Theatrical Paintings

Theatrical Art – “The Stage”

Introduction

Everyone can recognize the look of the theater stage. The lighting is dynamic with sharp contrast, the figures are starkly illuminated, and almost everything is exaggerated in some way, whether in costume or in gesture or both. The theatre carries a wonderful notion of story-telling and imagination with it that creates a framework for imagination. The dark curtains and raised platforms of the stage create the illusion that scenes that play before the viewer are in fact real, and that the audience is merely intruding on a story that would have happened regardless of whether or not they were listening in. This, to me, is the essence of the stage. In a sense, nearly all artistic arrangements of figures within a piece draw from the same principles that make up the ways in which a director would position actors within a scene. Paintings of interactions between people can be created to have an almost cinematic feel, drawing from that same notion that what is happening within the image would happen by itself, regardless of whether or not the viewer was there to see it. These images aren’t static; the events depicted are motion-oriented, and the viewer is almost always left wondering what might happen next within the scene. These works in particular create their own “stages”, where some of the details of the locale are shrouded through tenebrism or infinite space, placing more importance on the figures and their implied actions. This gallery is a collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings that depict events happening within their own stages, alluding to the idea of being in theater.

1. The Tribute Money, Titian 1516

Titian’s 1516th rendition of the Biblical story of Christ’s famous “Render unto Caesar” remark is set like a very intimate snapshot of the stage on which the scene was implied to have been performed. In fact, the figures are rendered with such a strong sense of motion it seems almost unnatural that Christ does not actually turn and follow through with giving his remark in real time. Capturing this motion in a way that preserves a single moment of theatricality draws the viewer into an extended narrative that is drastically more concise than the scenes of a play. The viewers of this commissioned piece would be reminded of the story whenever they viewed it, as was the function of religious iconography within the Catholic Church during this time. The fact that such a precise rendering of figures mid-conversation within a given space can carry such a strong narrative element ties in with this notion of theatricality. The narrative within a play is made obvious, ensuring that the viewers can follow along accurately. This exact same principle is accomplished within Titian’s work.

2. An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, Diego Velazquez, 1618

The Old Woman Cooking Eggs is a more mundane example of theatricality within artwork, but one that is essential to completing the metaphor. Velazquez’s earlier work focused on depicting the more general aspects of daily peasant life, such as his Water Carrier piece, and The Old Woman Cooking Eggs is no exception to that. However, part of the charm of the piece in differing from Titian’s scene with Christ is that even without the blatant historical references and sheer magnitude of iconographical emotion it still possesses an equally compelling sense of theatrical narrative, regardless of how uninteresting the subject matter may seemingly be. The sharply contrasted figures are organic, and rendered precisely enough to be very believable within their setting. It is possible that this snapshot of daily life was almost more compelling to a casual viewer due to its basic relatability. The commission’s close ties to the working class suggest that this piece very intentionally references its subject matter in a natural, organic form, further increasing its ties to theatrical representation.

3. Judith and Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620-1621

Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes is perhaps one of the strongest representations of theatrical climax within Baroque painting. Utilizing Caravaggian tenebrism and chiaroscuro on the figures, Gentileschi implies a powerful sense of dramatic stage lighting, as well as urgent, swift movement. The scene itself has an almost Shakespearian vibe to its violence, bearing strong tonal resemblance to the assassination of Caesar. Indeed, the Apocryphal story of Judith beheading the Assyrian Holofernes was memorable for both its religious relevance and its purely compelling nature as a narrative, and Gentileschi communicates the drama of the entire ordeal in spades through the implied choreography of her actors, as well as her choice of environmental tone and design. One of the reasons this piece stands out is because it seems very literally “staged”, with the dark black background being strongly reminiscent of a black curtain in a theater. Tenebrism in painting is not so different from the backdrop of a stage, and, especially in this case, serves to create an almost identical effect.

4. A Guard Room, David Teniers the Younger, Probably 1640s

Playing on the notion of adventure and curiosity, David Teniers the Younger’s A Guard Room inspires a sense of innocence in its viewer while creating tension within its “stage” of events. The piece depicts a child exploring a guard house, very likely outside of adult supervision. The décor of the armor suggests it is used for military ceremonial purposes, further increasing both the playfulness and impending consequence of the boy’s presence. The theatrical nature of this piece plays on the actions of its subjects combined with a stage setting very suitable for mischief. Dynamic shadows are used to create a depth in the piece, furthering the sense of space in the manner that a theater stage is laid out. Certain portions are hidden from the viewer for the purposes of the subject. Just as a director would in a production, Teniers only shows you what you need to see to understand what is happening in the piece. Though more elaborate than some of the other examples, even the wide shot of the guardhouse can be thought of as being somewhat conservative, playing on the unknown to further the sense of mischievous adventure.

