Alberti’s “Istoria” and Modesty

Longtime readers of my blog may remember when I wrote a post about istoria painting and the game of hide-and-seek to find the “figure in communication” (who is looking out at or communicating with the viewer of the painting). Lately I’ve been thinking more about istorie. Out of all of Alberti’s recommendations for this special category of painting, I feel like his recommendation regarding the depiction of modesty is the most difficult for art history students to pinpoint immediately. This confusion makes sense, since the word “modesty” has many definitions:

1) The avoidance or impropriety or indecency, through one’s appearance, manner, or behavior

2) A person’s unassuming state about their abilities or appearance

3) The quality of something being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount

In the case for Alberti, I think he was thinking of all three definitions of the word “modesty.” The first definition of modesty about impropriety may seem confusing given the popularity of the nude form in Renaissance art, but Alberti wrote:

“If it is allowed here [in the painting], there ought to be some nude and others part nude and part clothed in the painting; but always make use of shame and modesty. The parts of the body ugly to see and in the same way others which give little pleasure should be covered up with draperies, with a few fronds or the hand.”1

Vasari, "Allegory of the Immaculate Conception," 1541. Tempera on wood, 58 x 39 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Vasari, “Allegory of the Immaculate Conception,” 1541. Tempera on wood, 58 x 39 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

So, one could immediately connect this statement with censorship and modesty in relation to indecency, and perhaps Alberti does have that in mind to a degree – it seems like there is some tension in the Renaissance to resolve the desire to depict biblical figures within a classicizing, nude style. So far I haven’t found a Renaissance painting that literally applied Alberti’s recommendation to use a frond-as-a-coverup, although the figure of Truth in Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles (see below) covers her genitalia with a long tress of blonde hair.

Similarly, I think that Vasari’s painting, Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (shown above) could serve as an example of this consideration of modesty, since the nude figures in the foreground are twisted in a way so that there isn’t an excessive focus on their sexual organs. At the same time, though, Vasari recognizes the beauty of the nude form in this painting with the various nude, idealized angels that surround the Virgin. Similarly, Vasari’s painting Incredulity of Saint Thomas depicts Christ with an prominently-displayed idealized torso, but drapery covers the lower half of his body.

However, Alberti also seems to be thinking about “modesty” in other ways. He also continues in his text to explain:

“The ancients painted the portrait of Antigonos only from the part of the face where the eye was not lacking. It is said that Perecles’ head was long and ugly, for this reason he – unlike others – was portrayed by painters and sculptors wearing a helmet. Plutarch says that when the ancient painters depicted the kings, if there were some flaw in them which they did not wish to leave unnoticed, they ‘corrected’ it as much as they could while still keeping a likeness. Thus I desire, as I have said, that modesty and truth should be used in every istoria.”2

This explanation leads me to think that Alberti is also considering the second definition of modesty: the state of not being too proud or confident about oneself or one’s abilities. In this case, I think that Alberti is thinking about the modesty of the figures within the painting, and the self-effacing tendency of the figures to not visually showcase any feature which is exaggerated or unsightly. This self-effacing context made me think of the personification of Remorse shown in Botticelli’s istoria painting,The Calumny of Apelles (detail shown below). Remorse is depicted as an old woman, but she doesn’t showcase her old wrinkles too much for the viewer and covers much her face with a hood. Instead, Botticelli opted to cover up most of her unsightly, aged features, which perhaps visually suggests – without reading too much into the subject matter – a self-effacing characteristic that figure.

Botticelli,  detail of Truth and Remorse from "Calumny of Apelles," 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli, detail of Truth (left) and Remorse (right) from “Calumny of Apelles,” 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Finally, the context of Alberti’s writing also suggests that modesty can relate to the third definition about something that is small or limited in number. Before his discussion on modesty, Alberti writes about dignity and restraint. Although he recommends a complex composition in istoria painting (which involves a variety of figures in various poses), but at the same time also warns against excess. He explains,

“In my judgement no picture will be filled with so great a variety of things that nine or ten men are not able to act with dignity.”3

I think Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles also serves as a good example of limitation in number. Although Botticelli includes ten figures (not to mention all of the figures depicted as sculptures) within his painting, his composition is not overly crowded. Instead, Botticelli is able to exercise modest restraint with his composition, and showcase a variety of poses and figures while still utilizing ample areas of open space to emphasize this restrained modesty.

Botticelli, "Calumny of Apelles," 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli, “Calumny of Apelles,” 1494-95. Tempera on panel, 62 x 91 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Do you know of good examples of istorie that fit with any of these definitions and connotations of modesty? Please share!

1 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, 76. Available online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=sVGZtXjRXPAC&lpg=PA77&dq=alberti%20modesty%20istoria&pg=PA76#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid., 76-77.

