|Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
“We have art in order to not die for the truth.” Donna Tartt quotes Nietzche in the opening of one of her chapters in The Goldfinch, an epic journey of life novel. It’s taken me all year, but finally, I’ve finished reading The Goldfinch (need a long plane trip to do that). The entire drama is centered around a missing painting, or, shall we say, a stolen painting in the hands of the narrator.
It’s interesting that Donna Tartt chose a painting to be the symbol of her protagonist. Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch — the painting — is a bird chained on a pedestal. He’s stationary–as if saying “I am.” At one point, the author gives a hint of original purpose for the painting, that it was a signpost for a tavern. (That’s the type of things art historians write about, but Tartt writes about the painting in a much more interesting way.)
Because I’m not a literary scholar, I can’t comment on Tartt’s writing. But as an art critic, she understands why we need art in our lives. The quotes in the book are full of wisdom about the intersection of art and humankind, art and life, truth and life. She understands art as well as any art historian. Here are some quotes from the book:
“If our secrets define us as opposed to the face we show the world: then painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am.”
The voice in the book, Theo Decker, starts when he’s a 13-year old. His life is a traumatic one, and he soon becomes an orphan.
“If every great painting is really a self-portrait what if anything is Fabritius saying about himself?” (Here’s the other blog I wrote about birds by multiple artists.)
She describes qualities the goldfinch has that are like human qualities: “It’s hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.” Later on Tartt writes: “… even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding it’s place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”
Before coming to this conclusion, the protagonist makes these smart observations about life:
“Can’t good sometimes come from strange back doors?”
“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
As Theo goes through so many trials and tribulations, we think that it’ll end in tragedy and that he’ll be doomed. Of Theo’s relationship to Pippa, the narrator says: “Since our flaws and weaknesses were so much the same, and one of us could bring the other one down way too quick.” It seems this truth is often the case in many relationships. Kitsey, to whom Theo is engaged, seems quite the opposite of Theo in so many ways, shallow and disengaged. Do such opposites anchor each other and keep them from going to deeply in the wrong direction? (The answer, well, is that his transformation comes without her in the picture)
Tartt also makes us think about beauty and truth.
“Beauty alters the grain of reality.”
“It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance.” The narrator explains at the end that the “only truths that matter are the ones I don’t, and I can’t, understand.” So what does the painting mean for him? “Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separate every living creature from every other living creature,” This description can be applied to the goldfinch, and how Theo sees his life.
“There’s no truth beyond illusion. Because between reality on the one hand, the where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
On p. 569, Horst describes the Fabritius painting: “It’s a joke….and that’s what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt, Velazquez. Late Titian…..They build up the illusion, the trick–but step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.” “There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird.” “He takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and handworked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract.” What lovely descriptions of the intersection of realism and abstraction.
Why is The Goldfinch so touching to so many people, both the book and the painting? Theo and Tartt express deep appreciation for the restoration specialists, like Hobie, Theo’s caretaker and business partner. Hobie lovingly bring works back to their original state. In the book, there’s an intersection between truth and illusion, but there’s also the understanding that great art is at once realistic and abstract.
The Goldfinch is a trompe l’oiel painting, but it is so much more.
“Its the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone. It’s the place where reality becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and it’s opposite are equally true.” As I often say, art is about the reconciliation of opposites, and Theo and Tartt achieve this in The Goldfinch.
In Dutch art history, Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt stands in between his teacher and the master of Delft, Vermeer. Vermeer’s simplicity could not be imagined without The Goldfinch, and one wonders if he was in fact Vermeer’s teacher. Fabritius lived in Delft at the time of his death in in 1654. He died in a gunpowder explosion when he was only 32. Gerry, a blogger in Great Britain, did a tremendous job of explaining Fabritius and his painting.
