In the news last week, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg loaned 30 paintings to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, UK, including works by Picasso, Velasquez, Rodin, Titian and Matisse.
Included in the loan is the work of 17th century painter Alonso Cano who, unlike the ever-popular others listed above, is not a household name. What keeps him down in the polls, so to say, his personality or his picture-making?
He’s a person of interest here because art history classes him the “Spanish Michelangelo,” and it’s not at all clear why he rates the comparison.
Let’s take a closer look.
Cano was an ordained priest. He was also ill-tempered and suspected of killing his wife. His paintings, though, are the picture of serenity. You might even call them schmaltzy.
His way of painting didn’t typify the sculptural approach of his peers in the 17thcentury. In “Christ in Limbo,” his figures are modeled softly and his religious figures are not only His way of painting didn’t typify the sculptural approach of his peers. In “Christ in Limbo,” the figures are modeled softly, and his religious figures are not only quieter than those painted in his day, but they also come across as maudlin.
More typical of his time are his strong lights and darks and histrionic gestures. While, say, the Christ figure in “The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel,” is dramatically illuminated, the angel, in deep shadow, holds the shoulders cloyingly. .
Still more schmaltzy is “Vision of St. John” in which Cano shows the saint looking beseechingly heavenward to the vision, which sits on a fluffy cloud. At this point, you may wonder why he omitted angels on the wing.
In “Mary” Cano is at his most devotional. A beatific expression appears on Mary’s face and, as if that weren’t enough sentiment, a sunburst light dances over her head. Cecil B. Demille must have loved Cano’s showmanship.
Cano’s bad temper showed in his art career when he destroyed a work he made for the Counselor of Grenada. The counselor refused to pay him, claiming that the artist was overcharging.
“You have rated your labor at the exorbitant price of four pistoles per day, while I, who am a counselor and your superior, do not make half your profits by my talents.” Cano replied that it took him fifty years of learning to achieve the result.
Reportedly, Cano was ornery to his end and that his deathbed behavior was no different than that in his life time.
“When Cano was already dying, the priest took him a carved crucifix (which was not the work of a good artist) so as to exhort him with its help. Cano told him to remove it… ‘My son, what are you doing? Look, this is the Lord who has redeemed and will save you!’ And Cano replied: ‘Father, I do so believe. But am I not to get angry because this is so poorly done, and thus let the devil take me? Give me a bare cross, and with the help of my faith I will then venerate and reverence Him there…”
He got his way, of course.
As for his picture-making, I still don’t get why history ranks him Michelangelo’s Catalan counterpart, do you? Anybody?