Grotesques: A Brief History

Color Therapy

A French grotesque.
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I have a project I’ve wanted to paint forever, and I finally found someone to pay me to do it. He’s European and she likes French antiques, so it was a match made in heaven. Let’s take a look…

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But first, let’s back up and review our history of decorative painting. In the 1480s the Domus Aurea was rediscovered. Originally built in 64 AD by Emperor Nero, it was considered the height of decadence and ostentation, and was subsequently buried to make way for the Baths of Titus and the Flavian Amphitheatre. The Domus Aurea had been completely covered in frescoes of the most elaborate ornamentation by the artist Famulus, and included Grotesques: composite creatures suspended in air — part animal, part vegetable and part human.

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A long list of prominent artists began sneaking in to the excavation site to marvel at these paintings, including Ghirlandaio, Lippi and Pinturicchio. But it was Raphael who most famously appropriated this motif for the Vatican Loggia, which influenced design across the arts for nearly 300 years. He entered the picture at the perfect moment — not only was there a fad for antiquity at the time, but there existed a horror vacui, a belief that every square inch of every surface must be completely covered in ornament. Take that, you Minimalists.

Pompeii was discovered in the 1700s, and it, too, contained preserved ancient wall paintings in a similar vein. The King of Naples raided the excavation site for all the frescos he could find, Lady Hamilton struck attitudes, and all of Europe swooned. A fad had been born.

I’m fond of saying the French took all things Italian and added a curlicue. There are several differences between Italian Grotesques of the Renaissance and Neo-Classical periods and those of the French Rococo (like the one pictured at the top of this post). Ornament in the 15th century was prompted by history and archeological discovery; in the 18th century it was motivated by illogic, fantasy, dreams and the feminine influence that defined Rococo against earlier eras. Also, typically, the French added foliage and acanthus to their compositions, and the palette shifted from Roman black, red and ochre to what I call a Madame de Pompadour palette of Sevres blue, rose and green apple. Which brings me to my project.

My cabinet had a French inspiration, and we chose for the base coat a green to match exactly the macaron wrappings of Laduree. I painted the gold leaf, and then began to piece my composition together from endless photos I’ve taken over the years.

For this project, the drawing was everything. I used rulers, compasses and French Curves. You may notice that all the heads on the figures line up exactly, the swags and acanthus are completely symmetrical, and the putti are the same size. Without this, it would have looked more childish and dorky, but with this precision in the drawing I gave myself permission to keep the painting fast and loose, like a fresco.

I’m not creating anything new, but am playing with existing forms and lending them my own hand. As such, I suppose it has limited application in the contemporary world, but I can’t help it, I love it. I think the idea of Grotesques is partially a stand-in for human folly. Perhaps I’ll produce a set of panels with figures based on characters from contemporary politics. Now that’s grotesque.

Base coat: Fine Paints of Europe matte Eurolux S-0520-G40Y
Ronan Aqua Leaf Real Gold
Misc. acrylic paint

Travelogue photos shot in France and Italy, including the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Galleries in Florence, and the Villa Ephrussi in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

(Images: Mark Chamberlain)

(Image credits: Mark Chamberlain)

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