Archive

September 2014

Book Review: “The Horses of St Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice”

Replica quadriga (four horses) of Saint Mark's, Venice, late 20th century (after originals probably from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE)

Replica quadriga (four horses) of Saint Mark’s, Venice, late 20th century (after originals probably from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE)

I visited St. Mark’s in Venice on a study abroad over ten years ago, but I don’t remember much about my experience. The basilica itself was undergoing some major renovation, and my impression of the interior revolved more around scaffolding than mosaics. I remember seeing the porphyry portraits of the tetrarchs on the exterior, but I don’t remember seeing the replica sculptures of horses (see above) at Saint Mark’s (located above the main portal). I also don’t remember seeing the original horses (shown below in the basilica museum). In fact, the horses of Saint Mark’s never caught my attention in any type of book or article until I received a copy of The Horses of Saint Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice by Charles Freeman.

I really liked learning about the horses and their “biography” over the centuries as I read this book, but I have to admit that the chapters dealing with the political history of Venice were rather dull to me. It almost felt like Freeman was trying to bulk up material for his book by adding in extra information about Venice, which wasn’t quite pertinent to the story of the horses.

Despite the sections of this book that I found dull, I really enjoyed reading several sections of it. These horses have a very complex history and are unique in several ways. Here are a few other things enjoyed learning in this book:

Quadriga (Four Horses) of Saint Mark's, probably 2nd to 4th centuries CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Original quadriga (Four Horses) of Saint Mark’s, probably 2nd to 4th centuries CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

  • These horses were probably made in the late Roman period. Freeman thinks that they may have been created as a crowning sculpture to a triumphal arch, since quadrigae were often depicted pulling a god or hero (such as an emperor) in a chariot. Freeman thinks that these horses may have appeared on a triumphal arch commemorating Septimius Severus’s victory over Byzantium in 195 CE.1
  • Chariot races and horses (and therefore sculptures of quadrigae, by extension) are associated with triumph and power in Greco-Roman culture. Originally, chariots were seen as synonymous with the power of the gods, but Roman emperors became associated with this symbol of power since the hippodrome/circus was a public venue where the emperor could be physically seen by his people and also display imperial power through ceremonies.2
  • These horses are very unusual, given that they are made almost entirely in copper. The mixture is about 98% copper, 1% tin and 1% lead. Typically, bronze contains about 10% of tin-and-lead mixtures, although sometimes as high as 20%.3 Copper has a higher melting point than bronze, so when it comes to casting, these large-scale horses are the product of great technical feats.
  • Originally, these sculptures were also gilt, and Freeman thinks that these horses were intentionally cast in copper so that the gold layers would adhere properly to the surface. These horses appear to have been gilt with a method which involves mercury, a substance which reacts with tin and lead; the mercury method can’t be used successfully if one is gilding with regular bronze.4 I’m sure these horses would have been very striking back in the day, especially if they were gilt and displayed outdoors!
  • These horses have traveled a lot over the centuries. We know they were located in Constantinople, and probably were located at the hippodrome or the Milion, an imperial building that was located outside the hippodrome but near its starting gates. The horses were likely brought to the hippodrome or Milion from some other monument too, such as the Septimus Severus arch that Freeman proposes.5 From Constantinople, the horses then were brought to Venice in the Fourth Crusade of 1204, after Constantinople was sacked. The horses were removed from the façade of St. Mark’s in December 1797 by orders of Napoleon, and from there were taken to Paris. While in Paris, the horses decorated the gates of the Tuileries Palace and then later on a triumphal arch dedicated to Napoleon (Arc du Carrousel) in the front of the Tuileries.6
  • The intervention of the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova led to the return of these horses to Venice after Napoleon’s downfall in 1815. The horses were taken down in September of 1815 and arrived in Venice in December of that same year.7 After an exhibition in the early 1980s, in which one of the horses starred as the main attraction, all four original horses were placed inside Saint Mark’s in 1983 in an effort to preserve the sculptures against the adverse effects of pollution.8
  • The horses of Saint Mark’s have been often assessed in terms of their aesthetic quality. When the Parthenon Marbles caused a sensation in the 19th century after their arrival and display in England, British artist Benjamin Haydon drew a sketch to compare the Parthenon horse (from Selene’s chariot) with one of the horses of Saint Mark’s (see below). In this drawing, Haydon aimed to show the superiority of the Parthenon sculpture over that of horse from Saint Mark’s. Haydon found that the eyes of the Saint Mark’s horses were not true to life; he argued that they were too sunken in appearance to be realistic or plausible. He also wrote that the nostrils “of the Venetian horses seem wrongly placed, the upper lip does not project enough and there is an evident grin as [if it] had the snarling muscles of a carnivorous animal. . . it looks swollen and puffed as if it had the dropsy.”9
Landseer. etching after Benjamin Haydon's 1819 drawing "Study Of The Horse’s Head From The East Pediment Of The Parthenon And Of The Head Of One Of The Horses Of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice."

Landseer. etching after Benjamin Haydon’s 1819 drawing “Study Of The Horse’s Head From The East Pediment Of The Parthenon And Of The Head Of One Of The Horses Of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice.”

I think that these horses probably have one of the most complex known biographies within Western art history. Like many objects that are displaced and transported throughout their symbolic lives, these horses often were moved as a result of war and conquest. I’m glad that these horses have been able to remain intact over the centuries, despite their propensity to travel!

1 Charles Freeman, The Horses of St. Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice (New York: The Overlook Press, 2004), 296.

