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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Painter's Legacy

None of us is going to live forever. Sooner or later we become too old to paint. Eventually we die. Depressing isn't it? What we leave behind as artists is our legacy. And if we are strong enough as artists, we may even leave behind a living legacy--followers so impressed and enamored with our work they pursue the path their mentors might have taken had we lived. Artists such as Leonardo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, and others have been so honored in that their styles have lived on after them. Some, such as Rembrandt and Rubens, practically guaranteed this by nurturing during their lifetimes, a large school or workshop of apprentices who were deftly trained to emulate the master in all things artistic. Others, such as Leonardo and Caravaggio had followers based solely upon their own stature as artists and the power of the images they painted while alive. Yet another artist of similar stature, totally without intending to, left behind a similar living legacy as a painter even though he considered himself primarily a sculptor, designer, and architect. His name is practically synonymous with art--Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Virgin and Child with Saint John and
Angels (Manchester Madonna), 1497,
Michelangelo Buonarroti
The man lived to be 89 years old. If not immortal, he at least seemed that way to those around him, having outlived practically all his friends and most of his enemies at the time. During his lifetime, he worked for no less than seven different popes. And being Michelangelo, he was notorious for having several projects going at one time. He seems to have considered his own death to be highly unlikely. Although he left perhaps a half-dozen unfinished sculptures it was his unfinished painting projects that seem to have inspired later artists. Perhaps sixteenth century sculptors were too overwhelmed by his work, (or too inept) to attempt to copy or pursue his sculpting style. But even during his lifetime, artists as well-known as Raphael, and unknown as Marchello Venusti were already copying his painting style. Its possible, inasmuch as Michelangelo preferred sculpture to painting, they simply filled the void Michelangelo left in his wake.

The Entombment, 1500-01,
Michelangelo Buonarroti
Two unfinished paintings are interesting to inspect. One, known as the Manchester Madonna (above, right), is quite early, begun when Michelangelo was about 22 years old. In it, Christ (as a young child) indicates a passage in a book held by his mother involving his future sacrifice. The right side of the painting (the angels) is largely finished as are the central figures of Christ and his mother (except for her hair). The figures on the left are barely roughed in. A second unfinished painting is titled The Entombment (left) and was begun around 1500. It is unique in that it is probably the only totally nude depiction of Christ in existence. Christ appears among four female figures supported by a man presumed to be Joseph of Aramithea. All six of the main figures are largely complete though a foreground space is bare indicating a seventh figure was planned. After 1530 a number of unknown or little-known artists did paintings based upon Michelangelo's drawings. Subjects were as varied as Leda and the Swan, a Holy Family, and The Purification of the Temple, which is said to have influenced El Greco's Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple painted in 1600, just 36 years after Michelangelo's death. It's ironic indeed that Michelangelo's meager legacy of  painting had many more followers than did that of his sculpture.
Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, ca. 1600, El Greco


  1. The biggest legacy someone leaves might not even be noticed by the whole world but by the person it impacted, and that one person is worthwhile. All these famous artists perhaps had a teacher that impacted them that impacted the whole of the world. And there is One teacher that has impacted the whole world for all generations. :)

  2. I agree except for the "perhaps" part. All these great artists DID definitely have an influential teacher.