The great majority of paintings, even those showing complex narrative, try to persuade your brain that they’re really natural three-dimensional views. A few weeks ago, I looked at some exceptions depicting dreams in composite images that have become a conventional device in all visual forms of art, including paintings and movies. This week I look at other exceptions where the painting contains another painting, or a ‘picture in a picture’.
Before landscape painting was recognised as a genre in its own right, embedding a view of a landscape within a painting serving a different purpose and genre was a safe escape for the frustrated landscape artist. Although not the first, one of the best-known of these cameo or vignette landscapes is that in Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435).
Set behind the three subjects of the painting, and divided vertically by two pillars transforming the view into a triptych, a garden, city, and distant countryside are shown in fine detail. Beyond the garden with symbolic objects, and stretching into the distant haze, is a large city with its grand buildings, divided vertically by a major river.
This landscape appears primarily to impart depth to the painting, to give it location, and to augment the importance of the Chancellor, who oversees the wealth and bustle of the city. Another reading is that the outside world is contained and controlled, both within the painting itself, and by the Chancellor.
The landscape embedded in Rogier van der Weyden’s (1400-64) portrait of Saint Ivo (1450) is smaller, simpler, and in keeping with the painting’s monastic theme.
Seen through a small window above and to the left of the subject of the painting (detail below), its middle distance shows a country house or farm, with a lake and deer park. Behind those are hills, with towers and spires of a town. This too is clustered on the banks of a river, crossed by a bridge. There’s also a boat visible on the river, and beyond the town the landscape fades into distant haze. This modest glimpse of landscape adds depth and interest, lacks symbolic objects, and seems to have a straightforward reading.
Working mainly in Sicily during the Southern Renaissance, Antonello da Messina provided even smaller glimpses of landscape in his Saint Jerome in his Study (c 1475). Two small windows set behind the frontmost framing stone archway, are placed at the same level as Saint Jerome’s body.
The views shown through these windows depict pastoral countryside, with a castellated house, a pond with a boat on it, and distant rolling hills. They aren’t dissimilar to that in van der Weyden’s Saint Ivo, although too generic to indicate location. Note that symbolic creatures, such as a peacock, are shown on the step at the front of the painting, not in the landscape cameos. This leaves the latter with only one likely function, that of adding depth.
Cameo landscapes are also invaluable for locating the primary image, as shown in The Tallard Madonna from about 1500.
Attributed to Giorgione (c 1477/8-1510) or his circle, this shows the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus against a view of the south-eastern corner of Venice’s Piazza san Marco, during completion of the first Campanile, when it still had a flat roof (which was in place between 1489-1511). Of course the subjects never got anywhere near Venice, and there is also the anachronism that the Basilica and Piazza as a whole are dedicated to Saint Mark, who was martyred in about 68 AD in Alexandria.
Location was important to Jan Brueghel the Elder when he collaborated with his good friend Peter Paul Rubens to paint a series depicting the five senses.
Hearing (1617-8) shows a country palace amid fields on a rolling plain (detail below). Given that almost every other object shown in each of the paintings in the series is associated with its respective sense, these embedded landscapes are the only significant parts completely disconnected with that sense. One suggested explanation is that they depict palaces belonging to Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Isabella, who may have commissioned the series.
With Rubens, pure landscape painting flourished, and the need to embed these cameos faded, although they still crop up occasionally.
James Ward’s portrait of An Unknown Woman from 1811 is an honest and skilful depiction of a woman of advancing years, with an unusual embedded landscape seen through the window on the right. That landscape has the painterly style and light effects of the artist’s oil sketches, and may have been the first time that his public got a glimpse of that.
My final example is perhaps one of the more intricate uses of an embedded landscape, in Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Death of Brunelleschi from 1852, commemorating the ‘inventor’ of perspective projection.
Leighton follows convention in locating Brunelleschi’s death in a building in Florence, whose window opens to a view of the dome of the cathedral. Brunelleschi is shown half-recumbent in extremis in a chair, as if flattened onto a two dimensional plane. The complex array of buildings seen between the window and the dome appear to defy correct perspective projection, but have in fact been carefully projected, and contrast with the flatness of the dying man.
Tomorrow I look at pictures in pictures that tell more of a story.