Who framed Madame Moitessier?

Nicholas Penny

  • Metropolitan Jewellery by Sophie McConnell
    Metropolitan Museum of Art/Bulfinch, 111 pp, £17.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 8212 1877 8
  • Italian Renaissance Frames by Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca and Laurence Kanter
    Metropolitan Museum of Art, 111 pp, £25.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 8109 3455 8
  • The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600 by Peter Thornton
    Weidenfeld, 407 pp, £65.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 297 83006 6
  • Palaces of Art edited by Giles Waterfield
    Dulwich Picture Gallery, 188 pp, £20.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 9501564 5 0

The pale blue, wide-open eyes of Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc, under their large geometrically-perfect lids, are placed high on the canvas, to the left of its centre, and it seems a great distance down her long neck and the gently undulating slopes of her black satin dress – over which a gold watch-chain drops, and beside which a languid arm, veiled in tulle, is arranged – to her hand in the lower right corner of the painting, which reposes upon a diamond rivière, as upon a tiny pet, half-concealed in the folds of what must be her lap. This cunning emphasis on marginal detail, so characteristic of Ingres, may prompt the visitor to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to wonder whether it was modesty which made Madame Leblanc decline to exhibit so very valuable a possession more ostentatiously in her portrait, or the painter’s reluctance to let sparkle distract from form in the centre of his painting. Readers of Metropolitan Jewellery will learn of another possibility. Two years before the painting was completed, in 1823, a French fashion journal had suggested that diamond rivières should only be worn by dowagers. There is much else to be learned from Metropolitan Jewellery, a picture book with stimulating illustrations, juxtaposing real jewellery in the Metropolitan Museum with paintings there in which jewellery appears.

A more substantial book, also of interest both to students of painting and to students of the decorative arts, is Italian Renaissance Frames, a scholarly catalogue of one of the greatest collections of frames in the world, published to coincide with an exhibition held at the Metropolitan in 1990. The exhibition was far more popular than anyone had expected and the beautifully produced and designed catalogue sold out immediately but has since been reprinted. It sets entirely new standards for the physical examination, stylistic and structural description and illustration of this special form of furniture. Relatively few of these frames have paintings in them which belong to them and those that do are always the early ones where the frame was engaged – part of the same structure as the painted panel.

Most museum visitors have little idea of how rare it is to see a painting in its original frame: in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery there are only two paintings made between 1450 and 1510 which retain their frames, although about a fifth have genuine old frames found for them in this century. The ratio isn’t much better in later centuries. Tragically, a painting often has to shed its frame to retain its lovers. Kenneth Clark, seeking to persuade the Trustees of the National Gallery to purchase Ingres’s portrait of Madame Moitessier, had it removed from the florid gilt composition frame which the artist had probably selected (and possibly even designed) for it, fearing it would make the whole picture look ‘Victorian’. The frame migrated to the Tate Gallery but was later reclaimed. One could argue, however, that this frame was as much determined by the architecture and decor of the sort of room in which it would hang as it was by the character of the painting, and thus that such a frame will never look quite right unless the painting is returned to an opulent drawing-room. Precisely because frames are related to decor, they are liable to be the victims of fashion. There comes a date when florid composition frames are as ‘impossible’ as wearing a diamond rivière.

The only thing that is missing from the Metropolitan Museum’s catalogue is any discussion of how the frames might actually have related to the pictures once within them. The difference between a tight, sharp, thin, polished walnut frame made in 16th-century Florence and a luxuriant scrolled and swagged and gilded frame made in Venice at the same date is, after all, as great as – and reminiscent of – the difference between a Bronzino and a Veronese. What is discussed is the relationship of the frames to architectural motifs and to other types of furniture.

Peter Thornton’s The Italian Renaissance Interior is a long, erudite and entertaining investigation of such matters as how rooms were lit and heated, how ceilings were constructed and decorated, where carpets came from and how they were displayed. It is chiefly of value as a history of materials and techniques, but it includes a great deal of interesting social history, as the section on the ‘furniture of hygiene’, for example, demonstrates. The captions for the many illustrations provide an alternative to reading the main text, so that this is a work of scholarship and a picture book. It is, however, not a museum picture book.

Thornton spent eight years in the Department of Textiles and 22 in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork in the Victoria & Albert Museum and it was, he tells us, his study of the objects in this great museum which prompted him to investigate the purpose they originally served and the settings for which they were made. And yet among the 360 plates (150 of them in colour) I found no illustration of an object in the V & A. Indeed, with a few exceptions (one or two pieces of majolica and some intarsia panels), no actual objects are illustrated – no looking-glass, candlestick, inkstand, chest, chair, picture-frame or floor tile. In the section on the chimney-piece he quotes at length from a little-known description of a Carrara marble chimney-piece, carved with delicate figures and foliage, shining like gold – in the firelight, he conjectures – and adorning the late 15th-century palace of a noble Venetian family, but he fails to mention the magnificent Florentine palace chimney-piece carved by Desiderio da Settignano out of pietra serena, the grey sandstone of Fiesole, which is one of the wonders of the V & A.

