Evelyn March Phillipps on Giorgione

Here is an excellent meditation on Giorgione, from The Venetian School of Painting by Evelyn March Phillipps (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1912). The excerpt seems to me to be an excellent example of how to write about art; direct, passionate and utterly free from jargon or pretension. March Phillipps is little read today, and long overdue a revival. In addition to her art historical works, she wrote extensively on women’s emancipation in the Fortnightly Review, and was active in the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Institute of Women Journalists.  

Giorgione no longer described “in drawing’s learned tongue”; he carried all before him by giving his direct impression in colour. He conceives in colour. The Florentines cared little if their finely drawn draperies were blue or red, but Giorgione images purple clouds, their dark velvet glowing towards a rose and orange horizon. He hardly knows what attitudes his characters take, but their chestnut hair, their deep-hued draperies, their amber flesh, make a moving harmony in which the importance of exact modelling is lost sight of. His scenes are not composed methodically and according to the old rules, but are the direct impress of the painter’s joy in life. It was a new and audacious style in painting, and its keynote, and absolutely inevitable consequence, was to substitute for form and for gay, simple tints laid upon it, the quality of chiaroscuro. We all know how the shades of evening are able to transform the most commonplace scene; the dull road becomes a mysterious avenue, the colourless foliage develops luscious depths, the drab and arid plain glows with mellow light, purple shadows clothe and soften every harsh and ugly object, all detail dies, and our apprehension of it dies also. Our mood changes; instead of observing and criticising, we become soothed, contemplative, dreamy. It is the carrying of this profound feeling into a colour-scheme by means of chiaroscuro, so that it is no longer learned and explanatory, but deeply sensuous and emotional, that is the gift to art which found full voice with Giorgione, and which in one moment was recognised and welcomed to the exclusion of the older manner, because it touched the chord which vibrated through the whole Venetian temperament.

And the immediate result was the picture of no subject. Giorgione creates for us idle figures with radiant flesh, or robed in rich costumes, surrounded by lovely country, and we do not ask or care why they are gathered together. We have all had dreams of Elysian fields, “where falls not any rain, nor ever wind blows loudly,” where all is rest and freedom, where music blends with the plash of fountains, and fruits ripen, and lovers dream away the days, and no one asks what went before or what follows after. The Golden Age, the haunt of fauns and nymphs: there never has been such a day, or such a land: it is a mood, a vision: it has danced before the eyes of poets, from David to Keats and Tennyson: it has rocked the tired hearts of men in all ages: the vision of a resting-place which makes no demands and where the dwellers are exempt from the cares and weakness of mortality. Needless to say, it is an ideal born of the East; it is the Eastern dream of Paradise, and it speaks to that strain in the temperament which recognises that life cannot be all thought, but also needs feeling and emotion. And for the first time in all the world the painter of Castelfranco sets that vague dream before men’s eyes. The world, with its wistful yearnings and questionings, such as Leonardo or Botticelli embodied, said little to his audience. Here was their natural atmosphere, though they had never known it before. These deep, solemn tones, these fused and golden lights are what Giorgione grasps from the material world, and as he steeps his senses in them the subject counts but little in the deep enjoyment they communicate. We, who have seen his manner repeated and developed through thousands of pictures, find it difficult to realise that there had been nothing like it before, that it was a unique departure, that when Bellini and Titian looked at his first creations they must have experienced a shock of revelation. The old definite style must have seemed suddenly hard and meagre, and every time they looked on the glorious world, the deep glow of sunset, the mysterious shades of falling night, they must have felt they were endowed with a sense to which they had hitherto been strangers, but which, it was at once apparent, was their true heritage. They had found themselves, and in them Venice found her real expression, and with Giorgione and those who felt his impetus began the true Venetian School, set apart from all other forms of art by its way of using and diffusing and intensifying colour.