I always enjoy reading books that center around a painting. But this novel is not about how or why the painting was made. It is about the journey of the painting and it’s presumed caretaker, what it does for him through his growing years and into several years of adulthood. It is a symbol of his life, his hopes and the man he became.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2021
|Diego Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, 1630 oil on canvas, Monastery of San, Lorenzo, El Escorial, Spain, 87 3/4 x 98 3/8 in. wikipedia image
Cheating card players and fortune tellers by Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour are among the best-known paintings of deception. Two extraordinary Velázquez paintings completed in 1630, The Forge of Vulcan and Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, above, are also allegories of deception from the Baroque period of art.
Although a Biblical painting and a mythological painting would not seem connected, the canvasses match in height, format and the number of figures, six each. The painting of Jacob and sons has been cut at either end, while the other image has added canvas to the left. Both paintings have large window openings onto landscapes on their left sides. There are only male figures, many of them scantily dressed to show the artist’s extraordinary ability at depicting muscles of the arms, legs, back and chests with fine nuances of light and shadow. Joseph’s Blood Coat Brought to Jacob also has a barking dog.
Velázquez painted these pictures during his first of two trips to Italy, in 1630. In Italy, he seems to have been influenced by the frieze-like compositions of classical sarcophagi, which inspired him to spread his figures along the front of the composition, where the figures can be read from right to left or left to right.
In Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, the lies and deception are still occurring. Joseph’s jealous brothers have sold him into slavery in Egypt, keeping his coat. They smeared blood of a goat on the beautiful coat and then told the father Joseph had been killed. While two of the brothers who are slightly darkened may evoke the shame, the two holding the coat are without remorse. They lie so easily, while a brother whose back faces us is feigning horror. Only five of Joseph’s ten older brothers are present. (More sons would ruin the format of the composition, but this omission also suggests that the other sons had remorse and couldn’t continue to carry out the deception in front of their father.)
Velázquez painted a vivid picture of poor Jacob, who favored Joseph among his sons. He is frightfully upset and disturbed. Below his foot, Jacob’s dog barks with a recognition of the duplicity taking place. The viewer can’t help but feel the old man’s crushing pain. Jacob is a tragic figure. Velázquez shows his ability to depict texture, especially in the carpet and the dog. He’s equally adept at showing an awareness of the dramas of human nature.
|Diego Velazquez, The Forge of Vulcan, 1630, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 87¾ in × 114⅛ in. Prado images
In The Forge of Vulcan, the deception is announced by the sun god Apollo, who announces to Vulcan that Vulcan’s wife Venus, is cheating on him. The helpers at the iron forge show curiosity and shock. A young worker on the right, mouth ajar, is particularly comical in his spontaneous reactions. The god Vulcan bends vigorously and is upset. He’s all the more foolish because the announcement comes while he’s making armor for his wife’s lover, Mars, the god of war. It’s comedy more than tragedy, and Apollo, a tattle-tale, looks proud and gossipy.
Velázquez shows that he could portray comedy and he could paint real tragedy. He used his skills to reveal much about human nature, as well as Shakespeare had done writing plays in England two decades earlier. Velázquez’s brushstrokes capture amazingly realistic textures. The fire of the smelting iron, as well as the sheen of a vase and of armor, light up Vulcan’s blacksmith shop. Furthermore, he has painted the workmen closest to the fire in warmer skin tones, true to the colors that light from a fireplace would reflect on their flesh. The colors and sensibility in the entire scene are more earthy than the inside of Jacob’s palace.
While we may get a laugh at the gods of Mt. Olympus, we’re appalled and saddened by the behavior of Jacob’s sons. For an artist in pious Spain, deception in the Bible is tragic while deception in mythology becomes a comedy. Velazquez painted other mythological subjects, but his Bacchus is debauched and flabby, and Mars, god of war, is out of energy and depleted. Mythology is good for stories and subject matter but he didn’t always respect it as much as Italian artists like Titian, or French artists like Poussin.
