ; what feeling it introduces, toward what sort of modification in style or tone it usually tends. Next, you must consider it relatively to its age, as exemplifying a particular stage in the progress of. the science and art of painting. Last of all you must carefully estimate what peculiarities are due to the taste, the temperament, the hand, and the technique of the individual artist. For example, Gerard David's Marriage at Cana is thoroughly Flemish in all its details ; while Paola Veronese's is thoroughly Venetian. You may notice the Flemish and Venetian hand, not merely in the figures and the composition as a whole, but even in the extraordinarily divergent treatment of such details as the jars in the foreground, which for David are painted with Flemish daintiness of detail, though coarse and rough in themselves ; while Veronese approaches them with Venetian wealth of Renaissance fancy, both in decoration and handling. But the David, again, is not merely Flemish : it has the distinctive marks of that particular Fleming, and should be compared with his lovely portrait of a kneeling donor with his three patron saints in the National Gallery ; while the Veronese is noticeable for the voluptuousness, the over-richness, the dash and spirit, of that large, free master of the full Renaissance, the Rubens by comparison among the Venetians of his time. So, too, if you study attentively the Botticellis in the Salle des Primitifs, you can notice a close similarity of type in many of his faces with the types in certain pictures by Filippo Lippi, and still more in those by other Florentines of the same period ; while you are yet even more distinctly struck by the intense individuality and refined spiritual feeling of this very original and soulful master.
In order to study the Louvre aright, in short, you must be continually comparing. In a word, regard each work, first, as a representation of such and such a subject, falling into its proper place in the evolution of its series ; second, as belonging to such and such a school or nationality ; third, as representing such and such an age in the historical evolution of the art of painting ; fourth, as exhibiting the individuality, the style, the characteristics, the technique, and the peculiar touch of such and such an individual painter. Only thus can you study art aright in this or any other gallery.
Try this method on Van Eyck's Madonna, on Titian's Entombment, on Sebastiano del Piombo's Visitation, and on Memling's little John Baptist, which is one attendant saint from a triptych whose Madonna is missing.
Some other time, consider in detail the two delicately luminous frescoes by Luini, in the Salle Duchâtel. Before doing so, however, read on the spot the following remarks.
I have spoken here for the most part from the point of view of those visitors who have not travelled much in Italy or the Low Countries. And, as a matter of fact, the Louvre is the first great picture gallery on the Continent visited by nine out of ten English or Americans. In reality, however, since this collection contains several isolated masterpieces of all the great schools, together with several unconnected pictures of minor artists, it requires, almost more than any other great gallery, to be seen by the light of information acquired elsewhere. It ought, therefore, to be examined after, as well as, and even more than, before visits to other countries. This collection, for example, includes works by Van Eyck, by Memling, by Giotto, by Fra Angelico. But Van Eyck can only be fully understood by those who have visited Ghent ; Memling can only be fully understood by those who have visited Bruges ; it is impossible really to comprehend Giotto unless you have seen his great series of frescoes in the Madonna dell' Arena at Padua ; it is impossible really to comprehend Fra Angelico unless you have examined the saintly and ecstatic works at San Marco in Florence. Thus you have to bear in mind that the works in the Louvre are only stray examples of masters and schools, with whom an adequate acquaintance must be obtained elsewhere. It was for this reason that I began these notes with special examples of Mantegna, because he is one of the very few artists, other than French, of whom you can form some tolerably fair conception in Paris alone, to be pieced out after-ward by observation in Italy.
