L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Thursday, June 24, 2010

An allegorical explanation

Nine years ago I started a painting. An adaptation of the famous painting by Bronzino which is usually titled "Allegory of Venus and Cupid". A beautiful and wonderfully perverse work, painted in the 1540's as a gift for François I, its iconography has confounded scholars ever since it first appeared publicly. Entering the collection of Britain's National Gallery in 1860, whose director judged it "the most improper picture" - which it certainly is - most of the naughtiest parts were painted over; it was only restored in 1958. (Incidentally, the year of my birth.)

I finished my painting "Allegory of the Artist - After Bronzino" just this year.

My "official" explanation for the long gestation is that I was waiting for my technique to catch up with my ambition. Subconsciously, at least, I do believe that I knew I wasn't yet ready to complete it. Beneath the rather flashy imagery, this is really a very personal painting for me; most of the objects depicted directly relate to my tastes and/or my life. Therefore, I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to take it in to the gallery and have it up for sale. I very nearly just kept it. But now that it's been sold, I thought I should try to explain what the details represent. As some sort of record.

I kept as much of the original composition as was feasible and useful for my purposes. The blue drapery is as close as I could make it to the original; I only changed it where, because of the physical impossibility of recreating the inhuman pose of Venus, the figure wasn't in precisely the same configuration. This mainly affected the position of the left foot and leg and the aperture between the left hip and arm. There is also more drapery at the bottom which I felt better balanced the composition. (Oddly, reading later, I found that the only alteration to the original was that, at some time in its history, approximately five centimeters were trimmed from the bottom - I wonder if it would have related at all to what I added.) I kept the pink pillow with much the same detail. I only changed some of its drapery as it was so stylized that to copy it made it look like I was mistaken in my drawing. I kept the (nearly) black background and the position of the arm and hands of the figure (now me) holding up/pulling back the blue cloth. I kept two masks positioned in the right corner. Other than that, I tried to add back colors and pattern and some of the textures that are in the original. Reproductions of the original vary wildly in color but it would be safe to say that my overall tone is much warmer, though not as much so as my reproductions would indicate.

The other thing I should mention is that, contrary to nearly all of my other work, the composition of this painting altered over time. It was fully begun and then set aside. After Gigi came into my life, I added several new elements. And then, as I was finishing it, I added additional ones.

(Click on the images to see them - much more than - full size.)

My friend Shane Sullivan, an artist himself, posed for this painting. I was amazed at how well he got the impossible pose of the Venus in the original. Because this wasn't meant to be a portrait, but something completely idealized, I generalized the face, made the hair more "picturesque", and added a foreskin to his rather American penis - yes, I did - to better accommodate a classical iconography. He still holds Cupid's arrow - as well as Venus' golden apple - though there is no Cupid here. My arm, in the position of the original, holds back the drapery and, looped in my hand is a ribbon which drapes over a large blank panel - the ready place to make art - and has a pencil and paintbrush knotted at its end - the tools to make art. There are no putti in the original work, but there are two winged figures. Here, the wings were useful for adding some of the colors from the Bronzino. The putto peeking over the drapery on the right, was added far into the process; actually, I painted over (something I never do) another one that was cropped off at the mouth like the central one. This one is my favorite, seemingly shy, and is the only figure in the painting that gazes out at the viewer.

Me - or the me of nine years ago - with my mustache and "soul patch", wearing a black t-shirt, the "artist uniform". A silver vase of white lilies - why? Because I think they're beautiful. And they work compositionally. They also represent, I suppose, a pristine natural beauty. The top of the vase is ringed with pink roses; in the original, a small child has pink roses clutched in his hands. But they're also useful compositionally and because they're beautiful and fragrant. The small banner that spirals around the lily stems was added later. Aperto Vivere Voto is a quotation from Persius. I've never known the context, but it is usually translated as, to live one's life as an open book. Or, to live with unconcealed passion. Years ago I adopted it as a sort of personal motto; I had a ring made that is inscribed with it, and I have it tattooed on my left arm.

Also added later, is Gigi's right hand holding up the edge of the drapery. She's wearing the silver and amethyst ring she always wears. I gave it to her soon after we met and fell in love. A sort of promise ring. The original painting has two hands presented horizontally in about this same location, so that was another reason to place it here. The leafy vine was added at the same time. Coming from beyond the picture plane, through my grasp and down and through hers. Besides the color and compositional concerns, it also symbolizes growth and passage - our journey together - and our connection. And how we work together.

The flat plan on the far left is of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Built for the future Alexander I of Russia, its last residents, famously, were Nicholas II and his family. At first preserved by the Soviets, trashed by the Nazis, and then given to the Russian navy to use, it is currently undergoing an intense restoration. The two Cyrillic letters visible are the beginning of the word transliterated as dvorets: palace. The rolled plan is that of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. At the bottom is a fragment of Maison de la reine, as it was for Marie Antoinette.

The score that spills out of the portfolio at the top of the stack of books is that of Rachmaninov's second symphony. Or what I imagine it might look like; I've never seen the actual score, and the scale of the painting is small enough that trying to reproduce it would be pointless, so I merely made a - fairly - detailed representation of a full orchestral score. I always refer to this piece of music as my favorite, the "great work" that I always return to. The music of my "Russian" soul!

