“Il Guercino” Essay, Research Paper
Most museum-goers would say that the artwork they are looking at is “impressive” or “interesting”, but they would not usually be able to tell you why they think so. This is because, even though they hold that different pieces of work are equally beautiful, it is not often that the inexperienced eye would truly realize exactly what makes each work unique. Some of these factors include the period in which the work was done, the techniques used, and the overall emotion that the work displays. Even though these are not usually the first things that the average museum-goer thinks of, they are surely some of the most significant reasons for why art attracts so many different people with a variety of tastes and interests.
Two excellent examples of how these aspects add to the magnificence of a painting while still retaining each work’s uniqueness can be seen in comparing Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger, and Sampson Captured by the Philistines, by Guercino. These two paintings are both masterpieces in their own respects, displaying the exceptional talents of the artists and encompassing the nature of paintings during their time.
Sir Thomas More, painted in 1527, is a portrait done by Hans Holbein the Younger. The portrait shows Sir More posing still, from the waist up, seated in front of green drapery, with one arm lightly resting on a type of wooden panel. This painting accurately encompasses the civil situation and spirit of the Renaissance in the North. Since religious art was traveling in a downward spiral due to the Protestant Reformation, artists were forced to look for other types of commissions. Because of the improving economy, middle-class citizens started making more money and began to commission portraits of themselves. Holbein was forced to leave his home to find work in England, where he first met Sir Thomas More and portrayed several other great humanists of the time.
Holbein’s painting of Sir More displays the intricate details, definite lines, rich colors, and illusionism that are associated with the Northern Renaissance. The details in this painting are countless. The individual strands of hair at Sir More’s hairline, the wrinkles on his knuckles, the easily observable difference between the color of his irises and his pupils, and the “SS” chain around his neck are all details that may be easily overlooked if one was not thinking about it. The “SS” chain signifies service to King Henry VIII, whom he served as Privy Councilor and Lord Chancellor for over a decade . This chain is also a great example of the crisp, clear lines that Holbein employs to give the portrait even more precision than a photo. The powerful green and red, bold and deep instead of pastel, give the portrait a more realistic and three-dimensional look. However, the most impressive aspect of this portrait is probably the impeccable illusionism that Holbein is capable of. The slight stubble creating a shadow on More’s face, the plush fur spreading out at folds on his coat, and the soft velvet sleeves all seem so real that it is difficult to believe they are merely paint on a flat surface. Even the dark circles and wrinkles around his eyes are infallible. These aspects of the painting reflect the nature of art of the Northern Renaissance.
There are also some elements of the work, however, that reflect Holbein as an individual who stands out from other artists of his time. For example, some of Holbein’s portraiture displayed the subject surrounded by items with which the subject spent his life, included to better portray his occupation and way of living. This can be seen in works such as Ambassadors (1533) and Georg Gisze (1532). As Holbein matured, so did his artwork and genius. Holbein began painting his subjects with less and less objects surrounding them to cause any distraction. Yet, Holbein was still able to display the character and personality of his subject to an amazing degree . He also began to make his subjects fill most of the painting, instead of putting a background. In Sir Thomas More, the subject’s figure dominates the portrait. There is nothing in the background except a green drapery and a rope. No objects are displayed besides the chain and a piece of paper, these only adding to the character instead of distracting from it. Even with only Sir More and his few accessories, Holbein was still able to give the impression of More’s real life. His gaze is neither intense nor dazed, but more indifferent. Still, we can see that this man was important, dignified, and scholarly. In actuality, Sir More was a humanist scholar, author, and statesman . This is easily understandable considering the thoughtful and slightly weary look on his face, his fine dress, and the chain as evidence. Partly because of Holbein’s ability to portray his subject’s character without using objects to tell the story, Holbein’s reputation proclaimed him to be a master of portrait painting. This is also based on his success in realistically portraying individuals. Holbein was not particularly interested in idealizing the subject, indifferent to ideas of conventional beauty. He did not put Sir More in an unrealistic pose or try to give him a more elegant look. He simply painted exactly what he saw, leaving the world with an amazing piece of artwork and an incredible standard of skill to compete with.
