Captive Beauty. Small Treasures at the Prado Museum
CaixaForum Barcelona 16.07.2014 - 05.01.2015
- Manuela Mena, Chief Curator of 18th Century Painting and Goya, Museo del Prado
CaixaForum Barcelona 16.07.2014 - 05.01.2015
Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and the arts, stands at the beginning of this glittering path through small-format painting and sculpture and introduces us to the Middle Ages, a period when religion dominated everyday life. The earliest examples of these artworks in reduced size are predella panels devoted to scenes from the lives of saints. However, even then, a type of "cabinet" was being developed, embracing, not only portraits of kings and great lords, but also small panels used in more intimate religious acts, and which formed part of portable altarpieces, or were hung in private chapels.
Cristo, la Virgen y los santos se convierten en modelos a seguir y, de acuerdo con las Meditationes Vitae Christi franciscanas, se invita al fiel a meditar sobre temas que le lleven a experimentar arrepentimiento y conmiseración ante la Pasión de Cristo. En Flandes, desde 1530 esa función meditativa decrece y deja paso a la búsqueda de una edificación moral personal propia del humanismo cristiano, como defienden los textos de Erasmo. Los sentimientos más elevados son absorbidos por la religión, mientras que los impulsos naturales son propios de la vida terrena, abandonada por completo al diablo. Como muestra el Bosco, las imágenes religiosas habituales ya no bastan para alejar al hombre del pecado. Lo que impresiona son los tormentos del Infierno, constante amenaza para el que se deja seducir por el mal.
Christ, the Virgin and the saints become models to be followed and, in accordance with the Franciscan Meditationes Vitae Christi, the faithful are invited to meditate on themes that invoke feelings of penitence and compassion before the Passion of Christ. In Flanders, this meditative function decreased after 1530, giving way to the search for a more personal moral formation that was more in line with the tenets of Christian humanism as described in the writings of Erasmus. The most elevated feelings are absorbed by religion, whilst natural impulses are engendered by earthly life, completely abandoned to the devil. As we can see in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, conventional religious images no longer suffice to keep man from sin. The most impressive elements here are the torments of Hell, the fate to which those who allow themselves to be seduced by evil are doomed.
The small-format works produced by painters at the height of the Renaissance, with their great technical and compositional freedom, are in stark contrast with the large decorative enterprises of the time, such as altar paintings, frescoes and court portraits. Besides the visual pleasure that these rich, colourful pieces transmit, 16th-century artists who made the earliest explorations of these intimate proportions also made formal and expressive discoveries that met the demands of modern society.
The maniera, the term used to describe, in Italy, the artificial style developed after 1520, features in this exhibition in magnificent examples of works by Italian and Spanish artists. These artists explored new interests in painting and Neo-Platonist humanism, opening up paths to beauty that eschewed the classical canon of the previous century. Figures with elongated proportions, violently forced attitudes, unusual colours and night scenes featuring ambitious use of contrast sought to surprise and delight viewers that were becoming increasingly more sophisticated in their artistic tastes.
At around the same time, sculpture also became smaller in order to occupy private spaces, though without losing any of its grandeur. In its classical nobility, sculpture was an artform at the service of the powerful: sculpture emphasized their glory and recorded their features, whilst reviving the tradition of the Roman portrait.
Several Italian artists and various landscape painters from Northern Europe devoted part of their production to small works, which found an easy outlet in the art market of the time. Many of these works were acquired for cabinets and private chapels, where artistic themes and genres mixed easily.
In the Catholic countries, religious themes followed the precepts of the Council of Trent and sought to foster devotion amongst the faithful by depicting scenes from the martyrdom of exemplary women and men. Alongside these pieces, we also find gentler, more intimate compositions, as well as portraits characterised by psychological introspection, as we can see here in the works by Moro and Velázquez. The still life also emerged in this period, and the exhibition features excellent examples of this new genre that illustrate the concept of the transience of earthly things (vanitas) that underlies in the 17th century.
Rubens, a master of the quick, sure brushstroke, exquisite colour and dynamic movement, enthusiastically cultivated the reduced format, in which he captured the same exalted version of life as in his large compositions. He collaborated on several occasions with Jan Brueghel the Elder, who specialised in small scenes in which the details are depicted with a meticulous mastery that invites the viewer to gaze at the picture, abandoning their world to enter that of the painting.
The landscape became an independent artistic genre in the 17th century, extending the boundaries of painting. This enabled artists to increase their professional and creative autonomy, as they painted medium-sized and small works in complete freedom, usually unfettered by the duties involved in a commissioned piece.
