Marilyn Stokstad’s “Art History”* is apparently one of the most popular art history textbooks in America. It has gone through at least five editions and has made enough money for the now retired professor from the University of Kansas to enable her to make substantial financial grants to the great Midwestern university.
In many ways it is an admirable piece of work. It is no easy task to put together a volume that starts with pre-historic cave paintings and goes through the whole spectrum of world art right up to modern graffiti. My 1999 edition is so large that I can’t imagine how a student could have even carried it to class.
I must confess that I don’t like such textbooks and only looked into Stokstad to see what she had to say about Giorgione and the Venetian Renaissance. I could see that the images were beautiful and well placed and that there were some interesting sidebars on techniques etc. However, I was most interested in her approach to Giorgione. Fortunately, she chose to highlight the Tempest, his most famous painting.
A large reproduction of the painting was featured in chapter 18. The caption dated it c. 1510 and read as follows:
Recently scholars have made many attempts to explain this enigmatic picture—a number of which are so well reasoned that any of them might be a solution to the mystery. However, the subject of this painting…seems not to have particularly intrigued sixteenth century observers, one of whom described the painting matter-of-factly in 1530 as a small landscape in a storm with a gypsy woman and a soldier. [p.707]
This description of the interpretive history started ok but the conclusion was definitely unwarranted. How is it possible to say that the subject was not of interest to contemporary observers based on only one brief note by a person (Marcantonio Michiel) on a visit to the home of the painting’s owner, Gabriele Vendramin? The painting was in a private home and remained in private hands for over 400 years. We do know that Vendramin and other Venetian patricians prized their collections. Moreover, practically every other painting in the Vendramin collection had a clearly defined sacred subject.
Stokstad then went on to augment the caption with almost 200 words of text. Admirably, her words mainly concentrated on what can actually be seen in the painting. Again she started very well:
Simply trying to understand what is happening in the picture piques our interest. At the right, a woman is seated on the ground, nude except for a long white cloth thrown over her shoulder. Her nudity seems maternal rather than erotic as she turns to nurse the baby at her side.
This description is really good. Even specialists often fail to note the white cloth draped over the nude woman’s shoulder. She also clearly sees the maternal rather than erotic nature of the woman. However, she then refuses to trust her eyes when describing the man on the left.
Across the dark, rock-edged spring stands a man wearing the costume of a German mercenary soldier. His head is turned toward the woman but he appears to have paused for a moment before continuing to turn toward the viewer.
How can one by merely looking at the painting identify the “costume of a German mercenary soldier”? Here she is letting her knowledge of the interpretive history cloud her vision. The man is neither armed nor armored. Moreover, is there anything particularly German about his costume? She does see that his head is turned toward the woman, an improvement over those scholars who see no connection between the two, but she can only guess that the man is about to turn toward the viewer.
She then goes on to describe the landscape.
The spring between them feeds a lake surrounded by substantial houses, and in the far distance a bolt of lightning splits the darkening sky. Indeed the artist’s attention seems focused on the landscape and the unruly elements of nature rather than on the figures.
I fail to see how she could describe the body of water as a lake and not a river. How many lakes have bridges over them? I would also argue with her on the artist’s attention to the landscape rather than the foreground figures. It is true that most scholars see the Tempest as a pioneering work of landscape but the figures in the foreground are large and beautifully painted, and the woman is bathed in bright sunlight as if Giorgione had put a spotlight on her. I think it would be a good exercise for any college instructor to ask their students where their attention is directed on first looking at the masterpiece.
Finally, she ends with a discussion of a pentimento or change of mind.
X-rays of the painting show that Giorgione altered his composition while he was still at work on it—the woman on the right was originally balanced by another woman on the left—which seems to rule out a specific story as its subject matter.
At this point she is no longer looking at the finished product that the artist wanted his patron to see. I doubt if during her long distinguished career as a professor, Dr. Stokstad ever let anyone see the first draft of a paper that she planned to give at a conference. I don’t question the scientific study of underpainting but do believe that scholars and students should be very careful when drawing conclusions from things the artist has painted over.
*Marilyn Stokstad: Art History, revised ed. 1999.