The philosophy of supreme beauty in art is an idea that has always been relentlessly changing. The 15th-16th century Renaissance period followed the Middle Ages in Europe, and thus the Renaissance perception of beauty was an accumulation of realistic and classically beautiful ideals as a revival in classical learning came about. Additionally, Renaissance art attempted to demonstrate an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. Conversely, art from the Romanticism and Realism periods of the 19th century glorified mystery, imagination, and emotional concepts. The power of nature was extremely prevalent in Romantic art, as was using animals to generate metaphors for human behavior. Explorations into the concept of beauty in both cultures will assist in illustrating the unique principles or philosophies of each time period.
Vittore Carpaccio’s painting, The Flight into Egypt (Gallery 10), was painted during the Renaissance period in 1515. It depicts an old man holding a walking stick and pulling a donkey behind him. On top of the donkey sits a woman and a baby—from their intricate garments and the subtle halos around their heads, it becomes clear that the woman is Mary and the baby is Jesus. The painting is intended to be very detailed; the vegetation and flowers are meticulously painted and each plant is unique. Even in the background, the trees, mountains, and sky are all very realistic and vibrant in color.
Accordingly, one gets the idea that nature was considered very beautiful and important to the Renaissance artists. In examining the faces in the painting, it becomes apparent that Renaissance artists also considered pale skin, pale hair, thin eyebrows, and narrow lips to be very beautiful. The colorful garb in itself suggests that the Renaissance valued human life in general. Regardless of the nervous expression on the man’s face and the impending sense of doom, the painting overall provides for an investigation into the Renaissance artists’ concept of beauty: vibrant colors, the significance of nature, and realistic portrayals.
The Swing (Gallery 55), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, was painted between 1775 and 1780 during the Romanticism and Realism periods. It portrays a beautiful scene outdoors in some kind of courtyard, with many women resting in the grass below. The women are dressed elaborately, but their faces are too indistinct to actually examine. From their attire and hand gestures, however, it is implied that the women are enjoying themselves. Many have an arm raised or extended, and a few people are surrounding a white dog. This goes hand in hand with the Romantic period’s familiar idea of emotion—this sense of happiness and carefree attitude is considered beautiful to Romantic artists.
With a swing set, a telescope, and beautiful skies, an element of mysticism emerges in the painting, suggesting that artists from this time period held opposing concepts of beauty in comparison to artists from the Renaissance. Rather than appreciating realistic portrayals in paintings, Romantic artists focused instead on actions and the natural world. Nature plays a very vital role in this painting. Some trees resemble columns of smoke, while others loom over the women with branches like bowed fingers. While the trees on the left side of the painting are rich in color (varying shades of green), the right side maintains similar shapes but has darker hues—displaying mostly grays. This represents the common Romanticism theme of the power of nature; it is ever-changing and mystifying, but beautiful nonetheless.
Both the Renaissance period and the Romanticism and Realism periods have contrasting concepts of beauty. While the former emphasizes realistic and classic themes, the latter focuses on emotion and imagination. In spite of their differences, both appreciate the power of nature as beauty.