Art · Reality

St George On Horseback By Fra Bartolomeo.

A Sketch For A Later Painting.

Take a closer look at the sketch of St George and you will notice something interesting, something that points to a lack of confidence. The background has been made into a grid.
A sketch in black chalk by Fra Bartolomeo for his painting of St George and the Dragon.
Collection Boymans van Beuningen.

Fra Bartolomeo is the name we know the artist Baccio della Porta, who lived and worked primarily in Florence in or around 1500. His ability to depict flowing gowns using the Venetian style of sketching with black chalk, but also highlighting with white for added effect. His sketches of the human form are truly inspiring; inspiring enough for Raphael, the greatest painter the world has ever seen. Well, apart from Gainsborough, Turner and a couple of dozen others. Art isn’t about greatness, it’s about sharing.

The flowing forms of the human body – or for that matter, horses – were not Bartolomeo’s strongest point. Bartolomeo was certainly better than many; he wasn’t the absolute in terms of Florentine painting.
A study for the kneeling St. Margaret for his painting “Father God”
Collection Boymans van Beuningen.

The flowing forms of the human body – or for that matter, horses – were not Bartolomeo’s strongest point. Now to be fair, nor is it mine! My own drawings, such as they aren’t, have human legs that are either painfully dislocated or made of wood. Good enough for a book, as art, they are worth as much as the paper they are drawn on. Bartolomeo was certainly better than many; he wasn’t the absolute in terms of Florentine painting.

Take a closer look at the sketch of St George and you will notice something interesting, something that points to a lack of confidence. The background has been made into a grid. I know from life drawing myself that a grid helps not a jot when it comes to the human form. It does help if you want to capture a landscape or a building; humans are not constructions. Fra Bartolomeo was constructing humans, animals, if you understand me.

If someone depicts something that literally isn’t there, you don’t ask yourself why it is that the thing he depicted had these appurtenances that day. You must ask yourself why the artist *imagined these things to be real.
Detail of St George’s horse, showing the latticework.

Look at the form of the horse’s rear quarters: they are out of proportion. The point here is that Bartolomeo wouldn’t have been able to improve on the horse he was looking at by imagining it divided up into squares. Life – and art, for that matter, simply doesn’t work that way. Either you draw from nature and get it wrong as I do, or you don’t. You cannot impose your own limitations on nature and expect it to conform. Nature is there as our touchstone of reality, not as something to push around in the way modern scientists do.

A horse is a horse, and if you want to draw a horse, you draw it from your own experience of the proportions of the animal itself. My own inabilities in drawing are more those of a person who is untrained and inexperienced – my faults are not due to a lack of perception. Fra Bartolomeo was, as an artist, everything I am not: trained, talented and experienced. What he lacked was the clarity of perception. He didn’t lack much, he lacked enough.

Fra Bartolomeo had stepped back from this immediacy and in doing so, added a veneer of abstraction. That is to say, he relied on a lattice of horizontal and vertical lines that do not exist in living nature. That in itself was enough to add the distortions. Wherever you see abstraction in any shape or form, you will see the truth distorted, whether this be literature, science, the news or in Fra Bartolomeo’s drawings. It’s not as if this is his fault; he was merely a product of his time. He had entered the world unprepared and the result of this was that he needed the conceptual crutch of a lattice instead of using his eyes. It’s what we have eyes for, after all. If someone depicts something that literally isn’t there, you don’t ask yourself why it is that the thing he depicted had these appurtenances that day. You must ask yourself why the artist imagined these things to be real.

The paintings of Fra Bartolomeo are well executed and for the average man, sufficient to their needs. Average men are not bothered about the details of proportion, but then, most men lack the courage that is demanded of anybody wishing to perceive our world for what it truly is. This has come to such a point today that nature’s reality is so far from being the accepted norm of society that to speak the truth is to be labelled a liar and a wrongdoer. Remember that Socrates was put to death for this, but it took him seventy years to achieve that. In our age, people are so uncertain of themselves that they will casually label anything they don’t like as being wrong. What’s more, they will do it with an immediacy that is frankly alarming. This has huge implications for their future state of health, both physically and mentally.

They know no different; Fra Bartolomeo knew no different. The genius of Raphael couldn’t dissuade him from his need for lattices. Raphael is a great artist because he had the courage to draw what he saw; it was this courage that led him to draw in the way he did. There was no horror in Raphael’s world (1). Today we have too much, and we have it because in times past, people stood back from harsh reality and chose the comfort of illusion instead.

Fra Bartolomeo could only paint as he saw the world, and in being unaware of the balance inherent in all living things, he needed to impose something in order to structure the things he saw. Structure of any kind is the result of human activity: nature, on the other hand, grows.

