Bernini’s Passionate Affair

Regular visitors to Florence’s Bargello, home to its great sculpture collection, know well the frustration of finding rooms, sometimes the whole second floor, closed. Imagine my shock in June to discover that not only was the second floor open but galleries I had never seen before. In one, amidst display cases with coins, was a treasure I didn’t know existed, but learned later was quite famous and considered perhaps Gianlorenzo Bernini’s finest portrait sculpture – his bust of Costanza Bonarelli. According to the label,

This celebrated bust is the most famous of Bernini’s portraits. It is a very ‘private’ image that he perhaps made for himself and kept in his home for a long time…

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Portrait of Costanza Bonarelli, marble, 1637-1638. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

Costanza was the wife of one of Bernini’s assistants, when the artist was in his late thirties and working in Rome. He fell passionately in love with her and carried on an illicit affair.

Sensuality is a hallmark of Bernini’s work. The passion in his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is well-known to every art history student. Gazing at his much more direct portrait of Costanza, it is not hard to share the feelings of the sculptor for this young woman. She seems to be portrayed just after a liaison. Her hair is disheveled, her dressing gown is wrinkled, unbuttoned, and hangs loosely across her breasts. One can easily imagine that her make-up is long gone. Costanza looks out with parted, sensual lips and seems a bit dazed.

Bonarelli was no servant girl, but a member of the noble Piccolomini family of Siena, whose members included two popes, the dukes of Amalfi, and the patron of Galileo. However, by the 1600s the fortunes of her family line had tumbled and, before she married, the young Costanza had received money from to religious fraternities to keep her from a life on the streets. Her husband, Matteo, began working for Bernini about two years before this sculpture was made in 1637 or 1638. At the time, Costanza was about 24 years old and had been married for five years.

The affair ended in violence, but not between Bernini and Matteo (who continued to work for the sculptor for the rest of his life). Not long after the sculpture was completed, Bernini heard rumors that Costanza had begun another affair. He hid outside her house one evening and was shocked to see his brother and most valuable assistant, Luigi Bernini, sneaking out, his clothes disheveled.

Enraged, Gianlorenzo ran after and attacked his brother with a metal crowbar, breaking two of his ribs. Then he chased him back to the family home with a sword. Luigi made it inside first and their mother bolted the door. Overcome by rage, Bernini broke the door down and chased his brother out into the streets. Luigi made it into the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore before his brother. Those doors proved too strong for Bernini.

To make matters worse, the greatest sculptor of the Baroque period then sent one of his servants to Costanza to take revenge. Under orders by Bernini, he slashed her cheek with a razor. As a final act, Bernini, who had painted a picture of himself and his mistress, went home and cut her face out of the painting.

Word of this scandalous affair did not take long to reach Bernini’s patron, Pope Urban VIII. By this time, the wounded Luigi had already fled Rome. Unwilling to lose the services of so talented an artist, the pope delivered an ultimatum to Gianlorenzo Bernini — marry or else!  Which he did, in what turned out to be a happy marriage to Caterina Tezio that lasted 34 years with 11 children. [There was apparently a mutual understanding. Bernini agreed to treat his wife ‘exquisitely if she will prove capable of tolerating his nature, which is neither easy nor ordinary.’] A fine was imposed – ironically the amount was approximately the value of a portrait bust – but later waived by the Pope. The servant who disfigured Costanza was sent to prison.

Costanza remained married to Matteo until his death in 1654. They became sufficiently well off to provide a handsome dowry for their daughter and even own an art collection. After she was widowed, she donated a painting by Poussin to the Louvre. She died in 1662.

Luigi would later return to the family business and work on important commissions with his brother. He did not stay out of trouble, however. He was jailed for brutally raping a young boy and breaking several of his bones. Bernini paid off fines to the boy’s family and the Church and even got the Queen of Sweden to testify in his brother’s defense (claiming that sodomy was common in Rome and among Florentines like Bernini’s family).

Gianlorenzo Bernini, who died in 1680, is buried along with his large family inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his brother Luigi finally escaped him. Over the years, the passionate young man became more and more religious. The sculptor who created the flamboyant tomb of his patron Pope Urban VIII in Saint Peter’s, asked for only a modest marker that most people never notice — a step on the way to the main altar.

