Thursday, March 12, 2009

You gotta sin to be saved...

Paolo and Francesca, 1819

"Paolo and Francesca was painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres about 1856-60, as probably the last of his paintings of Dante's ill-fated lovers -- an image that had compelled his closest attention for forty years. The story of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Polenta is first told by Dante in the Divine Comedy. Thirteenth-century lovers, Paolo and Francesca were murdered by her husband, Giovanni, when he caught them in an illicit embrace. Francesca, daughter of a nobleman from Ravenna, had been wed in a politically arranged marriage to a much older man, Giovanni Malatesta, who was physcially deformed and wholly absorbed by his continual wars. In Dante's retelling of the tale, the poet encounters Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of hell, where they have been condemned to fly through the whirlwind in a meaningless embrace for all eternity because of a moment of carnal love. Stopped by Dante, Francesca explained she had spent her time in reading with Giovanni's attractive younger brother, Paolo; and one day, seduced by the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, the young Italians were prompted to a trembling kiss. At just that moment, Giovanni happened upon his wife and brother and slayed them both. When Ingres took up the tale around 1814, a new translation of Dante's masterwork made the Divine Comedy more accessible to French audiences, and the story of Paolo and Fracesca in particular quickly became one of the Paris public's favorite tragedies. Ingres intially set himself a program of four serial images that would illustrate tell the entire Paolo and Francesca tale, and he undertook considerable research to create interiors and costumes of persuasive accuracy. In a painting commissioned by Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples (Chantilly, Musée Condé), Ingres soon narrowed his attention to the fatal moment of Paolo's kiss and Francesca's quiet acquiescence. For that first painting of the theme, Ingres created the pyramidal arrangement of lover bending into lover that he would refine throughout his later pictures; but in the original Chantilly painting and contemporary drawings, Ingres set his lovers into a dwarfing architectural surround and allowed the viewer's attention to wander among lovers, the vengeful murderer, and considerable detail of medieval decor. As he returned to the theme around 1820 and again in the 1830s, in campaigns that included paintings, exquisite drawings and collaborative print reproductions, Ingres varied the balance between figures and background and the prominence given the impending act of murder, circling toward a more monumental emphasis on the fateful kiss itself. Finally in the mid-1850s, as he threw himself into a last statement of his most important compositions, Ingres created three closely related versions of Paolo and Francesca (Glens Falls, Hyde Collection; New York, private collection; and the present painting), all of which tighten the space upon the lovers, darken a simpler background, and concentrate lighting on the softly joined faces and hands of Paolo and Francesca, now brought forward to the edge of the canvas. The painting offered here departs from the other variants of the 1850s in the minimalization of the lecturn and furniture, and in the artist's decision to bring Giovanni Malatesta closer to the lovers but give him a more shadowy, less distracting presence in the drama." This catalogue entry was written by Alexandra Murphy.

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