The other books in the stack aren't actual ones, but just a way to celebrate the role of books in my life, and a place to inscribe names that have meant a lot to me. F.X. Winterhalter, the nineteenth-century portrait painter; Les Romanoff, and all the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy that have so fascinated me; Versailles, preposterous to say but, in many ways, my spiritual home. And Marie-, being all the Maries: Marie Antoinette, Marie Pavlovna, Empress Marie, Queen Marie. Even my mother, Mary. The book in the middle, with the spine turned away, is the mystery book. I can think of many things it might represent. The story of a life - mine, mine with G. Or an actual book. Most often, though, it represents for me the book that hasn't been finished yet, the first (full-length, grown-up) book that G gets published. A very important book to me.

On the cushion is an emerald and diamond sautoir I designed to represent the fascination I've had with great vintage jewelry - Cartier, Chaumet, Bolin - and the Russian Imperial jewels. My cat's tail curls in from the side and, when G and I got together, I added her little dog José's tail as well; both of them are gone now. The very last thing I added to the painting was the little flowering plant, a sort of (made up) wildflower. There was something missing in that space. I made one of the stems broken, I suppose to symbolize the delicacy of beauty and of life. Which leads to a probably expected ingredient of any classical allegory, the skull. Crowned with laurel; death is always the ultimate victor.

The vine that threaded through my hand and G's, trails down, twining around the hourglass - time, of course - and rests, wrapped in the ribbon end of the pearl necklace. It's the growing end of the vine, and the necklace is another symbol of beauty. And, of course, pearls are symbols of growth and transcendence - the irritation of the oyster that makes the amazing jewel.

The silver vase is an example of the neo-classicism that I so love. And the two quill pens signify the importance of writing in our lives. The beautiful white one - with ink on the tip - is G's. The inkless, stubby gray one is mine, untested. The two masks represent the two female idols of my childhood: the Empress Eugénie, in profile, and Marie Antoinette.

The sheet of parchment tucked into the corner, beneath the drapery, was drawn in at the beginning. The original has something similar in the same place, but I've never been able to tell precisely what it is. My sheet was left strangely blank; I didn't know what to put on it. But after G and I got together, I thought to add the date of our first contact. The date that changed the direction of my life. The date she sent me an email, praising my work, after seeing a show of mine: 12-12-03.


  1. I recast Bronzino's Allegory myself in my historical novel Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


  2. Bonjour Stephen!
    You have no idea how greatly I admire your art. What a marvel, this painting! The luminosity of it enchants me.

    When I saw this masterpiece, the first thing that came to my mind is M. Bouguereau.
    Like his work, yours too looks like (almost) photographs; such is the perfection of the brushstrokes. Another thing I could not help thinking when first seeing it: The eye does not have to stop in a state of shock when looking at the feet. Why feet can't be painted as perfectly as the rest of the body? So many of the great masters work visually disappoint me because of it.
    Please don't laugh at my comment. As you can tell, I know nothing of painting.......

    Circumsicion is practiced in many countries, Stephen.
    In the Jewish state of Israel, of course; in the United States, Korea, Philippines. With some frequency in Canada and in Australia. In Muslim-majority countries : Egypt , Iran , Indonesia , Arabia, Turkey , Morocco, Malaysia, etc.

    Outside of your country, we refer to it as the United States.
    See, for the rest of us, America is supposed to be the huge continent of the same name. It is divided in three parts, North, Central and South. Your country is, along with Canada and Mexico, part of North America. Yes, Mexico is part of North America. I say this because in some states, I could read stickers in the back of many cars saying things like "Mexicans, get out of America" or something like "If you don't like America, get out of it"

    Another thing is how in the US they apply the word Hispanic. Hispanic is a culture, not a race. There are White Hispanics, Black Hispanics, Brown Hispanics, Native South Americans.

    1. Thank you so much, Maria! And I'm very glad my painting's feet didn't offend you. ; )

      I certainly know about how and where circumcision is practiced in the world. (And I'll say, politic or no, I don't approve of it. And I don't think religion is an adequate excuse for a pointless, compulsory body modification to an innocent baby - but it's a very touchy topic with a lot of people....) When I used the term "American" in this case, it was in reference to the - non-religious - practice which, I believe, was strongly encouraged by doctors, etc., in this country and then spread to others. And I don't think there has been any other country where the practice - for non-religious reasons - was as widespread; pretty much - all - boys were circumcised in this country for more than about fifty years. Only recently has the practice started to wane.

      America - is - a continent, of course, and North America is made up of three countries. But "American" meaning someone from the United States is an understandable shorthand when you consider the actual name of the country: Canada>Canadian, Mexico>Mexican, Chile>Chilean, Bolivia>Bolivian, Argentina>Argentinian, etc. But United States>United Statesian...?

      What you say about the ignorance of people in the United States in regard to geography, culture, race is all too true. The worst part is that we don't even - want - to be more educated. I find such arrogance and willful ignorance quite disgusting.

  3. Thank you, Stephen for taking the time to write such reply!
    You're brilliant!