Alexander Marra - Gallery Observations, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, I noticed they had a little collection of each type of art and art period. On the main hall there were paintings from the Renaissance, in side rooms there were African and Eastern arts, and Classical Greece, Rome and even Egypt were included and represented. Then there were some post-Renaissance Northern European paintings and finally a very tiny collection of French impressionists and modern art like the pop art of the Ď60ís.

I started in the main hall and saw Paolo De Matter's painting of Jesus and Mother Mary. He was an artist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries so this was not uncommon, but then again it was a little reminiscent of the Renaissance. I liked the way the light played a role, how it emanated from baby Jesus. I also liked the colors including the rich blue of Mother Mary; she looked so enlightened, both with the colors and with her facial expression that the artist captured so well. Her facial expression actually encompassed all her renown personal traits in one expression. She looked peaceful, powerful, caring, and smart, keen and protective. It was a foreshadowing of the life sheíd have to lead, the agony of her sonís death that she could do little about. The muscles of the characters were noticeable, making it quite detailed and realistic, if not overly realistic. The clothes flowed with motion and were all different, this was different than the Middle Ages art where they were dull and simple and didnít have the ripples and such that would be more realistic. The brush strokes were hidden, as the paint was so smooth and lightly coated, not anything like a century or so later with the impressionists.

In the Medieval times, the art was simplistic and nearly all of it had to do with Christianity. It didnít look very realistic, but it certainly had a style of its own. The faces were all drawn and painted as angular and elongated, like the famous Greek Icons in a sense. The faces were white, very white, and there was no shadow or play with light. Also, the characters depicted had no muscle definition; everything looked so flat. The eyes all look puffy, sleepy, and almost Eastern even. The characters were pudgy and seldom engaged in movement. And their mouths were always closed. In the Medieval art, it seemed the heads of the figures were always tilted down at the same angle and manner in each and every painting. The people painted were always in the same place, in some fake backdrop that was a fairytale land with little detail. The number one subject matter seemed to be the Virgin and her child. Possibly a result of the Church having the most power and wealth at this time, as it could afford to commission the artists. An example of this would be Giovanni Di Paoloís Virgin and Child with Angels. Even though it was done in 1470, it retained much of the Medieval format. Jesus was pudgy and his head even resembled an apeís. His face was white with rosy cheeks, very simplistic for color.

By walking around the gallery, I noticed that it seemed by the late 1400ís to 1500ís, this was all changing. The paintings were looking more realistic because of the muscle definition, the shading, the use of light, the realistic facial structures, the unique facial structures of each individual were all present.


In Andrea Solarioís St. John the Baptist of 1510, this is all noticeable. In the painting, the women were still very white but this was reflecting what people of the time thought beauty was. The expressions in the faces of the characters were different from one another, they didnít all have that sleepy look with the puffy eyes. The poses the characters were in were much more complicated. In the Medieval art it seemed most of them were standing straight up, or involved in other simple postures and positions.

A Dutch or French follower of Caravaggio did a painting of a man singing and playing the mandolin around 1600. All the features of the realistic art are present in full force. The man singing provides a unique position and interesting expression, his mouth is of course open, his hands working the instrument. The entire painting is darkish, a deep shadow encompasses all. This is much different than the cartoonish lighting and color of the Medieval period. The man is half bald, also a more realistic and complicated look than the uniform face and figure of the Middle Ages. The "immediate drama" presented by the singing and making of music is impressive.

I then noticed a difference between the Italian art of the 1500s and the Dutch and Flemish 1600 art. Alexander Keirincx, a Flemish artist in the first half of the 17th century had thinner brush strokes than all the lofty paintings I saw before. This gave the opportunity for finer detail, for smaller paintings in general, for the ones before were quite large. These paintings were detailed, not as angelic either, even more real than before in that sense. The colors and objects were more solid looking, not as glowing as the main hallís exhibit.

The Dutch paintings gave way to new facial structures. The Greek-Roman Classical faces were replaced with the fat-nosed, rough faces of Dutch peasants, which these artists werenít afraid of painting. I saw scenes that were more ordinary. People drinking and playing cards.

There was one called Winter Sports on a Frozen Canal from 1643 by Aert Van der Neer. People were ice skating and playing sports on a frozen canal in Holland. This was impressive because in the earlier art I saw, it was hard to tell where the painting took place, or where the artist was from. The details here were amazing. According to the museum, he used the butt of his brush to "scratch the background details." The tree branches were perfect for this and gave them a realistic looking surface, some texture, and some depth. This Iím sure was also revolutionary at the time.

The move from the Middle Ages to the 17th century art was quite a change. For realtyís sake, it was an improvement. But the Medieval art was still good art, just that it was a different style. The only thing was that it was boring in the sense that it was uniform. I found the Dutch and Flemish to be "thinking outside the box" in a sense, as theirs was down to earth at a time when the Enlightenment had yet to arrive.

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