batoni1Pompeo Batoni, Emperor Joseph II with the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Tuscany

A few weeks ago my wife and I visited the The Habsburgs at the MIA.

Although the show contains a mere fraction of the Kunsthistorisches’ holdings, what is present was enlightening. It certainly brought back memories of my one and only trip to Vienna from way back in 1990.

Of particular interest to me was seeing supreme examples of the various ways in which artists paint in oil. This series of posts begins with the master of windowshading, Pompeo Batoni.

Batoni painted part after part. In his portraits he completely finished one feature before he proceeded to another. The consequence was, as might be expected; the countenance was never well expressed; and, as the painters say, the whole was not well put together.
-Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse XIV (Delivered to the students of the Royal Academy, December 10, 1788)

As you can tell from the Reynolds quote, Batoni painted by what Gammell called piecemeal seeing. If you look at the entire painting shown above you can see the usual results of this kind of approach – all parts of the painting are in the same, hyper-focus.

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Initially we might look at the Emperor’s face. Given his central position I think we would do that regardless of how the painting was painted.

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Next, our eyes move to the Grand Duke. He’s staring at us and his head is light against dark.

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Then we move to the Emperor’s left hand, and so on.

This path of seeing is not universal, however, as some look at the Grand Duke first.

What did Batoni intend? We’ll never know for sure. The Emperor is central, but he’s looking at the Grand Duke.

As much as I really like the painting, on seeing it in person I found it a bit disconcerting to look at. In fact, when standing back my eyes had trouble finding focus precisely because all was in focus. It’s a large painting, which I think made the effect more pronounced.

Moving closer helped. However, at a comfortable viewing distance I could no longer see the whole painting at once.

Does it matter?

It likely did not to Batoni, nor to the countless other artists who painted piece by piece. Or, was it ignorance of the concept of the whole is greater than the parts? We’ll never know for sure.

One thing is certain and that is these two heads are not well put together, as Reynolds said. While there is a sense of depth, in the parts, the whole of each head does not resonate as lifelike. To me they have a slight caricature quality about them.

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If we ignore the focus aspects, the parts are masterfully painted and it is clear that Batoni understood paint as well as he understood drawing.

Hands always show when an artist is deficient in their drawing skills. Batoni did a fine job on all four.

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Despite all that, there were (and currently are) piecemeal artists who manage to paint part after part and still keep them together.