Though I’ve never been to the Prado Museum in Madrid which has 45 Velázquez paintings, I had the good luck to see these beautiful images in a Velázquez exhibition at the Metropolitan in 1989. These two paintings knocked me the ground, I but didn’t understand how they were linked in meaning until reading the catalogue and other literature.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|Diego Velázquez, Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), oil on canvas, H: 220 cm (86.6 in) x W: 289 cm (113.8 in)
The Prado, Madrid
(Not for beginning art students; I was not able to understand or interpret this painting at all until teaching a class in Mythology.)
The study of myths in all cultures, like the study of art, may seem obscure but it can illuminate some truths about humanity. Around the world, the beauty of weaving has some association with magic. So we look to Diego Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas (also called The Spinners, The Tapestry Weavers or The Fable of Arachne) which focuses on the weaving contest between Pallas Minerva and Arachne described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The foreground scene is about a competition which includes spinning and carding, preparations that come before the weaving of tapestries. The final outcome of the story is implied, not shown. Velázquez used a complex composition of diagonals to weave a tale, a fable that lovers of Charlotte’s Web should appreciate.
Velázquez often put humor into his mythological scenes, but The Spinners is not a satire. It’s related in theme to Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), considered by a majority of art experts to be the greatest secular painting of all time. The painterly effects of hair and material which dazzle us in Las Meninas go even further in The Spinners, which has a similarly complicated meaning. Its format is horizontal rather than vertical, but it also features a foreground and background for two tiers of storytelling connected by an opening of light and stairs. As Las Meninas is a group portrait disguised as everyday life in Velázquez El Escorial Palace studio, Las Hilanderas is a narrative posed as a genre scene in the dress styles or 17th century Spain. It’s dated one year after Las Meninas, 1657.
|Detail of Pallas Athena (Minerva) and a “spinning” wheel
According to Ovid, Arachne was a girl born to humble parents in Lydia (an area of Turkey famous for beautiful weavings). She was reknown for her remarkable skill, but did not see her art as a gift from the goddess of weaving. Arachne accepted praise that set her above Pallas Minerva (Pallas Athena–also the goddess of wisdom) in the art of weaving. She said, “Let her compete with me, and if she wins I’ll pay whatever penalty.” So Pallas Athena disguised herself as an old crone, saying “Old age is not to be despised for with it wisdom comes…..seek all the fame you wish as best of mortal weavers, but admit the goddess as your superior in skill.”
Arachne wasn’t humbled and said “Why won’t (the goddess) come to challenge me herself?” Athena then cast off old age and revealed herself. Arachne was not scared and immediately took up the challenge of the competition. In foreground of Velázquez’s canvas, Athena (in a headscarf) and Arachne set up their spinning and carding operations in preparation for the weaving competition. At least three assistants are helping in the task. There are balls and balls of wool and thread and even a cat, but no looms in sight.
Just as Shakespeare liked to insert plays within his plays to elucidate the story, Velázquez was fond of putting subsidiary stories in his paintings. Another episode takes place in the background, although Velázquez skipped parts and hinted of the conclusion under the archway. Here Athena wears her goddess of war helmut. There are the same number of people in front as in back, five. It would be reasonable to believe that the young women in the back are the same assistants who help in the foreground, but have changed their clothing into fancy dresses. Only the lowly-born Arachne, furthest from the viewer, is modestly dressed.
|From the girl “Fate” in shadow, we peer into a scene where Athena is about to strike Arachne.
Arachne’s belly is the center of the painting, hinting of the spider’s belly she will become.
According to Ovid’s tale, when goddess and girl had completed their tasks, Athena revealed her tapestry with its central subject of Athena winning her competition with Poseidon to be the patron of Athens. She wove an olive vine from her sacred tree into the tapestry’s border. Secondary scenes showed the power of gods and goddesses as they triumphed over humans. The subject of Arachne’s tapestry was stories of trickeries by gods and goddesses, at the expense of mortals. She had shown as her central subject as the rape of Europa by Zeus in the form of a bull. This scene is recognized in the back of this painting as a replica of Titian’s famous painting of that subject in the Spanish royal collection.
