“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash in black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by light.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
A Wash in Black
A blog by Karen Schneider
The Fine Art of Knitting
The fantastic thing about art is that it can take your heart to the soaring heights of human emotions – from the stirring heartbreak of Picasso’s “Guernica,” to the exuberance and happiness of any Van Gogh flower painting. But there is a place in art for the quiet moments of everyday life; little glimpses into the mundane tasks that must be completed, or the times we can rest from our chores to read a book or pick up needlework. I think oil painting is particularly suited for these quiet moments.
I am a life-long knitter, and I remember the first time I saw a picture of Edouard Manet’s “La Tricoteuse” in an art history book. A thrill went up my spine that a craft I love was so lovingly portrayed!
If you Google “paintings about knitting” many images will come up, there are many romanticized pastoral scenes that are just okay. But if I could curate an exhibit of paintings whose subject is knitting I would choose the following works. I am listing them by the date they were created.
“Betty Rubble Knitting,” animation from “The Flintstones” television show, Hanna-Barbera Productions, September 30, 1960, to April 1, 1966
Yes, I know that the animated Betty Rubble is not exactly considered a “master work,” but who knew that knitting was a pre-historic activity? Or that long woodpecker beaks make great knitting needles? I imagine that even the residents of Bedrock needed comfy socks and undergarments.
“The Holy Family,” painted circa 1345 during The Gothic Period by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of Siena (birth name Ambruogio Laurati), who lived from about 1285-1290 to 9 June 1348. It is in the Meermanno Museum in The Hague.
This quote is from a blog named “HiyaHiyaEurope”
“Around the middle of the 14th century, something curious happened. Catholicism and the influence of the Papal State were at their peak, and the Virgin Mary was appearing in paintings and other forms of art across Europe. In Italy and Germany, where Catholicism was particularly strong, the Virgin Mary was being depicted knitting alongside the baby Jesus. Known collectively as the ‘Knitting Madonnas,’ these paintings tell the story of how knitting spread across Europe. In reality, the Virgin Mary was unlikely to have knitted. The oldest knitted artifacts found date back to the 11th century in Egypt, a long time after the Virgin Mary was said to have existed. This suggests depicting the Virgin Mary as a knitter was a political move by the Papacy, and thereafter that of the Italian and German leaders, to maintain a soft influence over the population.”
“The Knitting Madonna,” by Master Bertram (c. 1345-c. 1415); this is a detail of the Buxtehude Altarpiece, painted circa 1400-1410 in oil on oak panel. This panel portrays Jesus’ mother, Mary, knitting her Son a seamless garment, which is described in the Scripture passage about His death (John 20:23). John wrote that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ “coat without seam.” Bertram was largely forgotten after the Renaissance until the end of the 19th century when he was rediscovered and published by Alfred Lichtwark, director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, the museum in which this fabulous Medieval panel resides.
“Probably Sarah Cook Arnold Knitting,” Unknown Artist, oil on wood, 35 1/4 inches x 22 13/16 inches. I love the way she is staring down the artist, and her sheer lace collar and ruff are superb! This wonderful and austere Primitive painting was done around 1830, and she hangs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
“Mrs. Abbott Lawrence (Katherine Bigalow),” painted about 1855 by American artist Chester Harding (1792–1866), oil on canvas, 69.53 cm x 56.83 cm (27 3/8 inches x 22 3/8 inches). Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
“Young Brittany Girl Knitting,” 1866. This painting has been attributed to two different 19th-century French artists: Emile Auguste Pinchart (1842 – 1924), and Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton (1827 – 1906). In the lower left-hand corner you can see the signature “Breton,” so I take that as the correct attribution.
“La Tricoteuse” (“The Knitter”), 1879, Edouard Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883). Manet’s paintings are pivotal in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. I love the bright flash of blue at her neck, and it appears that she is so intent on her needlework that she doesn’t even notice the artist or care that he is there. I know this painting is not often included on the lists of Manet’s best or best-known work, but it is the painting that made me realize the infinite possibilities of art; that there is a place in the art world for things and places and people I like.
“Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marley” (1880), by Pittsburgh born artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Oil on canvas; the painting is 25 13/16 inches x 36 7/16 inches (65.6 x 92.6 cm). Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, Gift of Mrs. Gardner Cassatt, 1965
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art web page ~ “Cassatt and her family spent the summer of 1880 at Marly-le-Roi, about ten miles west of Paris. Ignoring the village’s historic landmarks in her art, Cassatt focused instead on the domestic environment. Here, she portrayed her elder sister, Lydia, fashionably dressed and insulated by a walled garden from any modern hurly-burly. Lydia is absorbed in the sort of old-fashioned handicraft that was increasingly prized by the well-to-do as factory manufacture by working-class women escalated. Although Cassatt was generally uninterested in plein-air painting, she captured the effects of dazzling sunlight beautifully in this work, especially in Lydia’s large white hat.”
“Young Scheveningen Woman Knitting: Facing Right,” Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890). Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 5/8 inches x 14 3/8 inches (52.2 cm x 36.5 cm); it is signed ‘Vincent” in the lower left hand corner. Painted in The Hague, December 1881; this watercolor sold at Christies in 2001 for $985,000.00.
“Where are the Boats,” 1883; also known as “On the Cliffs,” Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910). Watercolor and pencil on paper, 13 inches x 19 5/8 inches (34.3 x 49.9 cm.). It was sold for $4,572,500.00 by Christies in May 2018 from the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller.
Quote from the Christies Auction House website; a Featured essay about this watercolor ~
“In the spring of 1881, Winslow Homer arrived by ship in Liverpool to seek new inspiration on English shores. After spending a short time in London exploring the British Museum and the Houses of Parliament, Homer eventually moved on to Cullercoats, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of England not far from the Scottish border, where he stayed for twenty months. Two miles from the more fashionable resort town of Tynemouth, in the 1880s Cullercoats had a population of about two thousand people and around eighty fishing boats. In this small town, Homer’s style underwent a significant transformation, employing rounder modeling and grayer tones to reflect the harsh winds and waves of the British coastline. This change in his watercolor technique showcased his admiration for how the local fisherwomen weathered their hardships. As a result, Homer’s paintings recording the daily life at Cullercoats, including “Where are the Boats,” are some of the most poignant and compelling watercolors of his career.”
“Young Woman Knitting” (circa 1883), by French Impressionist painter Berte Morisot (1841–1895). Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 inches x 23 5/8 inches (50.2 x 60 cm). This painting is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the 1967 bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967)
“Morisot, who exhibited with the Impressionists between 1874 and 1886, painted a number of figures out-of-doors in which she tried to achieve the same informal and spontaneous appearance as her watercolors and pastels. The light palette and the modeling of form through touches of color in this work of about 1883 are characteristic.” (From the MMA webpage)
In 1879 Renoir became a friend of the banker and diplomat Paul Bérard and his wife Marguerite. He painted portraits, still lifes and landscapes for them, and visited them both in Paris and in their chateau in Wargemont, where he painted the large picture of their daughters Marguerite, Lucie, and Marthe. At the time he painted this family portrait Renoir was leaving Impressionism behind and moving into a more classical painting style.
“Sunday Afternoon” (1893), oil on canvas by Leopold Karl Walter von Kalckreuth (1855 – 1928). This painting is owned by the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.
But I am enchanted by the little girl; in my mind she has just run to her mother’s lap, all rosy cheeks and out of breath, heedless of what her mother is doing. And she looks at us, challenging us to take her away from her mother. This painting is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The Sock Knitter” (1915), oil on canvas, 61.6 cm x 50.7 cm, painted by Sydney, Australia artist Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984). Smith said about her paintings, “I love pattern and color. My early paintings were much more of a pattern like… The Sock Knitter… In those days I felt everything was a pattern. It wasn’t a forced thing at all.” The Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased this painting in 1960.
