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12 June 2015

Virtuosity and Emulation

Rubens, The Feast of Venus

At some level the idea of an academy of emulation encapsulates the general practice of emulation. In other words, what is taught is what an emulative artist would do (and continue to do throughout her or his career). To make the implications of this more clear—and to clarify perhaps how Old Master artists saw their challenges—I would distinguish two categories of techniques of classical work in the emulative tradition: techniques necessary for invention, and “pro forma” techniques. What I’m suggesting is that artists like Rubens, Cortona or Pittoni displayed their virtuosity by a combination of pro forma displays of accomplishment (part of the art of documentation), and more daring techniques proper to invention. Primarily (unless he was working on portraiture) Rubens would have privileged invention, with documentation as a necessary but complementary display of his mastery. Those two categories were composed of the following aspects:

I.      Techniques Necessary for Invention
  1. Foreshortening
  2. Rotating figures in space
  3. Projecting shadows
  4. Reflected lights (luminosity)
  5. Spatial depth/layering

Spatial layering in Rubens

II.    Pro-forma Techniques
  1. Anatomy (some telltale display, e.g. a prominent knee)
  2. Perspective (even if, and generally more commonly, fragmentary)
  3. Materials and textures (the “still life” aspect)

Still life in the Feast of Venus

G. B. Pittoni, The Sacrifice of Polyxena
The pro forma aspects are those things about which the consummate academic artist, Carlo Maratta, claimed tanto che basti—all that’s enough—in his polemical print addressed to students of drawing. One only needed, and should not usually exceed, enough of those pro forma displays to establish the credibility of the invented image. Since the image was a scene often difficult to pose or stage in the studio—think of ceiling paintings, or scenes of battle or martyrdom—invention was the thing, and artists primarily studied the figure in order not to need the model while inventing. Being able to imagine a figure turned, even hovering, in space, extending an arm and projecting a shadow or receiving a projected shadow from a distant object, making light bouncy and lively, and creating the illusion of space and depth beyond what could be achieved with linear perspective: this was the stuff of mastery, of virtuosity.

Invention techniques need imagination, pro forma techniques depend on documentation. The experience of documentation trains the imagination—not forgetting, of course, the documentation of exemplary works of art!

Still life

Perspective and spatial layering

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