“Bitterly resenting her rival’s success, the goddess warrior ripped it, with its convincing evidence of celestial misconduct, all asunder; and with her shuttle of Cytorian boxwood, struck at Arachne’s face repeatedly.” In the painting, Athena holds her shuttle in the foreground, not the background, but Velázquez cleverly placed it in Athena’s left hand where it points to the next image of Athena in armor. Velázquez highlighted the goddess’s anger against a light blue background and emphasized the force of Athena’s striking arm. Arachne’s head is nearly the center of the painting, but the viewer realizes she will exist no longer. “She could not bear this, the ill-omened girl, and bravely fixed a noose around her throat: while she was hanging, Pallas, stirred to mercy, lifted her up and said:
“Though you will hang, you must indeed live on, you wicked child; so that your future will be no less fearful than your present is, may the same punishment remain in place for you and yours forever!” Then, as the goddess turned to go, she sprinkled Arachne with the juice of Hecate’s herb, and at the touch of that grim preparation, she lost her hair, then lost her nose and ears; her head got smaller and her body, too; her slender fingers were now legs that dangled close to her sides; now she was very small, but what remained of her turned into belly, from which she now continually spins a thread, and as a spider, carries on the art of weaving as she used to do.” Note that the belly of Arachne which will be the spider’s core is at the exact center of the painting.
|The Spinners, right side, detail of Arachne
With the fable explaining the origin of spiders, it makes sense that the preparatory activity in the foreground is all about the thread (and the spinning of fate), because there is so much winding to that thread. I interpret the young helpers to Arachne and Pallas Athena as the three Fates. The Fates can be described as Moira in singular name, or Moirai. Their specific names are Clotho meaning “Spinner,” Lachesis, who measures the thread, and Atropos who is inflexible and cuts it off. The three Fates are goddesses and daughters of Zeus who are sometimes considered more important than Zeus in their ability to seal destiny. They come in various disguises, and wouldn’t be surprising if these young women seen as helpers are really the ones who ultimately are in charge. In myth and life, there is always the question of how much free will or how much fate determines outcome.
Velázquez uses highlights and shadows strategically for his story telling goals. Arachne stands out because she is highlighted to a much greater degree than Minerva is, yet we see nothing of her face. How ironic that he, Velázquez who proudly showed his face in Las Meninas, his allegory of painting, does not allow Arachne to show hers. Her back is to us, as she labors deftly and diligently. Both Athena and Arachne are barefoot. The goddess, who is older though not an old lady, even shows some leg!
One of the women in the background is looking back to the foreground, a complexity that pulls the composition together. Perhaps she had been the only one of three Fates who supported Arachne and was pulling strings for her. The woman or Fate dressed in blue shows her back to the viewer, but she appears again immediately below in the foreground, though separated by stairs. Here Velázquez has deliberately darkened her face in shadow, in deeper shadow than is necessary for the composition. As in other Velázquez paintings, shadowed figures can signify that a character in the painting is an actor, an actor who is playing a role in an act of deception. Though she aids Arachne in the guise of as a common peasant girl, her concern with thread could actually be in the process of spinning a different fate.
|Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne, oil, 1634, at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Velazquez was familiar with the fable of Arachne from a Peter Paul Rubens painting of Pallas and Arachne which was owned by the Spanish royal family. The Rubens composition is more violent, with Pallas Athena striking Arachne to the ground. A copy of this painting was in the background of Las Meninas, Velázquez’s most famous painting of 1656, a composition which raises the status of art and the artist. Velázquez must have thought of the art of weaving as a noble pursuit, similar to the art of painting. Both require exceptional talent and skill. Weaving and spinning have additional, magical connotations in mythology, such as the woven clothing of goddesses, the weavings of Odysseus’ wife and the thread which let Theseus out of the labyrinth. Velázquez was a great artist, but, like the prodigy Arachne, he was not of noble birth.
|Detail of self-portrait in Las Meninas, with
the red cross added later
Las Meninas — which contains a portrait of the artist in the act of painting — is about the role of the artist, the origins of creativity and the attainment of status. The Spinners further explores these subjects and elucidates some of the same ideas. Our talents are divine gifts and, as mortals, there are limitations on us. No matter what the artist’s genius is, there are warnings against boasting. In the end, we are left with a reminder of the punishment which comes from carrying pride too far.
