Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A comparison of the Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno during the Early Renaissance period and of the “Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci during the High Renaissance period

            The scene of the Last Supper, which portrays Christ’s Last Supper with his followers and disciples, was painted during the Early Renaissance period by Andrea del Castagno and during the High Renaissance period by Leonardo da Vinci.  Although they both share the same subject matter, and they were painted to encourage the monks and nuns “to see that their daily gatherings for meals were almost a sacramental act rooted in biblical tradition” (Stokstad p.614), in Leonardo’s work we see the start of the “dynamic unity” of the High Renaissance, which is lacking in Castagno’s work.
            Dynamic unity, which was a characteristic of High Renaissance artwork, involved compositions in sweeping arcs that were energized with figures in a variety of poses and gestures.  In Leonardo’s painting we can see the dynamic figures of Christ’s disciples that are reacting to the news of Jesus’s announcement that one of them will betray them.  We can see that the figures have been individualized with different expressions and clothing and hairstyles.  Some of the bodies (third man from the right and fourth man from the left) are shown reaching over to speak in confidence to another figure, while others are twisting their bodies and necks to listen to the others talking around them.  The elongated lines of the bodies gives a sense of movement and tension to the figures, and the bodies also overlap into each other’s space, which also helps to create flow and movement of the eye within each group of figures and helps move the eye to the next group.
            In comparison in Castagno’s depiction of the “Last Supper” the figures of the disciples don’t seem as dynamic.  Most of the figures, except for St. John who is asleep with his head on the table, are sitting upright and somewhat rigid and solemn.  The gestures of the hands and body are very contained compared to the figures in Leonardo’s painting of the “Last Supper”, they do not extend very much into the space of the figures near them.  There isn’t the dynamic placement of the bodies or the exaggerated expressions of the men at the table, which gave a feeling of tension and excitement to Leonardo’s work.  Looking at Castagno’s figures, they are fairly evenly divided into their own spaces, except for Judas by himself on the one side of the table and the figure of Christ, who’s triangular shaped body seems to take up a little more space than the rest, and they all appear at the same height.
Leonardo also cleverly separated the figures into groups of three that helped create areas of interest, and it also helped to create individual scenes of drama and movement that helped draw the viewer into the painting but at the same time draw the eye towards the central figure of Christ.  Instead, in Castagno’s work the eye is drawn to the central figure of Christ through the framing of the colorful marble panels and the lines on the ceiling and the lines of the floor tiles.  Movement of the eye relies more on the decorative elements within the piece rather than the figures themselves.  There is very much a use of geometric shapes and patterns, which can be seen decorating the floor, walls, and the ceiling. 
There are definitely strong classical elements that can be found throughout both paintings.  In Castagno’s painting the scene of the Last Supper is placed in a palacial home with marble panels (which remind me of the painted marble panels found in Roman homes during the Early Empire period) lining the walls and is riddled with Roman motifs.  Some of the motifs include a geometric frieze that runs above the panels, the sphinxes that flank the disciples, the urns which are carved into the benches, and the appearance of what look almost like columns at the end of the walls, which are decorated with acanthus leaves at the top.  The figures are wearing Roman style clothing, which doesn’t seem to be the case with all of the figures in Leonardo’s painting.  In his painting we see the use of the arch above Jesus’s head and it helps form an architectural halo and replaces the use of the round halos that can still be seen in Castagno’s painting.
There is an interest in modeling in both paintings.  In Castagno’s painting there is modeling done on the figures in the area of the head, neck, arms, and in the drapery of the clothing.  In Leonardo’s painting we see the modeling taken a step further, which is a characteristic of the High Renaissance period.  He uses shading extensively on the figures to make them more realistic and he uses sfumato, which means smoky, which is shading that gives the affect of haze and creates subtle transitions of light and dark in the shading.
The composition is very stable and balanced in Castagno’s Last Supper and with the disciples balanced on either side of Christ, and the figure of St. John and Judas help to form a triangular shape in the center around Christ that was common in work from the Early Renaissance.  Leonardo’s work shows Christ balanced as well with an equal number of figures on both sides of him.  He also forms a natural triangular shape in the center of the picture, instead of the pyramidal shape which come to characterize the High Renaissance period.
Linear perspective was used in the orthogonal lines in the rafters of Leonardo’s painting and there is a suggestion of atmospheric perspective in the background through the windows we can see that the mountains appear smoky and further in the distance.  In the other painting, there is some linear perspective in the lines of the ceiling tiles, but the lines of the orthogonals don’t converge into a single point.  There isn’t any atmospheric perspective, the only windows in the scene face to the side and the background is filled with a brick wall which prevents any view into any scenery.
In summary, Castagno’s “Last Supper” utilizes some of the styles of the Early Renaissance with the use of Classical elements, the use of modeling and an interest in naturalism with the figures, the triangular composition that is balanced with the central figure of Christ in the middle, and the attempt at some linear perspective.  Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is share some similar characteristics of the triangular balanced composition, the use of linear perspective, and the use of modeling.  His painting, though, shows the dynamic unity of energetic and expressive figures to create interesting movement within the picture.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Analysis of Botticelli's "Primavera"

Botticelli’s “Primavera” or “Spring” is an ethereal piece that encompasses love and spring through the style of early Italian Renaissance.  It’s a fun piece that has many complex details throughout the scene and is a good example showing the characteristics of the early Italian Renaissance.  The artists uses a color and light to create contrasts, uses texture to add more realism to the figures and adds contrast between different fabrics, and uses composition to draw the eye to the central figure of Venus in the center.  It also helps depict the interest of artists of that period in humanism, which is a celebration of the human form and human accomplishments, and their interest in perfection, harmony and balance.

