Painting

Painting

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Fig. 1, left, Masolino, St Peter Preaching, right, Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes, ca 1425, fresco, Florence, Carmine, Brancacci Chapel

[…Art historians pay more attention to some pictures than to others because they are better painted.] We can illustrate this point by examining the celebrated frescoes in the Brancacci chapel in Florence, which early sources tell us were painted by both Masaccio and Masolino. On one wall of the chapel, St Peter Preaching is painted to the left of the window, while the Baptism of the Neophytes is in the equivalent position on the right (fig. 1). Both frescoes are flanked by a painted Corinthian pier in one corner of the chapel, which stress the pretence that the wall has vanished, presenting us with two views of figures in a landscape. This illusion is much better sustained in the Baptism, where the people stand firmly on the receding ground, and St Peter and the neophyte he is baptizing turn towards each other in pictorial depth. On the opposite wall, by contrast, the preaching St Peter is in pure profile, so that he looks past the crowd we must suppose he is addressing. Beyond the screen of kneeling foreground figures, the painter has depicted a pile of heads with no thought as to where their bodies might fit beneath them. Peter’s left foot appears to hover above his right, while on the opposite wall the equivalent foot is turned into depth, where it can both balance and bear the saint’s weight. —The Truth about Art, p. 4

Fig. 2, left, Masolino, St Peter Preaching, right, Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes, details of fig. 1

Fig. 2, left, Masolino, St Peter Preaching, right, Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes, details of fig. 1

Both of these paintings aspire to pictorial illusionism, but careful observation reveals how much more successful one is in this regard than the other. Peter’s haloes are an obvious give-away (fig. 2), with a flat plate behind the head on the left wall, while the foreshortened halo on the right is seen from our vantage point. On the left the regular waves of Peter’s hair appear to be well observed, until we see the tousled hair on the right, with curls straying over the ear, and wirey whiskers forming the beard. And just look at those ears! How much more interesting are the hollows and ridges of the ear on the right wall, compared to the simple twist that does duty for an ear on the left. By referring to documented paintings by each painter, we can be confident that Masaccio was responsible for the Baptism of the Neophytes but not the St Peter Preaching… —The Truth about Art, p. 4

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