Friday, February 24, 2017



After looking at Giorgione's painting called THE TEMPEST in the previous blog entry, it is a natural progression to look at his painting called the FETE CHAMPETRE, dated between 1500-10, now in the Louvre in Paris.

The Fete Champetre is hung on the wall behind the MONA LISA in the Louvre, but most people touring the museum miss it because they stop,
understandably, at Leonardo's great work. It is appropriate to associate Giorgione's painting with the Mona Lisa, however, because both paintings were created sometime between 1500 and 1510, and it is possible that Giorgione met Leonardo when Leonardo visited Venice during those years. The Fete Champetre shows the influence of Leonardo's "sfumato" (smoky) style of painting, where the contours of figures and objects are soft and blend into the landscape.


Mona Lisa is a portrait  while Giorgione's painting contains four main figures, the two dressed men and two naked women, as well as the shepherd in the background with his sheep, none of them portraits. However, the way the skin of the figures in both paintings is made to blend into clothing and surroundings without any sharp edges is similar in both. The shadows at the sides of Mona Lisa's cheeks are similar to the shadows at the sides of the back of the flute player in Giorgione's painting;
the painters are softening the edges in both cases.

The Giorgione painting is given a French title in a later century, Fete Champetre, which roughly translates, "Picnic in the Countryside." That title does not tell us what Giorgione believed the subject
of the painting to be. The Louvre label attributes the painting to Titian, but I disagree with that attribution and will show why a little later. 
          Let us first look at the painting and gather clues from it. Though it is a rectangular painting and larger than the Mona Lisa, the figures are not life-size. Two men dressed in fashionable clothes, one in a hat, sit on the ground and seem to be conversing with one another. The man on the left wears striped tights, the man on the right has bare feet.

The man with the hat holds a lute and appears to have stopped playing it since his right hand is away from the strings while the fingers of his left hand press on the strings of the instrument. He turns towards the man to his left, who bends his head as if to whisper something to his companion. Behind the men's heads we can see a couple of houses that indicate a village a fair distance away. In the foreground are two semi-naked women; the one on the left stands and is about to pour liquid from a see-through pitcher into a stone well. The water has not reached the mouth of the pitcher but appears
about to be poured out.

The light reflects off the glass of the pitcher making the shape of the pitcher round; we also see through the glass to the beige stone of the sarcophagus beyond it. This woman's head and body verticals are reinforced by the vertical lines of the tree behind and the side of the well in the front. The clothing of the woman on the left is white and appears to wrap around her hips and legs while revealing her upper torso. Her breasts are hidden by her left arm holding the pitcher of water. The light reflected on the glass is reflecting on her round stomach, and the comparison of ewer to her naked round area is intended by the artist for us to view this woman as a container, too.
            The woman on the right appears to have been playing the flute that she holds in front of her in her right hand; we see her from the back as she sits on the ground partly on her removed white clothing. Since we do not see her face, we are not sure where she looks. The flute is a phallic-shaped
instrument so the implication of her playing it is not overtly sexual but is subtly there.
In a Renaissance drawing now in the British Museum, a drawing which could also be by Giorgione,
a similar flautist female sits in a landscape in the same position, holding a flute, but in the drawing she appears to look off into the distance at the houses of a village. The drawing also differs from the finished painting in that the one dressed male musician is actually bowing a viola da gamba while behind him lie three sleepy sheep.


On the far right  in our painting and a certain distance away from the group in the background is a shepherd playing a bagpipe (you can see the flute part of the bagpipe sticking out over his left shoulder) and walking towards the group; he is surrounded by a flock of sheep and behind them we can make out the shepherd's mule. Shepherds playing bagpipes used to come down from the hills in
Italy at Christmas to play in the city streets (as late as 1994) and their bagpipes were similar to this simple one.

The whole of the scene is painted in muted, soft tones and while there are shadows (see sheep and shepherd's legs) that indicate a light source coming from the left, the light glances quietly off sections of the figures and objects and the contours are not sharply drawn.
The gathering of two dressed men and two naked women is unusual for subjects painted in
the 15th and 16th centuries. A story seems to be unfolding. The two men appear to talk with each
other without looking at the ladies. The shepherd seems intent on approaching the group in the distance. One woman seems to have been playing a duet with the lutenist, the other is up
supplying the party with water or pouring water out. A mysterious air hovers around the group. Is this another personal experience being rendered by Giorgione on canvas? Two men have taken their lovers to the countryside to make music (symbolic of love-making) and they now have to discuss what to do with the approach of the shepherd. 
       Some critics call the painting The Pastoral Concert, which seems very appropriate. The lute and the flute represent a soft kind of music, perfect for the accompaniment of intimate relations, perfect for producing civilized, sweet sounds of love. The bagpipe, on the other hand, represents a loud harsh sound, meant for communicating in large fields, the opposite of courtly entertainment, the rough, brash sound of the countryside and animal life, and in this context, an interrupting sound.