As magnificent as Holbein’s Sir Thomas More is, it is not the only exceptional piece of artwork to impress viewers all over the world. Guercino’s Sampson Captured by the Philistines, painted in 1619, is also a splendid work in its own ways. Just as Holbein’s work, it represents the situation of Europe at the time and accurately exemplifies the nature of art during its period, the Baroque. The Baroque period was full of artwork aimed “to engage the viewer both physically and emotionally. ” It arose from the Catholic Counter Reformation, in which the church attempted to bring back followers lost during the Protestant Reformation. By the time Guercino did this work, the Catholic Church was stable again. This strong sense of power can be seen clearly in Sampson Captured by the Philistines.
Guercino, whose real name was Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, successfully encompassed the spirit of Baroque art in his rendition of this story from the Bible. The painting, which is of enormous size, depicts the moment when Sampson has been tricked by Delilah and is being overtaken by Philistines. Several aspects of art typically associated with the Baroque can be seen in this single painting. For instance, unlike Holbein’s portrait, chiaroscuro is employed to make the scene more dramatic and tense. The light is coming from the left side of the painting, in the space from which the viewer is looking, and focuses the viewer’s attention on Sampson’s back. This creates a more three-dimensional effect, which is accented even more by foreshortening of figures and especially of Sampson’s foot. The lines of the painting are not crisp and clear, as Holbein’s were, but more painterly, with the paint seemingly applied thickly and with speed instead of preciseness and accuracy.
A good point of comparison between this painting and Holbein’s is the rope that one of the Philistines is holding. While Holbein’s rope in the background was painted with precise lines and definition between each thread, Guercino’s rope is quite unfocused. Although, close up, it is void of detail, from a distance the viewer can plainly see that it is a rope. These painterly lines are seen through the entire piece with the exception of the armor that one Philistine is wearing. This suit of armor is drawn with much accuracy and illusionism. Each of the bands and bolts holding the armor together is drawn with exactness. The way the light reflects off of the armor gives it a metallic shine, making it look real enough to touch. Instead of portraying anyone as ideal, the painting shows its figures in a very naturalistic way. Sampson, although his back is very muscular, is not as toned or powerful as an ideal god-like figure would be. One can see that he is covered in dirt, either from everyday working or from this particular struggle. The men attacking him are not ideal either. They represent a new interest in the common man. Instead of being depicted as young and vigorous men, they are actually older, with gray seeping through their full beards and wrinkles spreading over their hands and necks. Their clothes, in dark shades of brown and blue, are worn and tattered. This illusionism, making the scene seem so real, is another reason for its great beauty.
However, the most prominent differences between Baroque art and that of the Renaissance are the high drama, the exaggerated human expressions, and the vigorous energy displayed by diagonal lines that can be seen in Baroque art. The struggle takes up almost the entire painting, truly calling all attention to it. There is no architecture or landscape in the background. Only dark blue sky can be seen. The entire scene in itself is chaotic and full of movement. Sampson’s own body, the focus of the painting, makes the boldest diagonal line. His entire form is stretched out, trying to escape from his attackers and gain his ground at the same time. His extended arm grabs a Philistine’s face and flows into other diagonal lines made by the Philistines’ bodies. All of these lines create a sense of fast and frantic movement instead of still posing. It is as if the viewer has captured one glimpse of this horrible attack; a glimpse that would have been missed with the blink of an eye. Adding to the drama and tension of this scene are the expressions on the attacker’s faces. They are grimaced in effort and show a hint of fear, with brows wrinkled, mouths snarled, and eyes wide open. The viewer can feel the emotions running through the painting, which feeds into the drama of the battle. Sampson’s panic and the determination of the Philistines are made obvious by Guercino’s immense talents. His efforts truly brought to life a single moment in a Bible story and made it possible for all to experience its excitement, pain, and despair. His ability to allow even the illiterate to feel the exhilaration and thrill of this tale truly prove that he was a master of his time.
The world of art is a vast and constantly changing phenomenon, giving it such a diversified history that it could never be completely untangled and analyzed. The technicalities are necessary for us to compare one great work to another while understanding that they are of equal greatness for different reasons. Even though things such as the period and techniques of the artist may be seemingly simple traits, they become much more complicated in their infinite mixes and variations. As one can see when comparing Sir Thomas More and Sampson Captured by the Philistines, each individual artist can be a master in his own way. Even though artists like Hans Holbein the Younger and Guercino are influenced by the world around them, their inner talents are what truly make it possible to turn inanimate substances into masterpieces of emotion and wonder, all with the stroke of a brush.
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