François Boucher is undoubtedly rococo era’s most celebrated artist. Despite, accusations of painting shallow and frivolous subjects, he has his place secure in the history of the world of art. Boucher was instrumental in creating some of the most vivid portraits of his patron Madame de Pompadour. Besides, he loved depicting mythological and pastoral scenes on canvas in his characteristic decorative style.

François Boucher (September 29, 1703 – May 30, 1770) received his first lessons in art from his father. He grew up in an environment where both the artists and the audience were increasingly becoming restless with baroque or, more specifically, its merciless stricture, mindless exaggeration and undue emphasis on symmetry. They were yearning for a change and when the rococo style was introduced by artists like Antoine Watteau everyone embraced it wholeheartedly. 

Besides paintings, Boucher also created numerous porcelain pieces, designed theatre sets and tapestries. He maintained a large workshop where Jacques–Louis David spent his formative years. In the final years of his life, his once huge popularity began to wane. Critics, including the likes of Voltaire and Denis Diderot, were exasperated with his art that showed only lightheartedness, fun and frolic. They simultaneously attacked rococo, accusing the style to be devoid of any sense and proprietary. The movement that started with the masterful brushstrokes of Watteau, saw its exaltation and, perhaps, even its eventual demise through François Boucher.

Antoine Coysevox’s intricately sculpted busts used to bear remarkable semblances with the actual subjects. Such was the power of his innumerable terracotta, bronze and marble sculptures that be became one of Louis XIV’s most favourite artists. Antoine Coysevox (September 29, 1640 – October 10, 1720) created a large number of pieces for the decoration of Versailles. He became close to Charles le Brun, another famous artist of his time. Some of his best pieces were destroyed during the revolution. Yet, there still remains sufficient number of sculptures to understand and appreciate the elaborate artworks of this master.

Andreas Achenbach took up the challenge of assimilating the mute eloquence of nature in his paintings and pulled it through with aplomb. The tranquil or rough sea captivated his imagination, the signs of which were reflected in many of his painting. Born in a family of beer and vinegar brewer, both Andreas and his brother Oswald Achenbach used the power of art to transcend their mundane existences.

Andreas Achenbach (September 29, 1815 – April 1, 1910) learned the basic nuances of art from none other than Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow. Later, as he broadened his horizon and travelled afar to places like Italy, Scandinavia and St Petersburg his art grew into maturity. Still, Schadow’s influence was evident in his artworks and they were smeared into romantic ideals.

Andreas and Oswald Achenbach worked more as itinerant painters. Sometimes, their father too joined them on their trips. Lavish praises were bestowed on both the brothers and Andreas went on to receive state honours from Prussia and France. But his highest achievement remains in capturing the ‘rapture of the lonely shore’ and ‘music of the roaring deep sea’ so vividly on canvas.

Giovanni Comin was a tintore or dyer, so everyone used to call young Jacopo, his son, Tintoretto or ‘little dyer’. The name stuck with him forever and perhaps not inappropriately. For, Jacopo dyed vast canvases with the power of his imagination nearly his entire life. When he was about twelve years old, Tintoretto was sent to Titian’s workshop. The training did not last even two full weeks and Tintoretto returned home. There is no dearth of conjectures about the apparent frostiness between their relationships. From this point on, young Jacopo used Michelangelo’s sculptures, models and anatomical sections to perfect his skills in art.

Before long, Tintoretto (circa September 29, 1518 – May 31, 1594) established himself as one of the most revered figures of the Venetian School of art. His paintings were permeated with his proverbial energy and vigour, bordering on restlessness, something that earned him the title of Il Furioso. For thirteen years (1565 – 1587), the artist worked untiringly to create a vast series of paintings for Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. This is generally considered as the epoch of his career.

Noted renaissance artist, Andrea Schiavone used to assist Tintoretto during the creation of many of his frescoes. Later he also found able hands to support him in his daughter Marietta, both a musician and painter whose life was cut short by an untimely death, and son Domenico. However, it was El Greco, the master painter and sculptor from Spain, who became a torch–bearer of Tintoretto’s art. It is apt to recollect Rainer Maria Rilke’s words for summing up the enduring value of Tintoretto’ art,

Most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

Alexandre Cabanel’s precocious talent was recognised early in his life. He entered the famed École des Beaux–Arts at seventeen, exhibited at the Salon at twenty one and won the Prix de Rome at twenty two. His academic style painting earned him accolades, but his attachment to that also distanced him from the other revolutionaries of the world of art, like, Édouard Manet. While he himself could not prevent exalting beauty on canvas, he failed to appreciate the same in the works of the impressionists.

