The Visual Artist in Western Society
As for visual artists and their status: I believe that, contrary to some historians, they were never “anonymous” — we just don’t have historical records, so their names are unknown to us. But artists as creative beings (and I’m including of course architects) necessarily had a reputation once their works were seen in their own time. And, in one way or another, they always “advertised” their existence and skill(s): an interesting essay by Meyer Shapiro that analyses the role of the artist in tenth and eleventh-century France suggests that the better ones were well recognized and in demand and their roles as visual interpreters of Church tradition and dogma were part of their skill, even if they weren’t themselves members of religious orders. (See M. Shapiro, “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art”, reprinted (pp. 1-27) in Romanesque Art (George Braziller, NY, 1977).) And early in the Italian Renaissance, we find Giotto signing a painting of St. Francis from about 1300 (now in the Louvre).
So, the apparent uniqueness of the modern obsession with “fame” is perhaps overstated.
As courts developed in the major cities in Europe during the Middle Ages and bourgeois classes grew thanks to increased commerce, trade, and worldwide exploration, the demand for and ability to pay for sophisticated, often opulent works of art likewise increased. Naturally, artists sought commissions from the newly-wealthy and powerful, since artists were trying to make a living. Partly impelled by a desire to earn more money they sought more prestige, as well. Some were able to align themselves with Humanist scholars whose writings became as valued as the Church’s theologians. All classes became interested in Europe’s debt to their Roman and Greek ancestors. Scholars kept finding and reproducing texts from ancient times that had been long thought lost and ancient artworks kept being dug up (the most famous find, in Rome in 1506: the Laocoon, a sculpture that is a Roman copy, mentioned in an ancient text by Pliny the Elder, of a Greek original and, as the text indicated, signed!)
Scholars fleeing the Ottomans in the Near East in the later fifteenth century brought their knowledge of Greek with them, as well as ancient texts.
This interest in the Roman and Greek past naturally was picked up by visual artists and, so, beginning especially in the early 1400s, aspects of Roman architecture began to be found in the frescoes and panel paintings and in the designs of new buildings themselves. Rulers as disparate as the Gonzaga in Mantua and Rudolph II (HRE, 1576-1612) delighted in being identified in their artists’ works for it associated them with the glories of Rome in one way or another.
Of course, the concept that Rome and its heritage was somehow “lost” and then refound during the early Renaissance is a bit of a legend without much basis. Monasteries and other centers of culture in the Middle Ages preserved some of the Roman heritage and there’s certainly evidence throughout that writers and artists still reflected on that history. To cite just one example, in the Morgan Library the Stavelot Triptych, created around 1155 AD, on its side panels contains miniature silver columns with Corinthian capitals and bases evoking Rome and the Constantinian era, consistent with the period of the legends depicted in enamel roundels on the panels.
The clients’ idea of having themselves pictured via portraits in painted works — both secular and religious — seemed to develop slowly in the early 15th century, but then caught on. So we find in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in SM Novella in Florence on the life of the Virgin (ca. 1490) various Florentine “notables” in the crowds attending the various episodes. The work was commissioned by a banker of the Medici’s, Giovanni Tornabuoni (contract signed 1485). In the ducal palace in Mantua we find a room frescoed by Mantegna in 1464-75 with the Gonzaga ruling clan prominently displayed on several of the four walls. The semi-private functions of the room, the Camera degli Sposi, helped to create an air of exclusiveness that was meant to impress viewers with the wealth and cultural prestige of Gonzaga without an overt or gaudy display.
It’s common in art history to teach that the first profile bust in marble since the end of the Roman Empire was done by Mino da Fiesole in 1453. Appropriately enough for our purposes and point of view, it was a portrait bust of the son of the patriarch of the Medici’s in the 15th century, Piero de’ Medici, who de facto ruled Florence 1464-69. The sculpture is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. This would have presumably been for display in the patron’s home and not publicly. The great ‘boom’ in portrait art in Florence in the mid to late 15th century was featured in a recent Met Museum exhibition.
Even in Northern Renaissance art, we see contemporary donors or clerics being portrayed in historical or Biblical works. Thus, there are several masterpieces showing Chancellor Rolin of the Duchy of Burgundy, including one by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1435) where he is shown kneeling in front of the Virgin and child! Hans Memling painted an altarpiece of the Crucifixion (ca. 1470) where the patron/donor, a cleric named Jan Crabbe, is seen kneeling at the base of the cross, while on the side panels (now at the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC) are his mother with her patron saint and his brother with his. There are countless other examples of donors being pictured within scenes that nominally are set in Biblical times but feature contemporary architecture and cityscapes.
