Giuliano de’ Medici

This bust is displayed at the National Gallery as a companion to the bust of Giuliano’s older brother, Lorenzo, described in an earlier post on this blog. Giuliano de’ Medici was killed at High Mass in Florence’s cathedral on April 26, 1478, when the rival Pazzi family’s assassins staged a surprise attack. The Medici family had been the de facto rulers of Florence for much of the fifteenth century. The Pazzis challenged their dominance. Lorenzo survived the assassination attempt, but his younger brother did not. Giuliano was twenty-five when he died.

The two portrait busts were executed at different times for different purposes, but they depict the brothers’ different characters very well.  Andrea del Verrocchio, a well-respected Florentine sculptor, was chosen to convey the charm of the younger brother. Giuliano’s chin is tilted upward, displaying his confidence; his hair is carefully coiffed, as befits a young merchant prince. Giuliano wears a richly ornamented breastplate that portrays an angry winged head – perhaps a mythological figure. In a sense this bust is a portrait of two figures, not one. The head on the breastplate is the second portrait, and it creates a warlike tone that differs from that of the proud, pampered man who wears it.

The bust is terra cotta (Italian for “baked earth”- meaning clay). Marble and terra cotta were two principal materials used by Renaissance sculptors. Unlike carved marble, terra cotta figures were built up by adding material to a primary shape; marble sculpture is created by taking away material instead.

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Antonio Canova was the most famous sculptor in Europe when he created this  work towards the end of his life in 1820-1823.  Canova was a favorite of Napoleon, the emperor of France. He won commissions from aristocratic patrons in Italy and in England.

Canova’s work embodied the ideals of  neoclassical thinkers and artists. They looked back to the sculpture of Greece and Rome, much of which had recently been discovered in the eighteenth-century excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The idealized woman in this statue is a fresh water nymph – a “naiad” in Greek mythology – and she is intended to evoke comparisons with antique sculpture. Marble was the medium that Greek and Roman sculptors favored; thus marble was the medium used by eighteenth and nineteenth century neoclassical sculptors.

Neoclassical art, which became the predominant style in the mid-eighteenth century, was a reaction to the previous century’s baroque art, which had been dramatic, complex and opulent. Neoclassical art was simple, graceful and relatively plain. And the nude, which had been banished from Western art in the middle ages, had actually made a return in the fifteenth century, when artists first began to learn about Greek and Roman art. That classical art had essentially been lost for hundreds of years.

As the famous twentieth-century art critic Bernard Berenson said, “The nude is the most absorbing problem of classic art at all times. Not only is it the best vehicle for all that in art is directly life-confirming and life-enhancing, but it is itself the most significant object in the human world.”

This serene figure might be contrasted with the heroic statues of Baroque art, such as St. John of the Cross, the Spanish statue that is the previous entry on this blog.

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St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz)

This life sized sculpture by Sevillian artist Franciso Antonio Gijón depicts one of the great Spanish mystics of the 16th century. St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite monk whose writings are part of the canon of great Spanish literature. “The Dark Night of the Soul” is perhaps the best known of his works. He died in 1591 and was canonized in 1726. This statue was created in 1675.

Saint John of the Cross was known for his austerity. He probably never wore a brocaded gown like this. Rather, he would have worn a plain Carmelite habit. But the artist who designed the sculpture may have intended us to see this as a heavenly habit or some kind of spiritually symbolic clothing. Gijon worked at a time when the baroque style – with its grandeur and exuberance – was sweeping Europe.

Baroque art is characterized, above all, by drama. This figure looks up to heaven – his soul is absorbed by a visionary experience of divine love and inspiration. St. John’s brow is furrowed –  an artery is pulsing on his neck and his mouth is open. His right hand, which once held a quill pen, is suspended in space to capture something of his powerful mystical experience. His clothing seems to move in response to his body’s gentle sway and his uplifted arms. The book he holds in his left hand refers to his commentary “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”.  The image may not make it clear – there’s a little mountain on top of the book. The Carmelite order was named for Mount Carmel, in what would then have been Palestine.

The paint and gilding on the statue make it more lifelike. The complicated brocade pattern of John’s tunic was made by scratching through paint to reveal the gilded surface below it.  This technique was common in baroque Spanish sculpture.

