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The young Tobias

Tobias saying Good-bye to his Father

Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825 -1905). The State Hermitage Museum. Saint Petersburg. 1860.

Tobit remembered that he had left money, silver, with Gabael at Rhages in Media. He told his son Tobias to follow always the Law of Israel in case he, Tobit, would die and he told his son also of the ten talents of silver left with Gabael son of Gabirias. Tobit told Tobias that he and Gabael had signed a note with their signatures and then cut the note in two. Tobit took one piece and he had laid the other with the silver. Thus, Gabael would recognise the owner.

Tobias then went out to look for a man who would accompany him to Media, for he did not know the road. Tobias found the angel Raphael waiting outside for him, though he did not know that this was an angel. Tobias spoke to him, asked him whether he knew the road to Media and the angel told Tobias he had often been there. Tobias presented the angel to Tobit. The angel said he was called Azarias son of Ananias, one of Tobit’s kinsmen. Tobit knew Ananias well, so he welcomed the angel. Tobit promised Azarias a drachme a day and the same expenses as his son. Soon Tobias kissed his father and mother and together with the angel he set on his way to Media, the dog following behind.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau made a Neo-Classicist painting of ‘Tobias saying Good-bye to his Father’. The picture is not on a mythological theme; its figures are not the powerful nude Greek or Roman heroes for which we know this painter best, but the picture has all the features of the grand Neo-Classicist French academic style of the middle of the nineteenth century.

Bouguereau made the painting in 1860, a few years after his stay at the Villa Medici in Rome. He now worked again in France. And he wanted to make a grand painting. How could he impress viewers with towering figures on just a flat frame? He could do exactly what the words describe. He could make the figures towering and monumental to the viewer. He could position the point of view of the spectator low in the frame, so have a low horizon line in his picture or even none at all visible. He could show his figures in dignified poises, have them seem very worthy of respect. He should draw his personages at rest, not in movement, and if he had anyhow to show a scene of action, the movement should be caught in a still moment of equilibrium, in a moment of stasis somewhere in the midst of the action. The personages should be large, fill the frame. They should be imposing and not too close to the viewer either. He should build a rigid structure in his composition, and preferably support his design on vertical lines, which always gives an impression of static and of determination in viewers. He should use clear, cool, even a little hard colours and certainly not too warm hues. Warm hues would evoke a mood of empathy in the viewer and Bouguereau had to avoid that, he would have to keep a distance between his scene and the viewer. So his blue hues should be full, bright blue, his yellow should be definite yellow and the other colours should stay bright, as bright as possible without loosing harmony overall. So, Adolphe-William Bouguereau built his scenario and painted just like that.

The spectator’s eyes seem always to be low in Bouguereau’s paintings, in a mole’s view. Tobias’ father is a towering figure of a strong man with the beard and toga of a wise Greek philosopher. He is blind, so he looks up, to the heaven, and that effect forms the spirituality of the painting, the abandonment of the anxious father to God’s providence. Tobit is a truly epic and imposing figure. The viewer personifies him or herself with the hero of the picture, which is Tobias. But Tobias bows his head in humility and Bouguereau painted him quite smaller than his father. So the viewer is humbled also. Epic is enhanced in Greek dramas. Greek dramas have a choir that exclaims the feelings. Bouguereau painted thus Tobias’ mother on the right, weeping and hiding her face in her hands. To balance the area of Tobias’ mother, Bouguereau had to paint another figure to the left and luckily the Book of Tobit talks of the Archangel Raphael. Bouguereau then painted the angel on the left and he continued the tradition of showing an archangel neither as a male nor really as a female figure. He added a sympathetic touch: the angel holds the boy’s hand, somewhat hidden, behind Tobias’ back. The Archangel Raphael is taller than the mother of Tobias and she bends her head, so balance was broken. Bouguereau solved the issue by drawing the side of Tobit’s house behind and over the woman and by painting this part lighter – he used a blend of broken white, yellow and blue hues. But then balance was broken again, the right side being too high. So to bring symmetry again, Bouguereau painted a tree on the extreme left, above Raphael. That allowed just enough open space in the upper middle, to show a patch of blue sky into which he could place Tobit’s head, with a look of the mind into the far.