3 Ibid., 76.

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“Oath of the Horatii” and the Nazi Salute

Jacques-Louis David, "Oath of the Horatii," 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jacques-Louis David, “Oath of the Horatii,” 1784. Oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Today was one of those days in which a student points out something so obvious, that I’m shocked that I’ve never considered it before. I think sometimes my eye is so trained to look for certain visual details, that I need a new pair of eyes to help me look at familiar paintings in a more objective way. That was the case today: when discussing the Oath of the Horatii in class, a student raised her hand and simply asked why the brothers have their hands raised in a gesture that looks like the Nazi salute. And now after looking at the painting, I’m embarrassed as to why I never really entertained that thought before.

Luckily, other historians have already made this connection. In 1987 Albert Boime wrote about how “the brothers stretch out their arms in a salute that has since become associated with tyranny. The “hail Caesar” of antiquity [although at the time of the Horatii a Caesar had yet to be born] was transformed into the “Heil Hitler” of the modern period. The fraternal intimacy brought about by the Horatii’s dedication to absolute principles of victory or death [and the resultant] emphasis on the destruction of all intermediate loyalties between citizen and state, and on the absolute sovereignty of state power, is closely related to the establishment of the fraternal order.”1

Furthermore, in 2009, Martin M. Winkler published a book called The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology (.pdf available online). Winkler finds that David’s painting served as the foundation point for what early 20th-century fascist governments called the “Roman salute” – even though there is no evidence that the Romans actually existed.2 (For more information, see this article on the history of the Nazi salute.)

It’s interesting to me that David’s painting would have these changing political meanings over the centuries, long after David had died. In some ways, this change in political associations is in line with David’s own career: he often would cater to whatever political group or leader was in power. As a result, David was associated with French Revolutionaries (including Robespierre during the Reign of Terror) earlier in his career, and then about a decade later, became the First Painter to Napoleon. In an unexpected way, the fluctuating political associations with the “Oath of the Horatii” gesture, especially in modern times, appropriately parallel the flexible political persona that David crafted for himself during his lifetime.

1 Albert Boime, Art in the Age of Revolution: 1750–1800 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 400-401.

2 Martin M. Winkler, The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 54.

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Bing Crosby’s “Old West” and Countryside Art

I wrote in my previous post about how I was trying to learn more about Bing Crosby’s taste in art. I finally have figured out a few things about Bing and his personal art collection, namely that he liked works of art with Old West scenes and also scenes of the English countryside.

Bing Crosby also liked works of art by Alfred Munnings. A few years after his death in 1977, his wife auctioned off items from the Crosby estate, and even tried to sell the painting “On the Moor” by Munnings. However, the painting was withdrawn from the sale because it didn’t meet the minimum bid. Bing Crosby even showcased one of his paintings by Alfred Munnings in a 1954 interview with Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person. As the interview was about to conclude, Bing interrupts of the interviewer by asking saying that he wants to show something that “is really my pride and joy.” Bing continues:

Everyone has something in their home that they really like to go into rhapsodies about. This is a canvas by Sir Alfred Munnings, who was the head of the British Royal Academy for years. He’s considered the finest painter of the English country life and country scene. It represents the hunting scene and it recalls a very amusing story to me. Barney Dean, the late Barney Dean, the beloved gag writer who worked for us for so many years. We were having a party here. It was getting late-ish, four-ish or so. Just a few stragglers in the hall, two or three people, you know how they like to dawdle at a party, hate to say good night. Well, Barney was looking up at the picture for of ruminatively and I said, ‘Barney, what’s on your mind?’ Barney was from New York, Brooklyn, never left the pavement, never been off the bricks in his life, and he looked at the picture and said, ‘How come we never do this no more?’ (See 15:14-16:03 in clip below)

I can’t determine whether this painting is the “On the Moor” scene that went up for auction in 1982. The composition, however, is unusual for Munnings; he typically depicted his horses in profile view. This “head on” version is only seen in a few other paintings by Munnings, such as A Huntsman and Hounds (1906, shown below). This isn’t a work of art that was owned by Crosby, but the composition is a little similar (although Bing’s painting has more figures and is larger in scale):

Alfred Munnings, "A Huntsman and Hounds," 1906

Alfred Munnings, “A Huntsman and Hounds,” 1906

Bing’s televised interview with Murrow was filmed from Bing Crosby’s home in Holmby Hills (Los Angeles). Although it is hard to see, at 15:16 Bing walks past another painting of a man riding a horse. I think that this might be a painting by Munnings, but it could also be a painting by Charles Russell (especially since library in Bing’s San Fransisco home was decorated with Charles Russell’s art). Either way, the subject matter isn’t surprising, due to Bing’s famous interest in horses and horse races.