The Journey of Mario’s Legendary Father

Ancient burial caves of the Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima, JapanAround 1960, a small boy who liked to explore nature without a map was wandering in the forest near his village. He was frightened when he accidentally discovered the entrance to a cave in the woods. Later, he got up the courage to return alone from his house with a lantern. His decision to explore the cave’s passageways would take on greater meaning in the years to come.

The boy was Shigeru Miyamoto and he grew up to be one of the founding fathers of electronic game design. As a young man, he wanted to be a manga artist and went to college for art and design. After graduation, his father got him an interview at an old Japanese company that specialized in playing cards, but had begun to expand its offerings into electronic toys – Nintendo. Miyamoto brought children’s clothes hangers in the shape of animals that he had designed and convinced the company to hire its first artist.

A couple of years later, motivated by the huge success of video arcades, Nintendo built their own version of Space Invaders that failed dismally. Stuck with two thousand unsold arcade units, they turned to their artist and asked if he could come up with a better game. At this time, video arcades games, while popular, were little more than shapes shooting and attacking other shapes. But in 1982 that all changed when Nintendo released Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong was the first arcade game with a story and characters – a gorilla, the girl he kidnapped but loved, and a hero – a carpenter known in this game as “Mr. Video,” later “Jumpman,” and finally, “Mario” (named for the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse in Seattle, Washington). Continue reading

Diary of an Affair: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse

As the sun set in Paris, on January 8, 1927, Pablo Picasso was walking past a fashionable department store when his eyes fell upon a young shopper. Immediately infatuated, the artist (then unhappily married and in his mid-forties) took Marie-Thérèse Walter by the arm and said, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together!” She was confused by the man and unaware of who he might be. Picasso introduced himself by dragging her into a bookshop and showing her a book filled with reproductions of his paintings. Thus began a passionate affair and an enormously productive period for Picasso. Continue reading

Update on the Missing Botticelli

Botticelli St Augustine restored bannerIt was a stormy afternoon (not night), when I nervously entered Florence’s Ognissanti Church to check if Botticelli’s St. Augustine had finally returned. My last meeting had run late and I was out of breath. Tomorrow my flight was leaving at sunrise, so this would be my last chance. I walked at top speed nearly the whole way, because it was close to closing time. There was no time to take more than a few irresistible last looks at the city (Santa Maria Novella, the Arno).  Luckily, a thunderstorm had just ended, thinning the crowds of tourists, but the stone pavement was slippery in spots along the way.

For the past three years, I had made this pilgrimage, only to experience disappointment. Ognissanti, one of the important neighborhood parish churches of Florence, has quite a few treasures, like its beautifully restored, spectacular 15 foot tall crucifix by Giotto. It is also the final resting place of Sandro Botticelli, his tomb near the feet of his unrequited love, Simonetta Vespucci, the model for The Birth of Venus and other masterpieces. Visitors from around the world leave love notes addressed to the artist there.

But one of my favorite Botticelli frescoes, St. Augustine in his Study (1480), has been missing for years, its place taken by a mounted, fading color photocopy. Just across the aisle hangs a fresco designed to be the other half of a pair — Domenico Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome in his Study (1480).  St. Jerome appears to be looking across at St. Augustine. Leaning his head in his hand, he seemed to, while trying to be philosophical, share my frustration looking across at the poor copy.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study (1480)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study,  1480

Continue reading

Vigée Le Brun’s unfortunate marriage

Lebrun,_Self-portraitThe odds were stacked against Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, yet she became one of the most successful court portrait painters in France during the reign of Louis XVI. Many troubles would come her way during her life. But the worst may not have been the French Revolution, it may have been her husband.

Born in Paris in 1755, Élisabeth Vigée demonstrated great artistic promise as as a young girl. Her father, a pastel artist himself, told her, “You will be a painter, my child, if ever there was one.” Still, her application to train at the painter’s guild was denied because she was a female (even though her father was a member). Forced to learn at home, she set herself on a course that mirrored academic training by copying plaster casts and engravings. While her father helped with lessons, her mother took her to exhibitions and acted as her chaperon when the young Élisabeth visited homes to work on portraits.

