Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Here they are, the wise men, as painted by Tissot in the late 19th century. We have seen so many images from the Dutch masters and the Italians that its nice to post a French academic piece. Let me throw out the relevant scripture and I will see you on the other side. It's from Mathew.

1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,2Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born 5And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.12And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Here is a Pieter Breughel the younger, I love the Breughels paintings, they are so full of charm. They seem to give a real picture of the world in which they were painted. The wise men are over there in the left corner. I like the architecture in there. The magi were probably Zoroastrian priests who were into astronomy. The magi root was also used to create the word magic. so they may have been "sorcerers". Only later did tradition make them three, one for each described gift, name them, and call them kings.

Above is an adoration by Pellegrino Tibaldi, I can't even tell if these guys are shepherds, magi or the Village People. It looks like a tag team match in a professional wrestling broadcast. And those damned putti are up in the top of the frame with the roll of Charmin again! Weird. There is an interesting parallelogram opening leading to the virgin Mary who might otherwise be lost in the writhing tangle of bodies. It looks like a bait shop in there.

This piece from the Prado in Madrid by Fray Juan Bautista Maino a Spanish artist has the star shing down and its easy to tell who the Magi are, by there robes and actions. The Christ Child is presented as being older which fits the description of young child as in the passage above. This is not the evening of Christs birth but later. In popular tradition though we expect the Shepherds and the Magi on the same stage at once. Squint way down, that's a good way to simplify a painting , look at it through your eyelashes. Do you see a big X shape drawing your eye to the head of the King in the white turban and the Christ child? There are a number of lines radiating out from that point, there is no doubt where you are supposed to find the baby in this painting. And everybodies got their pants on! To my mind this is a far more effective painting than the bath house follies above it.

I think the upper picture the artists purpose is to show off how well he can do figures. In the lower painting the artist wants to tell the story, in an effective and coherent way. He gives to the viewer rather than trying to impress them with what a great artist he is. I see the same problem out there today when I look in some of the contemporary art magazines. I think the painter should care for the viewer, that makes it picturemaking. If you are only out to make something to impress them, your painting may say nothing but,"I am SO cool". The occasional "I am so cool" painting is OK, but most people don't want a steady diet of them. They want to receive a visual gift, get something of value, be nurtured or see something beautiful, see a story, or reflect on some deep sympathy that we all hold . I think picturemaking is very important. When people ask me what I do for a living I respond "I paint pictures".


Mary Brewster said...

Love to hear more about the Breughel at the bottom! Thank you for the blog and have a great Christmas with your family!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sorry Mary:
I hit post accidentally and it went up half finished. Now you can see the finished post. Merry Christmas to you

Unknown said...

Just found this blog, love it.

I was wondering about the first picture, do you think research was done to decide how to depict the magi, or were they painted as the artist thought they looked based upon the contemporary look of people in the middle east or what?

alotter said...

Going back to our exchanges over the Rembrandt etchings, I could not find any connection between Gene Ripley (the songwriter guy you claimed as the author of) and the quote "All landscapes are abstract." However, there's a poem by Charles Wright titled "All Landscape is Abstract and Tends to Repeat Itself." Surely a painter has made the original abstract claim, which Wright is just picking up on? Would a painter would allow that all landscape tends to repeat itself. Or is the essence of abstraction that it is repetitious?

Mary Byrom said...

Great post. I think the variety of putti are interesting and hey they must have an important role to play in the angel world or else they wouldn't keep showing up in all these paintings! NIce variety of painters and styles depicting the Magi. I like the scripture so I can understand the narrative behind the paintings.

billspaintingmn said...

The Tissot painting of the Magi is at the Mpls. Institute of Art, I've
seen the painting many times.
I don't care for "show-offie" Art.
I can appreciate a well painted
piece, like Sargeant or Rockwell,(they're cool)as they have something more real to give or share with the viewer.
I like how you've discribed picture making.
I think you make excellent paintings. They're cool to me for
several reasons.
I go thru 24th & lyndale to get to my studio, I'll beep & wave next
time for you!

Philip Koch said...

The Pieter Bruegel painting has such wonderful intervals between his figures. The guy makes it look so easy!

willek said...

Just a terrific series of posts and your comments on composition are super helpful. That first Magi painting is very powerful. The angle of observation and the baggage train extending outward ans upward gives a sense of an inevitable oncoming. Nothing is going to divert these people in their mission. It reminds me of some of the scenes from Star Wars.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I should,and I suppose I will do a blog on Tissot.He like many of his generation did lots of research. He was an established society painter,but after the death of a young wife moved to Palestine and did a lot of biblical subjects. They are today less well known than his pictures of fashionable Victorians. I think most of that particularly the camels was done from a photo. It has photo-generated look to it. Not in a bad way.

Stapleton Kearns said...


You may be right perhaps it wasn't Gene Pitney who said all landcape is abstract. Whoever said it was right.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mary: Thank you. I don't think the putti thing has aged well. I wonder how comfortable people were with them then?

Philip Koch said...

You know I haven't heard anyone mention Gene Pitney in a very, very long time (which perhaps is a kindness).
Wonder what his position on putti would be?

On another note, I'm headed down to Washington D.Cl tomorrow to see the Sargent and the Sea exhibition at the Corcoran Museum of Art before it closes. Should be fun!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Its the place on the left right at the corner . Three story brick with a porch held up by columns. I had the right hand side of the first floor all the way back. Great apartment, that was 1975. I believe Husker Du wrote "2541" about an apartment in a building in the block before it.............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

I like Breughel too,they seem like somewwhere I have been to me that I can't quite remember.

Stapleton Kearns said...

THanks, butI think star wars needed more putti!