Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Radiant Masterpiece Reveals More: Part 1

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1480,
oil on poplar panel, 49 x 55 7⁄8 in. (124.5 x 141.9 cm),
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

The Frick Collection’s St. Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini was sent for technical analysis in March, 2010 to the Sherman Fairchild Paintings Conservation Center of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was the first time the work left the museum since it was purchased in 1915. Like other pictures acquired by Henry Clay Frick (1849 - 1919), it can never be loaned.

The work has always been in very good condition but advanced forms of physical analysis presented the opportunity to significantly increase the understanding of Bellini’s working methods and offer clues to the interpretation of the painting. Scholars have long debated its meaning because Bellini’s depiction of St. Francis’ stigmatization is like no other in the history of art. There is even the question if the work indeed describes the saint receiving the stigmata. Art historians have generally entitled the painting St. Francis in Ecstasy.

In a New Light: Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, The Frick’s current exhibition, presents the results of The Metropolitan Museum’s examination. For the duration of the show, the painting has been moved from the Living Hall, where Frick had placed it, to the Oval Room. This skylighted gallery provides a light-filled space and seating which gives visitors a comfortable place for contemplation. To further enhance viewing, the painting is installed at a height lower than its usual position.

In order to adequately discuss the new information about the painting, I have divided my blog essay into two parts. The first part will deal with the painter, his milieu, the painting’s history, the subject matter, working methods, and some of the recent discoveries. The second part will focus on additional revelations, treatment of the work and its connection to another Frick Collection painting.

We begin.

The St. Francis in the Desert is one of the most beloved pictures in The Frick and is considered by many to be the best Renaissance painting in America. It was one of Henry Clay Frick’s five favorite works. For those interested, the others were: Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait and Polish Rider, Holbein’s Sir Thomas More and Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid.

Frick preferred portraits and landscapes. He had little interest in religious scenes which is not surprising as he was a Protestant. His tastes were actually typical of American collectors of the period. The St. Francis, actually, may be viewed as a landscape painting. The saint and his humble makeshift cloister take up less than one quarter of the work’s surface. The painting is dominated by a precise, botanically correct, depiction of nature with a background townscape that is one of the earliest, if not the first, naturalistic cityscape depiction in Western art. It is easy to overlook that a miracle has or is occurring.

The painter, Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 - 1516), is regarded as the artist who brought Venice to the High Renaissance. Visiting the city for the second time in 1506, Albrecht Dürer, described him as the best painter there. Bellini came from an eminent family of painters. He began his career in the studio of his father, Jacopo Bellini. Jacopo was known for extraordinary inventive works and was considered at that time, Venice’s most important painter. Giovanni Bellini’s older brother, Gentile, was held in such esteem that the Venetian Republic sent him to the Ottoman Court of Constantinople as their visiting painter. Bellini’s cousin Leonardo Bellini excelled in manuscript illumination. His brother-in-law was Andrea Mantegna whose figurative style and spatial illusionism surpassed all peers. Mantegna had an enormous influence on Bellini’s development.

In early fifteenth-century Venice, egg tempera was the painting method of choice. This is a quick-drying paint requiring meticulous preparation. Bellini trained in his father’s workshop with this technique. During this period, oil was a fairly original way of painting used primarily by Netherlandish and Flemish artists. As a slow-drying medium, oil allowed for many effects in rendering forms realistically and was capable of producing brilliant colors. Bellini, aware of the northern artists' achievements, learned more from the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina who was in Venice from 1475 to 1476. Antonello’s proficiency has been attributed to his contact with Flemish artists visiting Sicily and his scrutiny of a work by Jan van Eyck which he saw in Naples. Be that as it may, Bellini took to this method, exploited its potential and created a style characterized by formal clarity, fervor for details and a vision saturated with light. He is credited with having a key role in changing the predominant painting medium in Venice from egg tempera to oil. This, of course, had wondrous repercussions, especially on Bellini’s students, Titian and Giorgione.

The Frick St. Francis was painted entirely in oil. Little is known about the work’s origins. Such questions as “Why it was painted?”, “For whom it was painted?”, “Where was it initially located?”, have not been answered. We know that it was in a private collection in a Venetian home some forty to fifty years after completion. Historians have suggested that the painting may have been intended for a chapel on a monastic island associated with St. Francis but no document has been found to confirm its earliest provenance.

St. Francis, a thirteenth-century saint, was enormously popular in Venice. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, who renounced his worldly life after receiving a vision. He lived a life of poverty, preached the Gospel in Italy and overseas, and founded the Franciscan Order. He was the first person to receive the stigmata, Christ’s five crucifixion wounds symbolizing the divine’s recognition of steadfast faith. This momentous event took place in 1224 during the saint’s fast on the Tuscan mountain of La Verna. His follower, Brother Leo, had accompanied him and witnessed the stigmatization. Leo described Christ in the form of a fiery seraph, one of the angelic higher orders, with six wings who flew on a cross transmitting the wounds to St. Francis.

Paintings that depict St. Francis usually represent him kneeling while receiving the stigmata via rays sent forth from a airborne seraph on a crucifix. The beams pierce his hands, feet and side. Some scholars have hypothesized that The Frick St. Francis may have had a seraph painted in the upper part of the painting but was lost when the work was cut down. Analysis, however, determined only a few centimeters were removed from the top panel. Considered too small an amount to have contained figures, it was concluded the seraph most likely was never there. Further technical study using high magnification, microscopic examination, X-rays, infrared reflectography, paint analysis, surface inspection and study/discussions by conservators, art historians, scientists and educators revealed more.

X-rays established that Bellini used three horizontal poplar panels as the painting’s support. These were prepared with a gesso ground made from gypsum and animal glue. Bellini then carefully delineated an underdrawing using fluid, carbon-based black paint. In a few places he incised the drawing with the reverse end of his brush, such as in the shadow of the saint. After the underdrawing dried, assistants spread a preliminary layer of oil mixed with a little lead white. This mixture produced a bright reflective surface that did not obscure the underdrawing. It had several functions: it imparted luminosity to the overlying paint and gave the effect of light seeming to emanate from the painting’s interior; it acted as a sealant for the underlying drawing; and, it insulated the painting by preventing the oil paint’s seepage into the porous ground below. Since the oil/lead white layer was smoothed by hand, paint loss has now exposed finger and palm prints in certain areas. None were Bellini's.

Giovanni Bellini, Detail of St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1480,
oil on poplar panel, 49 x 55 7⁄8 in. (124.5 x 141.9 cm),
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

The question of whether the saint had stigmata was long debated. Some people thought the stigmata on his hands were a nineteenth-century addition. The stigma on his foot is not visible to the unaided eye. During The Metropolitan Museum’s study, an infrared reflectogram produced a black-and-white clear image of Bellini’s underdrawing. For the first time, scholars could study the artist’s preparatory composition. It distinctly showed that the stigmata on the saint’s hands and the stigma on his left foot were originally depicted. In addition, residue of red paint on the foot was discerned using high magnification. The paint had worn away but the wound mark had certainly been indicated by the artist.

Bellini choose not to depict St. Francis in the conventional manner. The saint has no side wound. He is marked only on his hands and left foot. Brother Leo, who is typically present, is not there. In fact, the stigmatization seems not to be the most important meaning of the painting. Additional analysis provides further clarification. For now, however, visit the painting. My next post will tell more.

In a New Light: Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert

May 22, 2011, through August 28, 2011
1 East 70th Street, Manhattan

Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
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