At the beginning of the century, the concept of the “classical landscape” emerged in Italy. These were works that recreated the ancient world, depicting an orderly, serene nature populated by classical buildings. On the other hand, the Flemish and Dutch were masters at converting their natural environment, at times peaceful and productive, at others wild and awe-inspiring, placing nature at the centre of their chronicles of contemporary times.
In the Netherlands in the 17th century, the artform known as “cabinet painting” was developed. These were works designed to adorn an area reserved for private life in the homes of the wealthy classes. It is in these small, intimate spaces that reduced-format art reveals its essence, designed as it is to stand in that special place, as "curio paintings” that need to be studied and observed in detail, at close-up. These were, in general, small-sized works that were hung next to the other and in overlapping rows along with small statues, busts and valuables objects, sometimes natural, such as corals, shells and minerals, typical of the "cabinets of curiosities” or “cabinets of wonder" (Wunderkammern) that had been popular amongst collectors since the previous century.
The Bourbon dynasty, which came to power in Spain in 1700, brought with it, amongst other reforms of a political, social and economic nature, a renewal in tastes. An important role was played in this by the new customs, better adapted to the demands of power, which Italian and French artists imported when they were summoned to the Spanish court to direct the decorations of the Royal Sites, especially the palace in Madrid, whose construction began in 1738 after the Alcázar had been destroyed by fire.
The sketches in which they rehearsed or presented to the monarch the complex allegorical compositions that they had designed for the ceilings of the royal apartments embody a new genre, since these pieces were appreciated as independent paintings by the connoisseurs of the time due to their elaborate execution. As a result, these sketches were much sought after to decorate the small new sophisticated spaces in their residences. These works illustrate the artists’ personal style, ranging from the illusionist, colourful rococo of Giaquinto and Tiepolo to the purest Neoclassicism, inspired by Mengs, that we can see in the pieces by Bayeu and Maella.
Particularly interesting in the sphere of courtly art were sketches made for the cartoons for tapestries to be hung on the walls of the royal pleasure sites, as these portrayed, for the first time, not only a rising social class, the bourgeoisie, elegant and curious, whose members packed promenades and popular festivities, but also the common people, depicted as majos and majas. Mixing with that lively society, as in a game, were the enlightened aristocracy now beginning to abandon the Old Regime.
Goya was an outstanding master of the small-format painting, which occupied a prominent place in his oeuvre. Like other artists of his time, he turned to the genre when making sketches for larger paintings but, in his case, these pieces acquired –even amongst his contemporaries– the status of works of value in themselves, becoming amongst the most highly appreciated and significant facets of his art. As a result, such prestigious figures as the architect Francesco Sabatini and the Duke of Osuna purchased them for their cabinets. Similarly, Goya painted pictures of reduced size as commissioned works for enlightened patrons, whether or not they were intended for the private or religious sphere, and for portraits of relatives.
In 1793, introducing a new element in the Spanish art of the period, dominated by regulated teachings of the Academies of Fine Arts, installed in the second half of the century, such as that of San Fernando in Madrid, Goya began to paint independent "cabinet" pictures. In these pieces, to quote the artist himself, he was able to reflect: “observations for which there is usually no opportunity in commissioned works, which offer no scope for caprice and invention”. Goya created a modern form of the capriccio, as in his prints, in which fantasy and imagination challenge artistic notions of the beautiful and the ideal, and in which the satirical or the tragic come to the fore. In all these works, he demonstrated the same technical mastery as in his large paintings, characterised by compositional freedom and a quick, transparent brushstroke that is, nevertheless, always subtle and precise.
In the 19th century, the Romantic movement brought with it greater privacy in both individual and social customs. The residences of the aristocracy and the newly enriched bourgeoisie contained private spaces reserved for the long hours of leisure, and cabinets become favourite places for domestic pleasures, whether to enjoy reading or music or merely to converse. These changes are reflected in both the figurative arts and the literature of the time.
The walls of these salons, decorated by small-format works depicting new themes such as orientalism and the world of artists, the city and the beach, invited careful contemplation and presented a mosaic of small windows opening onto a multiple reality.
Alongside paintings reminiscent of Goya, such as the works by Lucas and Alenza, we also find more innovative painterly languages that explore such genres as the portrait (Rosales and Madrazo), and the landscape, which now addresses directly the theme of nature and the city, as illustrated in the works by Haes, Rico and Fortuny. Similarly, history painting, a genre traditionally conceived in the form of large works, was reinvented in the light of this new sensitivity, as the inherent magnitude of its themes was condensed into exquisite cabinet paintings, as exemplified here by Pradilla’s painting.