Thornton adduces three types of evidence: surviving artifacts, which he knows so well but rarely illustrates; documents (and especially inventories); and pictures, mostly paintings, which supply the majority of his illustrations. He is well aware of the difficulty of using this last class of evidence: ‘On more general matters like how much furniture there was in a room, how many other objects were present, and on the density of arrangement, these pictures can be misleading, if only because artists mostly included no more than was needed to make their point; they did not want to clutter up their pictures. On the other hand, artists often included details for fun.’ Yet he maintains that they are still ‘the best evidence that we possess concerning the appearance of rooms at the time’. The effect is to make him a little too eager to discern reliable documentation of contemporary practice in works of the imagination.

Of a two-part Annunciation painted by Giovanni Bellini in the 1490s he notes that the walls of the Virgin’s bedchamber are completely clad with marble. This certainly represents an ideal in the Venetian architecture embodied in the new votive church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli where the painting (as Thornton does not point out) served as the shutters for the organ. We are given no evidence that real domestic interiors were so treated, and I suspect that this is a case where one sort of evidence has not been checked against another. Such marble, Thornton notes, would have been very cool for the ‘ground-floor bedchamber in the city or at the family villa in the country which is what we see here’. In fact, neither in Venice, where the ground floor was damp, not in the country, where yokels and farm animals were never far away, did Venetian ladies sleep on the ground floor. No less misleading is his speculation that one of Giulio Romano’s paintings of lovers on a luxurious antique Roman bed is based on something the artist may have seen in the room of a modern Roman courtesan.

Thornton does, however, provide some remarkable insights into what exactly is represented in paintings. ‘Portrait showing no fewer than four, and maybe eight, silk materials’ reads the headline of the caption for Moretto’s portrait of a melancholy gentleman, but none is mentioned in the label or in the catalogue produced by the National Gallery. A knowledge of fabrics is one of Thornton’s greatest strengths and it is certainly the case that sitters (to Ingres as well as Moretto) were highly knowledgeable about them and sensitive to their beauty and value, measuring the skill of an artist by his ability to represent them.

Paintings themselves were often equipped with curtains. This was sometimes because of subject-matter, as with the portrait of someone who had recently died, or because the picture was thought unsuitable for ladies or for children – perhaps the reason why a Rubens had curtains in the National Gallery when it first opened in 100 Pall Mall. But most commonly a painting was curtained in order to protect its precious surface from sunlight, household dirt or fly droppings. Painters, especially in the Netherlands in the 17th century, sometimes wittily painted such curtains (and flies) in, or rather on, their paintings. The practice of draping paintings may explain the mysterious appearance made by fabric in a portrait of a lady by Bronzino (here miscaptioned as being by Mazzola-Bedoli). A mass of almost transparent silk hangs down beside the sitter on one side and is piled upwards on the other. Thornton describes this as a canopy, but if so, it is a very odd one. He suggests that the fabric is there to inform us that the sitter is ‘a very fine lady’ – which is obvious enough anyway. But he also points out that fabric of this sort was used to protect mirrors from flies. And this may be a clue to its meaning, for whatever was used for a mirror could be appropriately used for a painting. Perhaps the artist’s conceit was that when the veil was drawn aside in front of the lady’s portrait we would see another such veil behind it, or rather behind her. The painting of such a stuff – and the same applies to the tulle on Madame Leblanc’s arm – is a great test of skill.

Thornton provides abundant information on how paintings were displayed and on what else – often more highly valued – might be used to decorate a wall. This is now a subject of intense interest, reflected both in publications and exhibitions. Palaces of Art, the catalogue of the exhibition devoted to British art galleries over the last two hundred years which was such a success at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (where it closed on 1 March) and is now at the National Gallery of Scotland (until 3 May), is particularly welcome because it examines all the problems – especially of lighting (on which there is a valuable essay by Michael Compton) – and documents numerous unfashionable undertakings as well as supplying models for the historical interior decorators.

There are things missing from the exhibition and its catalogue: one of the most important rooms in the National Gallery, indeed the first with a truly grand architectural character (and some significant new technology), designed by Pennethorne and opened in 1861, is not included; nor is the Gallery of Lancaster (alias Stafford) House with its spectacular clerestory – a gallery that was probably unique in providing ceiling space for a great Baroque painting by Guercino (still there) and unusual in having plaster-work ornament which refers to the art it surrounded. In the discussion of the vogue for pale colours in Giles Waterfield’s essay on changing taste in gallery decor, a reference is needed to Charles Bell’s innovations at the Ashmolean Museum – acqua sporca and other dingy shades inspired by the work of Corrado Ricci in Italy, first used there in 1908, were widely imitated in other English museums. But these are minor omissions in what is an exceptionally full account.

When curators of public collections in this century tried to revive some of the ways in which pictures were displayed in the past – Bell in the Thirties, reacting against his own earlier work, Michael Jaffé at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the Seventies are notable examples – they were trying to make the splendour and richness of the European palace available to the British public, not to revive the congestion and pedantry which so often prevailed in the old public collections. Now almost all public galleries (assisted by interior decorators who have arrived there in the shadow of the sponsors whose private homes they have made more glamorous) are trying to do something of the kind, there is a danger of forgetting that public galleries are for the public.

