Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Renaissance Pastoral Mystery

We spent Venice class today focusing on the art of Giorgione, and more specifically, the following piece, the Concert Champêtre. This mysterious piece, lacking documentation and a clear narrative, has also been attributed to Titian by the Louvre. It is unclear who actually painted this piece...it's dated circa 1509 or 1510. Giorgione passed away from the plague in 1510 which balances this painting right at the end of his life. Articles we read for today entertained an array of attribution possibilities...Giorgione, Titian, started by Giorgione and completed by Titian. But we shall likely never know.

Giorgione or Titian. Concert Champêtre, 1510, oil on canvas, Louvre

This piece is characterized as the quintessential pastoral scene. Pastorals are idealized landscapes of country shepherds, maidens, and tranquil moments...the proper setting for gods and events of religious imagery. It's not a scientific depiction of the real world, but a quaint, perfect landscape.

It is curious to note that the two seated male figures are of obvious different social classifications. The lute player (perhaps a portrait of Giorgione, said by Giorgio Vasari to be a fantastic lute player?) is dressed contemporary for the age (1500s) and very finely. He is clearly an aristocrat sojourning in the country. His companion (Titian?) is characterized by Fehl as a "rustic swain"...a man of the country apparent in his more subdued color palette and modest dress. How did they meet? Why are they playing music together in the country?

((For the record, I don't really buy that they are portraits of Giorgione and Titian. Giorgione was born of humble origins...why would he be depicted as an aristocrat? Especially if this could be his own painting?))

You may be wondering...why are the two ladies nude? Again, with no documents, we can never really say for sure. The scholar I presented on today, Philipp Fehl, believed that they were in fact woodland nymphs, other worldly beings invisible to the lowly human eye. Hence, the lack of interaction between the voluptuous women and otherwise occupied men (I mean, come on...what man in his right mind, with his sense of sight, would actively ignore an attractive, naked woman? No man.). Other more specific interpretations of these figures, holding to the other-worldly theme, include the personification of Poesía (poetry...as is frequently juxtaposed with the pastoral genre...indicated by the female on the left pouring water from her crystal pitcher into the trough and the right female's flute) and the muses Calliope and Euterpe (by Ross Kilpatrick of Queens University).

Édouard Manet. Déjeuner sur l'herbe. 1862-3. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Often compared to the Concert Champêtre, Déjeuner sur l'herbe (originally titled Le Bain, The Bath) gives us a seemingly similar scene featuring two clothed men and two nude women in a lush landscape. With poses derived from a Raimondi engraving (after a sketch by Raphael), scholars have theorized Concert Champêtre's direct influence on the composition as well. In his article "The Hidden Genre: A Study of the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre," Fehl compares this piece with the Concert. Though I initially did not understand his inclusion of this piecewhen interpreting the Renaissance pastoral, I now realize that Fehl used this painting as an example of what the Concert Champêtre, and its nudes, were not.

The pile in the left-hand corner of the Manet explicitly implies that the women actively removed their clothing at the picnic. The women in the Concert have no such discarded garments. Instead, untailored cloths drape around them loosely and exquisitely. The cloths' purpose is obviously more aesthetic than out of modesty. And yet, the Concert nudes retain a sense of delicacy and innocence that Manet's nudes, more provocative in implication and the one woman's direct gaze, lack. Manet's nudes are humans - real, raw, and engaging. Concert's nudes are beautiful and sensual for sure, but distant. If you look closely, you could put up a wall to separate them from the men. In Manet's painting, the front woman is entangled between the two men's legs, a part of their group rather than an observer.


We don't know why the Concert Champêtre was painted. We don't know what it means. We don't know who the figures are. We don't even know who painted it. What we do know is that it is inspiring; it is mysterious and intriguing; it is beautiful. And discovering the range of interpretations is half of the fun!

"It is not enough to know your craft - you have to have feeling. Science is all very well, but for us imagination is worth far more."
- Édouard Manet


  1. I am really glad you posted that Manet quote. It was helpful for me today!