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ONE aspect of the present subject, “jewelry in pictures” more attractive perhaps than any other, is that which concerns the representation of personal ornaments in pictures. Scarcely as yet have pictures been fully appreciated from the point of view of their utility to antiquaries or the light they throw upon matters of historical inquiry.
The important part which from the fifteenth century onward they have played in connection with the subject of jewelry is sufficiently attested by the number of times they have already been referred to during the course of the present inquiry. The truth, reality, and accuracy of the artists’ work has eminently contributed to the value of these pictures.
A sympathetic way of seeing things and reproducing them and a fine feeling for naturalistic detail is characteristic of all the work of the painters of early times, when a strength of realism made its wholesome influence universally felt. Such works, while they display the grandeur and magnificence of former ages and point out the fashions and customs of our ancestors, show in detail not only the bright splendor of patterned draperies in many materials, but also the shimmer of goldsmith’s work in the form of a variety of actual ornaments, now for the most part entirely lost.
In this way they set before us details unnoticed by chroniclers, and convey clearer ideas than can be attained by reading the most elaborate descriptive inventories. The special capability of the early painters for representing articles of jewelry need merely be alluded to again, seeing the close connection, already shown, that always existed between them and the goldsmiths, in whose workshops most of them passed their apprenticeship.
Every jeweled ornament figured in their works is, in fact, designed with the full knowledge of a goldsmith versed in his craft. The artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are notorious for the extreme and elaborate minuteness of their painting of jewels. In the portraits of the time careful accuracy in depicting ornaments was the duty, and evidently the delight, of’ the painter. In every early picture the various details of costume and jewelry are rendered with scrupulous care and refinement. Though placed in the most prominent and decorative positions, jewelry was never, in the best works, allowed to intrude or to occupy an exaggerated place in the composition.
For however minutely defined these accessories may be, they are so fused into the general design that they are only apparent if one takes the trouble to look for them. In addition to recognized masterpieces, there exists a vast number of pictures obviously not by the first masters, which, though of only moderate quality, do not actually offend by their inferiority. These equally well serve to illustrate details of jewelry and dress.
In a picture of the first order such details, of importance in themselves, sink into insignificance beside the splendid qualities of a work of art: in less important pictures the ornamental accessories are all in all. It would be of great value to students if all public collections that possess costumes and ornaments could bring together-as has been done with remarkable success in the Germanic Museum at Nuremberg-series of portraits specially chosen to illustrate these details, such portraits, like the actual articles of dress and jewelry, being, of course, old ones, not modern copies.
We may state, in general, that jewels figured in portraits are to be relied upon as being the actual objects possessed by the persons represented. All the early painters displayed, as has been said, a special love for jewel forms. They not only took their beautiful models as they found them, but being themselves mostly masters of the jeweler’s craft, they devoted much attention to the adornment and the arrangement of the jewels of their models. It may be urged that painters are apt to indulge their fancy by decorating their sitters with jewels they do not possess, introduced to improve the color or arrangement of the picture, or introduced in accordance with orders, like those of the good Mrs. Primrose, who expressly desired the painter of her portrait to put in as many jewels as he could for the money, and “not to be too frugal of his diamonds in her stomacher and hair.
It is unlikely, on the contrary, that any of the early painters departed from their usual methods of truth, reality, and accuracy; or, considering the elaborate detail with which they depicted jewelry, that they ever specially invented it for the portrait in which it occurs. It is much more probable that they worked from what they saw: for masters of painting have in all ages worked from models in preference to carrying out their own designs.
It is to be observed that the presence or absence of gilding on jewelry often serves to distinguish between German and Flemish paintings. Holbein almost always employed gold upon golden objects, but in the works of other artists, so rich in elaborate detail, paint alone suffices to produce the effect. The artists of those days possessed a marvelous facility for imitating the brilliance of gold by color alone.
In examining the jewelry of sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits numbers of what appear to be black stones are frequently to be seen. These were evidently intended to represent diamonds. From early times, when the custom existed of improving, as it was considered, the color of all stones by the use of foils, diamonds—the old stones of Golconda and Brazil, different in color and quality from the diamonds of to-day—were usually backed with a black varnish composed of lamp-black and oil of mastic. This coloring of the diamond, which is alluded to by Cellini, would account for the intense and clear blacks and whites used by the artists of the time in depicting that precious stone.
In the work of some of the finest painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so masterly is the handling, that in the contemplation of broad effects one may fail to notice how much detail the artists were able to combine with such breadth. In fact the detail they displayed is hardly less precise than that of the earlier painters. Mr. Davies has some interesting remarks to make on the different modes of depicting jewelry adopted by first-class painters—by the one who paints it in detail and the other who treats it with freedom.
The first paints you, touch by touch, his chains, his bracelets, his tiara, link by link, and gem by gem, with precision so great that if you called in a fairly capable goldsmith, of little or no intelligence, he would use them as a pattern and produce you an exact facsimile. The second obtains his result by summarized knowledge, letting his line lose itself and find itself again, a flash on a link, a sparkle on a gem suggesting all to the eye with a completeness which is fully as complete as the literal word for word translation of the other man.
Call in a really intelligent goldsmith to this work and he would find it quite as easy as, or even easier than, the other to understand and reproduce from, but it would not do to make a tracing from, nor give as a pattern to one of his unintelligent apprentices. Very attractive and valuable guides to the jewelry of the early period are the early Flemish-Burgundian paintings and those of the Italian masters of the fifteenth century. The most fertile of sixteenth-century pictures for the present purpose are the Germans
in contemporary pictures.
In the second half of the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth, the painters of the Low Countries especially excelled in the delineation of jewel forms. By these and by numerous followers of Holbein, many pictures were painted, and exist in England at the present day. The technique of the great Dutch and Flemish painters of the seventeenth century were not incompatible. The majority of pictures of the early part of the eighteenth century offer but slight indication of the jewelry of the time. had a set of postures (and ornaments too) which they applied to all persons indiscriminately.
Seeing the reliance that may be placed on the jewelry figured in the portraits of earlier times, it is not unnatural to expect such detail to be of considerable service in art criticism. In the identification of a portrait much may rest on the identification of its jewels. A portrait with the jewels actually owned by the subject, if not ‘ the rose’ (for it may be a copy of a lost original) has certainly been ‘ near the rose.’ ” But critics seldom think of examining the numerous extant royal and noble inventories and other documents such as wills containing lists of jewels, and of comparing the jewels described in them with those displayed in portraits.
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