The painting is rather large in size, 6’ 8” by 10’ 4” and was painted on wood with tempura.  The large size, which is more typical of tapestries, would make the figures seem more real and lifelike to the viewer.  Tempura, which is pigment suspended in a type of binder such as egg yolk, was usually applied thinly and multiple layers were built up to create more saturated colors.  There doesn’t appear to be any texture of brush strokes to the painting but there is the illusion of texture that is given to the figures and to the surroundings in the painting.  The hair on the women is very textured with individual strands blowing in the wind and this detail helps add to the realism of the figures and add the illusion of wind.  The figure of Venus doesn’t show this type of detail, which might mean she is wearing a type of veil.  The flowers in the foreground help to add texture to the ground and makes the figures appear more grounded.  The different textures of the garments add lines and curves that help to draw the eye and draws attention to the anatomy of the human forms underneath the garments.
The colors of the painting help to form a contrast between the background and the figures in the foreground.  The dark green and brown background of orange trees creates a dark almost silhouetted pattern in the background where only some blue of the sky is allowed to show through the branches of the trees.  They form an arch like pattern around the Venus figure in the middle, which helps to emphasize her importance in the scene.  The ground although landscaped with colorful and lifelike flowers, is dark and contrasts with the pale and glowing skin of the figures.  The figures, along with having very light, almost white skin, except for the figure of Zephyrus, also have very light or bright colored clothing.  There also seems to be an unnatural light that can be seen in the highlights of the clothing and the skin and makes the figures glow in this otherwise dark setting.

The composition of the figures is very triangular.  The placement of the figures starting with the chubby figure of Venus’s son Cupid at the top of the painting, then going to the central figure of Venus, and then spreading outward and down to the other figures in the scene form a triangle.  The triangular composition is a characteristic of early Italian Renaissance, along with the balanced composition as well.  Venus is centrally located in the scene and is balanced by the light skinned figures of the women and by the male gods who are both darker in color and flank the group of female goddesses.
The early Italian Renaissance artists were interested in naturalism but it was often coupled with idealism.  The face of Venus is very smooth and idealized, it seems youthful and doesn’t really show individualized characteristics of scars, or wrinkles, or even tan lines. She appears to be very composed and calm compared to all the others who are in different poses of action.  Her garments although they seem naturalistic with the folds and lines that suggest texture, they don’t appear wrinkled or blown around by the wind, which seems to be affected the garments of the other figures in the scene. 

There are efforts of naturalism through the modeling of the arms, neck, and draperies of her clothing.  We can also see some suggestion of her anatomy through the thin dress at the knee and draping over her curved belly.  We can see the Greek influence of the contrapposto stance in her pose.  Her right foot bears her weight, while her left foot is bent and relaxed, which causes her hip to jut out to the left.  Her arms though have the active raised arm on her right side of the body and the relaxed arm on her left.  Her head seems to curve to the left to help balance her body, and we can see the s-curve used during the Hellenistic period and during the Gothic period. 

Stylization can be scene in the other figures and include the rounded bellies of the women, the somewhat elongated figures, the rounded chubby figure of cupid, and of course the blue figure of the flying god of wind.  The plants also seem stylized.  The orange trees in the background all seem to have perfectly straight trunks, and with the sky peeking in between the trunks, they look like pillars.  The unnatural arrangement of branches that help to form an arch around Mary adds to the illusion of architecture.  The canopy of perfectly idealized oranges adds the illusion of a roof.

We can see the artist’s interest in humanism with the almost nude forms of the women, which can be seen as an almost sexual celebration of the female form.  There is some interest in showing the male form as well.  There is suggestion of muscles in the arms and on the chest of Hermes on the left side of the picture, which suggests strength and the health of the figure’s body.

