Comparing a painting by Fra Filippo Lippi and Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The two pictures are Rosetti s Ecce Ancilla Domini and Lippi s Annunciation. Both of the artists were influenced by their age. Lippi lived in Italy between 1406 and 1469 and Rosetti from 1828 to 1882. Lippi s background of Italian Renaissance determined his style to a large extent. In Florence where Lippi lived the economic changes of the time led to an emerging new class: that of the banker princes. They lent money to almost all the kings in western Europe and so they collected great fortunes. From their riches they could give patronage to all kinds of artists. This gave artists a stable living but did not give them the freedom that Rosetti enjoyed a few centuries later. Rosetti lived in England at a time when power came to the hands of a new industrial middle class who became the new patrons of the arts. They were rich but not as rich as the church or the patrons of Lippi s time. Therefore, the artists could not enjoy the protection of this new class for years. Consequently, an artist had to sell pictures in open competition with his rivals on the walls of a salon or an Academy. This competition naturally led to a variety of styles. Some turned to history or exotic arts and others sought new ideas.
One of such artists was Dante Gabriel Rosetti he turned against the neo-classical traditions of the Academy and looked for different inspiration. He wrote in 1901 that “an artist, whether painter or writer, ought to be bent upon defining and expressing his own personal thoughts, and that they ought to be based upon a direct study of Nature, and harmonised with her manifestations.” In the same year he founded with some fellow artists the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood based on the same principles. These ideas were not welcome by the public and Ecce Ancilla Domini one of Rosetti s first paintings was severely abused. Rosetti was so offended by the criticism that he swore never to exhibit in public again.
Rosetti s age did not appreciate his art because they thought that the style Raphael established was the crowning of all paintings. This style was based on dark colours, artificial settings and a triangle composition. Rosetti wanted to free himself from these restrictions and this is why he turned to a style preceding that of Raphael s.
Lippi who died twenty-two years before Raphael was born was much more determined by his age than Rosetti. Lippi was not a revolutionary artist, in his style we can recognise the influence of Masaccio, Donatello and Fra Angelico. It should be stated, however, that he was a master of his craft and made use of the tradition he learned with great ease.
First, let us turn to Fra Filippo Lippi s picture: Annunciation. The picture was painted about 1444. In it the modern viewer finds a strange approach to perspective: the setting itself is unnatural and respect for perspective is only shown in architectural setting. Even though, the architectural elements are realistic, the beams, the arches and the pillars seem to have a sole pictorial purpose. No such building exists where walls are missing and we cannot decide what is inside and what is outside. It seems that pictorial rules are subordinate to those of theology. God the Father is present at the top left corner of the picture with several angels on rock like clouds. An other uncommon feature of the painting is the angel looking in from an opening at the left side. In this figure it is possible that Lippi wanted to show us an earlier moment of the story when Gabriel was just coming to Mary. This way the freshness of the lily in the hand of the standing angel could be explained as well. It could show that Mary s virginity is not in it s full blossom as it will be at the time of the annunciation.
All these strange elements are soothed by the simplicity of Mary and the lovely details of the picture: the flowers, the dove, the angel s hair with the wreath. We also notice how the classicizing background pillars contrast Mary s purity and give her a certain nobility. It is also interesting how the pillars guide the eye upward strengthening the same feeling.
A completely different feeling is achieved by Rosetti, he shows us a simple, confused Mary who has just woken up. He does not try to represent the annunciation, rather, like a poet, he tries to suggest the atmosphere of the event.
In fact, Rosetti was a poet besides being a painter and in a sonnet composed to accompany his first painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, he describes in six lines his later work Ecce Ancilla Domini, which was painted a year later. So she held through her girlhood; as it were,An angel-watered lily, that near GodGrows and is quiet. Till one dawn at home She woke in her white bed and had no fear At all – yet wept till sunshine and felt awed: Because the fullness of her time was near.
There are other connections between these two paintings by Rosetti. In the Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Mary is doing a piece of embroidery which is already finished in Ecce Ancilla Domini. Probably just one night interludes between the two episodes since the embroidery is still on the stand in the later work. Here, in these two paintings, just as in Lippi s painting where the development of the action is portrayed in the same picture, we can find two compositions showing two closely related incidents of Mary s life.
Besides Rosetti s way of painting Mary in bed. There are other elements inconsistent with the traditional approach of showing the annunciation. First the shape of the picture itself is narrow, then Gabriel has flames at his feet but he has not got wings and there is some problem with the architecture of the building, we cannot see where the wall ends and the floor starts. With this we can draw a parallel with Lippi s painting where architecture was also illogical.
This brought us to the elements that connect Rosetti s painting to a traditional one like Lippi s. Although the colouring is mostly white the picture is patched with some gold, red and blue, the traditional colours of Mary s virginity. Also, the lily is present in both paintings, again it is related to virginity and the dove too appears, which represents the Holy Spirit.
All these differences and similarities could be related to the problems Rosetti had to face when painting a religious picture. Probably he wanted to be realistic as much as possible and at the same time following his ambition he wanted to express his thoughts as well. This could be achieved by mixing traditional elements with innovations. One such new element was covering the figures with simple white dresses. Probably Rosetti did not dress his figures in contemporary clothes because that would have been strange to the Victorian viewer. Painting the figures in white was a solution to this problem. This way managing to be realistic and contemporary at the same time.