Tag Archives: Venice

Pietro Longhi – Scenes from Everyday Life

12 Jan

Pietro Longhi is a wonderful Venetian eighteenth century painter who, unlike some of his contemporaries in Venice, devoted himself to portraying the simple beauties of everyday life. These days I enjoy gazing at his genre scenes and let’s take a look at a few interesting ones.

Pietro Longhi, The Painter in His Studio, 1741, oil on canvas, 41 × 53.3 cm (16 1/8 × 21 in)

A painting is a finished work, but in Longhi’s painting “The Painter in His Studio” we see the hidden, mysterious aspect of art and portrait painting; we see what happens behind the curtains, a sweet secret that only the artist, the sitter or the model know. In this work, a painter is painting an oval portrait of a Venetian noblewoman. Her clothes speak of her wealth and importance. I deserve to be captured for eternity on canvas, her gaze seems to say. Her hair is powdered and short, her stays laced, and a little dog is peeking under her lace sleeve. Considering how wide her sumptuous dress is, perhaps there is another dog hiding in there. Their carnivals and their masques, one never knows with these Venetians, what are they hiding, what is real and what a mirage. The man beside her; is he her husband, her brother, a father or a friend, we don’t know. But he also has a Venetian masque on his face, moved to the side though. Maybe he is telling the painter something really important. And look, his hand is about to pull something out of his inner pocket, what is it, a dagger? In case he is displeased with the painter’s work. Or some gold coins, if he thinks the likeness of the two faces, the one on canvas and the one in reality, is astounding. On the left of the painter, we see his painting equipment. The background is painted in muted brownish tones and is empty of details and ornamentation, we don’t see the continuation of rooms or space, which makes these three characters seem like actors on the stage, but then again, aren’t we all?

Pietro Longhi, Fainting, 1744, 50×61.8 cm (19 11/16 × 24 5/16 in)

From a calmness of a portrait sitting painting we are moving on to a more dramatic scene, painted around the same time, 1744, when Longhi was about forty-two years old; it is unsure whether he was born in 1701 or 1702. A lady dressed in a pastel pink gown, deadly pale and weak, is just opening her eyes. Quick, quick, someone call the doctor! The lady had fainted. Oh, she is opening her eyes slowly now. Her one hand is on her breast, the other is hanging limp. A soft pillow was brought so she can lay her head on it, and smelling salts are offered to her delicate nostrils. Do not let this pastel pink sweetness fool you, for this scene is not as innocent as it may seems at first.

The evidence of the crime lays open to our eyes in the bottom left corner; an overthrown little table with a notably Rococo playful and flamboyant chinoserie pattern, cards and a little velvet purse full of coins are scattered on the floor. People have gathered sympathetically around her, but this lady has a card or two up her sleeve. The reason she fainted is not the lack of fresh air, or the stays laced too tight, but rather the fact that she was loosing in the game. What else can she do but stage this silly little incident. Ha, but the man dressed in a long blue cloak and a long dark grey wig on the right doesn’t seem to believe her. His hand is stretched towards her as if he’s asking for the money. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni praised Longhi’s portrayal of truth on his canvases, portrayal of the real world around them, and the painting “Fainting” most likely inspired Goldoni’s comedy “La finta ammalata or “The Fake Patient Woman” (1750–1751); there’s a scene in which the main character Rosaura had just fainted and she is surrounded by her friend, her suitor, her father and her doctor.

Pietro Longhi, The Game of the Cooking Pot, 1744, 49.8 × 61.8 cm (19 5/8 × 24 5/16 in)

Another charming and slightly confusing scene is presented in the painting “The Game of the Cooking Pot”. The lady in the gorgeous white gown is a sight to behold; her delicate pale face, her tiny pearl earring, a subtle pink flower in her powdered hair, her little white shoe peeking under the dress, all so dainty and doll-like in the typical Rococo way. But then there’s a guy on the right, holding a stick, his eyes tied with a handkerchief so he cannot see, and he is about to hit … the pot? The Game of pentola or The Game of the Pot is yet another one of strange Rococo games played by adults and not children which includes a person who has to strike the pot and smash it in order to find a pleasant surprise underneath. In a fancy Rococo interior carefree and pretty young people are indulging in lighthearted fun, and why would they not? Life is to be enjoyed. In the background, on the left, there’s some wine in jugs and some biscuits, little details that Longhi painted to add his scenes some warmth and domesticity.

