Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

June 5, 2017

Innocent X by Velasquez

Filed under: Art History,Italy,Painting,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:43 pm

I intend to do a series of posts on paintings that knocked my socks off and thereby influenced me. Some famous others less so. I start with a famous one…

A decade or so ago I had a job painting a ceiling in Rome… no not that one, the ceiling of the Hard Rock Cafe which I had to cover in flying rock stars reimagined as cherubs. Working in Italy was great fun, the builders after initially being a little suspicious called me “Maestro” and brought me lovely coffees and treats. So I spent several weeks lying on on my back up on a scaffold tower being wheeled about by my long suffering helper Paul. In Italy work starts early but finishes at 4pm which gave me ample free time to float about Rome painting and looking at all the wonders.

One of those visits was to the Palazzo Doria Pamphili. I am embarrassed now by my ignorance, but I had not heard of it. I had just visited the Pantheon which was bombed out by hoards of tourists and was wandering home when I saw the sign and the entrance. It had that grand palazzo thing where you ascend a stone staircase to the piano nobile. To my surprise I was one of only a few visitors so could wonder around in peace. The place is absolutely stuffed full of paintings and every square inch frescoed and tromped. There are a many wonderful pictures, but I was after several rooms astounded by how much really bad painting had been done over the centuries! On average the decorative painting was better than the stuff in frames.

So I wasn’t prepared when I entered a fairly small room and there it was. I had no idea that the picture was there so it hit me right between the eyes. To say the painting had presence was an understatement. I nearly said, “Whoops, excuse me!” And tiptoed out again.

The picture of course is Velesquez’s great painting of Innocent X.

Velasquez, portrait, Rome, painting

A few details, painted about 1650 and 141in by 119in. The Pope was apparently suspicious of painters in general and Velasquez in particular and reluctant to be painted. He got Velasquez to paint his barber first to check him out. I suspect he was mainly concerned how any picture might reflect on his perception by others. In the event the picture was kept private by the subject in his own lifetime. There are two other versions that are probably studies. We don’t know but presumably these were done from life. There is an amazing consistency between all three in the likeness. Here are the other two:

Velasquez, Innocent X, portrait

This one is just a head study and is in the Washington Met.

Velasquez, Pope, Innocent X, painting, portrait

This is a head and shoulders and is in Apsley House in London

Though the studies are wonderful they don’t have quite the impact of the Rome picture. This is perhaps because of Velasquez brilliant structuring of the larger picture. Side to side the figure only just fits, indeed the paper held by the Pontif which holds the artist’s signature is cropped by the frame. The gilt work frame of the chair is broken by the Innocent’s head which both places the head in 3d space and anchors it in two dimensions. The background is an indeterminate russet then the chair fabric is a tad redder and then finally the Pope’s vestments a brighter red still. This progression pushes the figure towards us. All three reds are much the same in general hue which in turn gives harmony and subtlety.

The white of the rest of the vestments is where I feel Velasquez has had to work hard, I suspect they got painted and repainted a fair few times. The brief crisp shadow of the red papal fanon on the white makes the pope’s upper torso appear the float. The clever shadow of the right hand and the arm of the chair fixes the casually posed hand in space. There is the merest hint of lace to suggest opulence but not excess.

The hands describe a man who is relaxed. We cannot somehow imagine them fidgeting. They rest imperturbably on the fore-square arms of the gilded but rather severely formed chair.

Velasquez, Innocent X, Pope, Portrait

So to the head. Innocent was a lawyer and had been a representative abroad to both France and Spain for previous pontiffs. Here is a face that has seen much and would be hard to surprise. Worldly, he had a mistress, but not prone to any excesses although occasionally cruel and capricious he was a politician through and through.  He was not I suspect much of an art fan. Although Bernini was closely associated with Innocent’s enemies the Barberini he was left in charge of the works in St Peters and did a fine bust of Innocent. So although reportedly paranoid and suspicious, a calculating, worldly and pragmatic man. Velasquez catches this by having the head held forward little, not tense but wary. The eyes consider us with, if we can believe the mouth, a wry edge of amusement.

There is tremendous control of the edges. The hat is sharp and cuts across the forehead except as it approaches the ear where it is softened by hair. To the right of the brow there is a darkening of the gilt of the chair to pull the head forward. The line of the cheek is softened and wonderfully subtle. The shape of the chin is hidden by the Pope’s wispy beard. The collar cuts the neck sharply tone wise but the drawing indicates it is softly turned. The ear is strongly lit and describes the very slight turn of the head towards us. Velasquez has arranged it so the the eyes are turned further still which gives animation to the  square on pose of the body.