This scene of spring, which shows a renewed interest in Greek figures (Venus, Hermes, Flora, etc.) and styles (contrapposto stance), and ideas, such as humanism, also integrates many of the characteristics and ideas of the Early Italian Renaissance.  These characteristics included naturalism coupled with idealism,  which could be seen in the figures of the gods and goddesses, and of balance and harmony through the use of colors, light and dark, and with the grouping of people.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Artistic Style and Valued Ideas of the Northern Renaissance

            The northern Renaissance was a revolution in paining and in sculpture.  It was a time of looking to the past, to the Romans, and incorporating ideas of realism to their own techniques and methods.  There was a transition from the courtly style of luxury objects, such as tapestries and small sculptures made of sumptuous materials, to an emphasis on realism and an involved interaction between the viewer and the artist’s work.
            At the start of the Renaissance, the courtly style involved pieces of art that incorporated rich materials and labor intensive objects.  Many of these included rich tapestries made with gold and silk thread and that often depicted religious scenes or scenes of victory.  Miniature sculptures were made of gold and jewels that were soon melted down to make new items.  With the works of Jan Van Eyck in painting and Sluter in sculpture, naturalism and the illusion of a real world start to characterize the style of the Northern Renaissance.
Jan Van Eyck paintings evoke a naturalistic world through the use of minute details, his technique of layering oil paints and oil veneers to create luminous paintings rich in color and seem to glow with reflected light.  One of his great, said to start the revolution of art during the Northern Renaissance, is his great altar piece at Gent.  His figure of Adam shows many naturalistic details including the translucent quality of his skin, the veins that are just visible just beneath the surface, the detail of hair on the legs, the tan color added to his skin, and the way his foot is raised so it seems like he is about set foot outside of his frame.  What’s truly amazing is his incorporation of the altar piece with it’s surroundings.  He made the light in the painting seem to reflect off the actual light of the altars location.  The direction of light can be seen in the reflection of Adam’s eye compared to Eve, who faces the opposite direction, and whose eyes don’t show any reflection.  The jewels on the crowns reflect the direction of the light as well. 

His paintings showed such illusions of reality that they almost seemed like a mirror to the people of that time who viewed the paintings.  There seemed to be an interaction of that world with the real world that was emphasized by his use of light and reflective surfaces in his paintings.  They seemed like windows into another world.

This illusion of another world can be seen in the book of hours.  Eyck was a master at creating an illusionary landscape within a minute amount of space.  Paintings were no longer boxed in, but they framed by “windows” that showed whole new worlds and realistic miniatures.  It opened landscapes into a three dimensional world and made an intimate relationship between the art and the viewer. 

            Sluter’s sculpture of the well of Moses in Dijon shows the sculptors freedom from sculptures constrains of architecture and instead an emphasis on naturalism.  Each figure is sculpted in the round and each figure shows individualized characteristics, which help to give each figure a gravity and presence.  The individualized details can be seen in their clothing, difference in shoes, differences in the details of the face (the deep wrinkles apparent in the brow of Moses) and the facial hair (Moses has a big curly beard compared to King David and Jeremiah).  They also appear to lean out and come out at the viewer, almost forcing interaction and an intimacy with the viewer.

            One main idea that was valued during the Northern Renaissance and that had a profound effect on artists, was the idea of artists taking credit for their works of art.  Personal skill became highly prized, especially in the courts of the Duke of Burgundy, and artists were starting to make a name for themselves and starting to gather fame.  One very skilled and famous painter, Jan Van Eyck, was known to leave signatures, dates, personal mottos, even portraits of himself in his paintings.

            Another idea of the period included ideas of consistency.  If an artist used a certain medium, such as oil paints, then there was a an idea that the consistency of that medium would be preserved and there wouldn’t be any incorporation of foreign objects such as jewels and gold foil.  Gold foil was often used to represent the halos in pictures of the saints and it was used to represent their rich clothing and royal crowns.  Instead, Jan Van Eyck used techniques of layering oils to produce luminous objects and jewels in his paintings.  According to documentary, “Northern Renaissance”, whatever is in the picture appears consistent with the world in which we inhabit.  Consistency helps to preserve the illusion of reality.

Friday, January 6, 2012

My thoughts on the renaissance period

            The Renaissance is known as a time of change and advancement in Western European art.  The period is famous for many works of art from Italian artists that are still held in high regard today.  Many of these artists looked to the past and became influenced by ancient Roman art and architecture.  They incorporated Roman ideas of proportions and perspective to their art.  Architects looked to make buildings and structures bigger and grander then their predecessors, as can be seen by Brunelleschi and the dome of the Florence Cathedral.  There was also the incorporation of philosophical ideas of humanity, science, and mathematics that would have an influence on the art of the Renaissance period. 

            We see the Renaissance period as a flourish of movements in art, science, philosophy, religion, and technological advancement.  There becomes interest in the studying the world around us and a return of humanism (a celebration of the human body) and an interest in anatomy.  We also see the art from the 15th and 16th century to be a return to the realistic and idealized form of classical Greek art.  Our culture seems to admire those with the skill to achieve realism in art (even if it is an idealized realism), such as the ancient Greek artists, but I think people feel a stronger connection with the renaissance artists because they are not so far in the past, and so much of their art is still present to this day.

            We tend to focus on big name artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael because they produced works art that were unique for their time and in ours.  They are also used so often in examples in art books, posters, magazines, and ads.  There are so many common references to their art work and much of it has become franchised and become part of our culture.  I had a friend once who had a magnet on her refrigerator of the Donatello’s “David” and of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”.  The David came with a set of clothes that you could put on him, including jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.