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On things that look like paintings

It took my first trip to Siena to understood why Sienese Renaissance painting looks the way it does. When I gazed out the window of our room at the Palazzo Ravizzi, the hilly landscapes with atmospheric perspective finally registered with the paintings that I had seen over the past twenty-some years.

On this trip, as we were leaving the Cinque Terra region by ferry, a small cold front passed over. The combination of bright sunlight and gloomy clouds resembled a Martin Johnson Heade painting; but since this was the coast of Italy and not an American landscape, it didn’t convey the same sense of divine majesty and terror of the Hudson River School.

I’m curious why I see more combinations of dark cloud fronts moving towards sunlit landscapes in American painting than European. Perhaps it’s something about the difference in attitude towards land: new, unknown and empty territory versus old land that’s been divided and sub-divided over thousands of years. Or perhaps it’s the differences in people’s views about their place in the big hierarchy: post-Enlightenment humanism versus hundreds of years of monarchies and the Church.

I’ve also been thinking about the role of travel in art history. Canaletto’s images of Venice were basically early versions of picture postcards and Ingres paid for his travels in Italy by drawing portraits of tourists.

One of the more cliched images in art is Casper David Freidrich’s lone caped traveler, back to the viewer, looking out over God’s creation. The cape was a functional item back in its day and it’s lasted well in Freidrich’s work — probably better than these L.L. Bean wardrobes will.

But regardless of how they’re dressed, these two ladies waiting for the ferry in Vernazza are probably having a similar metaphysical experience as a Casper David Freidrich figure — only without the benefit of an 18th-Century classical education to describe it.


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