Juliet Heslewood is an independent art historian who believes that pictures can be read; for her, a painting provides as much of a narrative as a novel, telling stories about the artist’s life, as well as about the painted characters. Her recent lecture at the Ashmolean Museum, ‘The Lover Captured’, offered but one example of her modus operandi. Although only a brief, one-off event, it nevertheless offered the audience a delightful drift into in the lives and love stories of these great men and women of art history, all vividly narrated in Heslewood’s theatrical voice. It is, of course, impossible to reprise the lecture in its entirety, but by considering three examples explored by Heslewood it is possible to convey her ideas in a nutshell.
Perhaps the best-known “captured lover” discussed in the lecture was Lizzie Siddal, favourite model to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wife to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The subject matter and composition of one of his paintings of her, Beata Beatrix, speaks of Rossetti’s self-identification with the Italian poet, Lizzie’s depression and death, and of their troubled relationship, demonstrating one instance of a painting read beyond colours and strokes.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix
© Tate (2017)
Further examples were drawn from artists who preceded the era of Raphael, firstly of Botticelli, whose paintings frequently feature the same type of beautiful women. One may argue that it is merely a matter of artistic style, yet this beautiful face is “present in too many pictures for us to ignore it”, argued Heslewood. Indeed, this face cannot be overlooked, and is believed to belong to Simonetta Vespucci, a famed beauty who died at the age of twenty-two – “so everything about her is always young and beautiful”. Botticelli wished to be buried at her feet, a request fulfilled after his death, thirty-four years later. In these intervening years, Vespucci remained a loved and cherished memory for Botticelli, all while that same beautiful woman in his paintings was not real, but a version of her formed in the artist’s own mind. Through all this time, Botticelli kept Vespucci alive, and had his feelings for her immortalized in oil paint.
Sandro Botticelli, The Portrait of a Young Woman (Simonetta Vespucci)
© Foto: Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Over a hundred years later, another Florentine painter, Cristofer Allori, similarly fell under the spell of an irresistible woman. However, his story is not so romantic as Botticelli’s, being intriguingly revealed in his portrayal of Judith and Holofernes. The model for Judith is a woman called ‘La Mazzafirra’, whom Allori (hopelessly) loved, while the model of Holofernes is none other than the painter himself. Considering that he has spent a fortune to win her love, it is perhaps no wonder that we are left with a picture of a calm Judith-La Mazzafirra holding the head of the already doomed Holofernes-Allori.
Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes
Royal Collection Trust/©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
In this way, the artworks speak of fears and desires that we may not even dare to whisper; they are, in a way, like dreams: always drawn from reality, but intensified in every aspect. Yet what we choose to conceal, and the methods by which we conceal it, themselves reveal a good deal about ourselves. It seems to me that all artistic creations work in the same way; whether a novel, a symphony, a song, a drawing, or a photo, it is inspired by the creator’s own life experience, in turn conveyed to the broader world in a different, sometimes highly transformed, arrangement. These works may be created by individual beings, but they awake something that is shared by us all, something that binds us as humans.
Through the analysis Heslewood provided, the pictures were revealed to be alive, concealing real human lives beneath their layers of lead and colour. The lecture suggested another angle to approach these paintings, one which makes it much easier for the viewers to relate to the artists. In other words, by inviting us to contemplate the grand stories hidden in these canvases, we not only break down generic boundaries, but also shorten the distance between us and them, now and then. As a lecture, it was both inspired and inspiring – just like the artworks in which it found its subject.