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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Paolo Uccello

Paolo di Dono (Uccello)
Artists and their students have struggled with it for centuries. Since the Renaissance, mastering it has been an important rite of passage for any painter seeking to graduate from the ranks of the amateur to professional status. No one artist discovered or "invented" it. In point of fact, one might say it's been in a constant state of development almost since cave painting. We call it perspective--the creation of an illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface. Very early artists first used it by varying the size of objects in the foreground of their compositions with distant objects in the background. In fact, they found that placement of objects near the top of a composition tended to denote distance while those at the bottom nearness. About the same time, they began overlapping nearer figures over those in the distance. As painting developed, brighter colors and increased detail came to be used to indicate foreground objects. And with the popularity of landscape painting, distance began to be indicated by differentiating the sharpness of edges of near object with those at a distance.

But the final, most difficult development in the art of perspective came only in the fifteenth century--what we call linear perspective, and what we all tend to think of first when we hear the word today. The Florentine architect, Brunelleschi, is often credited with developing this final step. Perhaps, but it would also seem to have been something of a group effort in that several artists seem to grasp it and begin experimenting with it almost simultaneously. One of them was Paolo di Dono. Today we know him as Uccello, a nickname meaning "bird," probably picked up from an early fascination with them. Though Vasari scoffs at Uccello as being "intoxicated" with perspective, if so, it was a gradual addiction. There are indications based upon some of his early works that linear perspective was something Uccello struggled with, and mastered the hard way, through trial and error. For this reason, Brunelleschi notwithstanding, many art historians give Uccello credit for being one of the primary forces in it's development.

St. George and the Dragon, 1458-60, Paolo Uccello
Uccello was born in Florence in 1397, the son of a barber-surgeon. He must have been something of a child prodigy because while still a boy of ten he was already working with the first true, Renaissance artist, Lorenzo Ghiberti as he designed, cast, and installed the great bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence. Little is known about where Uccello learned to paint though it would appear to have been from a Gothic master. He married and trained both his son and daughter to be painters. Between church and civic commissions, he seems to have made a decent living painting scenes on wooden chests and other household furnishing. Probably because of this, most of his early work is lost. Uccello can be seen as a transitional artist, which makes his work hard to categorize. But that which  we have is all the more interesting because, through them, we are able to chart the gradual movement away from Gothic ideals toward the more natural style of the Renaissance.

St George and the Dragon, circa 1470, Paolo Uccello
For a Florentine painter, a staple item on his workshop shelf would be a St. George and the Dragon.  Uccello painted just such a scene around 1458-60 (top). While seemingly having a pretty good handle on the action, he apparently struggled with the perspective. Some twenty years later, he painted the same scene again (above). As might be expected, there is a vast improvement in every aspect of the second painting over the first. There is still some Gothic stylization yet it's very much a work of the early Renaissance--an important backdrop to the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, all of whom would have been familiar with his work from his mosaics in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella (below).
Green Cloister: Adam and Eve, after 1440, Paolo Uccello, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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