The paintings compare artistry and skill, and the status of the artist, to the non-negotiable status of higher beings, i.e., the Spanish Royal family, and an Olympian goddess. There is a crucial difference, however. Arachne, an upstart weaver, was just a girl when she challenged the goddesses of wisdom and weaving and the Fates. Velázquez, on the other hand, was 56 when he painted Las Meninas, and his self-portrait looks outward asserting the importance due to him. Remember how Athena in the guise of an old lady had warned Arachne that with old age comes wisdom.
|Velázquez, The Water Seller of Seville, c. 1620
Apsley House, London
Velázquez had also been an extraordinary prodigy, only about 20 when he painted The Water Seller of Seville. There, an elderly man is passing a glass of water to an adolescent boy while a young adult man stands behind. It was nearly 40 years later that he finally gained knighthood status, the Order of Santiago. A red cross, painted on his chest three years after completing Las Meninas, indicates that title he attained shortly before death in 1660. However, from Velázquez’s other paintings, we know he treated royalty and peasant with equal respect and dignity. The old man in The Water Seller of Seville wears a torn cloak indicating his humble means compared to the young boy he serves. So it is not Arachne’s lowly birth, but her youthful pride which denied the wisdom of age that Velázquez sees as her ultimate downfall. The attainment of greatness is possible if one waits, for only with age comes wisdom.
Velázquez’s stylistic change over the years from tight and controlled to very painterly is typical. He painted two allegories of deception, one mythological, when he was around 30 and in Rome, a turning point in his career. (You can some of the changes of his style from early to middle and late in a blog about him.)
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Saint Francis in Ecstasy, from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, is in the Kimbell Art Museum’s exhibition, Caravaggio and His Followers until January 8
One painting in the Kimbell Art Museum’s Caravaggio exhibition (today is the last day) reveals an unexpected side of Caravaggio’s nature. St. Francis in Ecstasy, from the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT, is poetic. Parallel lines of light on water to the left lead to a very sweet angel holding St. Francis. The saint has swooned after receiving the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus. In dead center, St. Francis’s foreshortened hand vaguely reveals this hole representing the nail that went into Christ’s hand.
Intentionally I have refrained from writing about the type of paintings for which Caravaggio is most famous. The Boy Bitten by a Lizard
and The Sacrifice of Isaac
(in the Kimbell exhibition)
cause discomfort and hit us in the gut. As Isaac is about to be killed by his father Abraham, he looks out of the painting and appeals to the viewers. We feel the boy’s fear, but an angel rushes in to stop the father from killing him. Saint Francis is a much gentler vision, but like the other paintings, it concentrates on a crucial, transitional moment.
It is amazing that such a different sentiment can come from the same man who painted both joy and extreme pain, much like the extremes of his own life.
Detail of The Sacrifice of Isaac: Caravaggio’s Isaac calls out for sympathy. We feel his fear and pain
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598, shows the saint at the moment of her conversion. It is from the Detroit Institute of Arts, but is currently on view in Caravaggio and His Followers, at the Kimbell Museum of Art
In Caravaggio’s remarkable version of the Mary Magdalen story, he painted the moment of her transition from sinner to saint. As much as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized the idea that the Church demonized Mary Magdalen, more commonly she was idealized in art as a saint who turned her life around. The painter Michelangelo Merisi, who is nicknamed Caravaggio, was demonized in his lifetime for his shockingly realistic paintings and his own “sinful” life. (He was charged with murder and often on the run.)
