If we look back over the
span of five centuries from the Renaissance until the early twentieth
century, it was assumed during that time that one of the primary roles
of art was to depict beauty. But that appears not to be the case today.
In fact, beauty is something that many artists and art critics of our
own time seem to intentionally avoid.
It is my observation that
art today can be exciting and engaging and inspiring and even
challenging but only very rarely is it anything you would call
beautiful. The only exception seems to be realist landscape paintings.
Where has all the beauty gone?
today’s hi-tech, highly material world, one would think that art would
be the very thing we could turn to, to find beauty – real beauty which
is often missing in our lives today. It’s ironic that it is difficult
during our challenging time to find art that is truly beautiful. And so,
I ask again, “Where has all the beauty gone?”
Some will quote
the old adage that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder – meaning that
what one person thinks is beautiful may or may not be what another
recognizes as being beautiful. And that certainly is true to a degree.
I don’t believe that beauty is entirely just a matter of personal
taste. I do believe there are some things that the large majority of us
would agree are beautiful. For example, most of us would agree that
we’re looking at something truly beautiful when we see a dramatically
colorful sunset, an exquisitely designed landscape, or even an expertly
decorated wedding cake.
Let’s take a look at a few of the results
of a couple of non-scientific surveys in which people were asked to
give examples of art they thought was truly beautiful. See if you agree
with some of the most popular answers.
Works by the following
artists were cited as being beautiful: the Italian Renaissance painters
such as Leonardo and Botticelli, the 19th century French realists like
Bouguereau and Fantin-Latour, the French impressionists, mainly Renoir
and Monet, and the post-impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh who is the
number one choice of a lot of the people surveyed.
interesting thing occurred when the survey shifted focus from paintings
to works in glass and ceramics and jewelry. Then the responses included a
lot more contemporary and even abstract pieces such as the absolutely
mind-blowing work of the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
I suspect that most of you would agree with many of these examples.
so, it seems to me that the perception of beauty is not entirely just a
matter of personal taste. There is a large area of agreement.
so, I don’t believe that many artists and critics have shunned beauty
simply for the reason that beauty is just a matter of taste, that people
can’t agree on what is beautiful. I think there’s another reason, and
I’d like to explain exactly what that reason is.
First, we need
to look back to the mid-1800s at two art movements: the Pre-Raphaelites
and the Aesthetic Movement. Basically, both of these groups emphasized
making art that was beautiful. Especially the Aesthetes believed that
beauty was an end in itself, and art should provide pleasure to the
senses, without having to convey a moral or sentimental message. Both
Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movements were forms of
There were some flamboyant, non-conformist characters connected with these movements!
of the more well-known writers and poets associated with these groups
were: Charles Swinburne, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde.
A few of
the visual artists involved in these movements were: William Morris,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gustav Klimt, and Audrey Beardsley
work of these artists was criticized for being overly idealized and
completely unrealistic. And the artists themselves did not help matters.
Their manner was arrogant and self-righteous, and their appearance was
marked by artificiality and pretentiousness.
were ridiculed and lampooned. In short, they became the laughing stock.
And along with them, beauty as an artistic pursuit was severely
During the first half of the twentieth century the
words, “art and beauty,” took on a tawdry sexual association, meaning
basically the nude female form. A slew of cheap magazines appearing
during this tie featuring cheesecake photography. More recently, the
comic book artist, R. Crumb, satirized these magazines.
you can see that the expression of beauty within the arts has traveled a
pretty rough road and has wound up severely damaged as a result.
I believe there is need today during our troubled, dysfunctional times
for art that is beautiful – not shallow, maudlin sentimentality
masquerading as beauty but the sort of profound beauty which lifts the
Let’s rediscover real beauty through art.
is the one thing that inspires me as an artist. And so, I will close by
showing you one of my own paintings, a triptych titled Concerto with
Dancers. I hope you will see beauty in this work.
2022 Art Mysteries
To introduce this new blog, I'd like to
begin by considering three works by Leonardo
da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance artist
around whom there is probably enough mystery
for this one artist to be the only subject
of the entire blog!
