The primary purpose of aristocratic portraiture in the late 17th century was less to depict and individual and a character, as Philippe de Champaigne had done in the preceding period, and more to portray the sitter as a realization of more generalized, impersonal, collective values. The portraitist cannot depict an abstraction like social rank, but he can show the subject be in possession of, or enacting, the various qualities and attributes believed to be inherent in noble birth. The recording of the subject’s physiognomy was secondary to the importance of the registration of the performance of social status. Given that the portrait is meant to serve as an official statement of the subject’s public self, attempts to portray the subject’s interiority, personality, or psychological states would be generically inappropriate as they would individualize the subject, rather proclaim the qualities he or she shares with the other constituents of the caste.

The ban on of the representation of inward, individual eccentricities manifests itself in Rigaud’s pictures in the uniformly impassive, nearly expressionless gazes of his sitters, which deliberately convey no information about whether the subject was depressive, light-hearted, dishonest or shy. The distant gaze also aims to distance or defamiliarize the subject from the viewer. Instead of disrespectfully looking the sitter in the eye, the viewer is expected to direct his visual attention to other, interpretable features, including the subject’s stance, wardrobe, gesture, and the objects they wield. Rigaud thus inaugurated the court portrait, which differed from the personal or institutional portraits of the early 17th century, in that it was designed to circulate in a social environment nearly completely defined by birth, which, of course, was a symbol of worth—an outward sign of an inward grace.

Charles Le Brun, an astute observer of the changing nature of king’s use of the court, urged Rigaud not to pursue history painting, which had effectively one patron, the King, who habitually depleted the royal treasury to fund lengthy, disastrous wars and thus could not always pay artists in a timely manner, and to pursue portraiture. After Rigaud’s portrait of the Grand Dauphin (1688) found favor with the King, Rigaud was appointed peintre du roi. Louis exhorted all of his courtiers and ministers to have Rigaud portray them, thus helping himself, by creating another expensive requirement for access to the court (Louis knew that a nobility forced to buy expensive portraits and wardrobes could not afford to buy Frondes as well) and providing Rigaud a nearly infinite number of wealthy clients. Rigaud’s detailed account books show that by the end of his long career, he portrayed over 1,000 different models and sitters.

Following the example of Coysevox, Rigaud developed a formula for portraying the homme de qualité, whose status was proven by the nobility of the attitude, expressiveness of the gesture, and movement of the draperies. Through these outward signs, the subject showed the extent and degree of the various qualities of which his inherently generous temperament was capable. This means that even minute differences in stance, gesture and movement of drapery are indices of differing capacities for embodying noble qualities. This includes the the rhetorics and semiotics of hand gestures, rumpled falls of fabric, the way robes are gathered or held against the body, the lay of a wig and the interest a red velvet curtain shows in the subject beneath it. Some express their noble temperament by holding books or musical instruments, others have batons or swords which are handled or wielded in pointed ways; others can display their status through the crook of a finger.

Look for upcoming posts on Rigaud, his patrons, his rivals and early modern portraiture.


AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna



The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

In 1285, the Florentine confraternity of the Laudesi commissioned the workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna to paint an image of the Virgin and Child for the chapel they sponsored in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Like the other urban confraternities, the Laudesi provided care and services for each other at the time of a member’s demise, overseeing funeral rites, financially assisting surviving family members and collectively praying for the soul of the deceased. The latter took the form of laude, or hymns sung by the group in praise of the Virgin, begging her intercession on behalf of the defunct member. The singing of the lauds and other confraternity activities were performed in the group’s chapel, under the supervision of the Dominican friars. The panel painting of the Virgin and Child commissioned of Duccio was, therefore, was destined to serve as the visual focus of a devotional, musical performance by a prestigious, civic-minded group, conducted in a large stone-vaulted chapel.

Continue reading AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna


Jeremy Moon (1934-1973) read law at Cambridge and worked in advertising before enrolling in art school in 1961. Trained as a sculptor, he shifted over to painting in the late 1960s.

