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Carlo Crivelli - His Characteristics

( Originally Published 1900 )

IT is not the purpose of the following pages to dwell upon those superficial and general characteristics of Crivelli, which must be obvious to anyone who has made acquaintance with a number of typical pictures by him—let us say those in the National Gallery. His love of gold and splendid accessories, his unerring outlines and anatomical forms, the general impression conveyed by his figures of religious seriousness varied by gentle grace and, more rarely, by profound emotion —these are aspects of his art which must be apparent to all who have bestowed upon him more than a passing glance, and to which justice has already been done by previous writers. In these days, when the forms and methods of the oldest Italian painters have become tolerably familiar, there is little fear that even an archaic art like that of Crivelli will not be sufficiently appreciated. We are less likely now than formerly to hear his forms described as wooden, and his types as grotesque or affected. Leaving such considerations we shall be more usefully employed in regarding his art from the historical point of view, and in endeavouring to discover whether his pictures reveal the stages of development and progress through which he passed.

First we may say a few words about Crivelli's subjects. The small half-length " Madonnas " were no doubt executed for private patrons. But his typical productions are the large anconas containing several panels (generally ten, with, sometimes, a predella) destined for churches. Their arrangement is tolerably uniform. "The Virgin and Child " in the centre are flanked by four full-length saints. Above is a corresponding series of half-length panels, the central one being usually the " Pietà," or some other representation of the dead Christ. The saints are chosen from a limited series. First we get those of greatest importance to the Christian Church, such as St. Peter and St. John Baptist. Next we have the patrons of the particular town or church. Finally, inasmuch as Crivelli's chief employers were the religious orders, there are the monastic saints, the Franciscans and Dominicans being largely predominant. The frequent presence of St. Jerome is due to the same cause, for he was regarded as one of the patrons of the monastic life.

The strongly individual character of Crivelli's style might lead a superficial observer to say that of all painters he changed the least. Crivelli's Madonnas and Saints we might be told can be recognised anywhere. His unerring outlines, and bony forms alternating with graceful refinement and strong emotion ; above all, his love of colour and splendid accessories recur inevitably in his works at every period of his career. All this is perfectly true. Crivelli reached his settled style surprisingly early, and in the main he never departed from it. When once his character has been grasped he is the easiest of all painters to recognise at a glance ; and it is seldom, signature or no signature, that a question can arise whether a picture is by his hand or not, or, if it does arise, that the answer can be doubtful. And yet if we look more closely we shall discover that, together with this conservatism, there were certain lines of progress on which he moved, and which, generally speaking, distinguish the pictures of one period from those of another.

The most important and striking aspect of a painter is, as a rule, his system 0f arrangement and composition. Crivelli painted but few subject pieces : most of his work is in the form of ancona panels, where each saint appears in a separate architectural framework. The development and perfection of these isolated figures may be said to have been Crivelli's principal aim during his artistic career, and the form in which he achieved greatest success. It is only rarely that his attempts to express strong emotion move us, as in the case of the versions of the " Pietà," belonging to Mr Crawshay, and to the Vatican Picture Gallery. More commonly they are rather suggestive of the effort after that which was perhaps beyond his reach. But when dealing with single figures confined to separate panels he was not exposed to this temptation, and all his best qualities have full scope. Calm dignity, strength of character, gentleness and grace, can all be treated by him with perfect success apart from the disturbing elements of emotion and action. Masterpieces of this kind are the saints of the lower tier of the great ancona in the National Gallery (No. 788), and the " St. Emidius," at Ascoli. So success-fully did he develop the single figure that, apparently, he began to produce such panels separately and apart from a composite altar-piece. Much of Crivelli's work has come down to us in the form of these tall narrow panels containing either a Madonna or a Saint. Some of them no doubt originally formed parts of anconas which have been broken up, but others seem to have been always isolated. The " St. Bernardino " in the Louvre, and the " Magdalen " at Berlin, with the figures turned as it were towards a centre, might indicate that they belonged to a dismembered ancona. But the signature at the bottom of each (not to speak of the kneeling donors in the first) shows that this is improbable, for Crivelli always inserts it in the central panel where there are several. It is, of course, possible that there might be replicas of panels in a great ancona ; but even so their elaborate finish and fine quality would show that Crivelli gave them all the importance of independent works.