Alexandre Cabanel (September 28, 1823 – January 23, 1889) spent greater part of his early days in Montpellier, Hérault. Both his technique and knowledge of mythology were impeccable and he hardly ever endeavoured to disregard the popular taste of the day. His apprenticeship in Rome certainly influenced the former. Cabanel painted numerous elaborate portraits as well. He became a professor at the École des Beaux–Arts and continued in this role till his death.

The Birth of Venus, painted in 1863, remains one of Alexandre Cabanel’s most notable paintings to this date. When it was exhibited at the Paris Salon, it received mixed reviews. Émile Zola denounced it and many others derided its suggestive pose veiled in mythology. Interestingly later in the year, Édouard Manet’s Olympia was shown to public. Its erotic content, sans any affectation, created an even greater furore. Estranged by taste and style the two crossed each other’s path in undeserved public ignominy.

There is another way, if you have the courage.
The first I could describe in familiar terms
Because you have seen it, as we all have seen it,
Illustrated, more or less, in lives of those about us.
The second is unknown, and so requires faith –
The kind of faith that issues from despair.
The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.
T S Eliot (via itsquoted)

Cosimo de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici dynasty, was no artist himself. But the world of art is indebted to him forever, for he started a trend of patronising art, architecture and literature that were continued by those following him. From Fra Angelico to Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello to Michelangelo, nearly every illustrious artist of the era was benefitted by the patronage of the Medicis. Allegedly, the family used art to establish their dominance in Florence and advance their propaganda. But it must also be remembered that without their financial support renaissance might have been reduced to just another insipid art and intellectual movement.

Cosimo de’ Medici (September 27, 1389 – August 1, 1464) laid the foundation of his empire based on the Medici bank. In fact, the dynasty had existed since a century before him, but it rose into a prominence holding his hands. He was an astute businessman, policymaker and diplomat. He believed in humanism and supported its development through such scholars as Niccolo Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni. He commissioned the first ever complete translation of Plato’s work in Latin that was carried out by Marsilio Ficino. His grandson Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of the most notable statesmen of all time, benefitted the most from his ideals. Borrowing the words of Marsilio Ficino we may say,

Every movement directed towards a definite end first begins, then proceeds, then gradually increases and makes progress and is finally perfected.

This accurately defines Cosimo de’ Medici’s contribution in shaping the fate of his family, cultural and economic vista of first Florence and then entire Europe.

In a short lifespan of thirty three years Théodore Géricault established himself as one of the pillars of Romantic Movement. Though mostly recognised today for his dramatic portrayal of the The Raft of the Medusa, in reality, no subject was too remote for Théodore Géricault. From the vitality of the prancing horses to the distress of morally and physically afflicted, from the seductiveness of the mythical swan to the still lives of chunks of flesh, the artist’s ingenuity pervaded and explored all possible subjects. The story of The Raft of the Medusa was based on a sinking ship called Meduse, which was deserted by the captain with people and other crew members left dying onboard. The event caused a national scandal in France. Interestingly, young Eugène Delacroix acted as a model for one of the figures of the painting.

As a young boy Théodore Géricault (September 26, 1791 – January 26, 1824) spent some time at Pierre–Narcisse Guérin’s studio. But the stricture of the old master was too difficult for him to bear for long. Instead, he found the galleries of Louvre and paddocks of Versailles to be the best places to study art. The latter experience resulted in some of the most charming paintings with horses acquiring the centre–stage. His trips to Florence, Rome and Naples induced a deep fascination of Michelangelo’s work in him.

While touring London in 1820, the reality of abject poverty in urban areas hit Géricault for the first time. He made several lithographs and sketches on the subjects denuded of all sentimentality. The emotional depth of his artworks could be seen once again in a series of ten portraits of mentally handicapped men and women. His friendship with Étienne–Jean Georget, a leading figure in the field of psychiatry, revealed another side of human fragility to Géricault. Even beyond the elegant brushstrokes and anatomically correct figures, the sympathetic portrayals of agony as experienced by both of human and animals added an unparalleled dimension to Théodore Géricault’s art.

With the brush we merely tint, while the imagination alone produces colour.

September 25, 1599 saw the birth of Francesco Castelli in Swiss town of Bissone, Ticino. The son of a stonemason, Francesco grew up listening to a constant lullaby of stone cutting and chiselling pouring out from his father’s workshop. Thus, little did it surprise anyone when Francesco chose stone masonry as his career later on in his life.

When Francesco was about 10 years old, he went to Milan for studying and perfecting his craft. He migrated to Rome in around 1619 and started working for his distant relative Carlo Maderno whom many consider as one of the fathers of Baroque architecture. Together, Francesco and Maderno, worked at St Peter’s and then at Palazzo Barberini. Under Maderno’s tutelage Francesco developed excellent technical and drafting skills that became one of his greatest assets.