You don’t nail horses together with a few assorted limbs and a tail, adding a little colour for pleasing effect. An animal is born, eats and grows. Cut it in half as scientists are wont to do and you leave the realm of the living. This only tells you that in abstracting themselves, legions of scientists have repudiated the world they depend on for their existence.

Forgive them, they know not what they do.

It is these unassuming details in a painting that I love. They show their every-day world. A world that could not change.
It is these unassuming details in a painting that I love.
They show their every-day world. A world that could not change.
Polo Museale della Tosca, Lucca.

Because I forgive Fra Bartolomeo: he did his best and his shortcomings did not overwhelm the majority of his work. More than that, the people he produced paintings for were delighted to have them. His work might not be as good as Raphael’s, but then, none of us can match the absolute art that Raphael produced. What we can do is to find the area in our own life where we see nature as it is and without any imposition from within us.

That exists within each of us.

The exhibition, Fra Bartolomeo, The Divine Renaissance is at the Boymans – van Beuningen gallery in Rotterdam until the 15th of January. Click here for information and tickets (English).

I will be going again, but only to enjoy the depictions of a world that was still in balance. Which, at the time, it still was.

 

Notes:

(1) An allusion to the words of Paul Klee: “The more horrifying the world, the more abstract becomes the art. A happy world, on the other hand, brings forth an art of the here and now.”

But be warned that these horrors are the direct result of human activities, activities undertaken as a response to their own horror. That is for an upcoming post to discuss.

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6 thoughts on “St George On Horseback By Fra Bartolomeo.

  1. Is there any chance the grad was added after the drawing? I ask because, if the drawing is a study for a later painting, the grid might be a guide for recreating the drawing on a larger canvas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very good point you raise.

      But in doing so, you make my case. Because there was a drawing of a cherub which had a lattice: and I thought to myself “why do you need a lattice to place a being when that being has a direct relationship with the others in the painting?”

      Before or after, it matters not. Either way, the animal’s rump is distorted. No gridwork in the world will redeem that.

      Of course, it might help him translate that distortion…

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  2. I looked around in Google images hoping to find either a larger image of the drawing or a later painting but to no avail. In any case, I do see what you’re saying and it’s why I have always described my own occasional uses of grids in drawings as a cheat. When others suggest I needn’t regard it so, I might nod agreement in a noncommittal way but inwardly I never assent – it’s a cheat.

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    1. I want to look at this from a slightly different angle. Because we’re dealing with someone who was alive in the 1500s. His world was radically different from ours, and one in which lines and grids were practically unknown. Paper only had straight edges because people went to the lengths of cutting off the rough, untidy edges!

      Thus, given this, I would imagine the grid to be added afterwards. From my photographs, this appears to be so.

      As mentioned in my post on perspective, the thinking that forms grids is comparatively modern. Fra Bartolomeo, for all his faults, did not share this. But he would have used them to be able to convey one drawing to another, thus showing the ‘cheat’ you speak of. A true relationship between two depicted beings is not governed by physical space; that is to say, balance in the emotional sphere ought inspire the position, shape and size of the two beings being depicted – and not be imposed by the artist.

      Imposition of this kind is always to the detriment of the emotional, communicative elements.

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      1. I don’t disagree and even have personal experience with how much is lost in the conveyance. If I am lucky, the drawing can be re-invigorated with fresh and spontaneous pen work. And I take your meaning about the abstraction of grids and straight lines.

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      2. “If I am lucky, the drawing can be re-invigorated with fresh and spontaneous pen work.”

        Isn’t this the key to art? That spontaneity? That’s why artists make sketches, to catch that element of spontaneity so that they can really absorb that moment and thus add it effortlessly into their masterpiece?

        I went to the Rodin exhibition in Groningen recently and you have brought up an interesting viewpoint here, because Rodin did have that sponteneity, but not all the time. Writing’s much easier to catch those moments – I write them down and translate them from my book to the computer at a later point. Poets do this too, to catch that moment of lucidity for later.

        Depicted art is far harder, not impossible. But then, with my stick figures that are so unbalanced that they look as if they need another leg if they are to remain upright, you can see that this is well outside my own expressive abilities. The concept of the lattice is not something that is going to help translate that spontaneity, though, is it?

        And it’s that spontaneity – capturing the immediacy of the moment – that makes for real art.

        Is that why Rodin’s “Penseur” is leaning forward, his back arched like a gorilla’s and his head filled with gloom? Beautiful though it is, it does show a person who only has that clarity – spontaneity – on occasion. That is for another post, though, not a comment!

        Liked by 1 person

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