Much perspective in epic pictures, landscapes in the background, are not really necessary in Neo-Classicist pictures because they divert attention away from the powerful central scene, but Bouguereau did gave a small indication of it, just enough to suggest deeper space, in the lines of the door of the house for instance. Bouguereau applied a very rigid structure of vertical lines in his personages, only a little modulated by a bending tree, a bent head. In this austere structure only Tobias brings relief, which draws the attention of the viewer to the boy. Bouguereau also painted Tobias in more striking orange colours, whereas the elder Tobit is dressed in tunic and cloak of darker tones. Thus Bouguereau indicated youth and old age. To the sides, both the angel and Tobias’ mother are symmetrically painted in broken white hues. Bouguereau did even introduce after all also a pyramid structure in his picture, the structure by excellence of portraiture and of academicism: the staffs of Raphael and of Tobias form a triangle that is solidly planted with its base to the ground and within this triangle we find the angel and Tobias, the future travellers. With this triangle design, as well as with similarities in colours and the fact that the angel and Tobias hold hands, Bouguereau created a visual intimacy as well as a physical one, between Tobias and Raphael. Adolphe-William Bouguereau was born in 1825 in the old, charming, once very Protestant, and very active French port town of La Rochelle. He learned first to paint in Bordeaux, then in Paris. From 1848 on La Rochelle subsidised his studies at the Parisian Academy. In 1850 he won a Prix de Rome and could hence stay for three years at the French Academy in Rome, in the villa Medici. Bouguereau was confronted in Rome with classical art and this combined with the Neo-Classicist style of the French Academy would stay with him his entire life. He painted landscapes and genre scenes for a living, but his major works were on mythological themes in which his Neo-Classicist views of heroic grandeur could be shown at their best.

William Bouguereau was one of the painters of the French Classicist School of the nineteenth century that is not forgotten, but very thoroughly eclipsed anyway by the French modernist movements of that century, notably Impressionism and Symbolism. This school nevertheless counted many marvellous painters of great talent: Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Paul Baudry, Léon Bénouville, Victor Biennoury, Joseph-Paul Blanc, Alexandre Cabanel, Hippolyte Flandrin, Anne-Louis Girodet, Henri Lehmann, Jules Lenepveu, Jean-Victor Schnetz, Luc-Olivier Merson, and Emile Lévy are but a few names of a longer list. These artists painted mythological scenes or scenes of antiquity and of the Bible, showing a few figures in heroic scenes. Most of them passed a few years in the Villa Medici; some of them were directors of the French Academy in Rome. They painted in cool, often harshly contrasting hues that however globally remained very harmonious and nice to look at. Their colour surfaces were distinct and easy to discern. The artists had great talent and could depict with intricate detail in clear lines, with great feeling for design and composition of scenes.

If these artists seem to have fallen in disgrace nowadays, it might be because they emphasised the intellect and emotional discipline in their art, as taught in their academies, which gradually grew out of fashion and out of liking from the middle of their century to our days. Also for us, the monumentality and epic appeal of their grand scenes call powerfully to our mind the images of the Fascist and Communist dictatorial regimes. These regimes appealed to grand visions of societies otherwise in want of bare necessities, to heroic dreams of an ideal and splendid future of a nature-dominating humanity for which many sacrifices had to be made gladly. The people of these dictatorial regimes seemed to be longing, or were directed to long, for societies of order, security, and purity. The projects, goals of the Fascist and Communist doctrines had in view an ideal world that was altogether clean, managed, epic and that proved utter faith in the concerted, heroic acts of the individual within a perfectly organised and led society. The French Neo-Classicists did not have such visions of their society, but the grandeur of their images and their style, by which they obtained their grand images, did prove their longing for the epic and it is hence difficult for us to disassociate their picture from what happened a hundred years later than their art. Nevertheless, their art should be otherwise considered and can then be savoured because these painters showed some of the finest scenes of the art of painting. Adolphe-William Bouguereau was one of the truest and most faithful painters of this style.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau painted thus with ‘Tobias saying Good-bye to his Father’ a very Neo-Classicist, French academicist, logical, rational picture. He did as expected by his style and the placement of the figures in the composition, the colours and other features of his picture can be almost mathematically predicted. Still, the painting does not fail to exert its visual powers. Any viewer is normally impressed by the theme, grieved by the poor mother of Tobias, charmed by the young people holding hands, driven to respect and awe by the wise old Tobit and every viewer feels sympathy for the gentle son that is sent on a perilous travel by a desperate father. The picture is eminently efficient and otherwise finely painted in lines and colours. Adolphe-William Bouguereau remained truly dedicated to such views, although he had the talent and the intellect to vary, his entire life.