What were the Venetians up to in the 1740s. This is sort of like an Instagram of their day and age; everything is smooth and perfect, there’s no smallpox, pimples, sadness or a bad hair day. Everyone is “caught” on the canvas having so much fun, like in a group selfie, a big smile everyone! And of course they are having much more fun than you are. Pietro Longhi’s focus on painting genre scenes led the art critics to compare his work to that of his English contemporary, the famous brutally satiric William Hogarth. This comparison isn’t true at all. They both placed their focus on the everyday life on their age and area, but Hogarth’s work tends to be harsh, his wittiness turns to sarcasm, whereas Longhi’s world is delicate and dainty, and figures in his paintings look like actors on stage, their face expressions and movements carefully devised to tell the tale. Pastel colours, fine brushstrokes, Longhi shows both the refined and frivolous past times of Venetians around him; gambling, playing games, sitting for portraits, reading letters, dancing, taking music lessons, receiving visitors. Every canvas is a scene from life. Also, the notable small size of these interior scenes is another thing which connects Longhi’s art with that of Vermeer and other seventeenth century Dutch painters who portrayed daily life, though with more modesty, mystery and coldness, they are after all people from the dark, rainy, and gloomy North.

Pietro Longhi, The Letter, 1746, oil on canvas, 61 x 49.5 cm (24 x 19 1/2 in)

In this painting I love the detail or a washing line with the white garments painted in such loose, feathery soft, almost ghostly strokes, it just looks so delicate, and adds to the aura of gentleness which matches the pale pretty girl’s pastel pink gown and a sweet round face.

Pietro Longhi, The Music Lesson, 1760, oil on copper, 44.6 x 57.6 x 0.2 cm (17 9/16 x 22 11/16 in)

Since when is holding hands crucial for learning the notes? Hmmm…. The music teacher’s profile alone, with the wide wicked smile and those eyebrows indicates a lecherous Faun-like nature. And look at the way the little dog is observing it all, with his paw in the air.

Pietro Longhi – Clara the Rhinoceros

15 Oct

Many famous and refined beauties lived in the eighteenth century, but none possessed a beauty so striking and none kept the entire Europe fascinated as much as Clara, the rhinoceros. Her exotic beauty and chiseled features caught the eye of many artists of the day, Pietro Longhi and Jean-Baptiste Oudry to name a few. Clara loved being a part of the art world, but she never allowed the fame to get to her head and stayed humble to the end.

Pietro Longhi, Clara, the rhinoceros in Venice, 1751, oil on canvas, 62×50 cm

Clara (1738-1758) was an absolute Rococo sensation; orphaned at a very young age after her parents were allegedly killed by Indian hunters she was brought to Europe, in Rotterdam, and afterwards continued traveling the continent and bringing delight wherever she went. She had the life of a rock star two centuries before the rock stars; common folk admired her and talked about her, authors wrote about her in the encyclopedia, and painters painted her. In January 1751, she found herself in Venice right in the carnival time and she caused quite a sensation in the ever so inquisitive Venetian society. This was about time when Longhi painted her. In his painting, a small crown of eight figures has gathered to see Clara. The composition is very interesting; the wooden fence visually divides the canvas in two parts; the foreground where Clara is languidly eating hay, and the foreground where the figures of the observers are. Some of the curious Venetians are wearing masks, it was the carnival time after all, and why not.

Some men in the first row are wearing white masks which are called “bauta”. The female figures behind them are dressed in shining silks, woman in the blue gown is wearing a black “moretta mask” which is held by the teeth and the wearer is prohibited to speak while wearing it, but this also enable the silent language of seduction to develop; a bat of the eyelashes, a wink, a nod suddenly got intense meanings. The woman in green silk cloak is holding the same mask in her hand, but showing her pale oval face. The man on the far left, the arrogant laughing chap without the mask, is holding Clara’s horn which she had either rubbed off while in Rome, or it was cut off, but anyhow a new one later grew. Longhi’s painting is, common for his work, rather small. French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry, on the other hand, had painted her two years prior to Longhi, in 1749, in full size. How monumental and regal she looks, big and shining against the landscape, one can really imagine her wearing a red velvet cloak and a crown with rubies.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Clara the Rhinoceros, 1749, oil on canvas, 310×456 cm

Pietro Longhi is renown for his intimate portrayals of the Venetian society in the mid eighteenth century or the settecento. While Antonio Canaletto focused on grandiose vedute, and Givanni Battista Tiepolo on dramatic religious paintings; Pietro Longhi offered a glimpse of what goes on “behind the closed doors”, literally and figuratively because he not only painted the witty interior scenes, but also gave us an insight in the frivolous and decadent Venetian society just before its final fall at the end of the eighteenth century.

Magical Nocturnal World of Federico Beltran Masses

27 Dec

Deep midnight blues, cold and distant femmes fatales entranced by the melodies from afar, silver stars and guitars, hints of Spanish folklore, aloof guitar players with closed eyes, luscious full red lips, shining golden fabrics, nocturnal somnambulist atmosphere; welcome to the magical worlds of Federico Beltran Masses and Federico Lorca.

