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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rags to Riches

I suppose most artists don't consider how fortunate they are to be artists in a time when there are so few limitations imposed upon them from the outside world in terms of what they paint and how they paint it.  In fact, it is this lack of limitations that causes some to kind of float around in a sea of chronic indecision as to who, what, and where they are in art.  Artists need limitations so much sometimes that they impose them upon themselves, or seek those who will impose them (as in accepting a commission).  Thus, it is hard to imagine a time when if you chose to become an artist (or were chosen to become an artist), you had but one patron (the church), and thus one area of subject matter (religion), and one style (Medieval) in which render the images that were mostly imposed upon you from above by whatever religious despot happened to be in charge at the moment. 

Legend has it that a young boy was born to a peasant shepherd family in 1266 near Vespignano, Tuscany, not far from Florence, Italy.  As a lad of ten or twelve, he amused himself while watching the family sheep by drawing them on flat rocks with charred sticks (basically a crude form of charcoal).  A passing stranger one day watched the boy drawing and recognized genius when he saw it.  He persuaded the boy's father to let him become an artist and in so doing, lifted the entire family from poverty to fame and fortune.  In reality the story more likely involved a scout for the painting master, Cimabue, having heard about the boy's skill, checking out his meager efforts, then arranging an apprenticeship.  The fame and fortune part is quite true for the work of this talented young boy, over the course of the next seventy years, paved the way for painting to emerge from the mosaic-like quality of the Medieval period to the Naturalism of the Renaissance.

When a young boy became an apprentice (and only young boys became apprentices at this point in time), the transaction more closely resembled his being purchased than educated, for the life he would know for the next dozen years or so would more closely resemble slavery than training, especially in early years.  Apprentices, and sometimes there were dozens of them working in their master's household, started out by doing the dirtiest, most menial jobs imaginable, having nothing whatsoever to do with art, before working up to grinding pigments and preparing plastered walls (Cimabue did frescoes) only as still younger boys came on board.  If the young apprentice was talented enough and fawning enough, he might get to work along side the master or even in place of  the master on important church commissions.  If the young apprentice's name was Giotto di Bondone, he would, in a few years, come to SURPASS his master.
Ognissanti Madonna, 1310, Giotto

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