Recent acquisitions

Leighton House has recently acquired Nymphs in a Landscape, c. 1540 Oil on panel

 

 Schiavone painting

 

The Artist:

Andrea Meldolla (Il Schiavone) Born c. 1510 in Zara, Dalmatia (now Zadar, Croatia) Died 1563, in Venice, Italy Andrea Meldolla was a painter, draughtsman and etcher. Born on the Dalmatian coast, then under Venetian jurisdiction, he was probably in Venice by the late 1530s where he was nicknamed ‘Schiavone’ or ‘the Slav’. Vigorous, experimental and versatile as an artist, he was a major figure in the evolution of Venetian painting in the sixteenth century. For Leighton House Museum, the present work has particular significance as it formed part of Leighton's original collections contained within his studio-house in Holland Park Road.

Born into a prominent family, little is known of Schiavone’s early training and it seems likely that he was largely self-taught. He nevertheless derived particular inspiration from the work of the Mannerist painter Parmigianino (1503-40) whose prints he copied extensively. Once in Venice, Schiavone played a significant part in translating central Italian Mannerist modes and motifs into Venetian circles, evolving his own style by around 1540. His large and ambitious canvases and frescoes were unprecedented in their bold, impressionistic use of paint, forcing Venetians to re-examine the acceptable range of painting. Schiavone’s broad, fluid brushwork and vibrant textures overrode a concern for defined contours and narrative clarity. Contemporaries complained about his lack of finish. Vasari in his Lives of the Artists took credit for commissioning a large battle scene from Schiavone in 1540 describing it as ‘one of the best that Andrea Schiavone ever did’ but was critical of other work which he described as ‘dashed off, or rather, sketched, without being in any respect finished’. A second contemporary, the painter and writer Paolo Pino (1534-65) called Schiavone’s use of impasto ‘worthy of infamy’. But these same innovations provided important models for younger Venetian artists particularly Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94) and Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510-92) whose debt to Schiavone is evident in the 1540s and early 1550s (in 2013, a work by Schiavone dating from c.1555 in the collections of the V&A was reattributed to Tintoretto). Titian (c.1490-1576) also expressed his admiration for Schiavone and his ability to design with great freedom and immediacy.

After about 1550, Schiavone began to incorporate greater control and naturalism in his painting. Though he retained his open brushwork and rich textures, his colour harmonies grew darker and more dense and the tone of his pictures more subdued. The inventive paint handling in his later works influenced such painters as Palma Il Giovane as did his innovative work as an etcher. Fresco technique had been important in the formation of his methods but although he is understood to have completed extensive frescoes adorning Venetian building facades, these do not survive. In his final years, Schiavone received substantial public and professional recognition, but his work remained diverse and in both character and intention. These included mythological scenes in a light and decorative vein and religious painting that could be intensely realised and of great power and imagination.

Few of Schiavone’s works are documented, perhaps confirming Vasari’s contention that he worked largely for private clients. Relatively few works are in public collections in the UK including two small pictures in the National Gallery and individual works at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Government Art Collection. The two works at the National Gallery are believed to be the ‘end panels’ from a cassone with the main front panel now in Amiens, France. No corresponding ‘side panels for the present work have been identified. A set of seven cassone paintings that probably formed a decorative frieze by Schiavone are in the Royal Collection.

The work:

Nymphs in a Landscape, c. 1540 Oil on panel

Until 1913, the fullest account of Schiavone’s life and career was in Carlo Ridolfi’s La Maraviglie dell’ arte published in 1648. According to Ridolfi, the artist was a frequent painter of beds, chests and other furniture. The prominence of this activity within his oeuvre was restated in the 1660s by the critic Marco Boschini who explained that when the artist was short of work he painted chests for a certain Rocco della Carita who had his workshop beneath the Procuratie Vecchie on Piazza San Marco in Venice. Rocco’s son recalled that his father had paid Schiavone 24 soldi daily for painting up to two casse per day “with histories, fables, foliage, arabesques, grotesques, and similar things.” He also noted that “today these chests are sold for up to 100 ducats each, and one does not find them on sale anymore; rather one sees them decorating many galleries, as precious things, and of this there is not doubt”.

The present picture conforms to this basic history, its proportions suggesting that it was painted to decorate the front of a chest (although an alternative furniture type cannot be entirely ruled out) from which it was subsequently removed to hang on the wall of a private home, gaining a value that transcended its original purpose. However, while the current painting is certainly a cassone and Schiavone produced other examples, more recent research has suggested this was a relatively minor activity in relation to the entirety of his oeuvre.

