Reading visual art: 29 Motion and billows

Guido Reni (1575–1642), Hippomenes and Atalanta (1618—19), oil on canvas, 206 x 297 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The perception of motion is crucial to many images in art. Often, paintings try to tell a story in which movement is central, but a single painting can only show a single frozen image. Depicting motion in paintings is therefore vital, and a great challenge to artists.

In two-dimensional representations of motion in three dimensions, motion is normally only implied by exploiting the mental rules which we apply when perceiving images. We know, presumably by experience since our first moments of sight, that objects don’t normally hover in mid-air. If we see an arrow in mid-flight, those rules tell us that it must be moving, and it usually takes little to guess where it has come from, and where it’s going to. Body postures provide additional cues.

Émile Lévy (1826–1890), Death of Orpheus (1866), oil on canvas, 189 x 118 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

We know that the thyrsus and sickle being wielded by these bacchantes are being swung, and that Émile Lévy’s painting of the Death of Orpheus (1866) has captured an instant in their motion.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Ulysses Fighting the Beggar (1903), oil on canvas, 83 × 108 cm, National Gallery in Prague, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

With Ulysses’ manifestly unstable position, we interpret Lovis Corinth’s depiction of Ulysses Fighting the Beggar (1903) as capturing him in the midst of movement. Corinth provides us with some additional clues too, in the sweep of his hair and clothing.

Louis Bouquet (1885–1952), The Death of Orpheus (1925-39), oil on canvas, 98 × 131 cm, Private collection. Image by Jcstuccilli, via Wikimedia Commons.

The advent of still photography and movies hasn’t changed these basic techniques of implying motion, as shown in this painting of The Death of Orpheus made by Louis Bouquet between 1925-39.

Around the middle of the sixteenth century, artists of the southern Renaissance realised that motion imparted to loose clothing could be effective in depicting the movement of figures. This is best shown in Tintoretto’s second attempt at painting the legend of Saint George and the Dragon in about 1555.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518–1594), Saint George and the Dragon (c 1555) (E&I 62), oil on canvas, 158.3 x 100.5 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

To the Princess’s tailored dress, Tintoretto has added a billowing swatch of brilliant carmine fabric, blowing in a strong wind in a different direction from Saint George’s cape fluttering behind. 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.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), Miracle of the Slave (1548) (E&I 46), oil on canvas, 415 x 541 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy. Image © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 isn’t just about motion, but about the act of flying, and the figure’s saintliness or divinity.

Guido Reni (1575–1642), Hippomenes and Atalanta (1618—19), oil on canvas, 206 x 297 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The depiction of specific types of motion requires greater care. When running, we lean forward, and although both feet do leave the ground simultaneously, the painter has to study human motion carefully to ensure that what they paint appears realistic and not false. Artists like Guido Reni would have looked very carefully at people running before painting Hippomenes and Atalanta so effectively.

Reni uses another popular device in implicit motion here: strips of flying fabric, which we know trail behind a moving body and render its slipstream visible. Such strips are also used to indicate relative motion of the air, so our brains have to determine whether it is the body which is moving through static air, or air which is moving past a static body. Given the other signs of motion, that is easily resolved here.

Noël Hallé (1711–1781), The Race between Hippomenes and Atalanta (1762-65), oil on canvas, 321 x 712 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Bring all those clues together, and a skilled and observant artist can show two people, again Hippomenes and Atalanta, running past a crowd of people waving and cheering them on.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

In Nicolas Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), Armida’s billowing white wrap traces her path immediately before reaching the sleeping Rinaldo.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), Aurora Triumphing over Night (c 1755-56), oil on canvas, 95.2 x 131.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

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).

Ubaldo Gandolfi (1728–1781), Selene and Endymion (c 1770), oil on canvas, 227.3 × 146 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

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 (1741–1825), The Shepherd’s Dream (1786), black chalk, brush, ink and brown ink, sanguine, white chalk and wash over pencil on paper, dimensions not known, Albertina, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

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 (1855–1919), Boreas and Oreithyia (c 1896), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, De Morgan Centre, London. Wikimedia Commons.

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 garment fell from favour. With the advent of photography, they were steadily replaced by motion blur and lines.