I love how Weir painted her white blouse, but the subdued palette reminds us that she is knitting a much needed garment for a WWI soldier, probably on the front lines in winter. She carries her working yarn in the bag on her left arm so she may continue to work while walking or otherwise travelling.
I am not a real fan of Cubism, but I love this painting and recognize her posture of knitting while sitting at a table, since I do this all the time!
A Guggenheim Museum online biography about Metzinger says, “About 1908 he joined the artistic circle of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Picasso was to have a significant influence on Metzinger from this time to about 1923. In 1910 Metzinger exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants. In 1910 and 1911 he published several articles on contemporary painting and afterward periodically contributed to the literature on Modern art. Metzinger was the first to note in print that Picasso and Braque had dismissed traditional perspective and merged multiple views of an object in a single image; his article on this subject appeared in (the magazine) Pan in 1910.”
“The Yellow Rocker,” woodblock print created between 1935 and 1943 by Milwaukee, Wisconsin native Bernard P. Schardt (1904 – 1979), under the sponsorship of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The image size is 11.75 inches x 14 inches; the paper size is 15.5 inches x 17.75 inches. The New York Public Library owns a print, as does The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The Knitter” (1952), oil on canvas, by French painter Roger Kerinec (1917 – 2001). I like the simple planes, shapes, and colors of this painting, and the knitter herself is calm and focused on her work.
I must end with “Gromit Knitting,” from “Wallace and Gromit,” the British clay animation comedy series created by Nick Park of Aardman Animations. The first W & G short film was “A Grand Day Out” (1989), and the full-length feature film “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005) still makes me laugh out loud.
Wikipedia describes Gromit as “a silent yet loyal and intelligent beagle, companion to his human Wallace. He likes knitting, playing chess, reading the newspaper, tea, and cooking. He is very handy with electronic equipment and an excellent aeroplane pilot. He often threatens the plans of the villains he and Wallace encounter in their adventures.”
Gromit is the brains behind “Antipesto” the company that he and Wallace jointly own. It is a rabbit-capturing business that services the needs of earnest British vegetable gardeners. The captured rabbits live a life of leisure in Wallace and Gromit’s basement.
The Resurrection of Caravaggio
“The Supper at Emmaus”, 1601, oil on canvas, 56″ × 77.2″, The National Gallery, London.
The artistic disappearance and burial of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) was a 300-year-old cold case, solved in the early 1920’s by several art historians, including Roberto Longhi, who championed Caravaggio’s reawakening by saying about him, “Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different.” i
Born on September 29, 1571, in the Italian Lombardy town of Caravaggio, he was a child who survived poverty, famine, and terror and turmoil when the Bubonic Plague swept through Italy in 1576-1577. By age six he was the only surviving male member of his family, and the erratic and self-destructive behavior he displayed as an adult may be the result of these experiences. Many historians have suggested that he suffered from a deep sense of abandonment. At age 13 he was apprenticed to the Milan studio of Simone Peterzano, who himself was a student of the great Titian (Titian coincidentally died in Venice in 1576 of the Plague), and his life as a painter was established.
Caravaggio’s life story had to be discovered through the criminal records kept during his lifetime concerning the wide and violent swath he cut in Rome, Malta, and Naples. And we have only one (questionable) quote from him about the subject of his painting, from a recorded interrogation when he was accused of libel. ii
The Webpage “Artable” opens the history of his life with this paragraph: “Assault. Murder. Consorting with the devil. The notorious succes-de-scandale of the 17th century, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was accused of all of these and more during his tempestuous career. Condemned as the ‘antichrist of painting,’ Caravaggio was as controversial for his revolutionary artworks as he was for his infamous temper and lengthy police record.” iii
Despised by his fellow artists and contemporary art critics in Rome, when he died at age 36 his body of work was vulnerable to his enemies ~ vultures masking themselves as art critics who swooped-in to destroy his legacy by personal attacks and attributing his paintings to other artists. His life as an artist was effectively erased, and his considerable influence on the Baroque Movement of the early 17th century was credited to other painters. But most certainly Caravaggio gave his most vocal and influential enemies the ammunition to posthumously destroy him by the tumultuous life he led.
