Critiquing a Painting

Let me ask you something, what is not art? ~Author Unknown

Take a good look at the following picture and tell me if something seems amiss to you:

Now I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an artist, but I have taken a few classes in art and history along the way, as well as done some studying of the Bible.

And this photo is just wrong on a lot of fronts.

Some background: I came across said photo while reading a book our Church makes available to parishioners to help guide us through the Lenten journey to Easter Sunday.

Titled “Summer with the Sacrifice of Isaac,” it’s a painting by Francesco Bassano the Younger, an Italian in the Renaissance period (for him, 1549-1592). I’m able to use it here because it’s in the public domain.

Poor Francesco had some issues with hypochondria and eventually threw himself from a window to his death.

Sorry, I digress.

Basically, this oil on canvas depicts the story from Genesis 22 where God tested Abraham’s love by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac on a mountain.

Do you see that scene? Look again. I had to use a magnifying glass to find it, way up there near the top left of the painting.

And that makes me wonder why it was titled that way. Shouldn’t the title of a work give us insight into what the work is about, rather than hiding behind what I’d think should be background?

Here’s another thing: Every writer knows you don’t set a story in the early 1900s and call your characters by today’s names (Zoey, Jaxon, etc.). And it would seem to me that a Renaissance painter working on a scene that took place more than two thousand years ago wouldn’t picture his people wearing clothing like the shirt and vest on the bearded man and boy in the lower left corner either.

Didn’t people in B.C. Israel wear tunics and such?

Now look at the sheep in the bearded man’s lap. I’m guessing it’s being sheared with what looks like a pair of oversized tweezers.

Have you ever seen such a dejected face on an animal? I realize early man didn’t have electric razors, but oh my. Shearing must have taken all day.

At least Bassano spared us having to look at the blood.

But my real problem is in the lower right corner, where a woman looks to be having a picnic with three small children.

Tell me this: Were people back then born with tails? Because for all the world, it looks like that small boy (wearing pants??) has a tail.

Did the artist err? Was the tail supposed to be on the sheep? Or did he know something I don’t?

33 thoughts on “Critiquing a Painting

  1. I noticed the little boy with the apparent tail right away, as well as the distance between the ordinary summer activities and the sacrifice taking place in the distance. I don’t know a thing about this painter (other than what you’ve said here), but artists often engage in symbolism to communicate, and that symbolism isn’t necessarily ‘realistic.’ The choices the painter made might have been ones that his contemporaries would have understood — or they might just have been his way of trying to communicate his understanding of the events pictured. I thought it was interesting that most of the web references to the painting call it “Summer (Sacrifice of Isaac).” That implies that the rural scene is primary, and the sacrifice secondary — or at least of lesser importance in the painting.

    • You make some interesting points, Linda, and I defer to your expertise. As I said, I’m not an artist, but I still have doubts about this painting. Maybe the painter wanted to depict how something potentially abhorrent was taking place in the midst of such normalcy?

      • When it comes to painting, I don’t have any expertise. But I have learned from people who are artists that they’re constantly making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, so I tend to look at paintings like this with questions like “Why is this here, and not that?”

        • As a creative person, I appreciate your pointing that out. Sometimes, when I read books, I scratch my head over things the author included (or didn’t mention), too — but then, books go through so many hands that it’s entirely conceivable changes take place apart from the author’s original intent.

  2. Debbie, the boy with the “tail” seems a tad strange – it really does like a tail! I’m with you, no sure what the painter is trying to communicate? Hope you are keeping safe and well!

    • Safe and warm here, Virginia, as I hope you are! Apparently, this picture is hanging in museums, so perhaps others credit it more favorably than I. And I guess that’s what makes us individuals, huh?!

  3. I spotted the tail on the boy right away. My first thought is he walked out of the bathroom with some tissue caught in his pants. I have to agree with the fact the Isaac sacrifice is way underdone. This was fun. You should do this kind of post again.