The inclusion of Martha with Mary Magdalen and other objects requires the viewer to interpret the symbolism. Martha is seated with her back to the viewer, with only one shoulder and her hands hit by Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting. On the table are a comb, powder puff and mirror, symbols of vanity. Mary points to her chest holding a flower, while her other hand points emphatically to a diamond square of radiant light on the edge of the convex mirror.
The naturalistic light, seemingly projected from a window, is also a divine light, the ray of God which has inspired the worldly Mary Magdalen to “see the light.” In the moment that Caravaggio highlighted and caught in paint, as if on camera, we witness spiritual transition. From this point on she will give up her luxury and prostitution to follow Jesus. By using models who resemble contemporary people in Rome, rather than Biblical characters, the viewers were supposed to identify with the personal nature of the conversion process.
Light is concentrated in a few important places: Martha’s hands, Mary’s face and chest, the hand and patch of light on the mirror. Sister Martha’s hands are lit because she is pleading for Mary to change (and perhaps counting her sins and/or the reasons she should convert). Mary answers by pointing precisely to that light on the mirror.
Perhaps because Mary Magdalen was seen as an instrument of change, and as the most loyal companion of Jesus in his death, she was greatly idolized in the Middle Ages. The church of Sainte-Madeleine, Vezelay, in Burgundy, was a site of her relics and one of the most important of all pilgrimage churches. However, in the late 13th century, a 3rd century Christian tomb discovered in the crypt of a church in Provence was connected to Mary Magdalen. The site of her devotion then moved to this church and another site in the delta of the Rhone, where legend claimed she had relocated after Jesus’ death.
After seeing Caravaggio’s painting of Mary Magdalen, I thought differently of Georges de la Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen at the National Gallery. Like Caravaggio, he used a contemporary young woman as his model. Yet this contemplative scene omits symbols of vanity and the light-dark contrast comes from candlelight hidden behind a skull. As Mary looks in the mirror, the skull is reflected rather than her face, as de la Tour has artfully manipulated perspective. Life as a sinner leads to a spiritual death. Death is inevitable, but if she chooses to follow Jesus she will die of the self and be reborn in new life.
Here Mary Magdalen may either be pondering her fate before conversion, or thinking of her wish to be reunited with Jesus in eternity later in life. Oddly, she caresses the skull as if wanting to die, perhaps because death for a person at peace with God is ultimate goal and preferable to life on earth. The shape of the skull mimics, in reverse, the shape of her sleeve, arm and hand, showing her intimate connection to thoughts of death. In his view, we are also encouraged to ponder our actions and/or sins and consider our life in eternity. Personal faith is in important factor of both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation at this time, although only the Catholic artists would portray saints. De la Tour leaves the meaning ambiguous, unlike Caravaggio who shows a transitional moment.
Georges de la Tour, The Repentant Magdalene, c. 1635, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, shows her in a contemplative mode, perhaps thinking of death.
In the 6th century, Pope Gregory gave a sermon suggesting Mary Magdalen had been a prostitute before following Jesus. (Of her past, the Bible refers to the seven demons Jesus cast out of her, a vague description.) Although the church usually portrayed her to show that salvation is possible to all who ask for forgiveness, the model for Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalen was Fillide Melandroni, one of Rome’s most notorious courtesans. Neither she nor Caravaggio–who revolutionized art in his time–seem to have undergone a spiritual revolution. Caravaggio was frequently in fights and in 1606 he appears to have gotten into a fight with another man over Fillide, this remarkable woman.
(Note: Caravaggio’s more famous paintings of religious calling/conversion are The Calling of St. Matthew and The Conversion of St. Paul, both in Rome and done around 1601. This artist’s life is always a fascination to the public. There is a new biography about him by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, which may try to explain the contradictions of his life. A biography I read a long time ago is Desmond Seward, Caravaggio: A Passionate Life.)
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Valentin de Boulogne, Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice, c. 1618/20
A magnificent exhibition of Caravaggio and His Followers at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth features the Washington National Gallery of Art’s Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice by Valentin de Boulogne. The painting tells a story of deception. Caravaggio had also painted Card Sharks with fewer figures. Boulogne, a Frenchman working in Rome, may have known of his composition.
