Giving Good Face

Forget about bra sizes and six packs: from now on its our IQ that will be key in finding a mate. According to American trend spotter Marian Salzman, for the next decade, a healthy brain, boosted by exercise and supplements, will be the best way to attract the opposite sex and, more generally, make a good impression on others. So after all the fuss and focus on physical bling and beauty during the Noughties, it seems we’ll be taking a look on the inside at last.

Today’s picture is by an artist who knew, way ahead of his time, that our minds and morals were the most interesting things about us. It’s Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (1474) which he painted when he was 22.

So how does Leonardo make a painting of someone’s outside appearance and yet still focus on her inside qualities? Well, first he has to bring her to life, or else we wouldn’t believe in her. He convinces us with a few subtle techniques. For instance, he places her body in a 3/4 pose (it’s 3/4 of the way turned towards us) while her head is almost fully frontal (looking directly at us). So unlike earlier portraits, where lumpen sitters tended to look stiff and dead, Ginevra is twisting and seems to be actively turning to look at us. Next he creates this incredible luminous-looking skin with a technique he pioneered called chiaroscuro, which uses gradations in tone to suggest light and shade and thereby volume. From her eyes, down her nose, over her cheeks and onto her chin, the color changes in the oily pink paint are so subtle that the surface becomes almost like real skin. Then there’s her hair; with a super fine brush he’s created individual strands slicked down her head and curling at her hairline. Realistic also is the detail of her dress: lacing, brocading and a diaphanous material at her neck all add to the realism.

But so far we’re still in superficial mode, we’ve only looked at what’s on her outside. So let’s consider the evidence that Leonardo cared about her inner qualities and wanted to bring that out in the painting. We need proof that someone’s inner qualities can grab us as much as their outer assets.

So here’s where it gets interesting. What do you think we notice first about this picture? What’s the first thing that catches you when you stand face to face with the work? These days we don’t bat an eyelid if a person in a photograph or a painting looks directly at us and meets our gaze. But this is 1474 we’re talking, and before this, no other artist had painted a female sitter looking straight out at the viewer. Revolutionary for the time, it’s Ginevra’s eye contact with the viewer that is the single most powerful thing about the picture and key in creating the idea of her independent character and lively mind.

Adding to this, Leonardo has set her features in a particular way to suggest a mood. So he’s gone beyond making her eyes, nose and mouth look individualized to actually place them in such a way as to convey her character. The eyes seem to narrow somewhat and her mouth is set in a line with not a hint of a smile. Is she suspicious, determined or just one tough cookie? Whichever way you choose to interpret this young lady, it’s clear she’s bursting with attitude.

Another strategy that Leonardo used throughout his career was to have settings and surroundings further enhance our sense of the people in his paintings. So in the right middle ground here we have a little landscape, with marshy blue waters and shady trees- some say this moody little scene adds to the ‘moodiness’ we read in Ginevra. There’s also a bush that sprouts behind her head, with lots of dark green leaves spiking the clear sky. That’s a juniper bush, which he’s added as a play on her name (the Italian for juniper, ginepro, is a pun on her name Ginevra).

So Ginevra’s direct gaze, her suggestive expression and her setting all scream character and active mind. Lastly, let’s look at Leonardo’s trump card, the final thing he does to hammer home the point that our inner selves are more interesting and relevant than what people see on the surface. This is the only time in his life that Leonardo painted the back of a picture: on the reverse there’s a wreath of laurel, palm and juniper all bound by a scroll that says VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT. This is Latin for ‘beauty adorns virtue’, i.e. pretty on the outside should only be seen as a reflection of pretty on the inside. So in Ginevra’s case, shown here at 16 on the occasion of her betrothal or marriage, her physical beauty is held up as a mirror to her fine mind and morals.

Leonardo is perhaps our favorite Old Master: he speaks to us because he was born ahead of his time and had a pioneering mind that we can still identify with. But I have to say, I’m surprised to find him leading the way even here, in matters of appearance and personal grooming versus how we cultivate our inner selves. I think he’s telling us that it’s alright to primp and preen, to go to the gym and make an effort, just as long as we also focus on the inside, exercise our minds and practice our morals. As those are the things that really make an impression.

Paul’s Pals

“Pictures are more than decorative; they become companions and friends.” So said Paul Mellon, son of Andrew Mellon (who founded the National Galley of Art in Washington). When his father died in 1937, work on the NGA site had just got underway, so it was left to the then 30-year old Paul to see the project to completion, which he did four years later. Paul continued as president of the gallery until 1979 and remained involved in its running until his death in 1999.