The form of the ancona is at once elementary, archaic, and conventional. The isolation of the figures in separate panels is a complete obstacle to anything like unity of composition. As a matter of fact, the figures in any ancona of the early Venetian school have little relation to one another, and Crivelli evidently felt himself at perfect liberty to treat them as separate units, and not as parts of a whole. But as time went on this no longer satisfied him. Perhaps, too, some knowledge of what was being done by other painters may have influenced him. In any case, we find him in his later works abolishing the separate panels, and grouping his saints around the central subject within a single frame, so as to form a composition in the proper sense. The transition to the single picture is formed by the triptych, where the side panels contain pairs of saints (as in the Brera picture), in close relation to the central figure. But all the larger pictures of his later years, of which the great Berlin altar-piece is a typical example, are free from any sub-divisions. Some have the Madonna attended by only two saints, but others, such as the " Coronation" in the Brera, are almost crowded with figures. One cannot feel that Crivelli was ever quite at home in those attempts at more elaborate composition. The pairs of saints which we have mentioned, especially those in the Brera triptych, are much more successful than e.g. the effect produced by the " Coronation " in the same gallery. In other cases, attendant saints, though not divided from the central group by any framework, have no more relation to it than if they occupied a separate panel. Look at the self-centred Sebastian of the Odoni altar-piece in the National Gallery (No. 724). In spite of himself, Crivelli was always reverting to what we must regard as his true vocation, the production of isolated figures undisturbed by action or emotion. As compositions, his most successful efforts were undoubtedly his " Pietàs." Almost the only subject picture which has come down to us—the "Annunciation," in the National Gallery—does not, charming as it is, reveal any powers of composition proper. The scenery, indeed, is arranged in an ingenious and interesting manner, but the figures of the principal group have little or no relation to it. A much higher level is attained in the rare predella scenes, those of the Odoni altar-piece in the National Gallery (No. 724), being the best examples. Yet even here we must observe that the subjects are just those which admit of symmetrical and conventional treatment.

In the use of accessories Crivelli shows a marked tendency as time goes on to increase their splendour and elaboration. His pictures in this sense become more and more purely decorative. Landscape backgrounds occur more frequently in the earlier than in the later part of the list of his works. We are not speaking of the rare cases in which Crivelli depicted an event in the open air, such as the " Vision of Gabriele Ferretti" (National Gallery, No. 668), or the " Crucifixion " of the Brera (No. 189). These are necessarily placed in a landscape. But among the formal compositions which have the Virgin for their central figure, perhaps the latest, with a landscape back-ground, is the " Madonna " at South Kensington. In the later works we get a plain or patterned gold surface, or else elaborate architectural and textile backgrounds.

Whether there be a landscape at the sides or not, a narrow strip of stuff nearly always hangs behind the Virgin, often covering part of the throne. Here again we find an illustration of the tendency towards elaboration. Till well on in his career, Crivelli almost always represents this hanging as of plain watered silk.* The latest dated picture on which it may be observed is the Lateran " Madonna," of 1482. So regular a feature is it in the earlier and middle periods, and so completely is it absent in the latter, that it may be used (though it is seldom necessary) to confirm the date of a picture. About the middle of his career, a hanging of brocaded stuff begins to make its appearance. The " St. Bernardino," of 1477, in the Louvre, is one of the earliest instances. As time goes on this ousts the simpler material and becomes increasingly elaborate.

We will only mention one other instance of Crivelli's increasing love of elaboration, and that is in the architectural accessories. The Virgin's throne in the earlier pictures is of comparatively simple construction and without much carved enrichment. The only important exceptions are the ancona at Ascoli and Sir F. Cook's " Madonna." It is more elaborate in the pictures of 1476 and 1482 (Lateran). In the Brera triptych of the latter year the throne has become a much more important feature, adorned with coloured marbles, and enriched with carvings and many members. The later instances are all of the same character. Nowhere are the architectural features more richly elaborated than in the National Gallery " Annunciation " (1486). In this respect it should be compared with the earlier version now at Frankfurt, and also with that at Massa. The series of pictures with the Pietà subject provides another set of instances. Compare the marble front of the tomb in the Vatican " Pietà " with that in the " Dead Christ supported by Angels," of the National Gallery.