In a rather roundabout and ironic way, Bing Crosby and Alfred Munnings are also connected together through another artist: Richard Hamilton! In the mid-twentieth century, Hamilton was expelled from the Royal Academy by Alfred Munnings, who was an anti-modernist. Hamilton went on to become a successful pop artist, and even made a reverse-image screen print of Bing Crosby. The 1967 print capitalizes on Bing’s status as a pop culture icon through its title: I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. It’s ironic that the artist who was expelled by Alfred Munnings ends up creating a modern work of art depicting a pop icon, and this pop icon is one who collects conservative paintings by Alfred Munnings! Whatever modernity Crosby may have represented as a pop culture icon, his personal taste in art appears to be much more traditional and conservative.

Richard Hamilton, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," 1967. Screen print. Tate Museum

Richard Hamilton, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” 1967. Screen print. Tate Museum

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Mr. Rockwell Goes to Hollywood

Norman Rockwell, "Portrait of Bing Crosby," 1966

Norman Rockwell, “Portrait of Bing Crosby,” 1966

I’m starting to wrap up the celebrities project that I’ve been working on for the past year – which means that my posts will likely not revolve around Hollywood quite so much! In trying to learn more about Bing Crosby’s interest in art, I stumbled across a portrait of Bing Crosby by Norman Rockwell. This was made in 1966, when Norman Rockwell painted a series of character portraits for the Twentieth Century Fox production of Stagecoach. The Norman Rockwell Museum explains that Bing Crosby’s character in the film, Doc Boone, is a drunken doctor. When sitting for the portrait, Bing Crosby picked up a bottle and caressed it, which gave Rockwell the “hook” needed to create a convincing sense of the character.

My other favorite portrait from this series is of Ann-Margret as the character “Dallas.” The color combination of the green costume with her red hair is very striking.

Norman Rockwell, "Portrait of Ann-Margaret," 1966

Norman Rockwell, “Portrait of Ann-Margaret,” 1966

The portraits were used for the end credits of the film, as well as on promotional material for the film like posters. Rockwell also painted a large, eight-foot mural of the set, which was used for promotional material as well.

Poster for "Stagecoach," 1966

Poster for “Stagecoach,” 1966

Interestingly, though, Norman Rockwell’s participation with Stagecoach didn’t end there. He also ended up participating on the set of the film too! At seventy-two years old, Rockwell was placed in the role of “Busted Flush” Rockwell. The Norman Rockwell Museum website explains that a Look magazine article discussed Rockwell’s character as “a mangy old gambler in cowboy costume, with a bad-guy black hat and high-heeled boots that hurt his feet.” Norman Rockwell is shown in the opening sequence of the show, seated at the gambling table (see 6:11 of this video of the film).

I like some of the photographs of Rockwell that were taken in his costume, including this one and this one (the expression of the latter image reminds me very much of his similarly-raised eyebrows in Triple Self-Portrait, 1959). Below is another photograph of Rockwell as “Busted Flush”:

Norman Rockwell as "Busted Flush" from Stagecoach (1966)

Norman Rockwell as “Busted Flush” from Stagecoach (1966)

Do you know of any other artists that had a role in both creating promotional material for a Hollywood film and also participating within the film too?

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The Kritios Boy, Perserschutt, and the Early Classical Style

Kritios Boy, c. 480 BCE. Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Kritios Boy, c. 480 BCE. Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Tetrakys

When I saw the Kritios Boy on display in Athens (back in 2003, in the old version of the Acropolis Museum), I was struck by how the statue was smaller than I anticipated. I naturally assumed that the scale of the sculpture was akin to the large size of the reproductions I had seen in my editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. However, this work of art, which had loomed so large in my mind as an undergraduate, is only 3’10” (1.17 m) tall.

In truth, though, the Kritios Boy’s role in art history has been anything but small. This figure dominates many canonical art history books as the forefront example of the Early Classical period (also called the Severe Style). And, in some ways, we know more about the start of the Early Classical period because of the Kritios Boy.

This sculpture is an example of “Perserschutt” (meaning “Persian debris”). This sculpture, along with several others sculptures, form part of the sculptural “debris” that resulted from when the Persians burned and sacked the Athenian acropolis in conjunction with the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.1 Some think that head of the Kritios Boy might have been lopped off during this same time, perhaps as a way for the Persians to symbolically express their anger toward and desired conquest over the Greeks.Another theory is that this head was intentionally decapitated by an Athenian, perhaps for something as elevated as a religious sacrifice, or something as mundane as prepping the sculpture to be packing material for the acropolis.3