Furthermore, it must be recollected that many artists can only be seen to advantage under the conditions amid which their works were produced. This is especially the case with the Italian painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They were a school of fresco-painters. Their altar-pieces and other separate panels give but a very inadequate idea of their powers, and especially of their composition. Giotto and Fra Angelico, in particular, cannot possibly be estimated aright by any of their works to be seen north of the Alps. The altar-pieces, being more especially sacred in character, were relatively very fixed in type : they allowed of less variation, less incident, less action, than the histories of saints, which frequently form the subjects of frescoes. You can judge of this to a slight extent in the Louvre itself, by comparing the Madonnas at the far end of the Salle des Primitifs with Giotto's St. Francis, which hangs by : for the Madonna was the most sacred and therefore the most bound by custom of any type. You will at once observe how much freer and more naturalistic is the treatment in the episode of the stigmata than in the comparatively wooden figures of Our Lady by which it is surrounded. Still more is this the case when we come to compare any of these altar. pieces with frescoes such as those of the Arena at Padua, or Santa Croce at Florence. Similarly with Fra Angelico : the little crowded works which he produced as altar-pieces give a totally different conception of his character and powers than that which we derive from the large and relatively spacious frescoes at San Marco, or in Pope Nicolas's Chapel at the Vatican. In such works, we see him expand into a totally different manner. Now frescoes, by their very nature, cannot easily be removed from the walls of churches without great danger. Therefore, the school of fresco-painters — that is to say, the early Italian school — is ill represented outside Italy.
Now Luini, though he belongs to the sixteenth century, and though he produced some of his most beautiful works as cabinet or panel pictures, was yet almost as essentially a painter in fresco as Fra Angelico or Ghirlandajo. He can best be appreciated in Milan and its neighbourhood. And I will add a few notes here for the benefit of those who know Italy, and who can recall the works they have seen in that country. At the Brera in Milan, an immense number of his frescoes, cut out from churches, can be seen and compared to great advantage. Everybody who has visited that noble gallery must recall at least the exquisite figure of St. Catherine placed in her sarcophagus by angels, as well as the lovely Madonna with St. Antony and St. Barbara, where the face and beard of the aged anchorite somewhat recall the treatment of the old bearded king in the Adoration of the Magi in this gallery. Still better can Luini's work be understood by those who know the Sanctuary at Saronno, where a splendid series of his frescoes still exists on the wall of the great church in which they were painted. The two frescoes here in the Salle Duchâtel are not quite so fine either as those at Saronno or as the very best examples among the collection at the Brera. Nevertheless, they are beautiful and delicately toned specimens of Luini's work, and, if studied in conjunction with other pictures by the same artist in the adjoining rooms, they will serve to give a tolerably just conception of his style and genius.
Luini is essentially a Lionardesque painter. He was not actually a pupil of Lionardo, but, like all other Lombard artists of his time, he was deeply influenced by the temperament and example of the Florentine master. If you wish to see the kind of work produced by the Lombard school before it had undergone this quickening influence of Lionardo, — been Tuscanised and Lionardised, — look at the Borgognones in the Long Gallery. These, again, are not at all satisfactory specimens of that tender, delicate, and silvery colourist. To appreciate Borgognone as he ought to be appreciated, however, you must have seen him at home in the Certosa di Pavia : though even those who know only his exquisitely spiritual altar-piece of the Madonna with the two St. Catherines (of Alexandria and Siena) in the National Gallery will recognise how inadequately his work is represented by the specimens in the Louvre. Nevertheless, these examples, inferior though they be in style and feeling, will serve fairly well to indicate the point to which art had attained in Lombardy before the advent of Lionardo. I need not point out their comparatively archaic character, and their close following of earlier methods and motives. Again, if you compare with Borgognone the subsequent group of Lionardesque painters, — Solario and his contemporaries, — whose works hang close by on the left-hand wall of the Long Gallery, you will see how immense was the change which Lionardo introduced into Lombard art. From his time for-ward, the Lionardesque face, the peculiar smile, the crimped wisps of hair, the subtle tones of colour, and as far as possible the touch and technique of the master, are reproduced over and over again by the next generation of Milanese painters. Among' them all, Luini stands preeminently forward as the only one endowed with profound original genius, capable of trans-fusing the Lionardesque types with new vitality and beauty of his own conceiving. The others are imitators : Luini is a disciple.