One might be tempted to see this painting as part of a series for depictions of the five senses:
sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Sight is portrayed in the display of landscape and sky along with
the four foreground characters, as well as in the light reflected off the pitcher of water. Smell is implied in the flock of sheep and natural bodies on the earth. Taste is figured in the water about to pour out of the glass pitcher. Touch is certainly shown in the fingering of the flute, the holding of the pitcher, the playing of the bagpipe, and the hands of the man on the lute and its strings, the touching of the naked bodies of the women implied in those gestures.
         But SOUND is the most prominent of the senses on display here. If we read the central line that moves across the canvas horizontally, it follows the sounds the viewer is meant to hear. 
Starting at the left, we hear the pouring of the water into the well, then the implied music of the lute just finished. We hear the low sounds of the men talking to each other. Next to the right we imagine the flute sound that has just ended, and then, at the far right, the bagpipe sound drowning all the other sounds all out. The first four sounds implied, left to right, are subtle, the last on the right demanding and even unpleasant. Are the men deciding they must all leave, their music-making and love-making having been interrupted? Has the man without instrument been singing and has stopped? His vocal sound would be another sound added to the theme, if so.            
A painting about sound produced in a lyrical way. Sometimes these paintings of subjects unknown,
where the action takes place in the natural landscape, are known as POESIE, painted POEMS.
And the soft contours of fabric, hair, faces, fleshly bodies, and vase are perfect renderings of
poetic performance, especially since poetry is meant to be read aloud in sound.
A poetic love song set in the countryside.

Many critics have wanted to see the women as invisible Muses who accompany the
men in their musical fantasy, the women as ideas that inspire the players, ideas not in the realm of reality inhabited by the men. The problem with that kind of reading is that it wants to stop looking at the naked women, either out of fear of confronting the arousal they engender in their nakedness, or
out of worry that nudity evokes unwanted desire and distracts the viewer from the real meaning. But Giorgione wants us to see the women and admire their beauty, wants us to compare the dressed figures of the men with the undressed women beside them. For him the seductive beauty of the women is how he expects to attract people to his paintings. The beauty of the men in their display of drapery and leg tights is accompanied by the beauty of the women in the display of their bodies. The playing of instruments to make music is a metaphor for the making of love, the most seductive subject.
          Which brings us to the question of authorship for this painting. Titian, who is born around 1488, is a pupil of Giorgione in Venice, and is certainly painting during this period. However, his
early paintings, such as the Sacred and Profane Love in the Borghese Gallery, of 1514,
and his Venus of Urbino of 1534, 

both of which contain naked women, are not at all in the same mysterious vein of the Giorgione paintings and do not use the same Leonardo "sfumato" style of smoky contours.
In order to understand the difference between Giorgione and Titian, we only have to look in the
same room of the Louvre where the Fete Champetre is hanging to see a painting by Titian of 1515
called "Woman at her Mirror."
The size of Titian's figures is always larger than those of Giorgione's. This woman at the two mirrors takes up most of the picture plane and is much larger than the naked women in the Fete Champetre. We can distinctly make out the contour line of the mirror woman's right forearm and elbow; there is no softening of the edges as there is in the woman pouring the pitcher in the other painting.
Titian's woman is perfuming her hair and looking at her reflection in the mirrors held by the man. The subject is straightforward; while she is distracted by gazing at herself, the man is gazing at her breasts over her shoulder. We sense no particular story
or narrative, and if there is one, there is no mystery about it; the two people are interacting but we understand the motives of each.
        In Giorgione's paintings the mystery of life's interactions is subtly represented by figures that
are not large and not clearly defined in their contours. The mystery of what is happening in the
scene is made visible by the unclear edges as they slide into other edges. What do the men say?
Why have they stopped playing music? What will happen next? Why are out in the country? How far
away is the shepherd? What is the relation of the women with each other and with the men?

If we compare Giorgione's Sleeping Venus of 1510 (Dresden) to Titian's Venus of Urbino of 1534 (Uffizi), we can see the same distinctions apply:

In Giorgione's painting the woman is lying with her eyes closed so the viewer may peruse her body
and follow the lines of her curves in the same way that we follow the lines of the landscape behind
her, and all the lines are muted. There is a mystery about her that remains unanswered by her closed eyes.
In Titian's painting,

the woman looks out at the viewer and either invites the viewer in or prevents the viewer from entering her bedroom, where two servants are either putting her clothes away or taking them out for
wearing; the reality of the soiled bedclothes, the dog, her rings, her left hand preparing for or finishing up love-making, all of these specific details make for intrigue but not mystery. The Sleeping Venus of Giorgione evokes all women on the earth and makes us wonder how women fit into the natural landscape of procreation in all of time, while Titian's sharper leg contours on the Urbino mistress focus our attention on her specific moment, whether waiting for her lover or finishing up after an encounter.
          The specific and sharp-edged are not present in the Fete Champetre in the Louvre. The figures are not even 2/3 lifesize and do not take up most of the space of the painting as the Titian's females do. The soft tone of the musical encounter in the countryside and its melded edges means the Louvre Fete Champetre cannot be a painting by Titian. It presents a mysterious love encounter interrupted, a theme we have already seen painted by Giorgione in The Tempest.The interruption makes the viewer
remember the sound that has stopped, just as the painter captures the moment where the sound is
still hanging in the air, a harmony about to be broken. The glass pitcher poised in mid-air envelops
the water and keeps it held for a single harmonious instant. The pitcher symbolizes the act of painting for Giorgione who creates one moment caught between the present and eternity to make us all feel held within the beauty that he envisions.


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