What were some of the circumstances that made it possible for Caravaggio to be pushed so easily into the dustbin of art history?
His personal (and violent) code of honor would not allow him to look away from or let go of any outright or perceived slight to his fame, reputation, and good name (such as it was….). For him, retribution was imperative. He always kept himself armed with a sword or knife, and was a provocateur. Socially he was described as a “belligerent, rude, homicidal hothead,” and a contemporary artist named Carel Van Mander said of him, “He does not study his art constantly, so that after two weeks of work he will sally forth for two months together with his rapier at his side and his servant boy after him, going from one tennis court to another, always ready to argue or fight, so that he is impossible to get along with.” iv
“Whore, bitch, tart”! These remarks are recorded in a deposition from 1602 and saved in the State Archives of Rome. Caravaggio screamed these epithets to a courtesan (who had refused to sleep with him) while on trial for his physical assault of her before a court of magistrates. He had beaten her and then slashed her face. This facial cut was a specific insult; it was called a “sfregio,” a mark of shame, and devastating to a courtesan whose face was her fortune. v
A Scandalous and Violent Lifestyle
When Michelangelo Merisi arrived in Rome in the Autumn of 1592 he entered a violent art world whose members were cut-throat and vicious in their aspirations to win commissions granted by the Catholic Church (the Church put on the full-court press of commissioning religious art as a response to the Reformation that was sweeping through Europe). The Church’s money and prestige were such that sword and knife fights between painters were common, as was sabotage: ruining paint with acid or cutting a notch (or two) into scaffolding was not unheard of. And Caravaggio proved himself equal to the murder and mayhem; he consorted with a dangerous crowd whose motto was “nec spe, nec metu” (“without hope, without fear”). vi
The “Artable” webpage devoted to the history of Caravaggio describes “…a police record many pages long filled with stories of assault, illegal weapons, harassing the police, and complex affairs with prostitutes and courtesans.” vii
In the year 1600 alone he injured an unemployed Roman mercenary soldier in a swordfight and stabbed a Tuscan art student in the back.
His physical appearance was striking and ominous, and he used this to his advantage. He was swarthy with very dark curly hair and an unkempt beard, he dressed in black, openly carried his weapons, and wandered the streets of Rome with a large black dog he named Crow. viii (As an aside, in mythology the crow is known as the harbinger of death because it guides souls from the realm of the living into the afterlife.)
As for scandalous artistic behavior, he had no qualms about using his favorite courtesans as models in his paintings. The famous Roman courtesan Fellide Melandroni is featured prominently in several of his important paintings: “Conversion of Mary Magdelene” (1599), “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (1599), and most notably in “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1598). This is a painting in which Caravaggio’s violent lifestyle is reflected in the bloody throat slashing execution of the Assyrian General Holofernes by the Jewish woman, Judith. Another of his favorite courtesan/models was Magdalena Antognetti, who he immortalized in the “Madonna dei Palafrenieri” (1606).