These attributes are well seen in the two beautiful frescoes of the Salle Duchâtel. They came to Paris from the Palazzo Litta, that hand-some rococo palace in Milan which stands nearly opposite the church of San Maurizio, itself a museum of Luini 's loveliest frescoes, including the incomparable Execution of St. Catherine. The Adoration of the Magi is the most satisfactory of the two. In it the kings, — Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, — representing, as ever, the three ages of man and the three old continents, are treated with a grace and soul and delicacy which Luini has hardly surpassed even at Saronno. The eldest king, as most often, kneels next to the Madonna, who occupies the conventional right hand of the picture. He has removed his crown, also an habitual feature, and is presenting his gift, while the others are caught just before the act of offering theirs. The exquisite face of this eldest king is highly typical ; so is the gently smiling Lionardesque Madonna. The youngest king is represented as a Moor, as always in German, Flemish, and North Italian art, though this trait is rarer, if it occurs at all, in the Florentine and Central Italian painters. I take it that the notion of the Moor was derived from Venice ; for the Three Kings were great objects of devotion in Lombardy and the Rhine country. Their relics, which now repose at Cologne, made a long stay on their way from the East at Milan ; and it is to this fact, I fancy, that we must attribute the exceptional frequency of this subject in the art of Northern Italy, as of the Rhenish region. In the background, the usual caravans are seen descending the mountain. Such long trains of servants and attendants are commonly seen in Adorations of the Magi. Camels and even elephants frequently form part of them. Recollect the charming procession in the exquisite Benozzo Gozzoli in the Riccardi Palace. A study of this subject, from the simple beginnings in Giotto's fresco in the Arena at Padua (where a single servant and a very grotesque camel, entirely evolved out of the painter's imagination, form the sole elements of the cortège beyond the three kings), down to the highly complex Ghirlandajo in the Uffizi at Florence (a good copy of which may be seen at the École des Beaux Arts), and thence to Luini, Bonifazio, and the later Italians, forms a most interesting subject for the comprehension of the historical evolution of art in Italy. Go straight from this picture to the Rubens in the Salon Carré in order to observe the way in which the theme has been treated, with considerable attention to traditional detail, yet with highly transformed feeling, by the great and princely Flemish painter.
The Nativity, in Luini's second fresco, is also full of traditional features, —a beautiful work in the peculiar spirit of this gentle artist. Note every one of the accessories and details, observing how they have come from earlier pictures, and also how completely Luini has subordinated them to his own art and his delicate handling. Comparison of these two with the other Luinis in other rooms will give you some idea of his varying manners in fresco and oil-painting. Note that the frescoes represent him best, and are fullest of Luini.
Another picture, which, in a wholly different direction, exemplifies the need for knowledge of works of art elsewhere, and especially under the conditions in which they were originally painted, is to be found in Carpaccio's Preaching of St. Stephen, on the right-hand wall, shortly after you enter the Salle des Primitifs. This is one of a series of the Life of St. Stephen, — a form of composition of which the only good example in the Louvre is Lesueur's insipid and colourless set, recounting the biography and miracles of St. Bruno. In Italy such histories of saints are everywhere common, as frescoes or otherwise. Those who know Venice, for example, will well remember Carpaccio's own charming series of the Life of St. Ursula, now well arranged around the walls of a single room in the Venice Academy. Still better will they understand the nature of these works if they have seen Carpaccio's other delicious series of the Life of St. George, in San Giorgio dei Schiavoni, where the pictures still remain, at their original height from the ground, and in their original position, on the walls of the church for which they were painted. Only in such situations can works of this kind be properly estimated. That they can less easily be understood in isolation, you can gather if you look at the four cabinet pictures from the boudoir of Isabella d'Este, by Mantegna, Perugino, and Costa, which hang not far from this very St. Stephen, in the same room of the Louvre. The size of the figures, in particular, is largely dictated by the shape of the room, the distance from the eye, and the character of the space which the painter has to cover.
This St. Stephen series, again, once existed entire as five pictures, all by Carpaccio, in the Scuola (or Guild) of St. Stephen at Venice. Similar sets of other saints still exist in the Scuola di San Rocco and other Guilds in the city. The first of the group, which represents the saint being consecrated as deacon by St.