The features in themselves are ordinary, the fleshy nose the wispy beard, Velasquez has made no attempt to flatter. There is no real record of the Pope’s reaction to the painting, though rumour has it he commented, “It is all too true.” In any case the picture was hung in his family home where it still is today.

Finally a detail of the Washington study.

Velasquez, InnocentX, portrait, detail

Many layers of refinement are visible but the whole remains fresh. He decides what should be clear and what obscure what marks of making should appear and which blended.

For the sake of interest here is Bernini’s bust of Innocent.

Bernini, Innocent X, Sculpture, marble

He is given a more youthful air, Bernini hopes to flatter I suspect. This bust also stayed in the Palazzo and was not for public consumption.

Another by Alessandro Algardi who was Innocent’s favoured artist:

Alessandro Algardi, bust, sculpture, Innocent X, bronze

This image was I suspect more how Innocent preferred to imagine himself, more in the mode of an apostle weighed down by his office.

Algardi also got to do the official sculpture:

Alessandro Algardi, statue, Innocent X

Now this one was definitely for public consumption!

April 10, 2017

Chairs

Chairs are interesting objects, they have been around for a very long time and have many variations. What I am interested in here though is the chair as an everyday object which is a more recent arrival. In earlier times and cultures chairs were really thrones as they indicated status. Ordinary folk sat on floors, benches, chests or stools. Even when chairs arrived into domestic use  it was only the master of the house who had one, hence the word “chairman” to indicate precedence.

A chair is a sort of seat, but by sitting on an object you do not make it a chair. So if you sit on a rock it briefly becomes a seat not a chair. A chair is a seat for one person and has a back, no back and it is a stool rather than a chair. A chair can have arms and be upholstered. It can rock, it can fold, you can have one in your garden or your kitchen, your dentist and your barber both possess them.

My interest here though is in the chair as an everyday object that combines both aesthetic and practical qualities.

If a man with little skill screws together a few offcuts of wood with no particular care, other than to conform to the basic chair shapes, the result might have perfectly good utility. It might even be comfortable. It is unlikely however to be beautiful or desirable as an object.

If a master craftsman makes a chair it will also conform to the general shape, it may or may not be comfortable. I think it  would almost certainly be more pleasing to the hand and eye and definitely more desirable as an indicator of the owner’s status and discernment. It might however be no better or even worse than the rough one as far as utility goes.

You can with a bit of thought quantify the different qualities that could be embodied in this common object.

  1. Utility. You must be able to sit on it. If a Dadaist adds spikes to the seat then it is no longer a chair.
  2. Quality of materials. A chair can be made of cheap stuff or of valuable stuff. Gold or withies.
  3. Individuality of making. It can be made in a factory, or even nowadays with almost no human hand at all in vast numbers. It can be made by the hand of one individual, or several, or many.
  4. Quality of making. A person with no skill might knock one up, or a skilled bodger might turn the parts to one. A CNC machine might dice up wood into chair parts or one of Thomas Chippendale’s craftsmen might hand carve the elements to an elegant plan.
  5. History. It might have been made, owned or sat upon by someone of note. It might be rare, only a few having been made.
  6. Design, decoration, elegance and other aesthetic considerations.
  7. Value. this might depend on all of the above. As well as rarity and state of repair.

Looking at the list above you can see any specific chair might have more or less of any of the above qualities. The summation of these attributes might all contribute to the desirability or otherwise of the chair. They are all, after no 1, add ons to the basic chairness, things that are not necessary for its basic usage.

I am of course considering chairs for the possible parallels to paintings. Chairs have the advantage of being shorn of most of the egotistical and mystical baggage that anything labeled “art” carries.

So I will go back through my list of attributes of chairs and consider how they might relate to the object called a painting.