His Painting Technique
Caravaggio invited open irritation and controversy from his fellow painters and art critics through his innovative and revolutionary method of painting. He ignored all the rules. He did not prepare his canvasses or paint in the traditional way they all had been taught (what is known as Mannerism); he invented his own method of painting in what is now known as The Venetian School. He made very little initial preparation to his canvasses and worked the oil paint directly on to the canvas from the natural model. He rarely used drawings to guide him but did score basic outlines with the end of his brush. His style was completely theatrical, sparse and economical, populated with real people, and with a noticeably dramatic contrast between light and dark. His particular form of chiaroscuro by darkening the shadows (chiaroscuro is “an Italian term which literally means ‘light-dark’: in paintings, the description refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modeling of the subjects depicted” ix ) was dubbed “Tenebrism;” Wikipedia defines it as “From the Italian tenebroso (‘dark, gloomy, mysterious’), also occasionally called dramatic illumination, is a style of painting using profoundly pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image.” x
He Never Had a Teaching Studio
Although Caravaggio spent 15 years in Rome, he never established his own teaching studio. In his first years there he found work as “the workshop assistant to the relatively talentless but eminently successful Cavaliere d’Arpino, AKA Giuseppi Caesare.” xi
He left d’Arpino’s studio in 1594 and found modest first success with his painting “Card Sharps” (1594). But it took him several more years of struggling before he won a public (Catholic Church) commission, and his personality and temperament probably did not suit for teaching other struggling painters when he was struggling himself. He never stated his philosophy of art, although today art historians call his painting style “Uncompromising and Unselecting Naturalism.”
He had to leave Rome as a criminal fugitive in 1606, and for the next four years, he was moving from Malta to Sicily to Naples. For these reasons, he did not have the stability of a permanent studio to paint or the students who would evangelize and promulgate his painting techniques.
In 1605 Caravaggio received two commissions that he had waited for his entire artistic life: he was hired to paint an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Basilica (the mother-ship); this painting is “The Madonna of the Palafrenieri” (also known as “The Madonna of the Serpent”). The second altarpiece commission was for the Carmelite Monastery’s church called Santa Maria della Scala; this painting is “The Death of the Virgin.”
Within two days of delivering “The Madonna of the Palafrenieri” the Church took it down, removed it from St. Peter’s, and sold it to a private collector. Apparently, the Madonna’s lowcut bodice was the point of contention. And when he delivered “The Death of the Virgin,” it too was rejected by the Carmelite Brothers. They told Caravaggio that it was “well made, but without decorum or inventiveness or cleanliness.” xii. Of course, the reality is that he painted the Virgin Mary as the title suggests ~ dead ~ which was unthinkable. These two back-to-back rejections may have put him over the edge with his violent personality, because….
Murder Most Foul
In the immediate aftermath of the two altarpiece rejections, Caravaggio did the one thing that ruined the rest of his life: in 1606 he murdered a man in cold blood named Ranuccio Tomassoni, the pimp of his favorite courtesan, Fellide. There may be several reasons why he decided to kill Tomassomi ~ that Fellide was prohibited from seeing or modeling for Caravaggio, or it could be that Caravaggio himself was encroaching on Tomassoni’s prostitution territory. But he certainly sent a definitive message in the way he killed Tomassoni; he stabbed him in the femoral artery in the groin so that he bled out. xiii
On The Lam: A Fugitive from Justice
After the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606 the Roman police force and the Catholic Church could no longer tolerate Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in their midst, and the Pope himself condemned him to a “bando capitale,” a death sentence in which anyone living in the Papal States could kill Caravaggio with immunity and a hefty bounty. They wouldn’t even have to produce his body to authorities: his head would suffice for payment.
Caravaggio spent the next (and last) four years of his life as a wanted man, fleeing Rome for Malta, but after another fight in which he injured one of Malta’s Knights of St. John, he escaped to Naples. This injured Knight of St. John tracked Caravaggio to Naples, where he led an attack on him by a group of armed men and cut a gash onto Caravaggio’s face (see above for the explanation of the injury insult called “sfregio”).