With so much that was archaic and conventional in his art, Crivelli had nevertheless a real appreciation for and searching after realism in its proper place. We need not dwell on the living characterisation and individuality of so many of his figures, particularly on the variety and truth of his representations of the Divine Child. But it is in the sphere of animal and vegetable life that the seeking after realism is most apparent. Few of his pictures are without those accessories of fruit and flowers, the decorative effect of which he understood so well ; and they are all studied from nature. And we notice that he is not content merely to introduce his fruit in formal festoons, or his flowers in vessels of glass or painted ware, though these themselves are rendered with patient accuracy ; but the flowers sometimes lie, as they have been plucked, on the steps of the Madonna's throne, and single pieces of fruit are placed, with a curious simplicity of effect, just where the beauty of their colour or surface will tell best. His love for such things comes out again in his substitution in some cases of festoons of real fruit for the ordinary bas-reliefs on the face of the marble steps of his thrones (cf. the Brera triptych and the Odoni altar-piece). We may notice in passing that it is this same realistic tendency which leads him so often to represent his marble surfaces as cracked and fractured.

But it is perhaps in his representations of animal life that this interest is most striking. He is careful, however, to restrict it to landscape scenes, its appropriate place. Fruit and flowers may be introduced as purely decorative objects amid the most formal surroundings. Animals can only be used for the same purpose in an idealised form ; and the parallels in the animal world to the use of fruit are the conventionalised dolphins and elephant heads that appear in some of his architectural ornaments. Animals represented in their natural forms must be placed in natural surroundings. It is, therefore, only in the comparatively rare landscape scenes that we find them—e.g. the ducks in the " Vision of Ferretti," and the animals round St. Jerome in the predella of the Odoni altar-piece. The latter especially are surprisingly truthful studies of animal forms and attitude, quite in the spirit of Pisanello, and perhaps not altogether unconnected with him. St. John the Baptist, even though isolated in the panel of an ancona, is generally represented in a rocky landscape. It is therefore quite in keeping to introduce (as in the instance in the National Gallery) a natural bird seated on the twig of a leafless tree with its back to the spectator—evidently a favourite study, as it reappears in the " Vision of Ferretti." On the other hand, when St. Jerome stands alone, or grouped with other saints round the throne, his lion, both in size and treatment, assumes a conventional and heraldic shape, to remind us that we are no longer in the open air, and that it is a formal attribute of the saint. We need only refer to examples in the National Gallery and at Venice.

This part of the subject may be concluded by a word about Crivelli's landscapes, of which we may say generally that they are not realistic in the same degree as his representations of natural objects. As we have shown, the landscape background does not grow more frequent with him as time goes on. Interesting as its details are, he preferred the broader effects of rich stuffs and precious marbles. When he has introduced it, the foreground, whether rock or grass, is treated in a thoroughly conventional way. The distance is more real, and recalls with curious fidelity the effect of the country of the Marches, with its endless succession of steep isolated hills, all carefully cultivated. But the treatment in detail is very much like that of the early Flemish painters or of the miniatures of manuscripts, with its conventional town, country road, and rounded trees. Crivelli seldom omits the leafless tree which he seems to have brought with him from North Italy. It may have been an invention of the School of Padua.

A very few words must suffice for the treatment of Crivelli's technique. About the methods of the old masters we have so little information that we cannot do more than consider the results which we possess in their pictures. In the case of Crivelli, the inferences are fairly obvious. From the beginning to the end of his career he always painted in tempera, to which, as Crowe and Cavalcaselle remark, he "clings with a desperate fondness at a time when all painters were trying oils " (i. 89). But he used it with a perfection which has never been surpassed. Without any marked tendency towards flatness, he has no strong contrasts of light and shade ; and his effects, especially in drapery, are mainly produced by the juxtaposition of elaborate patterns with broad surfaces of colour relieved by simple hatching. The use of gold, either applied to a flat surface or in the form of raised ornaments, need only be alluded to. Out of these materials, Crivelli built up his pictures with patient and painful care. He was never careless. We cannot think of a picture of his which could be described as hurried or superficial. The result is that his clear tones and enamel-like surfaces remain today as perfect, save for accidental abrasures, as when they left his hands.

With such slow and painstaking methods, it was not to be expected that Crivelli would be a prolific painter. We may think that the number of his pictures is very small, and yet we could hardly expect more. For the twenty-five years which approximately represent his life as a painter, we possess rather more than fifty pictures. Let us suppose that half as many more have perished or otherwise disappeared. That would give us a production of just three works a year ; and, when we think of the labour and care to which every panel in existence testifies, the estimate is not unreasonable.

Quite in harmony with this conception of him as a worker is the fact that few if any of his pictures bear traces of the handiwork of assistants. In quality they are astonishingly uniform. Orders, no doubt, came in plentifully as soon as his reputation was established, but apparently he only undertook those which he could carry out with his own hands. The rest were assigned to Vittorio and Petrus Alamanus. We have been saved from much confusion in consequence.

Finally, we must say a word about Crivelli's rank as an artist. When our attention is concentrated on a single painter there is a danger, especially in the case of one like Crivelli, whose isolation makes comparisons difficult, that our judgment on him may be too partial, and therefore we should be unwilling to say anything which might appear exaggerated or paradoxical. Crivelli had certain obvious limitations, existing partly in his circumstances, partly too, we may believe, in himself. Those limitations do not depend on archaism simply. By an archaic style, we generally mean the style of a school or of a painter at an early stage of its historical development, and this only indirectly affects the greatness of a particular artist. A great artist may appear archaic as compared with the future progress of his art, but as compared with his contemporaries he is in advance of his time. The relatively elementary resources which were at the disposal of Giotto do not obscure the fact that he was one of the greatest artists, not only of his own, but of any age. But it is quite a different matter when archaism is the result of a deliberate conservatism, when it falls behind the times, and, as we might say, becomes conscious instead of being the simple and natural form of expression. It is inconceivable that an artist of the very first rank should be a reactionary, and it cannot be denied that, in this sense, Crivelli is a reactionary. It may be true, as we have pointed out, that local circumstances were partly responsible for his remaining so little affected by the art-movements of his time. But not less perhaps was due to his own character. As we have insisted more than once, the vocation which he chose, or which was imposed upon him, was that of bringing to all the perfection of which it was capable the old Venetian art. In that he showed himself great. The scope was limited—the treatment of the isolated figure from a point of view at once ideal and decorative. And in his methods—the use of gold, and the medium of tempera—he was equally loyal to the old traditions, because, no doubt, he felt that they were the best adapted to his purpose. But, given those ideals, and given those methods, we can only say, with his greatest works before us, that performance could no farther go. He sums up all the resources of Byzantine practice. The ornamental possibilities of the mosaics, the use of gems and of the precious metals, the feeling for beautiful surfaces, all receive in him the highest employment that can be given them in painting.

At the end of the last century Crivelli's pictures were still to be found for the most part in their original homes in the churches of eastern Italy, unsought for by collectors, and noticed only in the briefest way by the historians of Italian art. With the age of the Revolution, and more particularly with the establishment of the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy, a change came. Convents were suppressed, and pictures were swept together into the great collections. A number of Crivelli's works went to Rome, and still more to the Brera at Milan, where some of them found a permanent home while others wandered still farther afield. After 1815 the process of removal was accelerated by the growing interest in the works of the Italian " Primitives." D'Agincourt, in his " Monumens," published in 1823, was the first to give reproductions of some of Crivelli's pictures. When once he became known, his decorative character and fine workmanship made him peculiarly attractive to one class of collectors. Among them Englishmen were prominent, and there was a time when, excluding the Brera and the National Gallery, the collections of Mr Alexander Barker and of the late Lord Dudley contained between them most of the finest Crivellis in existence. But the supply was limited. By the middle of this century practically all the available pictures had come into the market. On the other hand, the acquisitions of public galleries on the dispersal of the two above-named collections still further diminished the number of fine specimens within the reach of the collector. The result has been that, with a steady advance in the estimation of Crivelli, there has been a constant decrease in the supply; and the increasing prices that have been paid in recent years for such pictures as have come into the market are the measure of the value which is now set upon them. At the Dudley sale in 1892 the great altar-piece by Crivelli approached most nearly in price to Raphael's "Crucifixion.

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