I love the concept of a painting interacting with a viewer. ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde aged while the man remained young. I have always wanted to step into a narrative painting and look around behind the scene and learn what hypothetical conversations the artist intended his figures to be having. What had just been said? What were they thinking? Why were they there?
Artists of the fifteenth century invented an ingenious way of letting the public (at the time) know who painted the work by painting their self-portraits in the right hand lower corner of their painting. From this position, they invited mortal spectators to join the painted figures and enter the picture plane to view the holy event of the Jesus’s birth. In the case of Leonardo’s unfinished ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (see my blog for June 23) he also gestured with his arm, indicating the way to follow.
Adorations were a popular theme. Rich patrons wanting to glorify their existence were painted in the crowd. In the 1475 Adoration by Sandro Botticelli, the artist stands aloof with his arms folded, and his eyes seem to dare one to enter, or do they say more? In my novel, ‘Adoration – loving Botticelli,’ they entice a ghostly lover from the twenty-first century.
There are other places to see the famous artists of the day. Raphael incorporated several likenesses of contemporary artists and dignitaries into his ‘School of Athens.’ This large panel is one of my personal favourites. Leonardo and Michelangelo are there as the young Raphael would have seen them or known other representations of them. In addition Raphael painted his self-portrait in roughly the same region as the convention of the day, in the lower right hand area of the painting. We can confirm it is the artist as he is in the position reserved for that of the artist/host and is making eye contact with the viewer to bridge the picture plane to the third dimension.
So, the dryness of art history can sometimes offer us a juicy photo gallery. Leonardo was also ‘captured’ in stone at the age of thirteen when he posed for Andrea Verrocchio’s statue of David.
In my next blog we will see Leonardo at thirteen, twenty-four, thirty-five, and as an elderly magus in his sixties. Perhaps he even posed as an infant for one of Verrocchio’s Madonna and child icons or even an angel. Think of all the holy infants in icons who were once plain offspring bounced on their mother’s knees for artists to capture and glorify, and the anonymous maidens culled from daily life to sit in robes of blue to represent the Virgin Mary.
The master, Verrocchio was both neighbour and friend to Leonardo’s lawyer father, Piero da Vinci. He was also a client. Large studios worked to contracts that outlined details of payment as well as time deadlines and the specific elements expected within a composition. Often these would be portraits of the benefactors and those in power they wanted to impress. In addition, it was expressly …. That the most senior master would paint the faces of the holy figures, which also accounts for so many poorly rendered infants. Verrocchio was first and foremost, an architect and sculptor. His painted figures are solid. Their draperies hang as heavy as stone, and their anatomy is static. The rest of a studio compilation was shared in reducing levels of competency from the highest assistants to the youngest apprentices.