When it comes to art and artistic
movements, certain artistic works are emblematic of the spirit of the times
they were constructed in whether it is the content, form or artistic method.
Renaissance art and modernism differ in terms of guiding artistic principles,
which are manifested in the paintings produced during their respective times.
The comparison between renaissance painter Raphael’s (1509-1511) “The School of
Athens” and modernist Henri Matisse’s (1905-1906) “Le Bonheur de Vivre” shows that
the former concerns tradition, proportion, specificity, and spatial order,
while the latter concerns expressive spatiality, vagueness, and sensation.
Arguably, the two paintings are embodiment of the spirit of their artistic
movements; they are both considered masterpieces. The content or subject in the
two respective paintings is also similar, as they are both portraying human
figures in a given space. In this comparative piece, I will use the original
paintings themselves as primary sources, and an academic textbook as well as
Matisse’s notes to understand the motivations behind the artworks. First, I
will analyze the historical background and issues of the respective pieces.
Then, I will use this to apply to my analysis of the artworks, and reach a
conclusive comparison regarding the two works. I will conclude that the two
works of art are very different, but that they share the ability to represent
their respective periods.
Raphael’s “The School of Athens” was
constructed between 1509 and 1510. It embodies the Renaissance artistic values
of architecture. Prior to Raphael, Donato Bramante was an Italian architect who
introduced Renaissance architecture to Milan. Bramante’s architecture style is
faithful to Antiquity. According to Author (Year),
“l’adoption d’elements classiques correspond à un désir de recréer réellement
l’Antiquité à travers des propositions nouvelles. Son style fleuri et raffiné
du Milanais fait place à la rigeur et à la sobriété qui caractéterisent sa
maniére romaine” (p. #). The classic element was the ideal style and
taste of the Renaissance. The spatiality of the arcs and ceilings embodies this
Milanese style that focuses on rigor.
According to Zorzi (2015), though the
architecture of the two arcs is mathematically “the ‘wrong’ structure, the
spatiality ends up being much clearer” (p. 104). Apart from the arc domes, the
depth of the space is marked in Raphael’s painting creates a three-dimensional
space from the front to the back of the painting. This is achieved through the size
of the figures and the lines of the construction; bringing in different
This spatiality was influenced by
Piero Della Francesca, an early painter of the Renaissance who is known for his
geometry and mathematics. His work “La Flagellation du Christ” is described as “gette
oeuvre constitue un remarquable exercice de perspective, science encore
nouvelle” (Author, Year, p. #). His figures also have a solemn expression
that show calmness and seriousness in character. In “The School of Athens,” all
of the figures also wear solemn expressions of quiet contemplation to celebrate
antiquity. The painting is certainly a celebration of antiquity through the
embodiment of values put forth by Francesca and Bramante, and its content
furthers this celebration of antiquity—the figures are all allusions to
important Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. In the Renaissance,
the past knowledge of the Greeks were celebrated and revered. The figures are
also all in one space—historically impossible—which pertains to the imagined
aspect of the pinnacle of knowledge and the gathering of the greatest minds.
The vanishing point of the painting, achieved through the use of arcs and the
spatial lines, is the two figures in the center. The figure on the left is
bearded, holding a copy called Timaeus,
and Aristotle holds Nicomachean Ethics.
The central figures carry the flow of other figures, showing their lasting
impact on knowledge.
Henri Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de Vivre”
was constructed between 1905 and 1906. This period of time was in between the
French expressionist movement and the modernist movement (including cubism).
Gustave Courbet’s works best embody French Expressionism, which share some
qualities with Renaissance, such as the use of an imposed subject and the
classical tradition of the vertical axis of symmetry. The imposed subject,
unlike Raphael’s important figures, are part of the popular classes: “Il
affirme l’importance grandissante des classes populaires et de la paysannerie
opprimées” (Author, Year, p. #). In Matisse’s painting, there are two
central figures marked by light and colour saturation, similar to the way
Courbet imposes on the single female figure in his “L’Atelier du Peintre.” Like
Courbet, the figures do not have historical significance, unlike Raphael’s two
Matisse also emphasized expression
in composition. He writes, “composition, the aim of which should be expression,
is modified according to the surface to be covered … a drawing must have an
expansive force which gives life to the things around it” (Matisse, 1908, p.
2). In other words, Matisse sought expressive and decorative paintings. His
painting’s bright, vivid colours relate to this idea of vibrancy.
Matisse’s spatiality and form are
partly influenced by Picasso in terms of cubism and the feminine form. While
Raphael’s form and space most related to the idea of antiquity and proportion,
Matisse focused on vagueness and perspective. He details the importance of
ambiguity to capturing his feelings:
My picture would have a vagueness in it: I should
have recorded the fugitive sensations of a moment which could not completely
define my feelings and which I should barely recognize the next day. (Matisse,
1908, p. 2)
This vagueness is illustrated in
cubism, which is the abstraction of reality, reducing the form into basic
geometric parts. In the details of the nude women in his painting, Matisse
keeps the details clean of any depth. The shape is simple and uncomplicated, as
opposed to Raphael’s detailed drawing on the human subjects.
While Renaissance painters stressed
the need for perspective and space to define realistic modelling, Picasso and
Matisse were open to forms that do not separate the background and the
foreground. In “Le bonheur de Vivre,” the figures share similar colour tones as
the background with blurring distinction in the shared colour palette of blues,
pinks, and yellows. The nude form in the painting shares its similarity to Picasso’s
“Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon,” but it is not the theme of nudity that is
particular. According to Author
particularité du tableau ne réside past tant dans le théme, les nus féminins
pouvant correspondre … La particularité de ce tableau, c’est la maniére
dont Picasso forme le motif” (p. #). What is the motif? Both nude forms show a lack of
three-dimensionality but a radical flatness. The motifs are that bodies are not
necessarily the central focus, although in “Le bonheur de Vivre,” Matisse puts
a colour contrast and brightness to follow French impressionist style.
Matisse’s painting blends together the principles of French Expressionism and cubism.
In conclusion, close examination of
Raphael’s “The School of Athens” and Henri Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de Vivre,” as
well as their influences and contemporaries, reveals that the two paintings
differ in terms of spatiality, form, and content, but both embody the ideals of
their times. Raphael’s painting shows a faithfulness to form, depth, and
proportion in the architectural space, making the three-dimensionality very
apparent; the rich detail conveys the values of the period. On the other hand,
Matisse’s painting “Le bonheur de Vivre” creates a vague, flat space. The
figures are abstract and the colours are very bright and evocative. The figures
do not pertain to any particular importance, mostly conferring to the French
Expressionist value of popular class.