Boulogne’s painting is a tight, close-up composition with masterfully chosen areas of light. Two simultaneous episodes are taking place: dice throwing on the right and cheating card players on the left. The card sharks are the first to demand our attention, as they look startlingly real. Behind the central figure, who is in the process of cheating, another drama is happening. A man on the right looks down and covers his dice, perhaps hiding something while his adversary with the red hat seems about to erupt in anger. Although not a traditionally religious painting, Boulogne suggests two of the deadly sins, deception and anger. He warns of the hazards of gambling, exactly what these two vignettes represent.
The dice player with downcast eyes can be variously interpreted.
The sinister scene is set in a dark room. The well-dressed young man in front left is being duped by two soldiers, while two men cross behind them playing dice. The compact composition and the forceful use of diagonals heighten the tension, connecting the men who otherwise would be seen as individual character types. Colors are primarily earthy for these ruffians. But other colors fight for attention: white, scattered touches of blue clothes and the brilliant red hat in center (symbol of anger?), which is replicated in less vibrant red stockings on bottom facing the other direction.
A dark, sinister man in the upper left corner startles with his realistic presence. The details of faces come from a blog, Head for Art, May 24, 2010.
Eye movements and gestures pull us around the painting. At first glance, I am attracted to the white face and dark staring eye of the man in center (see below). His gaze goes past his competitor, to the man in shadow behind. Though the face of this man on the far left is darker than the others, his expression is so real as his fingers signal the number two (above). The shadowy compositions suggest that more than cheating is going on, something very dark, sinister and deceptive. Boulogne warns against taking chances in life. Intense light- dark contrast is a legacy of Caravaggio.
Viewers note the intensity of this soldier’s stare and his slow, careful choice of cards pulls the viewer into the story.
Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, of 1594, comes from the Capitoline Museum of Rome. The aristocratic young man falls in love as he is being duped.
Another allegory of deception Caravaggio painted is The Fortune Teller, 1594, a startlingly realistic depiction in the Kimbell’s exhibition. An alluring young gypsy and fashionable aristocrat look at each other with an intense hold. Her face suggests she is attracted to him, or at least feigning an attraction. His puffed sleeve, puffed cheek, elbow, sway of hips and sword express confidence, but caution is thrown to the wind. As the girl reads his palm, she slyly slips off his golden ring. The viewer, captivated by the couple’s loving gaze and beautiful clothing, is also tricked. We only see this detail by close inspection. The colors are primarily earth tones, black and white.
The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de la Tour, 1630-34. The cheat, who slyly looks at us and shows his deck, is a “shady” figure, both literally and figuratively. The shadiness of the story is in contrast to the highly polished figures and their clothes.
Georges de la Tour’s scene of card players, in the Kimbell’s own collection, rounds out these tales of deception. Some elements of The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs are familiar– its close-up view and dark background. But the colors are brilliant oranges, pinks and reds. The youngest boy will get duped, and everyone else knows they are taking advantage of him. Cheating begins with the large woman who glances sideways at the woman bringing wine, who in turn casts one eye towards the “shady” cardplayer. In shadow on the left, he holds out the cards for us to see and looks at us outside the painting, bringing the viewers into the drama. The boy on right is innocent, but flirting with a world beyond his experience. The background is completely black behind the evil threesome, while the young boy is still halfway “in the light” of the painting, midway between good and bad. He can choose to stay on the right side, both literally and figuratively.
Certain Baroque painters could visually portray situations comparable to the dramatizations of Shakespeare from the 1590s and early 1600s. Carefully calculated figure placements and compositional angles let the human drama unfold before our eyes. They moralize and forewarn viewers of evil. Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller and de la Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs also are also comedies, because the well-dressed young men, possibly aristocrats, do not realize their susceptibility to trickery.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016