  1. Utility. A painting’s purpose is to be decorative. Many artists will raise their hackles at the idea, but I cannot think of any painting that does not have decorative as a part of its makeup. Paintings are made to place in or on manmade structures. They take their place there with whatever else is present. Their function is to supply foci and visual interest, or to signal the wealth and status of the owner whether an individual or an institution. If your painting for example is painted in dry ice and will last only a moment then it fails the test of utility. Paintings of course have another utility that chairs may have a little of but paintings should have in greater degree. They are decorative as I have already stated, but they must also engage with the senses as window does, as openings to another place. They must take the mind from the space the painting is in and transport it elsewhere.
  2. Quality of materials. We accept paintings can be great whatever the quality of the materials. For example The Scream by Munch in painted on cardboard. Generally though I cannot see why paintings should not be marked up or down for quality of paint, substrate etc. Such factors have a direct bearing upon longevity and durability. There are many paintings whose worth has declined due to age and decay.
  3. Individuality of Making. This is plainly of more importance in a painting than in chair. Nonetheless many valuable and important paintings are the work of more than one hand. The increase in concern about this factor is perhaps quite recent, although many contemporary artists such as Bridgit Riley have for many years produced their work by using teams of people. Damian Hurst also commissions or employs others to make his work. Chippendale or Sheraton did not personally construct their famous chairs. Due to this I don’t see why we should care too much about who actually makes our paintings either. Indeed some painting equivalents such as photos are created by people pointing cameras and are displayed entirely through the use of machines.
  4. Quality of making. Many would say this has little or no bearing on a good or bad painting. I disagree, the degree of skill of the makers, whosoever they may be, impinges upon most of the other considerations we take to determine the worth of an object both commercially and aesthetically.
  5. History. Or as they say in the art world, provenance. With painting this is mostly concerned with being sure the object is as advertised and not a fake. Perhaps not as important as we believe. A painting being faked does not necessarily impinge on any other factor, especially if it is successful one that has not been spotted.
  6. Design, decorative and aesthetic quality. Well again the modern artist might quake at the idea of being decorative, but as per attribute 1. pretty much the whole reason for bringing the object into existence is its decorative usage. A painting that cannot be displayed in a space is a bit like a chair with spikes on the seat.
  7. Value. This is just about the same as for chairs, except of the role galleries play in bidding up or buying their own work in order to protect the value of those in stock or already sold to collectors.
  8. Imaginary, attributes. Here is perhaps where paintings can differ somewhat. A Russian icon for example has an extra attribute and use as an object of prayer and meditation. However these attributes are not embodied in the object itself but in the user (Value and History are much the same in this regard). Chairs could have this quality too children might use a chair in an imaginary game as a fort or a car. Although these qualities are imaginary the perception that the object might possess them nonetheless impinges on both Utility and Value.

Gore Vidal said, “Craft is always the same, but art must always be different.” A sentiment most contemporary artists and my past self would have agreed with. I now lean towards the belief that craft is inextricably interlinked with art and there is little chance of art without skill, not because the skill is necessarily evident in the work, but due to what the learning of a skill does to a person. In music a skilled musician might play a simple piece that a beginner might manage, but  the rendition will still likely be more nuanced and deeper when played by the experienced player. For paintings if they do not, when examined, cut through the wall upon which they reside and transport you then they are not doing their job. You would not read novel that did not take you elsewhere and neither perhaps should you bother to value or attend very much to a painting that does not manage the same feat.

After all that you are probably feeling a little faint, so here are some soothing watercolours.

 

Regents Street, London, plein air, watercolour, painting

A visit to London to set up the Wapping Group show at the Mall. Also a chance to snatch a few brief moments to paint the city. This is Regents St. I have made small boards to clip to my smaller watercolour palette so I can paint standing up holding the painting in one hand. This worked fine but I should have taken single sheets of paper rather than my Moleskin. Although the book is small and light it starts to feel like it weighs a ton after 30min of painting. This is a backwards watercolour so I did all the dark accents first and then added washes over the top. 7in by 5in watercolour.

Princes St, city of London, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is looking down Princes St towards the Exchange. I have thought about doing this scene several times but this is the first time the light was really good. Another reverse watercolour, some accents are under the washes others to strengthen over. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

Friendly St, Deptford, London, Watercolour, plein air, painting

It was nice to visit my old stamping grounds. This is Friendly St in Deptford. The light was fantastic I could have painted all day. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

St Martins Lane, London, watercolour, plein air, painting

Last one from London, this is St Martins Lane. A bit of a rush job but I only had 30min or so before I had to do my stint watching over the exhibition. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Dancing Ledge, Dorset, sea, Cliffs, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is the view you get as you walk down to Dancing Ledge on the Purbeck coast. More of this next time as I have been trying to get some coastal pictures done. The trouble is that the sunrises and sunsets are getting further apart with a painting wilderness in-between. I only got the drawing, sea and sky done before I had to move as it was a Sunday and it was busier than London had been! 9in by 6in Watercolour.

Satans Square, Dorset, Sutton Waldron, watercolour, plein air, painting

I posted a previous watercolour of this which is here for comparison. The spring is well underway and all those glorious purples and russets are being overwhelmed by a tide of green. I know it is odd, but as painter I am always a little sad to see the winter go as it is better for painting really. The light is low all day and the colours are more varied. There’s no getting around it that green paintings don’t sell for some reason. Most painters avoid the issue by painting the shrubbery in any colour but the one they see… but I feel I should give it a go despite the certainty the result will be in my attic until I pop my clogs!

I shall have to post again soon as my painting is getting so far ahead of my blogging that I shall never catch up…

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