From the Middle Ages to the Belle Époque


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Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion - Level 4



Since the beginnings of Christianity, devotional images of the Virgin and Child (or Madonna, meaning the Virgin Mary, mother of the child Jesus) have been a constant in the arts. Later, during the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Antiquity and the emergence of oil painting, with its splendid and subtle effects, allowed artists to further humanize images of the Madonna. In the North, in Flemish culture, the Virgin exhibits features that are still idealized but more veristically marked, such as a smooth broad forehead and doe eyes, reflecting beauty standards of the time. In the South, the Italian Renaissance established its pre-eminence, setting itself up as a model of Western art for centuries to come.



Veronese, El Greco and Rembrandt – an Italian, a Spaniard and a Dutchman – together dominated the history of painting by exploring on canvas the depths of the soul and asserting "humanist" painting. Towards the end of his life, Venetian master Paolo Caliari, called Veronese, adopted a darker touch. In the late 16th century, the city of the Doges was marked by the impact of the Counter-Reformation led by the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation, the naval defeats against the Ottoman Empire and various pandemics. In this period of turmoil, Veronese's paintings, previously bursting with colour, took on a dark and introspective tone. Settling in Toledo around 1580, El Greco had learned his lessons well from the masters of Venice, where he had lived, and in particular from Titian, whose workshop he visited. He limited his palette to brown, black and white tones. Recognized as the greatest portraitist of all time, Rembrandt pushed this humanism to new heights. The brilliant Dutch painter, born several decades after El Greco and Veronese, generated his expressive force through the technique of chiaroscuro.



"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity": The subject of these paintings derives its name from the quote from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This genre aims to show the fleeting nature of human existence in which we are all at the mercy of time. Still life paintings of empty shells and luscious fruit that will soon rot symbolize the inevitability of death, the futility of pleasure and the fragility of earthly possessions. These images call into question the value of knowledge and human vanity. Such memento mori ("Remember you will die") paintings became a sub-genre in 17th-century Dutch art. Initially, the style was dominated by the motif of the skull, symbol of death. The iconography of the vanities expanded around 1630-1640, when the arts and sciences made their appearance in the form of books, maps and musical instruments. Power and wealth also invited themselves to the dance of death, with purses overflowing with gold. Later, skulls gave way to wilted flowers, emptied glasses, burnt-out candles and hourglasses that had run out, etc. In the work by French painter Jacques Linard, shellfish, valued objects kept in curiosity cabinets since the Renaissance, warn against the lure of luxury; the coral suggests the blood of Christ. The Vanities genre died off in the 1700s, but was rekindled in the 20th century.



In the early 17th century, visiting Rome became a rite of passage for European artists. There, they discovered, in addition to the works of their forebears, an Elysian landscape strewn with ancient monuments. Antiquity appeared to them as a grand aesthetic model. Unlike the exuberance of the Baroque, Classicism offered a clear and organized vision. Nicolas Poussin, a major figure of this movement, settled in Rome in 1624. There, he developed a very rigorous compositional style, often inspired by Roman mythology and the Christian faith. Like Poussin, Charles Le Brun made a career in Rome and was inspired by mythological episodes. Upon returning to France, Le Brun was appointed First Painter to Louis XIV, the Sun King, who placed him in charge of decorating the Palace of Versailles. Jean Lemaire, who assisted Poussin in decorating the Grand Hall of the Royal Louvre Palace, expresses here on canvas his fascination with the ancient architecture discovered in Rome.



Derived from the Portuguese word barocco (irregularly shaped pearls that were particularly sought after), the Baroque style flourished in 17th-century Europe. While Classicism articulates a mathematical and measured relationship with the world, the Baroque is characterized by exuberance and a taste for splendour and spectacle. The Italian painter Salvator Rosa excelled in mysterious and impressive compositions. Emerging from the late Italian Baroque, the Rococo, or rocaille style, achieved widespread popularity in the 18th-century with its characteristics of lightness and transparency. Portraits were especially popular at the time, some of the most beautiful emanating from the shimmering brush of French painter Nicolas de Largillierre. Giambattista Tiepolo, a renowned virtuoso decorator of 18th century Venice, combined sumptuous lighting effects with theatricality.



"The outstanding general feature of the Greek masterpieces is a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur", asserted the great German theorist of Neoclassicism, Winckelmann. These moral and aesthetic qualities, favouring a return to an idealized Antiquity, dominated the art of late 18th-century Europe. The cataclysmic blast of the French Revolution had swept away the old order forever. Now the Neoclassical landscape, combining picturesque fantasy and an aesthetic of the sublime, reflected a new taste for the decayed beauty of ruins, the vestiges of disappeared civilizations. Rejecting the affectations of Rococo, the portrait genre was also influenced by the vogue for Antiquity, resulting in austere simplification of forms. Many European artists, aristocrats and art lovers – the dilettanti – went on a "Grand Tour" of Italy to explore the recently excavated archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The English School promulgated a new notion of humanity in relation to nature.



Montreal's remarkable economic surge in the second half of the 19th century gave birth to a new class of wealthy collectors. Looking to Europe, they competed with their American counterparts to acquire great paintings that were being exhibited in the academies of art in London and Paris. The worldly, religious and exotic subjects of these paintings were in fashion. Among the artists who thrived in this private world was James Tissot, an anglophile French painter and dandy. He became known for his paintings of London society and elegant female figures. In a century of empire building, the fashion for all things Oriental reached its peak, feeding a taste for exoticism and sensuality.