5. The Transfiguration, Raphael, Possibly 16th Century

Raphael’s Transfiguration ends my exhibit with its dynamic, energetic portrayal of drama through form. Unlike the other pieces, The Transfiguration does not contain the same lighting structure that generates this notion of a stage in the literal sense, but rather utilizes the same color technique to imply an expansive, unusual depth. The figures’ determined, desperate movements force the energy of the piece seemingly outwards into 3-dimensional space, echoing the movements of the Christ figure. The piece portrays the climactic instance of the Gospels; the Transfigured Christ appearing with Biblical figures from the heavens represents a victorious triumph over the evil of sin and death itself. In a sense, this piece is a Biblical curtain call to the stage production of the Gospels; the key players emerge at the absolute height of their emotional involvement. Raphael’s decision to include the scene of the demon-possessed boy heightens the triumphant rise of Christ; mankind cannot perform the miraculous without the presence of the Savior. This piece serves as both the climax and resolution to the exhibit as a whole, providing a resolution through a stage-like use of character drama, even within a 2-dimensional representation.

Titian’s 1516th rendition of the Biblical story of Christ’s famous “Render unto Caesar” remark is set like a very intimate snapshot of the stage on which the scene was implied to have been performed. In fact, the figures are rendered with such a strong sense of motion it seems almost unnatural that Christ does not actually turn and follow through with giving his remark in real time. Capturing this motion in a way that preserves a single moment of theatricality draws the viewer into an extended narrative that is drastically more concise than the scenes of a play. The viewers of this commissioned piece would be reminded of the story whenever they viewed it, as was the function of religious iconography within the Catholic Church during this time. The fact that such a precise rendering of figures mid-conversation within a given space can carry such a strong narrative element ties in with this notion of theatricality. The narrative within a play is made obvious, ensuring that the viewers can follow along accurately. This exact same principle is accomplished within Titian’s work.
The Old Woman Cooking Eggs is a more mundane example of theatricality within artwork, but one that is essential to completing the metaphor. Velazquez’s earlier work focused on depicting the more general aspects of daily peasant life, such as his Water Carrier piece, and The Old Woman Cooking Eggs is no exception to that. However, part of the charm of the piece in differing from Titian’s scene with Christ is that even without the blatant historical references and sheer magnitude of iconographical emotion it still possesses an equally compelling sense of theatrical narrative, regardless of how uninteresting the subject matter may seemingly be. The sharply contrasted figures are organic, and rendered precisely enough to be very believable within their setting. It is possible that this snapshot of daily life was almost more compelling to a casual viewer due to its basic relatability. The commission’s close ties to the working class suggest that this piece very intentionally references its subject matter in a natural, organic form, further increasing its ties to theatrical representation.
Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes is perhaps one of the strongest representations of theatrical climax within Baroque painting. Utilizing Caravaggian tenebrism and chiaroscuro on the figures, Gentileschi implies a powerful sense of dramatic stage lighting, as well as urgent, swift movement. The scene itself has an almost Shakespearian vibe to its violence, bearing strong tonal resemblance to the assassination of Caesar. Indeed, the Apocryphal story of Judith beheading the Assyrian Holofernes was memorable for both its religious relevance and its purely compelling nature as a narrative, and Gentileschi communicates the drama of the entire ordeal in spades through the implied choreography of her actors, as well as her choice of environmental tone and design. One of the reasons this piece stands out is because it seems very literally “staged”, with the dark black background being strongly reminiscent of a black curtain in a theater. Tenebrism in painting is not so different from the backdrop of a stage, and, especially in this case, serves to create an almost identical effect.
Playing on the notion of adventure and curiosity, David Teniers the Younger’s A Guard Room inspires a sense of innocence in its viewer while creating tension within its “stage” of events. The piece depicts a child exploring a guard house, very likely outside of adult supervision. The décor of the armor suggests it is used for military ceremonial purposes, further increasing both the playfulness and impending consequence of the boy’s presence. The theatrical nature of this piece plays on the actions of its subjects combined with a stage setting very suitable for mischief. Dynamic shadows are used to create a depth in the piece, furthering the sense of space in the manner that a theater stage is laid out. Certain portions are hidden from the viewer for the purposes of the subject. Just as a director would in a production, Teniers only shows you what you need to see to understand what is happening in the piece. Though more elaborate than some of the other examples, even the wide shot of the guardhouse can be thought of as being somewhat conservative, playing on the unknown to further the sense of mischievous adventure.
Raphael’s Transfiguration ends my exhibit with its dynamic, energetic portrayal of drama through form. Unlike the other pieces, The Transfiguration does not contain the same lighting structure that generates this notion of a stage in the literal sense, but rather utilizes the same color technique to imply an expansive, unusual depth. The figures’ determined, desperate movements force the energy of the piece seemingly outwards into 3-dimensional space, echoing the movements of the Christ figure. The piece portrays the climactic instance of the Gospels; the Transfigured Christ appearing with Biblical figures from the heavens represents a victorious triumph over the evil of sin and death itself. In a sense, this piece is a Biblical curtain call to the stage production of the Gospels; the key players emerge at the absolute height of their emotional involvement. Raphael’s decision to include the scene of the demon-possessed boy heightens the triumphant rise of Christ; mankind cannot perform the miraculous without the presence of the Savior. This piece serves as both the climax and resolution to the exhibit as a whole, providing a resolution through a stage-like use of character drama, even within a 2-dimensional representation.
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