By the age of 19, she already had a successful career. Too successful — she attracted the attention of the local authorities, who closed her studio down because she was not a member of the artist’s guild. To make matters worse, after her father’s untimely death when she was 12, her mother had married a wealthy jeweler who collected the young artist’s fees and was not eager to share them with her.

Young Self-Portrait

Young Self-Portrait, c. 1782?

Vigée managed to gain admission to the painter’s guild after they unsuspectingly exhibited her paintings at their annual exhibition in 1774. By then, the daughter (whom her mother once thought homely) had become a beautiful young woman who attracted not only commissions but the attentions of many important people, including Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, the most successful art dealer in Paris. Le Brun was one of the first dealers to sell artworks as investments and was an innovator in making art a much more international trade.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), Self-Portrait, Salon of 1795

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), Self-Portrait, Salon of 1795

According to Vigée, Le Brun invited her often to his mansion, which was filled with art. “I was enchanted at an opportunity of first hand acquaintance with…works of the great masters. M. Lebrun was so obliging as to lend me, for the purposes of copying some of his handsomest and most valuable paintings.”

To her surprise, in 1776, Le Brun asked her to marry him. Already a favorite portrait artist of Paris’s aristocratic women, she wondered if it was wise to give up the name by which she had become well known. But her home-life was becoming miserable. Her stepfather had retired, was becoming increasingly ill-tempered, and was hoarding her earnings.

Continue reading

The truly Old Masters, Modern edition

matisse at workVolume 2 of our series “Truly Old Masters” focuses on Modern and Contemporary artists who lived long and fruitful lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (except Americans, who will be the subject of Volume 3). Since medical care improved considerably after 1900, it has become more and more common for artists to live to a ripe old age. That’s why for this volume we’ve raised the bar from 75 to 80 years old. Still, the list is long, even though it covers not much more than a century.

While there are plenty of artists who worry about aging, many celebrate it as an opportunity to do more and better work. To congratulate the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman on reaching his 70th birthday, the 77 year old film-maker Akira Kurosawa wrote to him about an artist who “bloomed when he reached eighty.” Kurosawa, who lived to 88 and continued to write films almost to the end, told Bergman that he realized his own work “was only beginning” and that artists are “not really capable of creating really good works until [they] reach the age of 80.”

2009-louise-bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois in 2009

Recent studies are debunking the old theories that great artists (and scientists, for that matter) do their best work by the time they are thirty. The sculptor Louise Bourgeois who lived nearly to 100, described herself as a ‘long distance runner.’ When she was 84, she was asked whether she could have made a recent work when she was younger. She replied, “Absolutely not.” When asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Old age is not without its hazards, but even they can be inspiring. Henri Matisse suffered from a near fatal illness in his seventies.  After he survived a dangerous surgery, he said,

“My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me. I had so completely prepared for my exit from life that it seems to me that I am in a second life.”

Despite being mostly bedridden, his ‘second life’ led to the exuberant, colorful paper cut-outs that occupied him for the rest of his life.

Below is a gallery of portraits and works by twentieth century artists who did not die young but lived long enough to truly become old masters. [Click on an image to begin slide show.] Continue reading

The truly Old Masters, Volume 1

van-gogh-picassoThe story of a great artist whose life is tragically cut short, like Raphael, Van Gogh, or Caravaggio, is one of the most popular themes in art history. But what about the artist who lived a rich, full life? There are far more great artists who lived to be 75 or older than those who never reached 40. In fact, there are so many that we will need more than one installment to highlight them all. ‘Volume 1’ of The truly Old Masters features artists who lived all or most of their lives before the twentieth century and were not Americans.

The popular idea that the greatest work of any artist is already done by the age of thirty, flies in the face of countless examples of mature works of genius. Why should anyone be surprised that a talented artist will benefit from longer study of any art form? The colorful paper cut-outs in Matisse’s Jazz and Michelangelo’s Dome of St. Peters are just two examples of a tour-de-force by truly old masters.

