Sunday, December 25, 2016

MWA XLV: Copley's Nativity

Merry Christmas! Yes, another year has passed, probably shocking all of our senses about how the days seem to be moving faster and faster... I decided on the image above as December's Monthly Work of Art, a rather unusual scene depicting the Nativity painted around 1776 by the Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). This painting is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which holds the largest collection of Copley's works in the U.S. The picture measures approximately 24 x 30 in. and is oil on canvas. Copley likely painted this while he was in London, having traveled there in 1774 and spending 1775 in Paris, Rome, and Naples, where he would have been exposed to more Catholic-themed art than he would have seen in his homeland or in London at that time. The depiction reflects some influence of Italian and French Baroque art, with its use of shadows and lighting, but perhaps more so the influence of Benjamin West, another American who was on the rise to become one of London's leading History (i.e. narrative-scenes, not necessarily historical) painters of his day (West has appeared as an MWA too). The challenge Copley faced as an artist was that he, like all painters at this time, strove to become a History painter, which was considered at the time to be the top of the artistic hierarchy. Portraits, a format in which Copley had excelled in colonial America, was a way to make money. To be an Artist, one had to become a History painter. Although Copley had a few successes, by and large these pictures fail as compared to his portraits.

Take, for instance, the picture you see here, which is arguably one of the finest portraits of a child in all of Western painting. It is Copley's portrait of his younger half-brother Henry Pelham, entitled A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765). Copley able to capture his brother's likeness beautifully, but he also excelled in depicting drapery and clothing with different textures, and he had an uncanny ability to represent reflections (as in the veneer of the table) remarkably well. This picture was exhibited in London in 1766 and was a great success, largely because of his virtuoso skill in representing so many different types of surfaces. This success inevitably convinced Copley of the importance of making his way to London (then the art capital of the Western world) to develop his skills, but this would not happen for another decade.

The Nativity, unfortunately, fails, then, when seen compared to Copley's portraits. There is nothing "wrong" with it in terms of execution, and the same things that Copley excelled in back in Boston--drapery, physical likeness, veneer--are somewhat evident here. But it lacks the gravitas of a religious painting and thus lacks in spiritual feeling. It is possible he was trying to make the figures more naturalistic and of his day, something 17th-century painters had done (e.g. putting Biblical figures in modern-day dress). But somehow it just doesn't work here. There is theatricality in the presentiment that borders on the melodramatic. The hand gestures and surprised looks seem like something out of a stage performance. The representation of Mary and the baby is perhaps the one area where one can feel a sense of sentimentality, but with her hand on her head and her overall look seeming more like a portrait of an 18th-century Londoner, it just seems all wrong. I posted this painting as the background of my page on Facebook for December, and although a few people "liked" it (some even "loved" it), the best part were some of the comments some of my "FB friends" made about it:
JT: "That is a weird painting."
MP: "Mary needs a nerve pill! Joseph invited all his friends over without telling her and she's already made the unfortunate decision to wear white in a manger.
CoCr: "Clearly she shops in Manger, Stable and Beyond."
DPG: "She looks like I did after giving birth, thinking OMG what have I done, I'm not ready to be a mother!"
CaCo: "Yeah she's looking like 'three hours sleep and Joseph brings all his mates round...'"

Art is supposed to create dialogue, so when it does it works. That doesn't always mean that the dialogue is positive. Sometimes even great painters make mediocre paintings. And on that note...Merry Christmas!

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