Owing to his regard to St Charles Borromeo or his mother’s new family name Brumino after her second marriage, Castelli changed his name to Francesco Borromini. Meanwhile, Maderno passed away in 1629 with the work at the Palazzo Berberini still to be completed. It fell on Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Borromini’s greatest rival and also a collaborator on many projects, to complete the task at Palazzo Berberini.

Borromini and Bernini, two stalwarts of 17th century Italian art and architecture, are both masters of Baroque, yet very different in their approach to work and resultant artistic expressions. Bernini, suave and charming, sought drama and theatrics in his works. As if his own flamboyance oozing out through his creations. Bernini knew how to play with the audience’s emotional and spiritual responses. Borromini, on the other hand, was cold, melancholic, somewhat lacking in the social graces of Bernini. He depended heavily on his studies of geometry and classical architecture. Like the person, Borromini’s work was idiosyncratic with a modest approach towards purposeful dramatisation, distancing the audience who failed to fully comprehend it even though they were unanimous in accepting its superiority. The great act of providence intertwined both the artists’ path for the rest of their careers. Perhaps, no example would better elucidate this than the story of the fountain at piazza Navona. It is one of Bernini’s most famous works that took four years to complete. The base of this structure, which supports Roman version of an Egyptian obelisk (with a dove holding an olive branch in its beak, the Pamphili family symbol, at the highest point), is decorated with four large allegorical figures, representing the major rivers from the four regions of the world: Danube represented Europe, Nile Africa, Ganges Asia and the Rio de la Plata the Americas. Ironically, this was Borromini’s original suggestion, the commission of which after many fateful shifts and papal intervention, went to Bernini.

Borromini received his first major independent commission in 1634 when he was asked to design the church, cloister and monastic buildings of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Situated on Quirinal Hill in Rome, it was a corner plot with limited space where Borromini built his masterpiece. A magnum opus of Baroque architecture, it is in the intricacies of geometry that Borromini created the sense of space. In the maze of polygons, ovals and crosses the dome of the cathedral rose to a lantern with the symbol of Trinity.

The artist received the commission for the Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri as a result of a competition. For thirteen years Borromini relentlessly worked on this project. There were heated arguments with the Oratorians over the design and selection of materials. In the end, in 1652, Oratorians appointed another architect replacing Borromini. However, Borromini managed to document his own description of the construction of the oratory; its brick carved façade and complex wall arrangements with freestanding pillars. An illustrated version of this account was published at a later date in 1725.

From 1640–1650, he worked on the design of the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and its courtyard. The dome and cochlear steeple still reflects the master architect’s singularity. The nave’s unusual centralised plan is circled by alternating concave and convex cornices, leading to a dome decorated magnificently with linear arrays of stars and putti. Geometrically it is a six–pointed star with three of the points being clover–like, while the other three being concavely clipped. Borromini’s construction of the College of the Propagation of the Faith or Propaganda Fide in Rome, including the Re Magi Chapel started in 1660. The façade to the Via di Propaganda Fide comprised of seven bays accentuated by giant pilasters with the central bay being a concave curve.

Always a forlorn man, tired of underachievement and eternal conflict with Bernini, Borromini succumbed to chronic depression. In July, 1667 after learning that his opponent was commissioned for the construction of the tomb of Pope Innocent X, Borromini burned down all his writings and designs and locked himself into his house. In a fit of despair he threw himself on a ceremonial sword and committed suicide after painfully lingering on for a full day on August 3, 1667. He left his own account of his attempt to take his own life. ‘About five or six in the morning I woke up and asked Francesco (Borromini’s young servant) to light the lamp. He refused, saying he had not slept enough, I got furious and impatient and thought how to harm myself bodily. Remained in this state until about eight, I remembered I had a sword in the back of the bed. I fell upon it with such force that I ended up lying across the floor. Because of my injury I started screaming. Francesco quickly entered the room and aghast as he was, opened the window, and called the others. He helped me lie down on my bed and take away the sword. This is how I was injured.’

Borromini requested to be buried in an unmarked grave next to his teacher, Carlo Maderno in the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Perhaps, in his gloomy world of dejection he himself never felt worthy of receiving people’s attention.

A self–taught scholar, Borromini collected great many books and manuscripts in his large library. It is late in the 19th century that the innovativeness of his work was fully comprehended and thus admired. He was featured on the 6th series of 100 Swiss Franc banknote, which was in circulation from 1976 till 2000. Perhaps, his greatest appreciation came from none other than his arch rival, Bernini, who is believed to have said, ‘… many years ago Borromini alone understood this profession, but that he was never satisfied.’

*The essay was originally published on Ipseand (August 19, 2013)