Grey Matters 09

Pontormo among the barefoot brothers

Although we are left to speculate as to whether or not Pontormo was familiar with Mantegna’s grisailles, there is little doubt as to his responsiveness to the examples of Sarto and Michelangelo. No artist before Sarto had exploited the indexical power of grisaille in its ability to suggest sculpture on the scale of his Life of Saint John the Baptist in Chiostro dello Scalzo in the neighborhood of San Marco in Florence. Home to the flagellant company known as the Compagnia del disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista (colloquially, Company of the Barefoot [scalzo]), the intimate cloister is a space immersed in light (fig. 60).

Fig. 60 Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio, Life of the Baptist and Virtues, 1509-26, fresco cycle, Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence
Fig. 61 Andrea del Sarto, The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, 1515, fresco, Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence © Scala / Art Resource, NY

Assisted by Franciabigio for two of the twelve scenes, Sarto otherwise spent virtually the entire arc of his career on the cycle’s completion (ca. 1509–1526). This sacred site of confraternal worship and penance was located but a short walk west of SS. Annunziata, in the atrium of which Pontormo, barely twenty, executed his Visitation fresco side-by-side with Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino (fig. 61). The easy elegance of Sarto’s poses and the variety of costumes (the latter informed by Dürer’s graphic prototypes) must have enthralled Pontormo, who no doubt spent many hours of study before his one-time master’s biblical istorie in competitive admiration.[103] More difficult to accurately gauge was the kind of model presented by the peripatetic Michelangelo, beyond the more obvious lessons provided by his sculptures and, in painting, the high-keyed coloristic harmonies behind the rilievo effects of his Doni Tondo. The question especially remains as to the extent that Pontormo may have been familiar with Michelangelo’s fictive marble caryatids and faux-bronze figures and medallions of the Sistine Chapel, charged to life by the molten energy of the Genesis scenes and surrounding prophets and sibyls (fig. 62). If Pontormo did not travel to Rome to study the frescoes firsthand, how effectively might Michelangelo’s painted sculptures have been mediated through drawings?[104] More immediately in Florence, we cannot discount the powerful imprint that Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina – and its many monochromatic copies – left on the collective artistic imagination. Beginning with Leonardo’s own non finiti, extending from the undelivered Adoration of the Magi for the monks of San Donato a Scopeto to the abandoned Battle of Anghiari, we are left to wonder as to the role that unfinished works played in the unfolding narrative of grisaille’s development, inevitably returning us to the difficult question of artistic intention – and what may have been considered in vogue by artists’ most discerning patrons and collectors.

Fig. 62 Michelangelo, Section of Sistine Chapel vault displaying the Prophet Isaiah and the Delphic Sibyl, surrounded by fictive putti and bronze medallion figural reliefs, 1508-12, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

As for the afterlife of Pontormo’s own grisailles, one particularly receptive artist may in turn have been a Roman transplant: Raphael acolyte Perino del Vaga, who, during his Florentine sojourn, created the Moses Parting the Red Sea grisaille on canvas (fig. 63).[105] Simulating the appearance of a bronze relief, the work was claimed by Vasari to have been painted in a burst of creative energy, finished in a day and a night in return for the hospitality paid to Perino by the chaplain of San Lorenzo in 1522, the year before the painter fled Florence during an outbreak of plague.

Fig. 63 Perino del Vaga, Moses Parting the Red Sea, 1522, oil on canvas, inv. 450. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Fig. 64 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, Odalisque in Grisaille, ca. 1824-34, oil on canvas inv. 38.65. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1938
Fig. 65 James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver, 1872-78, oil on canvas, inv. B1994.19. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Fig. 66 Gerhard Richter, October 18, 1977, from series of fifteen paintings, 1988, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Through the ensuing centuries, artists have continued to experiment with grisaille, their pictorial solutions oscillating between supremely tactile illusion and abstraction. The former effect conjures images such as Jean-Jacque Lequeu’s He is Free (1798–99), confusing body and bird with architecture; Louis-Léopold Boilly’s Girl at a Window (after 1799), made in imitation of a mounted engraving; Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille (ca. 1824–34) (fig. 64); and, at the turn of the twentieth century, the haunted Danish interiors of Vilhelm Hammershøi. A quietly dramatic turn takes place in the last third of the nineteenth century, signaled by what are among art’s most arresting variations on the theme of shadow and light: the Nocturnes of James Whistler (fig. 65). In the last century, sharing an abiding fascination with shades of grey, the likes of Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Vija Celmins, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, and Gerhard Richter have further redefined monochromatic painting in astonishing ways (fig. 66).[106] All of the above examples attest to grey’s boundless expressive potential.

Notes 103 – 106
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Grey Matters 10

Sense and Insensibility

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