Friday, September 17, 2010

Botticelli: Graces Redux


One shouldn't leave the topic of the Three Graces in painting without a nod to Botticelli, the Renaissance painter whose Birth of Venus and Primavera poetically capture the essence of the age.

Botticelli, Primavera, 1482, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Renaissance painters reintroduced accurate perspective to pictorial art (the ancient Greeks were close to perfecting it, but the collapse of the classical world at the fall of Rome, c. 460 AD., buried the knowledge for more than 1,000 years). Italian painters rediscovering Graeco-Roman antiquity were all about celebrating the human, rather than the supernatural, divine, and this included the science of how the world looks to the eye.

Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1485, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Botticelli's work has all the humanism without the obtrusive science. By keeping the essence of the representation of real space but rejecting the technical display of scientific perspective, Botticelli expressed his sense of the beautiful through an emphasis on proportion and a flowing use of line.

Other painters courted the astonishing effects possible with the new medium of oil paint, created novel effects of perspective, or incorporated new anatomical knowledge of the human body and other scientific discoveries in ever-more believable and fully developed three-dimensional forms.
The "Capitoline Venus" from
the Medici family collection
that served as the model for
Botticelli's Venus


Botticelli's forms are more classical and elegant than "accurate" or "scientific" (but what's "accurate" for the representation of a goddess?!), and his colors are lovely but quite subdued. Botticelli worked poetic magic through line, reinforced by strong contrasting values of light and dark.

The Birth of Venus motif (Aphrodite on the Half Shell - in mythology she was born of the ocean foam and wafted to shore on a shell) allows us to revisit Odilon Redon as well, whose strange and sensuous pastel of 1912 is reproduced below.

Comparing Redon's flush of iridescent pink and Botticelli's far more chaste color handling as well as a visual pairing on Tarot Teachings of the design by Pamela Smith for one of the cards in the Rider-Waite tarot deck makes the beautiful linearity of Botticelli's presentation very clear.

Botticelli's graces are about spring, new beginnings, regeneration, rebirth, and the continuity of the best the human spirit has to offer with the most inspiring achievements of the past. How appropriate then the meaning of the card: friends, prosperity, happiness and the enjoyment of life, be linked to a place and time in history when a new sense of humanity's potential emerged in the world like a sudden revelation - generating some of the greatest and most beautiful artwork the world has seen, before or since.

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