The work of Giovanni Battista di Jacopo (1494 – 1540), known as Rosso Fiorentino–“the Red Florentine”–is irregular, with some pretty ho-hum stuff, and some that’s really wonderful. In the wonderful category is “Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro.”

Moses defending the daughters of Jethro 1523   (W’ped)

I love the animation of the thing, with Moses going at it in the foreground, and the swirling pink cloak of the ruffian behind; but then there are the coyly placid sheep in the middle, and the daughters, who, except for the blue-dressed gal in front, seem pretty calm. Notice the two faces just over her left shoulder–they seem only this moment to have noticed the action.

And the composition, with the body shapes getting more geometric and abstract as they are jammed together toward the bottom–as if everyone were falling down a well.

A teasing detail here is the dark blue wrap, the rhyme of the ruffian’s pink, that Moses wears about him. It provides a sharp, dark contrast to set off the generally light tones of the figures, and to give Moses’ face a contrasty background, but the primary function of such improbable, gravity-defying garments is usually to conceal the private parts. Here it pointedly does not.

Renaissance humor, perhaps? One of those sly artist’s jokes? Or maybe just catering to the market. Then, as now, the wishes of the grandee with the ducats got close attention.


This post is a reprise of April 14, 2012.


John Aubrey (1626-97) is noted for his lively and succinct notations on the life around him. He was fascinated with people, but also advanced the understanding of Stonehenge and suchlike prehistoric monuments in England.

He also drew lots of pictures. Many of these are included in the recent book John Aubrey, My Own Life by Ruth Scurr, generally in tiny, cramped images scattered through the text. They are pretty bad. He was not a competent artist. But then we have the delightful piece below. 

[New York Review Books]

[New York Review Books]

“Sir James Long of Draycot and J. Aubrey, Hawking” decorates the dust jacket. The drawing is generally inept–that horse and rider!–but the thoughtful and unaffected observation of the humans and beasts, the happy shapes of the landscape, the calm, generous sky setting off the busier foreground shapes, the delicate color–all this convinces entirely. Despite the shakiness of the parts, the ensemble is fine. Aubrey had the eye and the sensibility; what a pity he didn’t get the craft.

Which reminds us that art happens one work at a time. Even great artists knock off a dud occasionally, and even the rankest amateur can score the odd hit, if only by accident. As here.




Giuseppi Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593) is one of those fascinating artists who can’t be put in one box.

The self-portrait below is competent but pedestrian: “This is what I look like.” No doubt, but so what? A self-portrait should be about inner states.

His portrait of the Emperor Maximilian and family, an early work, is charming but almost naive. The figures read like a group of cutouts pasted down on the background. The composition is iffy (that jumble of children!).  There are parts that are not badly painted, but the pieces don’t cohere. It seems the work of a pretty-well trained craftsman, without genius.

self-portrait c.1575 age 48

Maximillian II & family  c.1554


















But then we encounter his later, fantastical work. He’s made a great advance in craft — how to make a piece hang together and give it presence — but imagination is the big hit now. In this vein he did many wonderful images of the seasons and the elements, and fantastic portraits. The manipulation of objects into complex images is a gimmick, but the images aren’t just gimmicky. A piece like Winter has an attitude somewhere between funny and something else. Arcimboldo’s intention is subtle enough to leave you plenty of space to wonder about it, and try on your own interpretations. You see it differently if you come to it in different moods and different states of mind. This is uncommon even in the best art.

Jurist – 1566

Winter – 1563    66x50cm
















And then a late piece: the bowl of vegetables, turned upside down, becomes The Greengrocer. It’s a playful concept, but the result is not quite playful. There’s an edge to it. Look at the eyes and the mouth: the expression is reminiscent of Henry Tonks’ disfigured soldiers (July 9) — of someone way inside, looking out.

The Greengrocer – 1587

And having had that thought, if I go back to the self-portrait I see less dullness, and more calculated reserve — more tension, more distance — than there seemed at first. Perhaps that really was what he was like.




(All pieces here from Wikipedia. Arcimboldo > Commons > “paintings by Giuseppi Arcimboldo” for more examples.)

This entry is a reprise of March 12, 2012.


Frans Hals (1582-1666) did a lot of portraits, notable for their loose, painterly execution. For a comprehensive view, check out Wikipedia’s “Frans Hals catalogue raisonné,” but this cluster gives you a pretty good idea. He found his formula early on, and stuck with it: subjects at ease but energetic, as if in the middle of some lively conversation.


Which brings us to “Portrait of a Man”–a proven fake, a technical analysis having found traces of modern materials. 


Run your eye over the set of real Hals, and then eyeball this. The contrast jars. It’s too splashily painted, and the background is too modernly loose by half, but the overriding, first-glance hit is its very present-day aura. How soulful he is, how passive, whereas Hals subjects are active–hovering, shifting. 

Someone—I can’t remember who—once made the point that there is a broad, continually shifting, only partially conscious visual sensibility that pervades daily life. It affects clothes, advertisements, newspaper design, fashion, movie stars—everything we look at. In a few years it’ll have moved on, but at the moment we absorb it without really noticing or thinking about it.

Forgers breathe this air along with everybody else, and in subtle, unconscious ways they incorporate these transient elements into their work. They may convince at first glance, because they are familiar, but seem suddenly wacky next to an original from another time. Thus this modern gent, masquerading as a 17th Century dandy.

So how could this piece have been accepted at all? Excitement: an undiscovered Hals! Money: before it was exposed, an eager collector forked out $10 million for it. Professional reputation: nobody wants to be the one who casts doubt on a work that later is proven to be genuine, and experts risk being sued for declaring against a problematic work and thus debasing its potential value. For a lively discussion of the ups and downs of “Portrait of a Man”, check out “When a Masterpiece Is Not”, New York Times, October 31.



Hals selection from Wikipedia; fake from the New York Times.