Throughout his life, Paul Mellon maintained a uniquely simple approach in his love of art. He always said that pictures were to be lived with, looked at and loved. Not for him a dry or academic take on the Old Masters: when acquiring works for himself or the gallery, he chose art that appealed to his heart or that stirred some emotion in him. It seems that some of his favorite works were the ones showing animals; he bought his first ever painting, a work called Pumpkin with a Stable Lad (1774) by the British artist George Stubbs (1724-1806) because the charming horse had caught his eye. Since the Pumpkin painting is now in the permanent collection of the Yale Center for British Art and hence beyond the reach of Art 2010, I wanted to find a similar work in the NGA that would help me to understand Paul Mellon’s pure approach to art. I found another Stubbs in room 61, this fantastic-looking White Poodle in a Punt from 1780.

Seeing this painting is a lively and joyful experience, not unlike meeting a bouncy poodle in the flesh. The thing you immediately notice is the fur. I think Stubbs got quite excited with his brush and his oil paint; there are a thousand tiny whirling, twisting corkscrews that create the wiry coat. Stubbs makes the animal the sole focus of the painting (which was still a novelty in his day) and stands him, unexpectedly, in a punt. That decision alone adds whimsy and humour to the work- I almost felt I had to tell the little chap to settle down and “sit!” so as not to rock the boat.

Looking at the poodle in the NGA today it became easier to understand Paul’s idea that pictures can become our companions and friends. For him, I imagine, a painted poodle was no less loyal or capable of bringing fun and enjoyment than a living breathing one. It’s just that one hangs on the wall and the other curls up at your feet of an evening. Of course, Paul was lucky; he grew up with paintings all over his house and later bought the works that spoke to him, while most of us will never have a real Stubbs in our sitting room. But for me, it’s the attitude that counts, an unpretentious love of art that he wanted to share with as many people as possible by nurturing his father’s gallery from a single building with a smattering of pictures to a huge institution with a world-class collection. Paul’s drive and generosity created a place where we all have a chance to build a relationship with as many new companions as we like.

A New Start in Art

The Alba Madonna (c.1510) by Raphael is one of the brightest jewels in the NGA’s crown and it’s also a work that plays a special part in the gallery’s history. Bought in the 1930s from the Hermitage in Russia by Andrew W. Mellon, it formed part of the core collection that helped establish the museum. Mellon, a successful businessman and later public servant and diplomat from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, founded the NGA by creating its first building on the Mall, filling it with his own art and dedicating the lot to the nation. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the NGA on behalf of the American people and an institution was born. I’m looking at Raphael’s painting today for two reasons: since the word alba means dawn in Italian, I’ve chosen this work to represent two new beginnings: the birth of the National Gallery of Art and the start of Art 2010.

I want to write about the experience I had when I first saw this painting, which proved to me the importance of seeing art in person, where possible. You see, I thought I knew this painting. I’d studied it, looked at it in reproductions and even written about it in my university finals. But it was only when I actually came face to face with the Alba Madonna that I really started to ‘get’ the painting and see things I hadn’t seen in it before.

There’s a little cross held between the Virgin and the babies Christ and John the Baptist and it’s the way the figures relate to this cross that stings. At the moment of Christ’s birth, Mary was assured of his fate. Imagine that, knowing of the death of your child from the moment of its birth, knowing you’re going to outlive that child, knowing for sure he’ll suffer. This is the tragic foreknowledge that flits across the Virgin’s face. You can detect it in the babies too, quietening for a moment as they gaze upwards. It’s this searing feeling that I hadn’t expected, that hit me most on my first ever visit to the NGA. By focussing on this emotion, Raphael brings other aspects of the work into relief: thus he subtly undermines the tranquility of the blue-green landscape, thus the plump pink bodies of the babies are exposed and made vulnerable. Even the superfine brushstrokes on the downy wisps of Christ’s hair and the fur of John’s camelhair clothing become unbearably poignant.

Raphael was born in 1483 and together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he defined the High Renaissance, a period that ran from the late 1480s to the 1520s. Raphael was the youngest of the three, and is often referred to as a synthesizer, using the advances made by his two great contemporaries. So here for example Raphael emulates the geometric pyramidal composition pioneered by Leonardo as well as his delicate shading and style of landscape. From Michelangelo he takes the physicality of his figures and their purposeful gestures. But that’s where the similarities end, where Raphael’s absorption stops and where his innovation starts.

When I was about 14 and learning about art for the first time, a teacher told me something that has stayed with me. He said that the triumvirate of High Renaissance masters could be linked to the different parts of man. According to him, Leonardo’s work represents man’s mind and intellect, as shown in the artist’s scientific experiments and his technical approach to painting. Michelangelo, a sculptor by preference and hence connected to his work in a physical way, comes to stand for the body, its force and its will. It is then left to Raphael to complete the picture: after the head and the body comes the heart, or soul. This is what Raphael brought to High Renaissance painting, something new and entirely his own: canvases filled with human emotion. As one of the very first works in the NGA collection, I feel this painting embodies something of the soul of the institution, the essence of Andrew Mellon’s original aim to make art accessible to many people. And for me today, what a great place to start Art 2010, my personal exploration of this massive body of works.