Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Travel Painting

The Effects of Bad Government on the Countryside, 1338-40, Ambrogio Lorenzetti
People today love to travel. As you read this, I am, myself, traveling--cruising the Baltic between Amsterdam and Copenhagen on my way to spending two days in St. Petersburg, Russia. As Americans, we drive clear across the country on dual ribbons of concrete in motor homes at speeds in excess of 70 mph.; and we think nothing of hopping only slightly larger winged craft to do the same at speeds nearly ten times that. We travel for business, for pleasure, or sometimes for no good reason at all. And if we worry about our safety and well-being in doing so, we hide it with jokes about the pilot napping while a flight attendant flies the plane. A thousand years ago, for the most part, only two types of people traveled--merchants, and pilgrims. Most walked. Only those going "first class" had horses, while those traveling in wagons would have been the equivalent of owning a private jet today. And it was dangerous. They traveled in groups to ward off robbers and cope with natural difficulties. Artists, being merchants of beauty, were among those quite likely to travel from time to time (just as we do today). And if you were a prominent artist such as Giotto, Verrocchio, or Leonardo, there was no need to recruit like-minded travelers in forming a caravan, your own workshop of apprentices and assistants were enough of a retinue to insure a safe passage.

St. Frances Giving his Cloak to a Poor Man,
1290-95, Giotto
Travel is said to be a broadening experience and it may well have served to inspire artists of the thirteenth and fourteenth century to a new type of painting, that being the landscape. Though it would be several hundred years before any serious efforts were made by the Dutch to paint landscapes for their own sake, it was during this pre-Renaissance period that an attention to the passing countryside began to creep into the backgrounds of master painters in their renderings of religious, architectural, or portrait subjects. The Sienese artist, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, was one of the first to incorporate the many sights he encountered in his frequent travels into his paintings. They range from cultivated hills and meadows, to farmhouses, to small towns, to large, medieval, walled cities. The works were somewhat idealized, the proportions slightly suspect, and the perspective often tortured, but his efforts, and those of other Sienese artists he inspired, leave us with some feeling for what the land and traveling over it must have been like.

Noli Me Tangere, 1302, giotto
Lorenzetti's landscape efforts can be seen in his painting, The effects of Bad Government on the Countryside (top). Painted around 1338, some might even call it the world's first landscape painting though in fact, it was more allegory than landscape, and only one of several in a larger work. And even before that, Giotto often incorporated landscape backgrounds into his frescoes when he felt the need, such as his 1290-95 St. Francis Giving his Cloak to a Poor Man (above, left). In 1302 Giotto traveled to Padua, Italy, and the Scrovegni Chapel to paint his fresco Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, right). His garden in which Mary Magdalene first encounters the risen Christ, while not depicted in anything approaching a realistic manner, does manage to convey an amazing amount of detail including recognizable renderings of celery, parsley, and fennel. One has to wonder if the gradual increase in ease and frequency of travel, and the gradual emergence of landscape painting during the same period, were merely coincidental or if there may have been a cause and effect relationship instead. I wonder if landscape painters today travel more than other artists? I probably do.

No comments:

Post a Comment