Paintings or indeed photographs are indispensable as evidence of how things really were in the 19th or 20th-century gallery but they are often no more reliable than those which Thornton depends on. There are many paintings of the interiors of picture galleries made in the second half of the last century – one day a week was set aside for copyists and they weren’t always obliged to copy but could paint the interiors (or, in the case of the Impressionists in the Louvre, the view out of the window). These pictures were made with half an eye on the upper-middle-class art collector. So it is unsurprising that they generally depict genteel visitors. The catalogue entry for one of the views of the National Gallery in Palaces of Art concludes that an air of oppressive decorum pervaded the whole place, but in private letters we read of the very poor addressing the very great as they stood before the old masters. A diarist in 1842 noted that ‘great numbers of the lower classes attend and in fact I suspect more than any other class.’ This is not a suspicion we would be likely to entertain in 1992. Many visitors to galleries today are bewildered by the richer picture hangs now being revived which often entail paintings being hung high. They are sometimes right, but not always, for it isn’t the case that a painting simply needs to be easy to see, close to, rather as we would want a poem to be clearly printed. No painting can ever be ‘read’ in its entirety and there are parts which we will never see, or rather which will never strike us, in some positions. Our awareness of Madame Leblanc’s hand – and her diamond rivière – and of the long distance between it and her eyes will depend on the height at which the painting is hung. The cunning of the composition and the grandeur of the portrait are inestimably enhanced if we look up at her. Anyone who has experience of hanging paintings will know how the depth in a landscape – the spatial effects of Turner or Koninck – is completely altered once the horizon line is above eye level. The difference to a painting when its frame is changed or even when it is given new partners on the wall is no less extraordinary.

It is inconceivable that an intelligent curator would not be interested in the height at which – and in the setting and frame in which – an artist intended or expected that his work would be exhibited, but that does not mean that we are obliged to re-create such circumstances. Indeed, partial re-creation can often be worse than none. Restore the original burnished gilding to a picture-frame and hang it on a perfect reproduction of a period damask and you will kill paintings (such as those by Poussin) which have irreversibly darkened. Have an exact replica of a plain ebony 17th-century frame made for a Vermeer and you might find that it can no longer hang with other Dutch pictures which retain the fine rococo frames given them by French collectors in the 18th century.

The original frames of many Renaissance paintings were tabernacle frames – frames with an entablature on top, often covered by a pediment, flanked by pilasters or columns, with a plinth below, often supported, even if only visually, by a corbel (misleadingly described as an antependium in the Metropolitan catalogue). The whole point of such an architectural frame was to focus attention on an object of devotion – to build a little chapel around it. It would have been very unusual to have more than one such frame on any wall, but this would be likely in even the most sparsely arranged art gallery. Moreover, the tabernacle frame is not designed for top lighting – and certainly not for spotlights which can make the cornice cast a shadow over the picture. They were, on the other hand, designed for, and often fitted with, candles which one would not now wish to see introduced into art galleries. By getting one thing – the frame – ‘right’ other things become more ‘wrong’ than ever. Nor would we be closer to the past if we reconstructed an Italian palace bedchamber for every picture of this kind, because, for the first owner, the painting, however good, was not an old master, and often enough not primarily a work of art.

The only form of artificial light which old paintings and sculptures were meant to be seen by is that of the candle or oil lamp which generally provided a flickering light from below rather than steady illumination from above. For the most part they were painted to be viewed by daylight and were far less highly illuminated than they are today. It is only recently that artificial light has been considered an adequate substitute for daylight, but its increasing sophistication, by making us think more carefully about the reality imitated, has defeated itself (rather as frozen vegetables have led to a reappraisal of fresh ones). Now that the novelty of looking at bronze, porcelain and glass gleaming with highlights in black rooms has worn off, the distortions become intolerable. So, too, do the effects of spotlights on marble and stone sculpture, often giving the nose three or four shadows which overlap the lips. The damage to our perception of painting is less obvious but it is painful to anyone who has lived with it in daylight.

Museum curators should turn their attention from computerised lighting systems to the technology of blinds to control daylight. However effective these are, the light will vary with the hour and the season. No doubt extremes of alteration are unacceptable, especially to a gallery public which consists more of travellers making (as distinct from locals renewing) acquaintance with the works of art, but there should surely be no objection to alteration in principle. For paintings look well in different lights and there is no ‘correct’ light level for looking at them. The assumption that there is such a level arises from our ability, once a clear, uniform, safe but informative level of electric lighting has been achieved, to fix it. And the assumption is perhaps reinforced by the idea of colour reproduction which has to have a standard by which its accuracy can be measured. We are for ever striving for transparencies and colour plates which are ‘perfect’ or ‘spot on’ – as if paintings had white borders or glowed in the dark. Electric lighting was only introduced in the National Gallery in 1935. It would not surprise me if it began to be removed from some museums and galleries before 2000. The quality of the light is far more important than vain attempts to restore ‘authentic decor’.