The infection from this large cut was the reason he died; in 1610 he learned that Pope Paul V had issued a pardon for him, and he was on a ship sailing back to Rome when he succumbed to the infection. xiv
Enemies at the Gates
It does not pay to make enemies of people who could support you and help your artistic legacy. Caravaggio’s life and early death gave his fiercest critics and influential enemies the opportunity to eradicate him from the face of art history by damaging critical appraisals and attributing his paintings to lesser artists. In the book “Caravaggio: 75 Color Plates,” author Richard Donaldson writes, “His reputation was vulnerable to the critical demolition-jobs done by two of his earliest biographers, Giovanni Baglione, a rival painter with a personal vendetta, and the influential 17th century critic Giovan Bellori, who had not known him but was under the influence of French Classicist Poussin, who had not known him either but hated his work.” xv
Poussin, after he saw the painting “Death of the Virgin,” was quoted as saying, “I won’t look at it, it’s disgusting. That man (Caravaggio) was born to destroy the art of painting. Such vulgar painting can only be the work of a vulgar man. The ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell.” xvi
And after the critical damage and reattribution of his paintings that was inflicted on Caravaggio in the early 17th century, John Ruskin, an 18th-century English art critic said this about what was left of his artistic reputation, “horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin.” xvii
Resurrection and Vindication
Caravaggio was badly in need of a champion, someone to resurrect his artistic legacy and take up his cause as the painter whose influence on the Baroque Movement was undisputed. But he had to wait 300 years until several champions came forward in the 20th century.
A 1953 book review in “The Journal of Art Bulletin” (Volume 35, Issue 4), details the history of the detective work on how Caravaggio was rediscovered. Wolfgang Kallab (1875-1906), the Vasari Scholar of the Vienna School, mentioned the paintings of Caravaggio in a book that was published in 1907 (a year after his death). Then Lionello Venturi (1885 – 1961), an Italian Historian and Art Critic, began to research the art of Caravaggio in earnest through a series of articles written for the magazine “L’Art” in 1909-1910, and he wrote a small book about Caravaggio that was published in 1921. The 1922 art exhibition “Monstra del Seicento” at the Pitti Palace in Florence was the first time in 300 years that Caravaggio’s paintings of Saint Matthew were on display in one place for historians to study. And Roberto Longhi (1890- 1970), an Italian Academic, Art Historian and Curator, wrote a book and 2 articles with detailed information about the art of Caravaggio. The most comprehensive of these was his article, “Ultima Studi su Caravaggio,” in the magazine “Proporzione,” Edition 1, 1943. In 1956 Venturi published 4 of his lectures given at Columbia University that included Caravaggio in a small book, “Four Steps Toward Modern Art: Giorgione, Caravaggio, Manet, Cezanne.” xviii
My last word will come from Bernard Berenson (June 26, 1865 – October 6, 1959), an American Art Historian who specialized in Renaissance Painting. His biographer Rachel Cohen wrote, “When Gilded Age millionaires wanted to buy Italian Renaissance paintings, the expert whose opinion they sought was Bernard Berenson.” xix
Berenson jump-started Caravaggio’s artistic vindication when he said, “With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.” xx
i “Artable,” https:/www.artable.com/artists/Caravaggio, and Richard Donaldson, “Caravaggio: 75 Color Plates,” copyright 2015 by Richard Donaldson
ii Andrew Graham-Dixon, The London Telegraph, “Caravaggio: The Original Sinner,” 28 June, 2010
v Graham-Dixon, “Caravaggio: The Original Sinner”
vi Graham-Dixon, “Caravaggio: The Original Sinner,” and “Artable”
ix The Website of the National Gallery UK, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/chiaroscuro x “Wikipedia,”
xii Graham-Dixon, “Caravaggio: The Original Sinner”
xiii Graham-Dixon, “Caravaggio: The Original Sinner”
xiv Graham-Dixon, “Caravaggio: The Original Sinner, and “Artable”
xv Donaldson, “Caravaggio: 75 Color Plates,” copyright 2015 by Richard Donaldson
xviii Book Review by Walter Friedlander, in “The Journal of Art Bulletin,” Volume 35, Issue 4, 1953
xix Rachel Cohen, “Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade,” Yale University Press, 2013
xx “Artable” and Donaldson, “Caravaggio: 75 Color Plates”
The information and views expressed in this blog are that of Karen Schneider and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art.