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Alexandre Brongniart

Alexandre Brongniart

Houdon was the greatest French portrait sculptor of the eighteenth century. This neoclassical sculpture of a little boy, Alexandre Brongniart, demonstrates his skill – Houdon could capture not only the physical appearance but also the psychological nature of his subjects. The bust of the boy is almost life-sized – he seems natural because his clothing is slightly rumpled and his hair is mussed. He seems alert, looking at something far away. It’s hard to believe Houdon captured the child’s human essence in cold white marble.
Although he worked for the French court before the Revolution, Houdon became a friend of such anti-monarchial figures as Denis Diderot, author of the Encyclopédie – the 18th century French encyclopeia that represented the rational and scientific thought of the Enlightenment.
Houdon was world-famous. He won commissions far outside France. He worked for Catherine the Great of Russia – and for a succession of American statesmen. His standing sculpture of George Washington is on view at the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia. And his portrait bust of Washington is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
The little boy whose portrait this is grew up to be a famous man. He was a chemist, mineralogist, and chemist. He studied the geology of the French landscape around Paris. And he was the director of the prestigious Sevres porcelain factory for almost fifty years.
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Saint Burchard of Wurzburg

This wood sculpture has survived since the early sixteenth century – it’s dated sometime between 1510/1523. It is the work of German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider.  The saint who is depicted died in 754; the artist created an imaginary portrait several centuries later. But the artistry still speaks to us today because it is a psychological study of a sensitive human face. Who was this man? The bishop, who was born in England, became the first bishop of Wurzburg, Germany. His face is strong but somber, with sunken cheeks and downturned mouth and eyes. He raises his right hand in blessing. Although this bust still bears traces of the paint that enlivened it when it was first created, it appears almost unpainted now. According to art historians, Riemenschneider was a pioneer in the use of bare, unpainted wood for the sculpture on his major altarpieces, at a time when the fashion was to paint them to appear more lifelike. It is thought that this piece was carried in religious processions.

Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art 

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The Reading Girl

Although it may be hard for us to see the subtle political message in this sculpture of a young girl, Pietro Magni’s The Reading Girl,  first exhibited in Milan in 1856,  was linked to the growing  vision of a united Italy. The young girl wears a medallion of Garibaldi, the great Italian patriot, around her neck. But although she is carved in the costly medium of marble, if we look carefully we see that she is not a goddess or a wealthy patron, but a poor young woman. The medallion is suspended from a leather thong, not a chain. She is seated on an ordinary rush chair placed on a rough tile floor. What is she reading – and why is she crying? If we look carefully when we visit this sculpture at the National Gallery, we will see a tear on her cheek.

The first exhibited version of this sculpture showed a fragment of work by the Italian poet and playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini, who called for freedom from Austrian oppression during the uprisings of 1848.  Some critics believe The Reading Girl may very well represent Italy itself, which in 1870 would become a united nation, created from several previously sovereign states.

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A Burgher of Calais

This is a small version of the statue that French sculptor Auguste Rodin created as part of a monumental group. This single figure is at the National Gallery, but one of the original casts of the entire monumental group of six is just across the Mall and a couple of blocks away from the National Gallery, at the Hirshhorn Museum.

This figure represents Jean d’Aire, one of six citizens – burghers – of the French town of Calais – a town just across the Channel from England. In 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War, these six men offered themselves as hostages to English invaders who had besieged the city. The citizens of Calais were being starved to death by the siege. These men expected to sacrifice themselves to save the townspeople.

Rodin’s men are all wearing rope halters around their necks as a sign of submission to the English soldiers. They carry the keys to the city in their hands in order to surrender them. Each man shows signs of the price they have paid because of the siege and captivity – here, Jean d’Aire’s face is bony and he looks emaciated. He is stripped down to a simple long shirt, like a nightshirt or an undergarment, as the other men are. Seen as a group, the men seem to be exhausted – although Jean d’Aire stands facing forward with squared shoulders and a face strongly set.

Rodin conceived of the men as ordinary human beings – the group sculpture is noteworthy for its era (1889) because the men are not high on a pedestal, but stand on the same ground as the viewers. Rodin also cast them a little larger than life – a significant choice. The men were heroes – although they were apparently defeated.

Rodin meant to demonstrate that although they were heroic – they were also men like us who had met and personally conquered one of the most harsh challenges that life could offer. The burghers were prepared to die. In the end, however, their lives were spared by the intervention of the English queen, who convinced her husband to grant them mercy.

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