I'll begin with Leonardo's famous painting
The Mona Lisa which has been an
object of great mystery for nearly two
centuries. Much has been said about the
subject's enigmatic smile (a popular song
was even written about it) and the fact that
her eyes appear to follow the viewer around
the room. In addition to her bewitching and
seductive smile and her ever watchful eyes,
there are several facts about this painting
which contribute to the mystery of this work
Around 1503 Leonardo began this portrait
which he worked on for several years. It is
believed to be a portrait of the wife of a
wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del
Giocondo. But even that is uncertain. The
strange thing is this: if indeed the
painting was a commissioned portrait,
Leonardo never delivered it to the person
who commissioned it. He kept it himself up
until the end of his life when he gave it to
his patron at the time, the king of France.
Answers to the question of who is the woman
in the painting have ranged from the mundane
to the far-fetched. As an example, a few
years ago a researcher, Dr. Lillian Schwartz
of the Bell Laboratories, hypothesized that
the painting is actually a self-portrait
Leonardo did of himself idealized as a young
woman. Schwartz achieved some notoriety when
she demonstrated that computerized images of
the features of Leonardo's face from his
famous self-portrait drawing coincide
perfectly with the face of Mona Lisa when
superimposed over them.
Be that as it may, apparently the painting
was quite well-known during Leonardo's own
lifetime and amazed people with its
strikingly lifelike appearance. Indeed,
people were "wowed" by Leonardo's incredible
oil painting technique.
One curious thing is the landscape in the
background behind the woman. The view on one
side seems to be a different perspective
from the view on the other side.
Another curious thing is the fact that the
painting has been trimmed down from its
original size. The original painting had
columns on both sides, and these have been
cut off. Their bases are still quite
visible. We have no idea who cropped the
painting or why it was done.
In 1911 this famous painting was actually
stolen from the Louvre and the identity of
the thief and the whereabouts of the
painting remained a mystery which wasn't
solved for over 2 years. It was finally
recovered hidden in a trunk of an Italian
handyman named Vincenzo Peraggia. The crime
may never have been solved if the thief had
not tried to sell the painting to an art
dealer who reported it to the authorities!
The second work I'd like to mention briefly
is Leonardo's Last Supper which is a
fresco mural in Milan. This work was
featured in Dan Brown's blockbuster novel, The
Da Vinci Code. The mystery in
Brown's story has to do with the effeminate
figure seated on Jesus's right. Art
historians say that it is the apostle John;
the novel asserts that it is Mary Magdaline
who was actually Jesus's wife. Brown's
argument in support of this idea is
Leonardo's fondness for including secret
messages in his paintings and the central
figures in the painting together form the
letter, M, which stands for Magdalene.
Incidentally, and you probably already know,
the fresco in Milan is in a horrible state
of deterioration -- even after attempts at
restoration the painting almost impossible
to see. Fortunately, Leonardo and his
apprentices created a nearly exact copy on
canvas. This copy is now in an abbey in
The third work I'd like to refer to has been
called the "Lost Leonardo."
In 1505 Leonardo was commissioned to paint a
mural in one of the large rooms in the
Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. His subject was
a famous battle from the history of the
city, the battle of Anghiari. Unfortunately,
Leonardo's attempt to use oil paint in a
fresco was unsuccessful and, despite his
efforts to speed the drying of the paint,
parts of the work began to run together.
We know quite a bit about this mural because
of Leonardo's preliminary drawings and
copies of the unfinished mural that other
artists did. The most notable of these is an
amazing drawing by the renowned Dutch artist
Peter Paul Rubens. After some years, Vasari
was commissioned to paint a series of new
murals which included the wall where
Leonardo's failed attempt was located.
However, Vasari had the highest regard for
Leonardo and did not want to paint over the
master's work.. It is believed that he had a
"curtain wall" constructed in front of
Leonardo's mural so it was preserved.
One of the problems today is no one is sure
which wall the Leonardo mural was on.
Within the past few years, the American
pioneer in the use of technology to study
art, Maurizio Seracini, has studied the
Vasari murals and claims he has located
where he believes the Leonardo to be
located. His initial analysis has shown that
there is indeed a painting behind the Vasari
and some of the paint pigment is the same as
the paint used in the Mona Lisa. However,
his continued efforts to use technology to
explore behind the Vasari mural have been
halted by local officials who fear that he
might damage Vasari's art.
To view a presentation on Leonardo by
I hope you liked this first offering of the
Bennecelli Blog. My plan is to have the
second installment in a couple weeks. Please
share and like on social media.