The aesthetic work

A friend of mine wrote this great thought inspired on a quote from Nicolás Gómez Dávila (a 19th-century writer and thinker, also author of interesting aphorisms about art and other subjects).

“The most perfect achievement of artistic and intellectual work depends on the cultivation of virtues that, somehow, are similar to the spiritual virtues, such as patience, humility, obedience, persistence, strength, sincerity (especially with oneself) and many others. Embedded in these activities there is an indispensable educational aspect for the formation of the souls – and even for the quality of works made by artists and intellectuals.” 

“The civilizing effect of works of art is due less to the aesthetic value than to the ethic of aesthetic work.” Nicolás Gómez Dávila

(Thanks, Rafael Guedes.)




Obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.

“I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

~ Castiglione, 1528

Alexej Harlamoff (1840-1925) – Young Girl

An old red – Vermilion

“Vision of a Knight” – Raphael, 1504 (egg tempera on poplar): The string of coral beads was painted with vermilion

“Let not your flesh colour freeze; let it not be too cold or purple, for a carnation which approaches the whiteness of linen cannot bloom with the signs of life. But vermilion makes it glow with a more fleshy hue. Endeavour to produce this warmth.”

Karel Van Mander, flemish painter and art theoretician of the 16th century.

Vermilion was one of the most important red pigments used by painters through ages, until the 20th century. It was made of cinnabar, a mineral of mercury sulfide. Depending on the size of the pigment particles, it may provide a fiery orangish-red, or even a dull red. There is a couple of issues with vermilion that led to its disuse nowadays – though there still are a synthetic genuine vermilion pigment (PR-106), and some brands that sell oil paints based on it (i.e. Michael Harding, Blockx, Holbein, Robert Doak, Rublev). True vermilion is toxic, then turning its usage less rational. Besides, its lightfastness is not reliable: vermilion pigment may show darkening or discoloring under light – due, actually, to its impurities

What about substitutes? Cadmium red, invented in the late 19th century, was largely adopted as a new primary red. Obviously, pigments substitutes are not the same colour, neither have the same properties, what doesn’t mean that they’re worse. Current “vermilions” are made of PO-73, pyrrol orange. This is a bright semitransparent pigment (PR-106, genuine vermilion, is opaque) with great lightfastness.

On the right: Rembrandt Vermilion (hue, PO-73); on the left: Robert Doak Vermilion

Raphael often painted his lively reds using lake red glazes over vermilion (pure or mixed with another pigment).

Curious fact: The word crimson came of an insect called kermes, from which, formerly, a red dye was extracted. Similarly, the name of vermilion came from the word vermeillon, also owning its origin from the “Kermes vermilio” (the insect species name).

No unnecessary brushstrokes


Detail – Portrait of Therese, Countess Clary Aldringen, John Singer Sargent (1896)


I think that one of the best qualities in an artwork is when it doesn’t have any superfluous touch. When it comes to painting, such works seems to have no unnecessary brushstrokes. Otherwise, they seem to be utterly finished.

We can’t disregard the hard work behind them. Usually, what appear to be effortless required hours of study and dedication, and, a number of times, some frustration.

Sargent’s hands are a great demonstration of that quality. Using apparently few, but strikingly precise brushstrokes, these hands are perfectly defined: color, gesture, motion. They are living flesh, with rosy fingers, superficial veins, and the natural texture of the skin. They need no extra touch of the brush – Bravo!

True beauty

“But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty – the divine beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life – thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine?” – Plato

Rembrandt’s mother reading (1629)

Most of people who enjoy art get, at a certain time, the perception that “beauty” is not limited to the concept of perfection of form or to a bodily ideal (that nowadays we could even call as “comercial”).

True beauty transcends that aspect. An excerpt from the documentary “ Why Beauty Matters”, by Roger Scruton, helps greatly in understanding the question:

(Beauty) lies all around us. We need only the eyes to see it and the hearts to feel. The most ordinary event can be made into something beautiful by a painter who can see into the heart of things.” The assertion is exemplified by Rembrandt’s touching painting of his mother reading – a remarkable example of outstanding beauty. Rembrandt depicted his mother, with her wrinkles, reading with noticeable difficult. Light lies on her imperfect skin without any cruelty. On the contrary, with respect and reverence. Beauty, here, is not a matter of physical attractiveness, as we are used to think. Especially in the last few years, when image manipulation doesn’t allow any flaw to be shown on ads and magazines.

There are several other paintings that show the depth of beauty as it is revealed by Rembrandt in this masterpiece. Caravaggio’s “Saint Matthew and the Angel” is an interesting example. This painting (unfortunately destroyed in 1945) portrays a rude saint, with dirty feet. He needs help from the angel, who litteraly guides the saint’s hands in his writing. And that’s superb. Caravaggio after painted another version of the theme, since the patrons weren’t glad with a so crude depiction.

Caravaggio, “Saint Matthew and the Angel” (1602)

Velazquez’ dwarves and buffoons portraits are another fascinating instance of masterful representation of beauty. At the painter’s time, these members of court were treated as funny objects. Velazquez, on the other hand, presented them as worthy people. With “El niño de Vallecas” he achieved plastic perfection painting what was regarded as broken and defective.

This is, indeed, a question of having “eyes to see”.

Velazquez, “El niño de Vallecas” (or: Portrait of Francisco Lezcano; 1645)


Painting and Reality

“What I am seeking is not the real and not the unreal but rather the unconscious, the mystery of the instinctive in the human race.” – Amadeo Modigliani

(Detail of the mirror from Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait)

The meaning of realism, in painting, may seem obvious. But, if one thinks deeper on this matter, things get tricky.

Virtually any artwork that gets close in portraying the observable world is called realistic. In the extreme, there are the artists that pursue a thoroughly accurate depiction of what we seem – the hyperrealists. They show undeniable craftsmanship, and the matter about the “role” of such works in a time when we take photographies is another interesting one (photos don’t replace a painting done by hand, and vice versa).

But the question here is how superficially, most of the time, we define “real”, and how this could affect the way we think about painting. What we are used to call real is what we perceive through senses, markedly through vision (as we are talking about painting, in particular). A large part of what we take as reality depends upon visual data. Our perception, obviously, is subjected to its limits and to our (mis)interpretations. This is a matter of physics, and for brain sciences. Continue reading