Constructivism, Mondrian and the Bauhaus are clearly points of reference. After Moon saw Ellsworth Kelly’s first show in London in 1962), Moon worked in a hard-edged, geometrical style somewhere between minimalism and Op Art—imagine Brigit Riley being forced to sit still, or Frank Stella with a British sense of decorum, or a non-dreary Agnes Martin.

Primarily remembered as a painter, Moon taught sculpture and. painting at London art schools, and he continued to make three-dimensional works as well. He was exploring the relationship of painting to sculpure in the large, three-dimensional pieces, based on his earlier paintings, on which he was working when he died in a motorcycle crash at the age of 40 in 1973.

Today, significant holdings in his works are owned by his Jeremy Moon Estate; the British government bought many of his works through arts support programs that existed in the 1960s and ’70s; and he is well-represented at the Tate Gallery. Most of the paitings sold in his lifetime are in private collections.


Hans Holbein Sir Thomas Elyot

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas Elyot, 1532-33, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.

Hans Holbein the Younger returned to England in 1532 to work at the court of Henry VIII, where he was appointed painter to the king in 1536. In this capacity, he produced portraits of members of the royal family and eminent courtiers. His preparatory drawings often attain an even higher level of verisimilitude than the finished paintings.

SIR THOMAS ELYOT was a diplomat, clerk to the Privy Council, the sheriff of four counties and MP from the borough of Cambridge. A friend of Sir Thomas More, Elyot was also a humanist scholar, counting among his works the first comprehensive Latin dictionary, The Boke, called the Governour (a 16th-century best-seller), The Castel of Helth and translations of Plutarch and Pico della Mirandola. He sat for Holbein’s portrait around the age of 44.

THE PIOUS SNAIL OF VENICE: Giovanni Battista Piazetta

The Pious Snail of Venice

GIOVANNI BATTISTA PIAZZETTA (1682 – 1754) was the premier painter of religious imagery in settecento Venice. While his contemporaries Tiepolo and Ricci worked through the colorist and painterly legacies of local legends Veronese and Tintoretto, Piazzetta, who trained in Bologna under Crespi, grounded his art on the naturalism, sober palette and lighting effects of the Carracci and Caravaggio. Those stylistic choices of the Roman and Bolognese artists responded to a call, in the wake of the Council of Trent, for the reform of religious art. Aware of the origins of the style he now had mastered, Piazzetta specialized in monumental canvas altarpieces upon his return to Venice, many of which remain in the churches for which they were created. The Ecstasy of St Francis is, arguably, the greatest religious painting of the 18th century. Piazzetta also produced highly affective devotional images for ecclesiastic patrons as well.

Compared to the prodigious output of Tiepolo or Canaletto, Piazzetta’s painted œuvre is relatively small, which is partly due to the extremely slow pace at which he worked (“He is a snail,” said one Swedish visitor to Venice). He produced, however, a large corpus of highly-finished, presentation drawings, mainly genre scenes and naturalistic images of Venetians character types and carnival figures, which were much prized by collectors visiting Venice, and further popularized through engravings. Following his appointment as director of the newly-founded Scuola di Nudo in 1750, Piazzetta stopped painting and devoted himself to teaching until his death 4 years later.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART IV: Grisaille, or the Abstention from Color


Lent is observed for the 40 day leading up to Easter. The first day of lent is Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 5th this year. During the Lenten period, it is customary for Christians to purfy themselves by practicing austerity and abstaining from sensual pleasures in an effort to imitate and therefore identify with the suffering Christ endured in his Passion.

In the later Middle Ages, a taste emerged for images purged of color and rendered in a restricted grayscale palette. The modern term for this technique is grisaille. No contemporary descriptions of this mode survive, so its cultural valence can only be inferred from the works themselves. Modern discussions of the purpose or meaning of grisaille have focused on two issues: 1) the possibility of a metaphorical or symbolic value for grisaille, seeing the mode as a religiously-motivated negation or abstention from color and 2) on the relationship of painting and drawing to sculpture, grisaille being seen here as the painters attempt to imitate the effects of the more prestigious medium of sculpture in two dimensions.

