Tag Archives: dramatic

Serafino Macchiati – The Break-Up

26 Sep

“But I panicked as she turned to walk awayAs she went out the door I heard her sayYes I’m in need of somethingBut it’s something you ain’t gotBut I used to love you a lot

I thought she loved me with a love that wouldn’t dieLooking at her now I can’t believe she said good-byeShe just left me standing there, I never been so shockedShe used to love me a lotShe used to love me a lot….”
(Johnny Cash, She Used to Love Me a Lot)

Serafino Macchiati, The Break-Up, 1900-05

I recently discovered this painting by the Italian painter Serafino Macchiati and I was insantly struck by its dark, murky colours and the equally dark and sad mood that they help convey. The painting is titled simply “The Break-Up” and it was painted just after Macchiati had moved to Paris. The painting shows a man and a woman in a luxurious interior. The woman is standing by the fireplace with her back turned against the man who is looking at her with a slight yearning or disbelief… The tension in the room is palpable. The space and the figures are painted in a way that makes it seem like this is a night scene and the woman’s white dress is bathed in the moonlight. The scene of this love drama, the act of breaking up, may as well have been happening at night, but perhaps the colour scheme of this painting, with its dark blues, grey and black, is more reflective of the mood in the room than than it is reflective of the actual space. It is as if the dark cloud is hanging above the room; their dark grey room is a canvas that shows their distance and tensions, and, after the lightning and thunders of the couple’s shouting and arguing, the dark cloud is now ripe and ready to release the pouring rain. What I am trying to say is that the space is more symbolic than real, and this gives it not only an aesthetical feast for the eyes, but also a variety of interpretations. Is this a real scene, or is it a distant memory? Is the woman, dressed in that gorgeous white gown, merely a ghost of a past lover, a memory of the past that is coming back to haunt the solitary man on this dreary evening. Perhaps he heard a faint ghostly rustle of a dress and all the memories suddenly came back to haunt him. There is also a curiosity as to who is breaking up with whom? I think it is the woman, for her back is turned against the man, symbolically representing her Macchiati also painted some equally dark and mystical paintings whilst in Paris titled “The Vision” and “Spiritism” and both portray the Spiritualist experiences. All in all, this painting is a visually beautiful one, and its beauty is of the poetic, lyrical kind which makes my thoughts go towards music and poetry…

George Stubbs – A Horse Frightened By A Lion

29 Oct

George Stubbs, A Horse Frightened By A Lion, 1770

Clearly separating the art of Classicism and that of Romanticism is hard, but tracing the early occurrences of romantic tendencies in visual arts is, on the other hand, an easier pursuit. I always saw Henri Fusseli’s painting “The Nightmare” from 1781 as one of the earliest examples of Romanticism in the visual arts because both the mood and the theme show the artist’s exploration of darker topics; dreams and the irrational, something which would scarcely be interesting to painters from previous generations and even to his contemporaries. Still, there is another eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs, who imbued two of his works with a Romantic taste for wild, untamed nature and strong emotions and thereby exhibited what were to become the tendencies of Romanticism. The romantic pathos in his painting “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” is hard to ignore.

Stubbs was an Academic painter who specialised in animal painting, horses in particular, and even published a work called “Anatomy of the Horse” (1766) which is a result of his meticulous study of the anatomy of that fine elegant animal and shows his natural precision and dedication to study from nature directly, not from copies of others. He was also one of the first painters to paint animals that were exotic and therefore fascinating to the English audience and Europe in general, such as zebras and kangaroos. Stubb’s two paintings; “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” and “A Lion Attacking a Horse”, from 1770, were imagined as a pendant and show a distinctly romantic mood which was a great shift stylistically and arises directly from Edmund Burke’s theoretical work “On the Sublime and Beautiful”, first published in 1756. Criticism towards Burke tend to claim that he merely observed the direction of the art towards a new style, but Stubb’s example shows us how an artist was inspired by theory.

George Stubbs, A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770

Here is an interesting fragment from the third part of Burke’s work, from the essay “Proportion not the cause of beauty in animals”: “Turn next to beasts; examine the head of a beautiful horse; find what proportion that bears to his body, and to his limbs, and what relation these have to each other; and when you have settled these proportions as a standard of beauty, then take a dog or cat, or any other animal, and examine how far the same proportions between their heads and their necks, between those and the body, and so on, are found to hold; I think we may safely say, that they differ in every species, yet that there are individuals, found in a great many species so differing, that have a very striking beauty.” So, Burke even mentions a horse in particular, an animal which had already been of great interest to Stubbs, and connects its proportion-less appearance with the aesthetic of sublime.

I already wrote a detailed post about the opposing aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime, based on Immanuel Kant’s work, here. In short, the Sublime is that which inspires awe, fear and strong emotions. For example: thunderstorms, a very tall and strong oak, wild waves, volcano eruption, strong wind, ruin of a castle perched on top of the hill, a big mountain or a steep cliff. Here is what Burke said: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” (Of the Sublime)

In “A Horse Frightened by a Lion”, our eye is captivated by the glistening whiteness of the poor frightened horse in the dark forest where all sorts of ominous things might occur. How strongly his whole body reacts to the grim encounter with the lion; his wide-opened eye shows how startled he is, his muscles are emphasised and animated, his mouth open in despair, his fine light hair is blown away by the wind of fear. Lion’s patient face emerges from the darkness. Stubbs purposefully chose to portray a frightening sight from nature to stir the viewer’s feelings and awaken his empathy. In the second scene, “A Lion Attacking a Horse“, the poor horse is already attacked by the cruel lion in the mute darkness of the landscape full of rocks and shrubbery. The horse’s mouth, neck and feet are all contorted from the pain and fear. The figure of the lion is disappearing into the darkness and blending in with the wild nature, both are overpowering and sinister for the white fragile horse. On the left part of the painting, dark clouds are gathering, ready to wash the blood that is to flow with fresh rain drops.

George Stubbs, A lion attacking a horse, 1765

Stubbs painted an entire series on lions and horses, starting from the early 1760s, I’ve put two examples bellow, but they have certainly changed as decades passed. His focus shifted from the anatomy of the horse and the act of attack itself to the sublime mood and the horse’s reaction. The landscape grew darker and bigger, the horse is left nothing but a small white figure in the foreground while nature domineers. Compositions are similar, and the figure of the lion attacking the horse are nearly identical in two different versions from 1765 and 1770, but the mood differs greatly. The landscape is light and classical in the earlier paintings, whereas the later ones show the kind of melancholy beauty that later romantic landscapes are praised for. This series of paintings is a result of three things: Stubbs’s lifelong fascination with horses and study of anatomy, influence of Burke’s idea of the Sublime, and also Stubb’s visit to Rome in 1754 where he must have seen and memorised the Capitoline sculpture which shows a lion attacking a horse.

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by a Lion, exhibited in 1763