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Paolo Veronese: Grand Poet of Story and Color

Paolo Veronese - Martyrdom of St Justina - WGA24769
Martyrdom of St Justina, 1556

Paolo Caliari, known as Paolo Veronese was born in Verona, the city of his namesake in 1528. Last year at the National Gallery in London there was an exhibit of his work which garnered rave reviews on Twitter and the internet. Known for his incredible use of color and composition, Veronese is a Venetian giant whose work cannot be fully appreciated here online---it was intended to be seen in person. The sheer scale of his work, often life-size figures, fill a wall or room in a way that separates him from many of his contemporaries and indeed many Old Masters. And although some modernists criticize his work for a lack of emotional connection it is the sheer grandeur and drama he portrayed that was all his own. He was a theatrical painter, a master of grand narrative, and not in the dark way that the tenebrists of Caravaggio would convey nearly a century later. His subtle use of color places him in a category that few painters hold, unique even among other Venetian greats such as Tiepolo.

Note the dramatic composition above in Martyrdom of St Justina. Most of the figures are placed in shadow to the left and clustered, while the right is brighter and more open. The dynamic figures of Mannerism are key here, an influence that he would later alter for more naturalism and attention to body language. The influence of Titian is also strong here, with a muted earth color palette that he would also discard in favor of his own colorful yet dynamic hues. What I like about this painting is how he conveys movement by balancing stationary with moving figures, and the use of red to accent certain figures. Veronese is always about grace and here we see how this theme will pervade the rest of his work.

Perseus Rescuing Andromeda, ca.1578

A dynamic vertical composition with graceful movement. Look at the transparent shadow she is thinly bathed in...painting like this is pure genius. Veronese also uses complimentary colors to balance the harmony of the palette but uses light here in a way that is again, brilliant in that it is subtle and not overly dramatic yet still conveys the jeopardy of the story.

Paolo Veronese - Allegory of Love, III - Respect - WGA24960
Allegory of Love, III: Respect, ca. 1575

I have good memories of seeing this painting at the National Gallery in London. Veronese makes his figures effortlessly graceful no matter if they are male or female, and young or old. His figures seem to want to burst off the canvas, yet they are also contained and self-aware. The use of yellow and red here would be an odd palette choice for any artist yet Veronese is the supreme poet of making any color work to his advantage in any way he chooses. Here, lust and power are portrayed with innuendo and body language that is dignified and understandable.

Paolo Veronese Venus Disarming Cupid, Worcester Art Museum, c. 1560
Venus Disarming Cupid, ca.1560

Pure feminine grace and sensuality, and fun to observe. The Mannerist influence once again is strong here in the large muscularity of Venus yet it is still quite sensual. Veronese proves he can paint skin tones as well as costume and drapery. Note the use of body language to tell the narrative, and again the complimentary colors.

Porwanie Europy
The abduction of Europa, ca.1578

Gorgeous glowing warm light and his ingenious use of complimentary colors once again. