The sixteenth century brought great change to the way in which clothing and fabrics were depicted. In the first couple of decades, Raphael had mastered their appearance in much the same way that Leonardo da Vinci had earlier mastered faces and flesh; later, artists like Veronese had discovered how effective freer brushwork could be in portraying their visual effects.
Also in Venice, another master was leading a rather different transformation, with swirling cloaks and other garments. This is best shown in Tintoretto’s second attempt at painting the legend of Saint George and the Dragon in about 1555. His previous attempt, in 1552, has its virtues, but the second is quite different.
The saint, the dragon and the Princess have escaped the confines of his earlier votive painting, and now run free in a rich green coastal landscape of the artist’s invention.
Most of this painting was executed in just one or two layers, with superficial glazes to finish, which is consistent with Tintoretto’s reputation for painting very rapidly. The only exception to this is in the clothing of the Princess, where, for instance, the gesso ground was first glazed in a dark ultramarine, lead white highlights were added, with areas being glazed thinly with ultramarine again.
It’s that clothing which is so fascinating. She wears a clinging ultramarine blue dress with a belt and brooch, a crown and ornamented hair, and a thin scarf to soften the neckline of her bodice. The dress has tailored sleeves, a clearly defined hem, and its neckline has turned over points. That’s not clothing for wear when being chased by a dragon, but for a fairy-tale pageant.
To that, Tintoretto has added a billowing swatch of brilliant carmine fabric, which is blowing in a strong wind in a different direction from Saint George’s cape fluttering behind her. That defies both gravity and the fragile security afforded by her left shoulder and the knot in front of her hips. Its unreality is because this fabric is a symbol of her flight away from the dragon behind her, much as we might use motion lines or blur now.
These unreal billowing garments appear elsewhere.
Like other artists, Tintoretto had already used them for saints flying through the air, as in the case of Saint Mark in the artist’s early success Miracle of the Slave from 1548. Here the intention is not just about motion, but about the act of flying, and the figure’s saintliness or divinity.
In Titian’s Rape of Europa (1560-2), the victim waves a swatch of scarlet fabric for the same purpose, showing that the bull is just about to whisk her away across the sea.
Guido Reni’s fresco of Aurora in the Casino Rospigliosi Pallavicini in Rome, from about 1612-14, shows the goddess Aurora leading the horses of the sun chariot as they disperse the darkness of night. Her billowing robes are saffron, and indicate motion, flight and her divinity.
A few years later, Reni’s Hippomenes and Atalanta (1618—19) shows Atalanta picking up the second of the golden apples during her race against Hippomenes. The swirling strips of fabric trace their recent movements, with both pausing momentarily from their course to the right.
In Nicolas Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), Armida’s billowing white wrap traces her path immediately before reaching the sleeping Rinaldo.
Antonio Palomino’s Allegory of Air from about 1700 shows Iris to the right, pointing to her rainbow, with Hera sat in her chariot drawn by a pair of peacocks. Both goddesses are making the sign of the bow using their contrastingly coloured garments.
Billows became even more exuberant in the Rococo: Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Aurora Triumphing over Night (c 1755-56) shows rosy-fingered dawn flying over the sleeping Nyx (night).
In Ubaldo Gandolfi’s Selene and Endymion (c 1770), Selene, with Eros armed beside her, gazes longingly at the sleeping Endymion, as her ample cloak billows behind towards the crescent moon.
Henry Fuseli’s study for The Shepherd’s Dream (1786) is so entangled with streaming fabrics that it’s hard to distinguish its swirling figures.
Evelyn De Morgan’s Boreas and Orithyia (c 1896) is a late example of another association of these billowing strips of fabric, here reaching almost calligraphic extremes as they signify Boreas, the north wind, as he bears Orithyia aloft.
During the nineteenth century, with the exception of the remaining academic painters, billowing textiles fell from favour. With the advent of photography, they were steadily replaced by motion blur and lines.
Without motion lines, the very rapid movement of Carlos Latuff’s aircraft would have been too implicit. Human perception had changed as a result of exposure to photographic images, bringing motion blur, motion lines, and other visual devices. What to our ancestors would merely have appeared to be blurred and defective images have taken on new meaning.
Anne Hollander (2002), Fabric of Vision, Dress and Drapery in Painting, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 907 9.