Hokusai (1760-1849) [89], Self-portrait at the age of 80

Hokusai (1760-1849) [89], Self-portrait at the age of 80

The maxim of Hippocrates, Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long, life is short), is both a blessing and a curse for artists. That’s because so many, like the great Edo era artist Hokusai, are never satisfied with their past works and count on reaching a ripe old age to finally become successful. He explained,

“From the age of 6, I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50, I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

While Hokusai only lived to be 89, he somehow managed to create over 30,000 works before his death. Among them are some of the most famous Japanese woodcuts, like the iconic “The Great Wave.” He also invented a revolutionary genre of sketchbooks called manga, whose influence continues to today.

But still Hokusai wished to live longer to make even better works. He would have understood completely what Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have said as he lay dying in the arms of the King of France at the age of 67 — “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”

Below is a gallery with later work by artists who may have thought life is too short but lived long enough to truly become old masters. [Click on an image to begin slide show.] Continue reading

The Horse from the Battle of Little Big Horn

D17 Horse Effigy

Joseph No Two Horns, He Nupa Wanica (Hunkpapa Lakota), Horse Effigy, c. 1880. Wood (possibly cottonwood), pigment, commercial and native-tanned leather, rawhide, horsehair, brass, iron, bird quill. Length: 38 1/2 in. South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre.

Joseph No Two Horns‘s Horse Effigy is not only a powerful sculpture, but a portrait of a beloved horse ridden to victory in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In a recent exhibition of Plains Indian art with hundreds of objects at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it regularly drew the biggest crowds. His horse’s death in that battle haunted the artist for the rest of his life.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939.  Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939. Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

In 1876, No Two Horns or He Nupa Wanica, was a 24 year old Hunkpapa Lakota warrior following his chief and cousin, Sitting Bull, when he fought in the most famous battle of the Great Sioux War. Popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, it is called The Battle of Greasy Grass by the Lakota. On June 25th, General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were scouring the Montana territory looking for about 800 “hostiles” as reported by his scouts. Custer expected to easily drive them back into their reservations. Instead, when the Seventh Cavalry attacked what they thought was a small village, Custer and his men found themselves facing the combined forces of thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.

Drawing by Joseph No Two Horns. c. 1876.

Joseph No Two Horns, Death of Blue Roan Horse. c. 1876. Drawing on paper, 8 x 10 “. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In the battle, No Two Horns’s blue roan suffered seven bullet wounds before collapsing, but not before carrying No Two Horns to victory over the army of General George Custer.  For the rest of his life, until his death in 1942, he portrayed this event in colorful drawings and paintings, as well as sculptures.

horse close-upThis wooden sculpture from 1880 shows his galloping horse is in the midst of battle. It stretches and strains, fighting to keep moving as death nears. His eyes are brass tacks, his leather ears are pulled back. Bullet wounds across his body run red. His mouth is covered in blood and red dyed horse hair dangles to represent blood running from his mouth.  Like a skilled animator, No Two Horns pulls the horse’s torso into the long line of its motion path.

The love of horses is an important part of Plains culture and one of the many atrocities of General Custer’s Seventh Army was their systematic slaughter of Plains Indian ponies. The Lakotas were a warrior society and these effigies or Dance Sticks were used in ceremonies and dances to prepare for battle or celebrate victories. This is, however, the only existing Dance Stick that shows the entire body of a horse.

hs_logoNo Two Horns remains one of the most famous artists of the Plains Indians and his effigies the model for many other Plains artists. Today, his Horse Effigy is not only the most prized object in the collection of the South Dakota State Historical Society but their symbol.

While a veteran of more than forty battles, Joseph No Two Horns did not brag about his exploits. In 1926, No Two Horns participated in the ceremonies honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  He said he danced for the ‘soldiers who were so brave and foolish.’

[Thanks to Danyelle Means for corrections to this story.]

 

Guess What? How the teacup got its fur

Méret_Oppenheim_Object

Méret Oppenheim, Object (Luncheon in Fur), 1936. Fur covered cup, saucer, and spoon

The concept for Méret Oppenheim‘s most famous sculpture, Object (Luncheon in Fur), was born in a conversation with Pablo Picasso at a Paris café.