Presumably, the Church in Rome had no problem with this. It was certainly a way to encourage the spending of large sums by patrons or wealthy clerics in order to have colorful works of art created which could adorn their churches (sometimes inside chapels ‘owned’ or sponsored by the patrons). For the Strozzi family, rivals but sometimes allies of the Medicis, in their chapel in SM Novella, Filippino Lippi painted a fresco (1502) depicting a legend of a saint’s deeds and pictured in it a very elegant Moorish man, wearing an extremely tall turban, which seems to be a portrait of Filippo Strozzi’s Moorish slave.
And, as you pointed out, artists took the opportunity to represent themselves as well as their patrons in some of these scenes. So, it’s thought that the man on the right peering out at the viewer in Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1475, Uffizi) is Botticelli himself! Likewise, we probably see Pontormo among the men holding the dead Christ in his “Deposition” in Santa Felicita (1528) in Florence.
Presumably, this reflects that by the late 15th century the most well-known artists had gained a status well above that of a mere member of a workmen’s guild (painters and sculptors often were lumped with other trades in large guilds). When they did have their own guilds, artists often used it as a way to keep out competition from artists emigrating from other cities or regions.
Certainly, your thought that being seen via portraiture in a painting of a Biblical scene might somehow suggest to the patrons that they were that much closer to Heaven is a correct one. I always found it somewhat amusing that this same thought led many aristocrats and members of other privileged classes to attempt to be buried in floor tombs within the church and as close to the altar as possible!
The Maggiore chapel in Santa Croce, Florence, has frescos by Taddeo Gaddi’s son, Agnolo Gaddi, painted in the mid-1300s. Agnolo was considered the artistic heir of Giotto. The fresco is notable for details and curiosities that have nothing to do with the legend’s iconography. In it, you can spot portraits of Taddeo, Agnolo, and Giotto.
I’m sure that artists were not oblivious to the concept that one way to gain business was to suggest to a wealthy patron that he/she commission works for a church in which the patron would also be pictured. But my sense is that the wealthy and powerful did not deal directly with artists and that agents or bureaucrats or scholars affiliated with the circle or court of the patron would have both recommended the artist and perhaps negotiated with him over the details of the work. Italy has a particularly rich archive of contracts for artistic works (the Northern Renaissance countries don’t) and in some of the contracts, there is a fairly precise description of what the picture should look like and what colors and materials were to be used (to impress one’s neighbors you’d have the painter use a blue made from lapis lazuli — extremely expensive — with gilding throughout; in the Middle Ages the gilded area often suggested Heaven).
We should remember that painted images were not the highest form of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the Middle Ages and Renaissance/Baroque: you showed you were especially wealthy by owning woven wool tapestries and sculptures (including table-sized ‘miniature’ bronzes by the likes of a sculptor dubbed “Antico”). Thus, the Medicis were sufficiently wealthy to commission Donatello to create his sculpture “David” that was probably intended for a garden. And the Medici pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create “cartoons” for 10 tapestries (based on the book of Acts in the Christian Bible) that were sent to Brussels for weaving around 1516. All European rulers of stature until the 18th century owned often large numbers of very expensive tapestries.
Granted, these were the wealthiest and most powerful of secular and religious figures who had vast amounts of assets to draw from to pay their artists. By the seventeenth century, in more bourgeois societies such as those in the Dutch Republic cities, status seemed to depend more frequently on your ownership of paintings, including the new genres of landscapes and still lifes.
Nonetheless, the Roman Church and its new orders such as the Jesuits continued to commission large projects, including the frescoing of ceilings and domes of newly-built churches, such as the dome of the Jesu Church in Rome.
In terms of when the concept developed that “Art is an Elite Business”, it depends on your viewpoint. As noted above, the artist was not necessarily the one creating the impression that his works would lend status to an owner. It partly required a knowledgeable patron with intelligent advisors to commission the type of work that would reflect grandly on the patron. Michelangelo gained his fame from the Pieta, the David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, all commissioned by “the Church”, though the ceiling reflected on the apparent good taste and sagacity of Pope Julius II, who also commissioned his own tomb from Michelangelo that Michelangelo was working on fitfully for decades after the Pope’s death. By the time the Pope commissioned the ceiling, Michelangelo was already “a rock star” and many of the era’s notables were nearly begging Michelangelo to make even a drawing for them.
