Painting sculpture: 1 Senses, rude Romans, and sculptors

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77), oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 51.2 x 66.4 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Painting, the creation of an image on a flat surface representing three-dimensional forms, has long been allied with sculpture, in which materials are formed in three dimensions to model 3D forms. They come together in painted sculpture, normally termed polychrome sculpture, which has long played an important role in religious ceremonies in much of Europe.

Excellent drawing skills are usually considered a pre-requisite for sculptors, and some like Auguste Rodin have drawn well enough to have made a reputation for themselves on the strength of their drawings alone. Classical training as a painter often starts with drawings made of simple sculpture, in plaster casts, to learn how to depict form.

This weekend, in these two articles today and tomorrow, I’m going to look at none of those, but something more curious: paintings which depict sculptures. I use the word curious because paintings of and about paintings make eminent sense, but the purpose of painting sculpture is less clear, at least once you’ve mastered those casts and moved on to more exciting objects.

It started in the early Northern Renaissance, when painters discovered that they could use monochrome grisailles to create vivid trompes l’oeil.

Robert Campin, The Trinity of the Broken Body, 1410, grisaille on panel, 147.5 x 57.6 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main. WikiArt. Shade and shadow transform this grisaille to appear strongly three-dimensional.
Robert Campin, The Trinity of the Broken Body, 1410, grisaille on panel, 147.5 x 57.6 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main. WikiArt.

Simple and cast shadows are used to transform this example by Robert Campin.

Jan van Eyck (c 1390–1441), The Annunciation Diptych (c 1433-35), oil on panel, dimensions not known, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation Diptych (c 1433-35) probably started from the concept of a grisaille, and ended up as three-dimensional as any sculpture.

Their novelty soon wore off, and the next time that sculptures appeared in many paintings was during the later fad for paintings of the senses.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Sight (1617), oil on panel, 64.7 x 109.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens collaborated on their magnificent series of five allegories of the senses, including sculptures in Sight (1617). Among the cornucopia of visual and optical artefacts shown here is a sophisticated telescope, various drawing and navigational instruments which relied on sight (for making sightings), an early magnifying glass, a globe and an orrery (showing the orbits of the planets), and a vast collection of visual art, including both paintings and sculpture.

José de Ribera (1591–1652), The Sense of Touch (c 1630), oil on canvas, 114 × 88 cm, Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

José de Ribera painted at least two different series showing the five senses, both around 1630. The Sense of Touch, as with its sister in the Prado, uses a blind man feeling a sculpture, which is both novel and highly appropriate.

Joseph Wright (of Derby), Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, 1765, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 121.9 cm, Private collection. WikiArt. Even in shallow views, shadow can be a strong cue to depth.
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, 1765, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 121.9 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight (1765) was Joseph Wright of Derby’s first exhibited painting, and a brilliant demonstration of his skill in making an image from the limited cues provided by well-lit fragments of figures and their simple shadows. In Wright’s case, this reflected the influence of the philosopher John Locke’s metaphor of the mind as a darkened room into which the eye lets in images to be reflected upon and stored. It’s also a logical progression from those early grisailles.

Rubens and Brueghel had also collaborated on an earlier painting which featured sculpture, here from classical times.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Nature and Her Followers, or Nature Adorning the Three Graces (c 1615), oil on panel, 106.7 x 72.4 cm, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

In their Nature Adorning the Three Graces from about 1615, the three Graces are seen feting a term with about eight pairs of breasts, who Gombrich identifies as the Ephesian Diana.

Terms are a variant of the classical Greek herma or herm, a sculpture consisting of a head and shoulders (sometimes also a torso) on a plain column of square section. Although quite widely used for sculpted heads, they attained a notoriety with the Romans, who called them termini, hence the English word term. This reputation arose from their association with figures of the god of fertility, Priapus, which often featured male genitalia, sometimes of alarming size.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-33), oil on canvas, 98 x 142.8 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1826), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

Poussin’s A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-33) is a bacchanalian scene, in which a rather more explicit term is being feted and adorned. A young woman wearing blue is close to the sculpture, her left arm stretched up towards the term, with her right arm not quite as straight, and she looks along the line of that arm, down and away from the term.

Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen 1773 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (The Montgomery Sisters) (1773), oil on canvas, 233.7 x 290.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by the Earl of Blessington 1837), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Reynolds’ portrait shows the Montgomery Sisters, although its formal title is Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen. These three young ladies are engaged in the nugatory ‘work’ of making floral garlands destined for the term behind them.

It’s notable that, whilst Reynolds’ term does not have a classical base with a square section, the garland cunningly passes in front of the area of its crotch. The title, though, tells us that this term was not Priapus, but Hymen, the far more respectable ancient Greek god of marriage ceremonies. So Reynolds has artfully steered us away from danger, and declared the three ladies’ interests in marriage. In fact one had even married shortly before he painted their portrait.

Note the pose of the central sister, whose left hand is passing the garland up towards the term, and balanced by the outstretched right arm; she is not looking at the term, but along the line of her right arm to her sister.

Painters have also painted sculptors as their friends.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77), oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 51.2 x 66.4 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77) is the first of three paintings by Thomas Eakins which show William Rush, a wood sculptor, carving his Water Nymph and Bittern for a fountain in Philadelphia’s waterworks, in 1808. The water nymph is an allegory of the Schuylkill River, which was the city’s primary source of water at that time.

Rush had been a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and an enthusiast for the use of nude models in art – as was Eakins. This painting was therefore, at least in part, an attempt to promote Rush’s name, and the practice of working from nude models. Rush prepared thoroughly, as usual, in carving wax studies, and making a series of drawings and oil sketches.

Seated at the right of the model is a chaperone, more interested in her knitting. The model’s complicated clothing is hung and scattered in the light, as if to emphasise her total nudity (apart from a hair-band!), and the sculptor is working in the gloom at the left. Eakins anachronistically included several later works by Rush, as if to provide a resumé of his output. Unfortunately, the scattered garments didn’t go down well, and were deemed scandalous at the time.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (1879), oil on canvas, 109.7 x 82 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (1879) in San Francisco, shows the actress contemplating a small sculpture – an appropriate act as she was herself quite an accomplished painter and sculptor.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Portrait of the Sculptor Nikolaus Friedrich (1912), oil on canvas, 101.7 × 81 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This wonderful Portrait of the Sculptor Nikolaus Friedrich (1912) at work was not the first to be painted by Lovis Corinth, who had made a previous portrait in 1904, when the sculptor was young and muscular. Eight years later he is seen in the midst of a broad and representative range of his work. Friedrich died two years later, when he was only 48.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Homage to Maillol (1917), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 47 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. The Athenaeum.

When Pierre Bonnard started to visit the Midi in France, one of his ports of call was to the sculptor and artist Aristide Maillol, who had been a longstanding and very supportive friend. Maillol lived and worked in the coastal village of Banyuls-sur-Mer, at the far south-western end of the French coast, almost in Spain. Hommage to Maillol, painted in 1917, is Bonnard’s tribute to his friend, although not on his death (Maillol died three years before Bonnard, in 1944). It naturally features sculpture, which I suspect is one of Maillol’s.

Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921), I Lock my Door upon Myself (1891), oil on canvas, 72 x 140 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

I end today’s broad survey with one of Fernand Khnopff’s most enigmatic works, I Lock my Door upon Myself (1891). This was inspired by, and quoted from, a poem by his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister, Christina Rossetti (1830-94), Who Shall Deliver Me? which considers God’s role in resolving inner turmoil.

The sculpted head in the background is of Hypnos, god of sleep, who lived in the underworld with his twin brother Thanatos, god of death. They had already been painted by JW Waterhouse in his Sleep and His Half-Brother Death (1874). To the right of that head is a view of a mediaeval town, with a single dark figure. Three rare orange lily flowers are shown in the foreground, and the blue eyes of the woman pierce through the viewer.

Tomorrow I look at paintings of the best-known myth about sculpture, that of Pygmalion, and how it influenced Gérôme’s paintings.