2 Ibid., 63-65.

3 Ibid., 263.

4 Ibid., 265.

5 For a discussion of other possible locations of the horses, specifically the original location (besides the Septimus Severus arch theory) and the later location after the transformation of Constantinople by Constantine, see Ibid., 29-31, 89-91.

6 Ibid., 201-205.

7 Ibid., 219-220, 223-224.

8 Ibid., 254-255.

9 Ibid., 231-232.

— 1 Comment

Women Painted into “Exotic” Studio Scenes

William Merritt Chase, "A Corner of My Studio," c. 1895

William Merritt Chase, “A Corner of My Studio,” c. 1895

Recently I have been researching about the American artist, William Merritt Chase. Chase lived an extravagant lifestyle in New York in the late 19th century. He famously moved into Albert Bierstadt’s old studio on Tenth Avenue and used this space not only to paint, but to showcase his collection of various foreign and exotic objects including Japanese fans, Egyptian pottery, Italian swords, and even a stuffed flamingo!1 Chase was undoubtedly proud of his collection; he would open up his studio to the public once per week. Additionally, he painted several scenes of his studio interior. Even after financial difficulties forced Chase to sell his studio and auction off its contents in 1895, Chase continued to paint the interior of the studio of his summer home in Shinnecock Island, New York.

As I’ve been looking at these paintings of Chase’s studio and collection, I’m struck with how often he included a female figure within the space. These women are usually involved in some type of action, which gives them an element of subjecthood that I appreciate. Such is the case with A Corner of My Studio (c. 1895, shown above), which depicts a woman painting in the background. I also like Chase’s Studio Interior (c. 1882, shown below) which shows a woman reading book.

William Merritt Chase, "Studio Interior"

William Merritt Chase, “Studio Interior,” (c. 1882). Brooklyn Museum of Art

Despite the action of these female figures, though, I think that these women also are supposed to function in a symbolic light, given the exotic nature of Chase’s collection. Exotic cultures and their respective products had feminine associations in the 19th century, in part because these cultures were linked to nature and fertility. I think that the female figures in Chase’s painting are meant to heighten the exoticism of the objects in Chase’s collection. Along these lines, then, these active female subjects are also reduced to decorative elements within the studio space, inviting a “to-be-looked-at-ness” that is not dissimilar to the exotic plants, vessels, rugs, sculptures, and pictures that Chase has placed on display. As a result, I think these females vacillate between subjecthood and objecthood.

Other paintings by Chase that have deal with female figures within exotic interiors (some more exotic than others) include In the Studio (c. 1884), The Inner Studio, Tenth Street (1882), Alice in Studio in Shinnecock Long Island Sun (c. 1900), Weary aka Who Rang? (c. 1889), Did You Speak to Me? (1897), and also the pastel drawing May I Come In? (1893). Most, if not all, of these works of art are depictions of Chase’s studios (I am only uncertain about where Weary aka Who Rang? was painted – does anyone know?). When looking at all of these paintings by Chase, I am reminded of another 19th century artist, the Brazilian painter José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior. Almeida Júnior also was interested in depicting female figures within the studio space, although he added an element of sensuality to his works of art by depicting nude or partially-undressed figures.

José Ferreira Almeida Junior, O Descanso do Modelo (The Model's Rest), 1882

José Ferreira Almeida Junior, O Descanso do Modelo (The Model’s Rest), 1882

Also like Chase, Almeida Júnior includes a female figure in an artist’s studio that is surrounded by exotic objects. The decorative and exotic nature of the fertile female body is emphasized through the partially-undressed female figure; her exposed, curvy form is placed in the center of the composition for the viewer to immediately appreciate. Although I do feel like Chase’s female figures have much more subjecthood and individual personality than Almeida Júnior’s sensuous model in this painting (we can’t even see her face!), in both instances the female figure helps to heighten the exoticism of the artist’s luxurious objects found within the studio space.

I think that Almeida Júnior especially focuses on the sexual and sensual associations of the female model within the studio space with another painting, O Importuno (shown below).2 Although Almeida Júnior does not depict the female model with exposed flesh in this work of art, the subject of the cowering model in underclothes (presumably hiding because someone has knocked on the door) suggests an element of sexuality and even scandal. And, once again, the decorative female form seems to be associated with exoticism and luxury: the model hides behind a richly embroidered tapestry, while she stands next to an Oriental rug and fur rug pelt.

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, "O Importuno ("Inopportune"), 1898

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, “O Importuno (“Inopportune”), 1898

While both of Chase and Almeida Júnior depict the female figure within luxuriously-decorated interiors, I feel like there are some differences. Chase tends to focus more on the collection objects within the studio space, and he seems to add the female figure as another decorative element. It almost seems to me like Chase places more focus on his collection; the female figure is ancillary, yet symbolically important. On the other hand, I think that Almeida Júnior wants to focus more on the suggestive interactions between the model and artist, and he uses the luxurious interior to heighten those connections between the female form and exoticism. Do you agree?

Do you know of any other 19th century artists who were interested in depicting the female form within an studio filled with exotic luxury items? Probably Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio; A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life (1854-55) would best be seen in opposition to the approach taken by Chase and Almeida Júnior. Even though Courbet depicts an undressed nude female model in the center of this Realist painting, the crowded space and drab, brown background don’t hint at luxury or exoticism to me!

1 Keith L. Bryant, Jr., William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian (Columbia/London: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 43-62.

2 For further discussion of the eroticism found in this painting and “O Descanso do Modelo” see Daryle Williams, “Peculiar Circumstances of the Land: Artists and Models in 19th Century Brazilian Slave Society,” in Art History 35, no. 4, September 2012: 23-24.

— 2 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.