The purpose of grisaille appears to be straightforward in some cases. In second half of the thirteenth century, the clerestory windows of the great gothic cathedrals began to be glazed with patterned grisaille glass, instead of the deeply-saturated, colored glass previously in favor. This decision was probably, in part, practical: grisaille glass admits more light (and heat) into the church interior and costs much less than colored or stained-glass windows. However, due to technical limitations, it was not possible at the time to make purely clear transparent glass, and grisaille glass was the closest to clear available and admitted the brightest light. The decision to glaze the upper or heavenly reaches of the church with the brightest light possible suggests that a symbolic interpretation of the choice is possible.

Perhaps the best-known example of the grisaille technique is the so-called Parement de Narbonne (c. 1375), a long silk textile with scenes from the Passion executed in black outline and shades of grey. Donated by Charles V to the cathedral of Narbonne, it probably functioned as kind of altarpiece or retable. This liturgical setting of the parement surely influenced the patron’s choice of grisaille. In the 14th century, that setting often included altar frontals of unpainted, relief sculpture, such as the group from the convent at Maubuisson . When placed in this context, the Parement invites the viewer to compare the illusion of three-dimensional relief effected by the two-dimensional, grisaille modeling of its figures, against sculptor’s ability to create depth. In doing so, the painter makes a conspicuous demonstration of his technical mastery of his medium, which can appropriate the representational capacities of another. This accomplishment is all the more striking because it is achieved not by the heaping of painterly effects, but by a reduction of visual effects. Voluntarily denying himself the use off color is the equivalent of a boxer tying his hand behind his back and still winning.

Jean Pucelle, the illuminator of the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (c. 1325), shows a similar awareness of relief sculpture. In images where he creates an illusion of three-dimensionality by setting exquisitely-modeled grisaille figures against deeply saturated red or blue pattern backgrounds, his work recalls high relief sculpture programs found in the interior of churches such as Nôtre-Dame, Paris. To further the church analogy, the illuminations are framed by gothic architectural forms. The interest displayed throughout the book in the rendering if interior spaces suggests that in some respects the prayer book places the experience of liturgical space of an ecclesiastical building in the hands of the patron, a spiritual exercise enabled indirectly by grisaille.

In the 15th century, several of there great Flemish altarpieces depict fictive statuary, painted in grisaille on their exterior. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432) shows the husband and wife donors kneeling before their intercessor saints, who turn their heads back towards the donors while their bodies turned in the other direction, indicating their role as intermediaries between the secular realm of the donors and divine one above. This life-like postures of the saints, who seem to react in time to their surroundings is confounded by there fact that what we see are representations of statuary standing in gothic niches on plinths, with grisaille creating the impression of stone. The significance of this visual conundrum is further complicated by these facts: 1) the donors, executed in full color are also placed in sculptural niches 2) the Annunciation, seen above, takes place in a realistically-depicted, domestic interior, which includes color, but the divine actors are draped in stony, grisaille garments, whose folds resemble the “carved” folds of the saint statues below; 3) as Panofsky reminds us in Early Netherlandish Painting, medieval sculpture was always polychromed to appear life-like, so the only context in which stone sculpture could have been seen in its true, grey unpainted state would be the sculptor’s workshop.

Later in there 15th century, Hugo van der Goes would further complicate the issue on the exterior of the Portinari Altarpiece by representing the Archangel and Virgin Annunciate in grisaille, which we might initially read as fictive sculpture. However, the images appear to be in motion— Gabriel looks like he’s landing on a short runway and the dove of the holy spirit, also represented as stone, swoops in, talons spread as if it’s about to land in the Virgin’s hair. The anxiety and oddity of the two images aside, note how Hugo’s dove has no signs of a support and the figures do not stand on plinths as they do in the Ghent Altarpiece, so here we can assume the the artist is not raising sculpture as a topic, but using grisaille to represent figures that are otherwise naturalistic in their actions, volume and narrative engagement.