Peter, is now in the Berlin Gallery. The second, the Preaching of St. Stephen, is the one before which you are now standing. The third, St. Stephen Disputing with the Doctors, is at the Brera in Milan. The fourth, the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, is at Stuttgart. The fifth and last, St. Stephen Enthroned, between St. Nicolas and St. Thomas Aquinas, has disappeared from sight, or at least its present whereabouts is unknown to me. It is interesting to look out for such companion works in widely separated galleries.
Rightly to understand this picture, once more, one should know Carpaccio. And fully to know him one must have spent some time in Venice. But even without that knowledge, it is pleasant here to remark the familiar acquaintance with Oriental life, which is equally visible in the neighbouring picture of the school of Bellini representing the reception of a Venetian ambassador at Cairo. The mixed character of the architecture, and the quaint accessories are all redolent of Carpaccio's semi-mediaeval and picturesque sentiment. The pellucid atmosphere, the apparent realism, the underlying idealism, the naïveté of the innocent saint in his deacon's robes, counting his firstly, secondly, and thirdly on his fingers, irrespective of persecution, and the glow and brilliancy of the Venetian colouring, here approaching its zenith, all combine to make this daintily simple picture one of the most attractive in this part of the Louvre. Recollect it when you go to Milan and Venice, and let it fall into its proper place, in time, in your mature conception of the painter and the epoch in which he lived.
Nor is this all. It must be borne in mind that while the Louvre is one of the noblest collections of pictures in Europe, it differs from most other fine collections in the fact that its most important and valuable works are not of native origin, nor of one race, school, or period. The pictures at Florence are almost all Florentine ; the pictures at Venice are almost all Venetian. At Bruges and Antwerp we have few but Flemish works ; at the Hague and Amsterdam, few but Dutch. In the Louvre, on the contrary (as at Dresden and Munich), we get several masterpieces of all the great schools, with relatively few minor works of the groups to which they belong, by whose light to understand them. In short, this is a gallery of purple patches.
The gems of the collection are the Raphaels, the Titians, the Lionardos, an exquisite Van Eyck, a splendid Memling, a few fine Murillos, a number of great Rubenses. To understand all these, we must know something of Florentine art, Umbrian art, Venetian art, Flemish art, Spanish art, and so forth. The finest pictures of any in the collection are not French at all, and cannot wholly be comprehended by the light of works in this gallery alone. There-fore it is best, if possible, to return to the Louvre after visiting every other great school of art in Europe. On the other hand, a few great artists are here very amply represented ; among them I may particularise Raphael, Titian, Mantegna, Lionardo and the Lionardesque school, Gerard Dou, and Rembrandt.
As a further example of the light cast by pictures elsewhere on those in this gallery, however, I prefer to take a single little subject from the predella of Fra Angelico's glorious Coronation of the Virgin ; I mean the compartment which represents St. Dominic and his brethren being fed by angels, in the monastery of St. Sabina at Rome. Anybody who looks at Fra Angelico's painting, even in these smaller works, can recognise at once his tender, saintly, and devout manner. He is permeated by a spirit of adoring reverence, which comes out in every one of his angels and martyrs. Fewer people, however, note that the angelic friar was also a loyal and devoted Dominican. Whatever he paints is to the glory of God, but it is also to the glory of St. Dominic and of the order that he founded. This beautiful altar-piece, for instance, was produced by the Dominican painter of Fiesole for the Dominican church of St. Dominic at Fiesole. The saint himself, with his little red star, is everywhere apparent ; and those who have visited Fra Angelico's own Dominican monastery of San Marco at Florence, will recollect that the founder and his red star similarly occur in almost every fresco in that beautiful building. They will also recollect that this very subject of the brethren fed by angels forms the theme for a beautiful, but much later, fresco by Sogliani in the great refectory of the same monastery. Such an episode is admirably adapted for one of those large pictures, representing a repast of some sacred character, which it was usual to place on the end wall of conventual dining-halls.
Compare it also with a Spanish treatment of a similar miracle, by Murillo, in the Cuisine des Anges. Note the simplicity and sobriety of the early Italian work, as contrasted with the strained feeling and insistence upon mere effects of luminosity and glory in the showy Spanish painting. The moral of all such half-allegorical miracles is clearly this : Our order is sustained by God's divine providence.