So, by this point in the sixteenth century, some artists had received the kind of acclaim we see today and could almost literally “name their price”. What Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) spawned in his work on the lives of the painters and sculptors (1550; 1568) – a view of art as a kind of competition judged by people who did not have to be either artists or patrons – created a new profession: art critic, someone who was a kind of intermediary between the patron and the artist. Was this the beginning of history’s tendency to “forget” certain artists who were not deemed of the highest rank, even though their works might well be worthy of attention and provide joy to those who beheld them? (Vasari, of course, was himself an artist and architect, but that was not a requirement for art critics in succeeding centuries.)
But to answer your main query: Yes, clearly wealthy families or individuals hoped to gain both public prestige and a step up on the ladder to Heaven by commissioning frescoes and altarpieces that were, indeed, very visible in a church setting and, thus, would be viewed by other citizens who undoubtedly would marvel at the amounts spent by the patrons (often chapel-owners) to have had such magnificent works created. And some of the works of course involved sculptural settings and statuary/busts for their own tombs in a church if they were so fortunate as to be permitted such a permanent “residence”.
The Roman (Catholic) Church clearly favored this approach and during the Counter-Reformation and Baroque periods, their churches became almost over-burdened with decoration. As you’ve noted, certain break-away sects among those that came to be called “Protestant” were more ascetic in their approach and, hence, we have the wonderful paintings of white-washed, brilliantly-lighted (via clear windows, not colorful stained glass) interiors of Dutch churches by numerous seventeenth-century Dutch painters. (See The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic, by Angela Vanhaelen, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 2012. 222 pp, 56 illus. ISBN 978-0-271-05061-4).
Certain Protestant sects, such as the Lutherans themselves, came to accept aspects of the decorative scheme and theology of the Roman Church and so permitted painted pictures, even of saints (the cult of saints had been roundly criticized in the initial phases of the Reformation).
But one senses that the patrons and artists were less likely to try to be “show-offs” publicly in the context of a Lutheran or Reformed church.
Again, this was a period when the opulence of art went back into private, but now bourgeois, residences (parallel to the palaces of the Medici, the Strozzi, Sforza, and other Italian wealthy families).
Collecting: An Aside
As one of your points suggested, we shouldn’t overlook the idea that “consumers” of art drove the market, too. Commissioning or buying “fine art” was not always an aesthetic decision per se, but, rather, made in order to have something in one’s home that was deemed by others to be desirable. Around the time of the Renaissance, the idea of forming collections of things as a goal in itself – pictures, tapestries, gems, items related to amateur scientific study, medallions, small bronzes, etc. – seemed to gain momentum. Vasari, an artist, and architect, was also an avid collector of other artists’ works, especially drawings. Reasonably well to do people who could not afford oil paintings much less tapestries, could perhaps afford drawings or prints. In any event, all these “objects” that were collected presumably meant to the collector that he had a certain prestige as a member of the cognoscenti by virtue of ownership of multiple numbers of fine visual works by more talented individuals who were acknowledged as such by the arbiters of taste at the particular moment in history when the collecting was carried out.
Given the secularization of society in general in the 18th through 20th centuries, religious art tended to be accorded less value than before and artists sought fame and fortune through portraiture and decorative floral and other still-life paintings and “genre” painting. (Mythological and historical paintings were still acquired most often by institutions.) So the Church had less influence on the picture- and sculpture-making. Thus, artists threw their lot in with the nouveau riche and bourgeoisie.
One might have expected that extreme times would have brought changes in art – the subject matter, even the materials. After a wave of neo-classicism in 18th century Europe (France, especially), the French Revolution might have been expected to overturn all aesthetic “norms”. Instead, it seems to me that artists were wary about trying anything too new that might be deemed “aristocratic” and literally be a risk to their lives (at least in France). Even in French “satellite” countries, like parts of Italy, we see more “classicism”, such as Canova’s pure-white marble sculptures. Elsewhere, like England and Germany, there develops a Romanticism that seems to be a “cry” back to the calm of pre-Revolutionary times rather than a direct response to the Revolution and its ideals and chaos. There were notable exceptions, of course, such as the work of the brilliant English poet, painter, printmaker, publisher William Blake.
Thanks, Ricardo. That was awesome!
This intriguing article is a good one for those interested in more information on this and related topics:
Do read this excellent piece on the history of Renaissance art:
Here is more about the evolving status of Italian Renaissance artists:
The escapades of Isabella d’Este — a Renaissance art collector:
For those interested in more information about the Northern Renaissance, and about the Protestant / Lutheran Reformation and its effect upon Church and Religious Art, check out these excellent links:
NB. Photographs and paintings by Adam Donaldson Powell. All references and links are credited to the best of my ability. The artist who made the cartoon is unknown to me (unfortunately), but the magazine name is above the artwork.
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