Flemish altarpieces were kept closed for most of the year, being opened only for the red-letter days of the liturgical calendar. It has been suggested that the use of grisaille on the exterior of these monuments, which would have been seen most of the year, had symbolic connotations—during Lent, one saw grisaille figures and statuary stripped of color, but on the triumphant feast of Easter, the wings would open to reveal a vision of the Last Judgement bathed in brilliant, saturated color. Similarly, the Parement de Narbonne, being an easily displayed and stored textile, may have functioned as a Lenten altarpiece, drained of color, which would be removed at Easter to reveal some other, now lost, altar decoration that was presumably polychromed or otherwise colored.

Whether or not people gave up color for Lent is open to debate. It is clear, however, that in the later Middle Ages, grey was the new black.

OBJECT ZERO: Art History and the Written Record


The discipline of art history comprises two components. art and history, and its objects of study are visual constructions that can be construed in aesthetic (atemporal) or historical (temporal) senses. To put it another way, the exemplary subject of art historical analysis is a 2- or 3-dimensional image (the aesthetic) to which written, historical documentation concerning that particular object attests. Objects like ancient Chinese ritual bronzes or the Venus of Willendorf precede writing altogether and, lacking written documentation of any kind, can be aestheticized, but not historicized, thus placing them outside the purview of the discipline, while meeting the requirements of others, such as anthropology and archæology.

The oldest surviving object for which a historical reference to that particular object exists is an ancient Egyptian carved, schist slab, referred to as the Palette of Narmer. It was found during the excavations of the temple foundations at Heirakonpolis in 1898. The palette was used as cosmetics trays (the circular recess on the reverse of the Narmer palette held crushed pigments which would be applied to the royal visage), although the elaborate, documentary imagery of the Narmer palette suggests that it had a commemorative, as well as ritual, function.

The written documentation that pertains to the Narmer palettet is (conveniently) found on the object itself, taking the form of hieroglyphics, interspersed among the images, that serve as identifying labels. The hieroglyph, showing a fish and a chisel at the top of both sides of the palette gives the name of the largest figure as Narmer (the ancient Egyptian word for fish is nar, and for chisel is mer). From other sources we learn that Narmer reigned in the Old Kingdom (or early dynastic period) around 3000 BC, and that he united Upper and Lower Egypt under one rule for the first time.

On the palette’s obverse, Narmer stands with his right arm raised, mace in hand, ready to strike a figure on his knees, whose hair he holds with his left hand. Both figures are identified by naming heiroglyphs. Behind Narmer stands a smaller figure holding Narmer’s sandals, which were removed whenever the king stood on sacred ground. The sandal-bearer is not an anecdotal detail—he too is a hieroglyph, signifying the King’s piety and respect for the Gods. To the right of the captive is another hieroglyph showing the Horus falcon, standing above 6 papyrus blossoms and holding a rope around the neck of a captive. To parse its meaning, one needs to know that a) Horus, the name of the falcon-headed deity, was used as an honorific title for the king; b) papyrus blossoms were associated with Lower Egypt where they grew; in Egyptian numeric notation, a papyrus blossom denotes the amount one thousand. Taken as a whole, the heiroglyph reads “The Horus (King) conquered 6,000 in Lower Egypt.”

In a separate register beneath Narmer are two figures, similar in appearance to Narmer’s captives, above. They appear to be running, but read according to the Egyptian way of representing the body with face in profile, frontal torso, and straight legs seen from the side, they are clearly dead.

Narmer wears the crown of Upper Egypt and the wooden ceremonial beard, and the Apis bull’s tail, the latter a reference to the divine strength of the king. None of this symbolic gear would have been worn in combat. Furthermore, he is not show in the act of smiting his opponent, but about to strike. This scene on the palette, therefore, alludes to an event, the conquest of Lower Egypt, but at the same time makes a broader, symbolic statement about the power of the king, which is of divine derivation and which, is always, as we are reminded by the raised mace, poised to strike.

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The Palette of Narmer is earliest known object with a written, historical record;

The Palette of Narmer is the earliest known written, historical record;

The Palette of Narmer is both object and subject of the same, written, historical record.

Further reading:

Whitney Davis, Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art (UCPress, 1992).

Béatrix Midant-Reynes, Préhistoire de l’Égypte: Des premiers hommes aux premiers pharaons (Arman Colin, 1992).