Vitality is the first principle of the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, so it seems natural that if he were in a teasing mood he would go after the pallid “Sacred Grove” (1884), an ideal landscape by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the noted symbolist. (If a landscape can be considered ideal with so many majorly underdressed women, and no male over the age of ten—but perhaps I digress).T-L’s device is to introduce a column of real-life Parisians into Puvis’ bucolic idyll. Interesting how he does it: Puvis’s original is pale but has those dark trees and light water and figures for an overall contrast. T-L simplifies and flattens P’s tonal range, and then gives his Parisians (including himself, the short guy) all the serious darks. Well, that seemed like fun, and if Henri could do it, so could I. The piece that incited me was “Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism” (1620) by Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens knocked off many preposterous paintings, but this one, surely, stands by itself. It’s not just the typically Rubensian propensity for nymphs and satyrs bounding around, but the oddly passive and inexpressive pose of the improbably meaty Pythagoras. It’s as if the model complained that he was too tired to tackle another standing pose that afternoon, and Rubens said Hey, never mind.
In any case, it seemed like a Sacred Grove opportunity to modify Peter Paul’s vision.
So far as I know, Rubens and I are the only two artists ever to tackle this theme.
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth her that gives and her that takes . . . ” *
Or not, as the case may be.
Reader Paul Hoffman points out that Hazel Bryan, the white girl, sought out Elizabeth Eckford to apologize:
*Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1. Gender modification with apologies to the Bard.
Giovanni Battista di Jacopo (1494 –1540— known as Rosso Fiorentino–the “red Florentine”) painted this Deposition in 1521, when he was twenty-seven. Goodness! We should all do so well.
It’s engaging in several ways. The shapes are crisp and simple. The composition is a lively interplay of diagonals against the severely rectilinear cross and ladders, all against the bluish gray sky shapes. The action overfills the space, keeping the viewer close in. Each player has a different, personal reaction to the moment: some mourn, some struggle with the practical problem of getting the body down, shouting advice to each other. The subject of the piece is thus the boisterous human situation surrounding a crucifixion—one among many, after all, for these people—as opposed to the boiled-down concentration on the spiritual significance of the event, as exemplified by the Rembrandt below.
Il Rosso had a lively sense of human drama. “Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro,” painted two years later, is another example—a maelstrom of action and cross purposes. (See also the entry of April 14, 2012.)
Even the gentle “Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist” is peopled by people, not symbols.