As Rebecca Mead tells it in the March 23rd issue of The New Yorker:

In 1936, Meret Oppenheim, the Swiss Surrealist artist, had tea with Pablo Picasso at the Café de Flore, in Paris. Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet, of her own design, that was clad in ocelot fur. Picasso admired it, noting that one could cover anything with fur. Soon afterward, Oppenheim produced her most famous work: a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with the creamy-tan fur of a Chinese gazelle. The piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and is celebrated for its suggestive conjunction of the domestic and the erotic.

After Picasso’s casual observation, Oppenheim, who was just finishing her tea, reportedly joked “even this cup and saucer.” As the idea took hold, she turned and called out, to the amusement of all, “Waiter, a little more fur!”

Object is rich in sexual connotations, its back story in art world connections.  Also seated at the table during the conversation was the photographer, Dora Maar — she and Picasso were then lovers. Maar posed for some of the most intense paintings Picasso ever made. Oppenheim herself had posed for their friend, the photographer Man Ray.

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

The unforgettable sculpture came to life when André Breton, the leader of the French Surrealists, asked Oppenheim to exhibit something in their next exhibition in Paris. Oppenheim went to a local department store to purchase the cup and saucer and the marriage of fur and teacup was consummated. It was Breton who came up with the name “Luncheon in Fur” (Déjeuner en fourrure), as a reference to Édouard Manet’s famously scandalous painting of 1863. The imaginative bracelet that caught Picasso’s eye was later bought from the struggling, young artist for a few Swiss francs by the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Object was later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which purchased it in 1946. Its fame has only grown since then.

If all the talk of the eroticism of Object eludes you, simply imagine drinking hot liquid from the furry cup.

Cold? Rembrandt’s studio was probably colder.

Rembrandt Artist in his studio MFAIn Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, there is a small Rembrandt of an artist at work in his studio that symbolizes the difficulty of making art. The dark, large canvas on the easel seems huge and forbidding.  With thick, spread legs, it dominates the picture and looms over the artist, who appears to have backed away from it, perhaps in fear.

However, this painting has taken on a whole new meaning for me because of this frigid winter in the Northern U.S.  While I never gave it a thought in the past, the artist (who resembles Rembrandt) is clearly unnaturally bundled up in heavy clothing even though he is inside.

Artist in his studio detailWhat is going on? Is the studio cold because the artist lacks the money to heat it? Or is it something else?

Painted around 1628, when Rembrandt was in his early twenties, the studio’s bareness could simply depict a struggling, young artist and the tools of his trade.  We can see his palettes hanging behind him, brushes and a maul stick in his hands.  To the right, is a large grinding stone where he makes his paints. To the left, is a table probably with jugs of oil and solvent.Rembrandthuis: grinding stone and materials

If you visit Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam – Rembrandthuis — you can see many of the same things and even witness a demonstration of how he ground his dry pigments into a paste by mixing them with oil. This stone looks nearly identical to the one there.

iceage_castle

Hendrick Avercamp, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, c. 1608–1609, oil on panel, The National Gallery, London

But his clothing is a clue to something else.  In 1628, Europe was in the midst of what is known as “the Little Ice Age.”  By the time of the painting, global cooling had been underway for more than a century.  In winter, the canals of Holland would freeze over and not thaw again until late in the spring. Growing glaciers had crushed small villages in Switzerland. The importance of the North American trade in beaver pelts was a direct result of climate change. Rembrandt’s artist is probably wearing a felt hat quite popular in this era and made from those pelts. [The phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the dangerous effects of the chemicals used to treat beaver fur.]

At the time of this painting, Amsterdam was rapidly growing and had become the most important port and economic center of Europe.  Homes were heated by burning peat harvested from bogs. Because of the rapid growth of Holland’s population, however, the peat bogs had nearly been exhausted and peat’s cost skyrocketed.

The combination of expensive fuel and the peaking of The Little Ice Age made for a poor time for a young artist to start his career. No wonder he is bundled up and fearful. It was really a cold world out there. I hope he sold the painting.