13 July 2009

Philadelphia 12: the irresistibility of sea creatures

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has quite a collection of Dutch tiles. The sea creatures caught my eye, as they always do. I have a sea-monster thing, as I mention every time I write about Idomeneo. Some of the pictured creatures are quite plausible:

Others not so much so, though the hunter below seems improbable not so much for his half-man, half-fish nature as for the oddly lumpy musculature of his back.

Winged creatures are also fascinating, probably since they live in the other element that until recently we couldn't visit. What mythological or saintly scene is complete without a gaggle of putti?

This particular scene is The Rape of Europa, painted by Noel-Nicolas Coypel in 1727. It came to Philadelphia in 1815 when Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonarparte brought it with him into exile.

I used to disapprove of all those museum-goers I would see taking pictures of paintings. I wondered why they didn't just buy a postcard. Then I became a snapper myself. For one thing, I realized that most museums don't have pictures of the things I like: for every Baroque altarpiece the shops have twenty standard-issue Impressionist scenes. I like the Impressionists but, as with La Boheme, they are just overexposed, because presumably everyone loves them to pieces and will fork over cash for them.

The other thing is that reproductions never quite capture what is appealing about a painting: the size, or the texture of the paint, or the subtle or vibrant colors. Often when I do find a print of something I like I don't buy it because it just doesn't do the original justice.

You can see Coypel's complete canvas here, but the colors are all wrong. They're much too dark. What really captivates you in this canvas is the incredibly delicate sunrise colors: the pale blues and yellows, the rose and apricot tones. It's usually the darker, jewel-like tones that capture me, but I kept revisiting this picture.
I think Coypel must have seen Titian's Rape of Europa (now in the Gardner in Boston) in one form or another, though the later painter's version is less dramatic and distressed.

Perhaps no artist could withstand the appeal of the swirling arabesque framing the abducted woman.

Philadelphia has another canvas crammed with decorative sea life, this one by Poussin, and oddly enough it also has an aristocratic connection. It used to belong to Catherine the Great and stayed in the Russian collections until the Soviet government needed to raise money in 1930 (which is also where the National Gallery in DC got some of its greatest paintings). The frame still shows evidence of its Russian provenance.

You can see the complete picture here; again there is the irresistible arabesque around the woman, which I see is not in any of my pictures, which is what I get for just taking shots of details.


The painting is generally referred to as The Birth of Venus, but the Museum's own catalogue emphasizes that this is just a possibility. The woman at the center might be Galatea:

Or the real focus might be the sea-god Neptune on the left:

It's a literally fantastic view of winged and finned and scaled creatures all combined in one eruption of color and form.

3 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Great photos!

On my last big trip, the detail I paid a lot of attention to was picture frames.

vicmarcam said...

The last time I visited a museum (the SFMOMA), I wanted to buy several postcards of things that I saw and found interesting. In the gift shop, not one single postcard existed of any of the things I liked.
I love the close-ups that you took, and I especially love the sea creature that is spouting water from its nostrils as the people seem to be resting on top of it. I like to think it's a little exasperated and would like them to just get off.

pjwv said...

Oh, they're going to get off.

I love that you noticed that in particular. I think that way too.