The present panel cannot be dated with certainty. Schiavone painted in different veins at the same period and much of his work seems to have been for private clients and is undocumented. However, the consensus is that the present panel is of the 1540s and can be related to other works of this period in several ways. To begin with, although clearly a mythological scene, the subject remains unidentified. A basic narrative can be determined as follows. The scene is set against a rich green landscape. In the distance on the slower slopes of a central mountain range nestles a town. At the left of the panel a female figure enveloped in purple and yellow draperies and carried on a grey cloud is seen descending. At the centre of the composition she is shown standing and being greeted by three other female figures. Her appearance seems to both intrigue and to alarm them; the lower figure reaches out towards her in a gesture that seems both hesitant but eager, while the standing figure at the rear restrains the figure at the right as she reaches forward. In the distance at the far right, what appears to be the same group of three women with correspondingly coloured draperies are seen dancing as they approach a temple or shrine against which a sculpture can just be distinguished. Whether this scene precedes the central meeting or follows it is unclear and this relegation of clear narrative in favour of painterly effect is a defining characteristic of Schiavone’s painting of the 1540s which has been described as 'painterly to a degree that precludes narrative clarity'.

The Mannerist qualities that Schiavone brought to Venice are evident here in the elongated, expressive and almost flimsy figures with their extended hands and fingers and in the manipulations of the limbs and torso of the figure as she descends on the left. The primacy of painterliness over narrative is expressed here in the rendering of form which owes little to delineation and outline and chiefly in the remarkable treatment of the draperies. Painted with extraordinary freedom and spontaneity, the application of thick strands of paint; ‘ridges and blobs’ as they have been described, express the folds and ripples of fabric as they expressively loops around the figures. The breadth and energy of the colouring of these draperies combining yellow, gold, green and purple suggests the growing influence of Venetian painting within Schiavone’s work as the 1540s progressed and gives a compelling liveliness and vigour to the central grouping.

Significance of the work in relation to Leighton's own painting:

Leighton’s neighbour and fellow artist, Valentine Prinsep, described him as ‘the last of the British painters who sought after the secrets of Titian’. He was fascinated by the processes, materials and techniques of the Old Masters and how these could inform his own working method. His collection included several oil sketches and unfinished paintings (including works by his contemporaries) where technique and process is laid bare. The particular importance of the rich colouring and painterly effects of Venetian art of the sixteenth century to Leighton is evident in much of his own painting. As a collector, it is underlined by the sixteen works in his collection from this date and source – the largest single grouping. Of these, in addition to the present painting, three works were attributed to Schiavone suggesting Leighton’s significant interest in the artist whose reputation remained relatively obscure at this period. Undoubtedly part of the appeal of the Schiavone was therefore its very painterliness and, the explicit sense of the hand of the artist that is communicated through it.

A second prominent theme in Leighton’s own work was his exploration of the expressive potential of draperies within a composition. In works such as Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea [1871, Private Collection] and Greek Girls playing at Ball [1889, Dick Institute Kilmarnock], draperies are made to arch and loop in a way that is almost independent of the figures which they clothe, becoming an abstract element within the picture. In the present work, drapery is used in as a sophisticated pictorial device. The yellow drapery of the figure on the right of the central group loops around behind her and then over her shoulder where it is picked up in the line of her arm and then around into the green drapery of the figure behind her, creating a figure of eight which contains them both. At the same time her outstretched hand carries this line across to the figure on the left, picking up the purple drapery that snakes behind her and then over her hip. While Leighton certainly drew heavily on Greek sculpture for his treatment of draperies, it seems highly likely that he was particularly engaged by the part that draperies play in animating the central group of this work and enhancing the vivacity of the composition.

 

Three new drawings

The museum has recently acquired three important works on paper from the same private collection. One is by Leighton and two by his friend George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle.

The work by Leighton is a copy made in watercolour of Raphael’s Disputa in the Stanza della Signatura (Room of the Signature) in the Vatican Palace in Rome and dates from shortly after his arrival in the city in 1852. This drawing is of particular interest because Leighton’s copy of the other half of the fresco was acquired by the museum from the Maas Gallery in 2000 and its acquisition therefore reunites the pair and completes the image.

Raphael’s 'Disputa'

Copy of Raphael’s 'Disputa' by Leighton. Purchased from David Alexander in 2012 by Leighton House Museum.

