The World’s Leading Painters: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Velasquez and Rembrandt
The choice of Mr. Rose as author of this volume of “The World’s Leaders” was peculiarly appropriate. His easy style, his first-hand acquaintance with masterpieces of European paint ing, the vogue of his Renaissance Masters (first edition 1898), and his lifelong devotion to renaissance and post-renaissance art in all its forms mark him out as uniquely fitted to supply a volume that should be both suggestive and authoritative. This he has done and done with a charm of style, a fineness of appraisal, a wealth of stimulating contrast and analogy that are apt to make the reader overlook, or at least slight, the depth of the author’s scholarship or the sheer intellectual ability that underlies every chapter of his book.
An old copy of The Sewanee Review contains this paragraph on Mr. Rose’s earlier volume, Renaissance Masters’. “The char acteristics of the introduction are the characteristics of the entire book ; full knowledge, sound taste, balance and sanity of judgment. So far as we can tell, there is not an eccentric note in the book?which is rare enough in all writings on art, especially since Mr. Ruskin has impressed his brilliant, but often bizarre spirit upon the world.” Knowledge, taste and balance are the characteristics also of the present volume, but the knowledge is more minute and detailed, the taste is surer and more catholic, and the balance between style and content, between enthusiasm and restraint, between biography and history, between personal opinion and traditional opinion, is also more marked than in the earlier work.
In every chapter of the present volume biography is inter preted in terms of historical forces and historical forces in terms of biography. The author has the happy faculty of giving just enough history to furnish an adequate setting for the career of his artists, though he never permits the individual interest to be merged in the more personal forces of time or place. He succeeds also in describing pictures humanly and appealingly without an undue use of tehnicalities. When he says, for ex ample, that da Vinci‘s Last Supper “is generally conceded to be the greatest picture ever painted”, or that his Mona Lisa “is the greatest portrait ever painted”, or that Titian‘s Sacred and Profane Love “is perhaps the most beautiful picture in all the world”, he gives for these estimates detailed reasons that every layman can understand, whether he approves or not. There is also an absence of repetition and contradiction that is by no means easy in a work of this sort, a work in which detailed characterizations of men, of paintings, of events and of periods, follow one another in rapid succession.
This clearness and consistency are due chiefly to the author’s power of clear-cut but wide-ranging generalization, an excel lence that marks also every page of Renaissance Masters. The first sentence in almost every chapter of the later book will serve as an illustration. Thus: “The greatest mind ever devoted to art, probably the greatest ever devoted to science, was Leonardo da Vinci, the natural son of a Florentine notary”; “Raphael, who was born to effect the the great reconcilia tion, to wed classic perfection of form to Christian purity of soul, and so to create our modern standard of beauty, was throughout life the favored child of fortune”; “Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who was to have the most brilliant career in the history of art, who was to live like a prince and to be the friend and counselor of monarchs, first saw the light under distressing circumstances”; “Of all the old masters Velasquez exerts, the greatest influence on the art of our times”; “The greatest of all Dutch painters [Rembrandt], the magician, who rules over that enchanted realm where light and darkness are for ever contending for the mastery and light is forever triumph ant, could justly boast that he was a citizen of no mean city.” These initial sentences not only whet the reader’s curiosity but are a sort of prophecy and summary of what is to follow. They coach both his intelligence and his memory.
A careful reading of Mr. Rose’s two volumes will vindicate his right to stand as an interpreter and historian of art, not only with Vernon Lee and Frank Preston Steams, but with Bernhard Berenson and Walt.