Friday, November 16, 2012

The Narrative of Philetas by Rodolfo Amoedo

Today a painting connected with two rather mysterious people – both painter and subject.

Few people remember Rodolfo Amoedo (1857 – 1941), a Brazilian history painter born in Salvador, Bahia.  Today, many of his paintings still hang at the National Museum Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro.  He was something of a prodigy, starting in 1873 as a student of Victor Meirelles.  A short five years later he won the first prize at the Brazilian Academy, which allowed him to travel to Paris, where he lived from 1879 to 1887, studying at the École des Beaux Arts.

Amoedo was a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel and also worked with Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry. He was a professor and later director of the Brazilian Academy, where he taught Eliseu Visconti, among others.  When the Brazilian monarchy fell in 1889, many of the most traditional masters at the Academy were replaced by the new Republican Government with the last wave of Academic artists, Amoedo among them.  Amoedo continued to teach in the classic Academic style, but changing tastes led to replacing the old guard with masters of a more impressionist bent.  Very soon, the Academic artists were forgotten (as was the case in France and America), short-changed by the Modernist victors of Art History.

Sadly, Amoedo lived to be quite an old man, completely forgotten by the art establishment.  He left behind so little money that his widow had to ask friends to pay for his funeral.

Today’s picture, The Narrative of Philetas, was painted in 1887, a more prosperous time in Amoedo’s life.  It depicts Philetas (or Philitas) of Cos, a poet-scholar who lived during the early Hellenistic period of ancient Greece.  He was associated with Alexandria and was selected to tutor to the heir to the throne of Ptolemaic Egypt. 

Philetas was a frail man, bent and wasted by age; he is often portrayed as an academic so consumed by his studies that he literally wasted away.  As a poet and scholar, his fame continued for centuries; sadly, most of his poetry and scholarship (which included a text defining the meaning of rare literary words) has been lost to the mists of time.  He was a “poet and a scholar,” combining great learning with artistic sensibility and poetic vision.  According to legend, he was one of the driving forces behind the great library of Alexandria, where there stood a stature of him.  Neither statue nor library survive.

Your correspondent finds it poignant that a poet whose works are lost to time is here depicted by the painter who reputation has also suffered the same fate. 

One of the loveliest things about this painting is how Amoedo compares youth and old age, life and death.  The colors, from the leaves scattered about the earth to the moss-covered stones and the overall gray tones of the background, are largely somber except for the vibrant pink flesh tones of the principal figures.  Amoedo also contrasts the beautiful and supple figure of the reclining youth against that of the loosely-fleshed and gnarled old man.  (Amoedo also wisely highlights the body of Philetas with dead white, further accenting the differences between old and young.) 

Notice, too, the blossoms under the torso of the youth and the how the vibrant pink-and-white flowers behind the young people seem to lose their coloration the closer they are to Philetas.  Amoedo also poses the youths on a rock opposite from Philetas, creating a literal chasm between them.

Also striking is the face of Philetas, who is depicted with greater care and attention than that of the young couple – though the young woman is clearly drawn with grace and color, her bland and lovely brow is no match for the real “character” of the picture, the old scholar.

There is a great deal I admire in this picture, starting with how delicately Amoedo drew the old man’s hands and the courage he had in showing an old body in all of its compromised flesh.  Though neither supple nor young, Philetas overwhelms the picture with his presence – there is power in his old flesh.  Amoedo also creates a classic triangle between the reclining boy, the old man and the gray tree to trap our eye and maintain our interest as a viewer. 
I find the figure of the woman to be interesting – almost as if it was added as an afterthought.  The figure seems to be too bathed in white, as if Amoedo blocked out a white bit on the finished painting and put her there; also, her feet seem to be added to the stone, rather than obscured by it.  She even skews the triangular frame of boy, man and tree.  I may be wrong – but something to my eye says that she is a latter addition to the composition.

If the picture has a misstep, it would be the brownish tree in the immediate background between Philetas and the woman.  It seems to me a miscalculation on Amoedo’s part – it intrudes on the remote nature of the background, and looks as if he did not trust his own best instincts.  But it is a small flaw in an otherwise beautiful work, not just for the skill of its drawing, but its beautiful and delicate coloration, as well.

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