Kritios Boy, back of the head, c. 480 BCE

Kritios Boy, back of the head, c. 480 BCE

At some point after the sack of the acropolis, the Greeks took the damaged sculptural rubble, including the Kritios Boy and other sculptures, and buried it in pits underneath surface of the religious complex. The placement of this Perserschutt may have happened as soon as 479 BCE, or it could have taken place incrementally until the rebuilding of the acropolis by Pericles in c. 447-432 BCE. Regardless, the Kritios Boy was hidden from the world for well over two thousand years, and it finally was unearthed long after art history was established as a discipline. The body of the Kritios Boy was discovered in 1865, although its decapitated head was not discovered until 1888.2

The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus, ca. 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Public domain image courtesy http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283139

The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus, ca. 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Public domain image courtesy http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283139

As a result, it would be easy to assume that we pretty specific date for the Kritios Boy: it is possible that this sculpture was made before 480 BCE, which is when the Persians sacked the acropolis. This is based on the assumption that the Perserschutt is a homogeneous deposit of items made on or before 480 BCE. However, not everyone agrees with this date or theory, though. Here are two arguments regarding the dating of the Kritios Boy, and the ramifications of adopting either argument:

1) Argument that the Kritios Boy was made on or before 480 BCE:

One of the assumptions that the Kritios Boy was made before Persian attacks is that the body was found with other works of art in the Archaic style. If this is the case, then the Kritios Boy was a leader in introducing the Classical Style. This can segue into a discussion of pinpointing the beginning of the Early Classical period: before the Kritios Boy was excavated in 1865, the popular starting date for the Early Classical period was 480 BC. Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764) pinpointed the Persian Wars of 480-479 BCE as the starting point for the Early Classical periods, since the victorious Greeks would have felt a sense of self-confidence, capability, and worth.

However, if the Kritios Boy predates 480 BCE and therefore was attacked in the Persian sack of the acropolis, this means that the shift in artistic style took place before the time that Winckelmann pinpointed. Instead, it seems more likely that the Early Classical period should be pinpointed to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, in which the Greeks won a decisive victory over the Persians.

2) Argument that the Kritios Boy was made after 480 BCE:

Hurwit finds that the statue is not in good enough condition to have been made, broken by the Persians, and then buried with the rest of the Perserschutt, all within a matter of years. Moreover, he thinks that this sculpture may have been made, perhaps as a copy, after a bronze sculpture. The smaller scale of the statue (roughly two-thirds or three-fourths life size) is typical for bronze, and the fine attention hair strands and curly wisps on the neck suggest the plastic capabilities of the bronze medium.6 Furthermore, Hurwit points out that the hair ornament, a ring, around the Kritios Boy’s head are uncommon before 480. Furthermore, the looped curls around the hair ring only comes into fashion on and after 480 BCE.7

Hurwit finds stylistic similarities with a head of Harmodios (original Greek versions of 477-476 BCE) and suggests that the Kritios Boy may not only post-date 479 BCE, but perhaps specifically post-date this sculpture between 475-470.8

There are other nuances to this argument as well, which are discussed by Hurwit and Stewart. However, overall one can say that this post-Persian argument places the Kritios Boy not as an instigator of the Early Classical style, but within a greater continuum of (and likely as a response to) vanguard stylistic elements that appeared in other works of art. If this is the case, I wonder if textbooks should rethink the way that the Kritios Boy is introduced to art history students? One has to be careful to make stress that the Kritios Boy is indicative of these changes in style, but our loss of extant examples and a truly clear understanding of Perserschutt chronology prevent us from knowing whether the Kritios boy was an instigator or follower of the nascent Severe Style.

1 “The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus,” accessed 14 November 2016, available online at: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283139

2 Rachel Kousser, “Who Killed the Kritios Boy,” CHS Research Bulletin, 13 December 2010. Accessed 14 November 2016, available online at: http://www.chs-fellows.org/2010/12/13/who-killed-the-kritios-boy/

3 Jeffrey M. Hurwit, “Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989): 61-62.

4 From 1865-1888, the Kritios Boy’s body was attached to the head of a youth, known as Acropolis 699. To see an image of this inaccurate reconstruction,  see Jeffrey M. Hurwit, “Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989): 51. It could be that the head conjoined with the Kritios Boy today is not the original head, but a head that served as an ancient repair for the original head; such a theory supports why both the body and head both are chiseled away, to allow for as neat of a fit as possible. Hurwit argues that the head is original and always was meant to be with the body, since there is not evidence of tool marks or recutting on the broken sides of the head and body. See Hurwit, p. 56-59.

5 Ibid., p. 56.

6 Ibid., p. 67.

7 Ibid., p. 74.

8 Hurwit, p. 68. See also Andrew Stewart, “The Persian and Carthaginian Invasions of 480 B.C.E. and the Beginning of the Classical Style,” American Journal of Archaeology 112 (2008): 391-392. Available online here: http://arthistory.wisc.edu/ah302/articles/Stewart,_Beginning_of_the_Classical_Style_1.pdf

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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.