I have said already that a German Last Supper in this collection (German room) be-trays the influence of Lionardo's great fresco on the wall of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan, of which an early copy by a pupil of Lionardo's exists in the Louvre (left wall of the Long Gallery). But in order thoroughly to understand Lionardo's Last Supper, again, we must similarly compare it with many previous representations of the same sacred scene. The type, in fact, was begun among nameless Byzantine and early Christian artists, whose work can best be studied in Italy. It found its first notable artistic expression in Giotto's fresco at Santo Croce, at Florence, where the traditional type, is considerably transformed ; and this Giot tesque Last Supper was repeated over and over again by many copyists, who each introduced various modifications. Ghirlandajo once more transformed the type at San Marco and the Ognissanti ; and from Ghirlandajo, Lionardo borrowed part of his arrangement, while trans-fusing it with an entirely new element of life and action, at a dramatic moment, which marks this great painter's style, and is a distinct move forward in the art of composition. Each work of art, down to the end of the sixteenth century, can thus only be fully understood by considering it in its proper place, as one of a continuous evolutionary series. Every painter took much from those who went before ; his individuality can best be gauged by observing how he trans-formed and modified what he borrowed.
Now take Ghirlandajo's Visitation, in the Salle des Primitifs, as an example of a work which, in quite a different way, requires to be understood by light from elsewhere. Note how admirably the figures here are balanced against the sky and the archway in the background. In itself, this is a beautiful and striking picture ; but it is also a good illustration of those subjects which cannot adequately be understood by consideration of works in this gallery alone. The attitudes and costumes of the two principal personages are strictly conventional ; nay, if you compare the St. Elizabeth in this Visitation with the same saint in the Mantegna almost opposite, you will see that her dress and features remain fairly typical, even in two such very distinct schools as the Paduan and the Florentine. The relative positions of the Ma-donna and her elder cousin have come down to Ghirlandajo from a very remote antiquity : they were adopted, with modification, by Giotto, in his fresco of this subject in the Madonna dell' Arena at Padua. But Giotto also introduced an arch in the background, which persists in almost all later representations. His arch, however, is blind, — you do not see the sky through it. So is Taddeo Gaddi's, in his closely similar Visitation at Santa Croce, in Florence : but the figures here still more nearly approach the positions of the Ghirlandajo, and they stand more directly framed, as it were, by the arch behind them. Skipping many intermediate examples, each of which leads up to this picture, we come to this beautiful embodiment of Ghirlandajo's, which, while retaining the simplicity of composition in the earlier examples, shows a fine artistic instinct in the way in which the chief characters are silhouetted in the gap of the archway. Ghirlandajo accepted the older tradition, while transforming it with the skill and taste of the early Renaissance after his own fashion. Those who have visited Florence will remember how Pacchiarotto, in his admirable presentation of the same subject, now in the Belle Arti in that town, — which, like this one, is a Visitation with selected saints as spectators, — has closely followed Ghirlandajo's treatment, with still further modifications, while the noble embodiment of the same scene by Mariotto Albertinelli, in the Uffizi, consists of the two central figures in the Ghirlandajo or the Pacchiarotto, cut out, as it were, and presented separately with noble effect against a back-ground of sky seen through the archway. In such a case we see distinctly how the individual work can only fairly be judged as a development of motives borrowed from others which have preceded it, and how in turn it gives rise later to still further modifications of its own conception. If you have not yet visited Florence, bear in mind this work when you see the Pacchiarotto and the Albertinelli. It is a good plan for the purposes of such comparison to carry about photographs of other pictures in the same series. You may go straight from the Ghirlandajo here to the Sebastiano del Piombo in the Salon Carré ; and thence again to a copy of Pontormo's Visitation in the Long Gallery (right side, near the Fra Bartolommeo), which is interesting as showing a survival of the arch, treated with far less effect, and thrown away as an element in the composition. Here the at-tendant saints have become a confused crowd, and- the degradation of Fra Bartolommeo's balanced grouping is very conspicuous. Make one picture thus cast light upon another.