Friday, 27 July 2012

Paolo Uccello

Paolo Uccello, who I was reminded of at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, is on the list of suggested artists to investigate in the course folder. I have spent some time today doing that on the internet.

I looked in various places but found a good summary of his life and work at

The italicised parts of the following is a series of quotes directly from there:
Paolo Uccello 1397-1475
He would stay up all night in his study trying to grasp the exact vanishing point. He used perspective in order to create a feeling of depth in his paintings, and no, as his contemporaries, to narrate different or succeeding stories. (More like modern painters)
His best known works are the three paintings representing the battle of San Romano (The other two are in the Louvre and the Uffizi. The Medici family of Florence commissioned them).
He worked in the Late Gothic tradition, and emphasised colour and pageantry rather than the classical realism that other artists were working on. His style is best described as idiosyncratic...He had some influence on twentieth century art and literary criticism.


Paolo Uccello The Battle of San Romano

Georgio Vasari - The man on a horse in the middle of the painting was called Nicola di Tolentino. He is wearing a mazzocchi or hat, constructed from wooden hoops covered with cloth. 
According to Vasari in his Lives of the Artists,
"He used to show Donatello...the mazocchi that he had drawn with their points and surfaces shown from various angles in perspective.' (Here's another artist trying to paint things from all sides.)

Vasari also implied that Uccello was more turned on by perspective than by his wife. Vasari's book is full of naughty or personal jokes like that, as if he knew them, but in fact his book was written 75 years after Uccello's death so he couldn't have.

The National Gallery website says 'Uccello was much preoccupied with one point linear perspective, seen here in the foreshortening of shapes and arrangement of broken lances... The best known system of linear perspective is that described by Alberti in his treatise 'On Painting' ('De Pictura', 1435), in which receding parallel lines appear to converge on a single point on the horizon....If an object or person is foreshortened it is depicted as though receding from the viewer into the picture space.' It gives the fallen knight in this picture as a good example of this.

I say - The lances on the ground look very artificial in their lines showing the perspective, but only when you look directly at them! There's something stylised about the whole painting, but it does have a lot more depth to it than a lot of those very early renaissance paintings. The horses and armour look rounder.  The hat, as well as being three dimensional, has some good details of the brocade it is made of.  I am attracted to the stylised orange tree behind the action. The whole style is rather solidly 3 dimensional, like a children's cartoon on t.v., and that along with the bright colours and action makes it initially seem more decorative than serious to me. I think that was what drew me to it as a child. But the whole scene is sophisticated, and about a historical event, and there is the underlying development of a technique that was very new at the time. 

He was known as Uccello because of his fondness for painting birds. He kept a large number of pictures of animals and birds at his home.
At the age of 10 he was apprenticed to Ghiberti...whose late-Gothic, narratie style and sculptural composition greatly influenced Paolo. Lifelong friendship with Donatello. (Who is famous for having made some figures for the front of a church which were in excessive perspective so that they would look grand from below).

What follows is some of the things I have thought about when I was looking at some of his other paintings.

This is the Hunt, which was his last known work, painted 5 years before he died. 
The perspective is clearly there in the trees, the lines of the branches, dogs, and lance, and the shapes of the horses. It's a very attractive painting, with bright colours, and lots of excitement. I particularly like the stylised (as opposed to realistic) trees, which remind me of some trees in Arts and Crafts art. Like these trees on a Voysey clock at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

St George and the Dragon 1456

This one is also at the National Gallery, and I remember thinking it was like something from a story book, except for the gory lance in the eye. And that the posture of the dragon was very good at showing how an animal would cower and roar at the same time. Now I look at it again, I see the linear perspective in the strange blocks of grass, in the inside of the cave and the lines on the ground, in the foreshortening of the horse, and the posture of the dragon. I also see a spiral cloud on the right, which is so unexpected in such an old painting. Perhaps God is in the cloud or something. But it has a fluffy texture and the colour intensifies inside the spiral. And underneath are trees that look more like giant moss. It's all very unusual. 

La Tebaide (Episodes in the lives of hermits) 1460

This painting does use perspective to separate different hermits' lives. The stairs turn a corner to mark out a separate cave for one story, and a running monk in another. I am happy to see here some more albeit different species of stylised trees. There are lines of dots in the background, and on the roof of the church, again showing lines of perpective.

I want to try out some of this linear perspective, perhaps with lines of stitching, or lines of dots, and also some of these trees, in my sketchbook. I am also drawn to the spiral cloud, and I might have a go at making something like it. 

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