Hue and Cry

Arthur C. Danto

  • Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction by John Gage
    Thames and Hudson, 335 pp, £38.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 500 23654 2

There is a painting by Guercino of St Luke displaying, with a gesture of triumphant accomplishment, a painting he has just executed of the Madonna and Child. An angel is shown marvelling at the image, sufficiently persuaded by its likeness that he (or she) spontaneously reaches out to touch the Madonna’s garment. Guercino was enough of an art historian to know that nothing St Luke could have painted would bear serious comparison with what a 17th-century master could achieve in terms of realism, so he invented a sort of archaic style with which to represent the painting of which St Luke was so affectingly proud. One almost feels that there is a bit of boasting on Guercino’s part: if only the angel could step outside the painting and look at what Guercino had achieved, then he (or she) might see how far the art of painting had progressed since the time of St Luke. But filled though Guercino’s painting is with a certain sense of history, his imagination failed him when it came to St Luke’s studio. He is shown with palette and brushes, painting in oils on a panel perched on an easel, very much in the way in which Guercino himself must have painted the picture that we see. It was as if only artistic representation has a developmental history, and not the materials of the artist, which are taken for granted as having been much the same in the era of Christ’s infancy as they were in the 17th century.

Still, Guercino had a more vivid feeling for historical change than did Tiepolo, who shows the legendary painter Apelles, painting Campaspe – the mistress of Alexander the Great. Tiepolo depicts the artist with an ample palette, dotted with the colours he, Tiepolo, must have used to paint this very picture. He shows us Apelles’ portrait of Campaspe (on an oval canvas), which bears no resemblance to what we must imagine Hellenistic portraiture to have been like. In Tiepolo’s painting, the two images of Campaspe – the one in Apelles’ picture, and Tiepolo’s image of the woman herself – are alike; as if it were unbearable for Tiepolo to imagine that Apelles, whose very name connoted painting at its greatest, could have been in any respect inferior to Tiepolo himself (who at the same time, of course, shows himself the equal of Apelles): Apelles was not a Sunday painter, unlike St Luke.

There is a fascinating chapter on artists’ palettes in this marvellous book, as well as a chapter devoted to the palette of Apelles himself, based on a piece of information handed down by Pliny, from which we learn that the master worked ‘with four colours only – white from Milos, Attic yellow, red from Sinope in the Black Sea, and the black called atramentum.’ Nothing by Apelles has survived, nor could Pliny (a near contemporary of St Luke) himself have known any of the painter’s works at first hand. The satirist Lucian wrote an ekphraseis – a literary exercise in which a descriptive equivalent of a picture is attempted – of Apelles’ celebrated Calumny; Botticelli used Lucian’s description as the basis of an attempt to recreate Apelles’ masterpiece. The two paintings thus satisfy the same description, while at the same time it is inconceivable that they could look like each other – Botticelli’s work being unmistakably quattrocento.

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