I bet you did not know that there’s a certain genre style in painting, employed when 16th-19th century painters were commissioned to portray architecture, that deliberately depicts great architecture often in crumbling ruins in a complete fantasy?
Why do this at all?
This is a style that imagines architecture as mere fodder for art and aims to convey a scene of absurdity and humor, often in grand scale. This is the genre of O.L.’s painting, which is massive, at 52 x 43 inches.
And the story of how she acquired it is equally huge.
O.L. was hired in the 1980s to haul away unwanted furniture for the remodel of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, where she saw a wooden crate with antique style lettering. She asked what the director wanted for the crate, thinking it might contain something interesting. $200 was the reply.
So she took a chance. When the art was uncrated, she would own a massive Capriccio painting, although until today she has not known about the genre.
Capriccio paintings show huge ruins placed illogically in fantasy landscapes, with imagined people, or sculpture; fountains spray plumes in the middle of nowhere, and cows amble amongst Roman columns, sometimes with volcanos in the background. And no one seems to worry. The work is not meant to be representational although it is a style of Classicism. It is a take- off on landscape paintings of great sweep and scale with peasants and animals in a lush landscape called Verdute, a particular love of the French.
The style began in the 16th century with the desire for fantasy paintings created with a mural style. They would appear on an expanse of ceiling in the great Italian noble halls, poking lighthearted fun at the architecture of the palace or mansion.
The style caught on fire throughout Europe, and the wealthy commissioned Capriccio through the early 19th century for easel paintings.
The highpoint of this style is the 17th century when great artists such as Canaletto and Claude Lorrain painted in this genre.
Today, when we see such fantasies, we fail to understand the lighthearted humor. They look too predictable, but, in the day, their unpredictability was the point for viewers in the late Renaissance into the Baroque and through the 18th century. (Don’t forget, we had no movies to take us to an unreal landscape back then.)
Here are two features of this style which are in fact in modern parlance, highly surrealistic. One is the imagination of those artists, who often re-imagined existing monumental structures, portraying them as ruins in the future.
The other taste of surrealism is the juxtaposition of compositional elements that would never be seen together in real life, such as the cows in a mud bath lower right quadrant of O.L.’s painting, with the female Venus sculpture to their right and the Classical ruins stretching into the distance mid-ground for miles and miles.
The tradition of perspective was important to this genre, but was often played with, to create receding piles of ruins, or processions of animals or people snaking through towering ruins.
The ruins were often invented, or changed in scale, or teetering, or overgrown with exotic fauna. Why portray ruins at all? This is a style of memento mori. In other words, all things decay and die, even the most gorgeous built environment, and they go back to the cows and the peasants.
The period of the architecture portrayed was also not historically accurate. Tuscan villages lurk behind Roman, medieval, and, in fact ,sometimes Egyptian ruins.
Illogically clothed or unclothed figures are dwarfed by crumbling columns whilst doing something plebeian. They’re not minding the disaster overhead as water features are abutted against sides of ruins, which are about to fall upon various heads.
And cows roam around, sometimes mingling with soldiers or camels or sheep.
This painting dates from the mid-18th century, although I cannot identify the artist, and indeed, the artist didn’t always sign in this genre. It has a fabulous 19th century frame.
Unattributed paintings prices for this style are not high, but works by the masters of this style command six figures.
It has been recently restored by the fabulous Scott Haskins at Fine Art Conservation Labs in Santa Barbara, and of course, as it is wont to be found, has had decades of overpainting to make it more pleasing to the era of the viewer.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.