Tobias and the Archangel Raphael

Tiziano Vecellio called Titian (ca. 1485-1576). Galleria dell’Accademia – Venice. Ca. 1520-1530.

Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, in the Friuli region of Italy, not far from the Austrian border. His parents were modest people. They were Gregorio and Lucia di Conte dei Vecelli. Around 1498, at about the age of ten, Titian and his elder brother Francesco were sent to Venice to learn painting in the workshop of Sebastiano Zuccato. After a few years, Titian could enter the workshop of Giovanni Bellini. In 1507 he changed workshops to become the assistant of Giorgio da Castelfranco, called Giorgione. Giorgione and titian painted together; they worked for instance both on exterior frescoes for the Fondacco dei Tedeschi, the German exchange of Venice. When Giorgione died around 1510, Titian received commissions for himself in Padua and from then on he worked as an independent master. In 1513 he had his own workshop and worked with assistants. He was now the most celebrated artist of Venice. His wife died in 1530 and that changed his art some. Titian became more silent and meditative. He painted large canvases for churches of Venice and also for Federico II Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. Through this Duke Titian was introduced at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany, Charles V. Titian was appointed court painter to Charles V in 1533 and even knighted by the emperor. He also painted for Pope Paul III Farnese and was much praised as Europe’s best portrait painter. Titian worked for princes, kings and emperor, for the Dukes of Mantua, Ferrara and Urbino, for the kings Francis I of France and Philip II of Spain, and for Emperor Charles V. Nevertheless, he rarely left Venice. Other artists came to see him: Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Fra Bartolommeo and even Michelangelo. He visited Rome briefly in 1545 and he made also a few visits between 1548 and 1551 to Augsburg, where Charles V held his court. During his last years, from 1555 on, he made his most marvellous and powerful paintings, on which he worked for long times, sometimes leaving the pictures untouched for months and even years, taking them up again by chance for small additions, so that it is not certain of those works whether they were finished or not in the state they remained us. Titian died in 1576, over ninety years old, in his house in Venice. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria Glorioso dei Frari.

It is not certain whether titian really made the ‘Archangel Raphael and Tobias’, but due to the high quality of the painting it is nevertheless ascribed to him I21 . Nothing is known about the origin of the picture. We see a very young boy being led by an angel. The boy carries a fish and the angel points the way. The Bible story also mentions a dog and Titian painted a dog in the picture too. So the theme is rather obviously a reference to Tobias and Raphael, but the boy is far too young to be the Tobias from the bible and Titian knew too well his Bible stories and he was far too intelligent a painter to have neglected checking on the story. Tobias should be a youth of marrying age. Titian painted Tobias as a boy of less than ten years old. So we can venture into assumptions.

Titian may have made the picture as the portrait of a boy of a member of the Bembo family, whose coat of arms is visible just below the scene. The subject of the picture then could have been a commission from loving parents for a portrait of their first born led by his guardian angel. The first name of the child may well have been Raphael, so that Titian might have depicted the boy with his patron angel. The angel in the picture could be a portrait of another son of the family, or even of a daughter. If the picture is a portrait, and we may safely assume at least that, then it might also have been a picture of a deceased child of the family. A parent might have sought solace in a picture in which an angel guides the boy to heaven. We might imagine a loving father seeing his wife in distress and mourning after the loss of her beloved son, offering her such a fine picture to comfort her, expressing his belief that the boy was brought to heaven and dwelled in the company of angels.

Seen in this perspective, the picture is charming and tender. Titian painted it lovingly. The colours are warm, ochre browns with red and yellow shades, and broken white. Titian worked out marvellous details of chiaroscuro in the tunic and robes of Tobias and the angel and we can remark that the master-painter added more fine folds than he really needed to, in a kind of honouring for the family and commissioner. The two figures wear the same dress, showing the empathy between the two personages. Also the expressions on the faces of Tobias and of the angel are nice. Tobias looks with confidence to the angel, like to a parent who has only done nice things to him so far. Raphael keeps Tobias protectively by the hand, and he looks tenderly at the boy, with sincere interest and care, and he seems to explain where they are going to, instead of just leading the boy without a word. The angel guides, but not in an authoritative way. Titian added a dog as a fine, intimate symbol of loyalty and trust. Finally, the painter showed a delicate landscape in the background, painted in the same hues as those that build the overall mood of the painting. The landscape seems only to have been brought on in a sketchy way, but the landscape should not retain our attention, just the figures. The trees for instance are however finely detailed. Titian apparently worked with assiduity, intently on the painting and that may be not just because it was a commission for a great and noble family of Italy but because he might have been touched by the subject, maybe by the parents’ grieve. If the assumptions we made are true, the fine quality of Titian’s work also shows something of his character. He was moved by the subject and definitely brought some comfort also to the family by the zeal and dedication with which he honoured the child in his picture.