1925. Federico Beltrán Massés ‘Carnaval’ ca.1925. Federico Beltrán Massés, Carnaval, ca.1925

I think that the visual companion to the magical world that Federico Lorca has created in his poems, particularly those from his poetry collection ‘Gypsy Ballads’ (1928), can be found in paintings of Federico Beltan Masses, not just because they are both Spanish and are named Federico, but because the mood, poetic images, and characters from Lorca’s poetry all found their way in Masses’ paintings. Although Beltran wasn’t officially inspired by Lorca, I feel that their wellspring of inspiration is somewhat similar; it’s deeply rooted in Spanish tradition, and similar motifs occur in their poems/paintings, such as moon, nocturnal atmosphere, guitar. In Lorca’s poetic world, passion is the initiator of everything, and the atmosphere rises to that of immense ecstasy and beauty, somnambulism, enchantment, and the feeling of trance and being utterly lost in time and space.

1920s-federico-beltran-mases-the-venetian-sistersFederico Beltran Mases, The Venetian Sisters, 1920

Lorca’s perception of the word was more sensual and passionate than rational, and his poems are the result of his deep experiences of the life of Spain, its landscapes and its people. He was inspired by tradition, but he leaned to avant-garde, and he is usually associated with Surrealism. As you’ll see further on, his poems are often based on metaphors and symbols, and are very musical and acoustic, because he enjoyed works of Chopin, Debussy and Beethoven, and perhaps subconsciously inter weaved his poems with this charming musicality. Characters in Beltran’s paintings often seem entranced by some melodies that we cannot hear, but are pervading their nocturnal landscapes painted in deep shades of blue that often appears blackish with a few silver stars in the sky.

1934-federico-beltran-masses-tres-para-uno-c-1934-oil-on-canvas-98-x-100-cmFederico Beltran Masses, Tres Para Uno (Three For One), c. 1934

In ‘Tres Para Uno’ a tanned gentleman entertains three ladies with a guitar while the gondolas sway dreamily in midnight water of the silent Venice that sleeps in the background. ‘Three maidens of silver’ with pale, ghostly, almost greyish complexions, shiny sensual red lips and large elongated eyes. Something about their appearance frightens me, especially the woman on the right, with a grey streak in her hair. Beltran modelled her on his wife. All four seem strange, like vampires, wondering through the lonely streets of Venice at night, half-drugged half-mad, searching for a victim to entrance with their dead-cold gazes and melodies from the guitar.

Guitar as a symbol leads me again to Lorca and his poem ‘Riddle of the Guitar’:

At the round

crossroads,

six maidens

dance.

Three of flesh,

three of silver.

The dreams of yesterday search for them,

but they are held embraced

by a Polyphemus of gold.

The guitar!

1920-luisa-casati-federico-beltran-massesLuisa Casati, Federico Beltrán Masses, Luisa Casati, 1920

Beltran Masses loved painting at night, and the story goes that Luisa Casati, a rich and extravagant Italian heiress once turned up in his studio in Venice and demanded that to be painted instantly, he indulged her happily. Nocturnal setting is present in most of his paintings, and this specific dreamy, dark, sensual blue is often called ‘Beltran blue’, because it pervades his canvases. Imagine a world where night would rule, with moon and stars – that would be really magical. Notice the attention Beltran places on details such as the shine of Casati’s dress.

Beltran was popular amongst Hollywood actresses and actors, but his popularity unfortunately waned when the World War II broke out; that’s because that world of glamour, decadence and frivolity disappeared over night. Some have drawn parallels between Beltran and Kees van Dongen; both painted glamorous worlds of rich people, but van Dongen was a Fauvist and his style of painting is more stylised.

1932-passion-by-federico-beltran-masses-1885-1949Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), Passion, 1932

Neither Lorca nor Beltran presented the real world in their poems and paintings, but a nocturnal fantasy, led by passions, enchantments, moonwalking, ecstasy… In Passion we can see that famed Venice gracing the background. In all of Beltran’s paintings there’s a sense of escapism, whether through dreams and fantasy, eating exotic fruit, listening to sounds of guitar, surrounded with pretty women, riding a gondola through Venice and daydreaming about elegance and luxury.

And now for the end, Lorca’s guitar again:

The Six Strings

The guitar
makes dreams weep.
The sobbing of lost
souls
escapes through its round
mouth.
And like the tarantula
it spins a large star
to trap the sighs
floating in its black,
wooden water tank.‘ (*)

1920s-pola-negri-and-rudolf-valentino-by-federico-beltran-masses-1885-1949Pola Negri and Rudolf Valentino by Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), 1920s