Leighton was photographed on countless occasions and was also the subject of numerous portraits, but informal images of him are extremely rare as are those where he is shown either painting or drawing.  The addition of these two drawings (recto and verso) of Leighton on a sketching expedition are therefore of particular interest for the collection.  Made by George Howard, it has yet to be established if a date and location can be attributed to these images.  The two artists undoubtedly sketched together on more than one occasion and Leighton’s relaxed appearance and casual dress testifies to the informality of the event.  These drawings are also of interest as the only known record of Leighton wearing the spectacles which he apparently always wore when working.   

Sketch of Frederic Leighton

Sketch of Frederic Leighton (recto and verso) by George James Howard (1843-1911); 9th Earl of Carlisle

The Italian artist Giovanni Costa was a great friend of both Leighton and George Howard.  Leighton spent time with Costa in Italy almost every year and did all he could to further his career in London.  Howard became Costa’s devoted pupil and collected a great many works by the artist.  This drawing, a portrait study of Costa by Howard, therefore represents the connection between this triumvirate of artists and complements Leighton’s portrait of Costa of 1878, acquired by the museum in 2004.

Giovanni Costa

Portrait of Giovanni Costa by George James Howard (1843-1911); 9th Earl of Carlisle

Colour sketch for Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence

Cimabue

Frederic Leighton, 1854, Oil on canvas

In November 1852 Frederic Leighton arrived in Rome.  He was just 21 years old and had only recently completed his training in Frankfurt.  Over the next two and a half years he worked on the paintings with which he would launch his career: The Reconciliation of the Monatgues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet and Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence.

Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna was submitted to the Royal Academy in 1855.  Despite its great size (it was over five metres long) and Leighton’s youth and lack of any reputation in this country, the work was selected and displayed prominently.  On the first day of the exhibition, with the encouragement of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria bought it, making this one of the most dramatic debuts in the history of British art.

Leighton House Museum is delighted to have now acquired the colour sketch for Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna at auction in New York.  Leighton followed a painstaking and rigorous process in making the picture, establishing a method that he adhered to for the rest of his career.  He first produced drawn studies of individual heads, draperies and other details.  A number of these pencil drawings are also held by the museum and include some of the most beautiful studies of his career.  He then produced a highly-detailed pencil study for the whole composition and finally a colour sketch.  The purpose of this sketch in oils was to establish the arrangement and balance of colours across the composition.  Once completed Leighton would then start work on the canvas itself, hardly deviating from the studies already produced.

The subject of the painting is taken from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects published in Florence in 1550. Leighton drew on a passage that described the triumphant procession of an altarpiece through the streets of Florence following its completion by the artist Giovanni Cimabue in about 1285.  This he combined with a second passage in which the visiting King of Anjou is taken to view the finished work (the King can be seen on horseback at the far right of the composition).   The procession includes many of the great artists of the time, including the young Giotto who is shown at the centre, clasping the hand of Cimabue himself.   The poet Dante leans against the wall at the far right watching the procession pass by.  The painting is a celebration of artists and artistic achievement – subjects that the young Leighton was perhaps eager to promote as he considered his future career.

There are two main differences between the colour sketch and the finished work. The dog shown at bottom right was eliminated in the final composition as was the figure overlooking the procession from the top of the wall.

The finished painting remains in the Royal Collection but can be seen in the National Gallery where it is located above the main staircase into the building.

Leighton House Museum is grateful to the Art Fund and the Friends of Leighton House Museum for making this acquisition possible. For more information on the Friends of Leighton House.

Inlaid cabinet on stand

Leighton's CabinetLeighton's furniture, together with the rest of the contents of the house, was sold at Christie's in the summer of 1896 following his death. This cabinet sold for £86 and then vanished, before re-appearing just over 100 years later when it came up at auction in Melbourne, Australia in 1997.

The new owner found part of the original Leighton sale catalogue inside one of the drawers.  She wrote to the museum, enclosing a photograph and it was immediately recognisable as the cabinet that appears in the period photographs of the studio standing between the two doors on the south side of the room.

The piece is made up of elements of a South German chest of the late sixteenth century and possibly elements of an English chest of drawers of a century later.  These were combined and a stand made for it around the middle of the nineteenth century.  We do not yet know when and where Leighton first acquired it, but its highly decorative quality conforms to what we know of much of Leighton's taste in furniture.

The cabinet was acquired for the museum in 2011 through the generous support of Mr John Schaeffer.


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