  4. When I did a web search I came across a painting titled ‘Summer’ but the tufted hill had no Isaac, so I’m wondering if he made a copy and then painted in a scene of Isaac for his patron? Who knows!
    It may have been that during the Renaissance there was little education, historical or otherwise, so clothing could only be modeled on what they knew. Trousers at the time of the painting had slits in the back for ‘doing business’ so what looks like a tail on the little boy is actually his shirt hanging out.
    Up until fairly recently, sheep were still sheared with a similar hand tool as shown in the painting. I remember seeing them in barns as a kid. Of course, electric shears are now used and are quicker if you have lots of sheep to shear – it is back-breaking work!

    • See? I knew somebody would explain this! Thank you, Eliza — your search was more productive than mine. But if his shirt was hanging out of his “doing business” slit, wouldn’t it have been … ahem … dirty?? And my heart still goes out to the sheep. If must have been horrid waiting one’s turn and knowing how tired that shearer had to be by day’s end.

      • Presumably, one would squat and pull away any clothing. Dirty? you betcha! They didn’t bathe in those days, most didn’t know how to swim either, even on hot days. Between the animals and the humans (oftentimes animals were housed in the same hut), one can just imagine the stench. Phew! It was commonly believed that getting wet, one would catch their death, ha!
        Only the very rich with servants could afford the luxury of heating water for bathing, or heating a room with a fireplace. The poor only used wood to cook, warming the room was a byproduct of that, not its purpose.
        We today live in the lap of luxury, seldom realizing how lucky we are to have central heating and cooling, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, etc. TYG!

  5. Haha, yes the boy’s tail is an odd feature! I would never have known it was supposed to be about the sacrifice if you hadn’t told me. Even knowing the title I still can’t really make out what’s happening in that far away corner of the picture. Maybe in real life the painting is so huge it’s easier to spot. But it very much looks to me that it’s mostly about sheep-shearing…

    • I agree, FF, it looks more like shearing. Perhaps the artist added the religious scene later? He obviously didn’t want to focus on the sacrifice! By the way, Google tells me this is the size of the original painting: Height: 79 cm (31.1 in); Width: 111 cm (43.7 in), so even somebody standing right in front of it might be hard-pressed to see the details!

  6. When I first glanced at the painting the tail on the boy was what jumped out at me. ??? Might the little boy be pretending to be a sheep drinking from the bowl on his mother’s lap? I didn’t even notice the sacrifice until I read your words…

    • Barbara, you just might be right. Maybe the boy saw the sheep and was pretending to be one. It’s as good an explanation as anything I can come up with! But that “tail” sure does catch your attention, doesn’t it??

  7. Debbie, you’re absolutely right, I needed a magnifying glass to see that because if you hadn’t pointed that out to me, I would have never seen it in the upper left-hand corner.

    “Were people back then born with tails? Because for all the world, it looks like that small boy (wearing pants??) has a tail.”

    OMG, that’s EXACT what I was going to mention in my comment because that’s the first thing my that count my eye. I thought, “Does that little boy have a TAIL?!?” Either that, or I thought maybe he had a huge rip in his pants. LOL!

    Great observations, Debbie! You brought up so many things others wouldn’t have even noticed, unless they were pointed out.

    Happy Monday, my friend! X

    • Ron, thanks for enduring my silliness! Can you imagine? A tail on a child?? Maybe it’s some sort of diaper we’re not familiar with? I just don’t know, but it did catch my eye.

      And the sacrifice is so far away and tiny (and dark) that I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t been looking for it. The whole thing is just plain odd. Very odd.

      We’re sending some more cold and snow your way — hope you’re prepared for it! xx

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one, Ann. I thought I was just focused on the shearing until it dawned on me to LOOK for the sacrifice. After all, it was a religious painting, and I don’t think shearing was a religious experience. Certainly not for the poor sheep!

  8. The odd mix of clothing, the hat on the sheep shearer, and the little boy with pants and a tail are what stood out to me. I didn’t even really notice Abraham and Isaac in the background! Reading your thoughts, Debbie, and the comments has given some great perspective.

    • HaHa, I’m glad the oddities stood out to you, too, Tee! Thanks for stopping by, my friend. Stay warm — here’s hoping Spring will arrive soon so we can get out and about again!

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