Tobias and the Angel

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (ca. 1480-after 1548). Galleria Borghese. Rome. Ca. 1540.

Girolamo Savoldo also made a painting of the theme of Tobias and the angel. He was born in Brescia, and hence also called Girolamo da Brescia. He seems to have first worked in Parma and Florence. Later, by 1520, he was in Venice and lived there until his death. Little is known of him, and he made but few pictures. He painted portraits and religious themes. Savoldo’s ‘Tobias and the Angel’ was originally thought to have been painted by Titian, probably because it was of such good quality. Savoldo may have seen titian’s painting of the same subject and have been inspired by it. If the date of Savoldo’s picture is around 1540 I40 , then Titian’s picture must date from before that period. Savoldo looked well at Titian’s work and improved on it in certain aspects. When titian’s painting is an expression of Titian’s empathy for his figures, Savoldo made a very professional, sophisticated picture of his ‘Tobias and the Angel’.

The two paintings, from Titian and from Savoldo, are very similar and also very different. They express the same mood, use the same soft colours, are of course both splendid but intimate, and differ mainly in composition. Savoldo’s picture has stronger structure. Savoldo used the left diagonal. He made Tobias kneel to be lower than the angel and he created thus a feeling of exaltation of the mind since the viewer’s eyes and attention will rise from Tobias upwards to the angel. Even if the viewer starts first at the angel, the viewer will come back from Tobias to the angel and Raphael stands higher up.

The quality of Savoldo’s depiction of the dress of Tobias and of the angel is practically as good as in Titian’s painting. Savoldo also had a wide palette of hues and he varied the hues in tone and intensity. His chiaroscuro is as detailed as Titian’s. Savoldo showed a landscape that is finer and even better situated in the composition than in Titian’s work. Thus, Savoldo opened up a panorama above Tobias, which could be a nice reference to the far journey made by the two travellers. The light from the open landscape on the left falls pleasingly on the two figures, but Savoldo could have exploited effects of light and shadow a little more, as he did in other paintings.

Like Titian, Savoldo let his angel point. Savoldo made the angel point at Tobias however, so that the figures are more closely linked to each other in the scene and that adds to the strength of the depiction. Savoldo painted Tobias really as a youth, not as a very young boy, old enough to go on a dangerous journey alone and in that aspect Savoldo stayed closer to the Bible story. Like Titian, he drew a dog but Savoldo’s dog is on the other side and all curled up and asleep. Remark also how Savoldo painted the dress of Raphael and of Tobias similarly to Titian’s picture. But whereas titian used the same sequence of colours on his figures, Savoldo inverted them to bring more variation. Titian’s Tobias holds a fish like a small boy would hold a toy for a journey; Savoldo’s fish is till in the water but ready to be scooped up, which brings an element of dynamic in the picture. Savoldo, like Titian, painted the angel of rather undetermined sex. This was habit in the Late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance period. We may almost surely assume that Savoldo saw Titian’s work and inspired by it, improved on its composition, delicacy of the landscape, and he stayed truer to the Bible story. But Savoldo’s painting does not equal Titian’s in its empathic warmth, compassion and appeal to the feelings of the viewer. Any viewer will be moved by the gentle sensibility of Titian’s image, whereas Savoldo made a picture of a scene from the Bible expertly but without being involved in emotions. Savoldo used lighter hues therefore, and more intense hues, which contrast more and are a little less warm than in Titian’s painting. This adds to making of Savoldo’s picture a cooler painting.

Girolamo Savoldo’s painting is of high quality and was certainly worthy of the Borghese gallery, Rome’s jewel by excellence of ancient art. In that palace sweet feelings, as Titian expressed, were more out of place and Savoldo’s professionalism just sophisticated enough and cool enough.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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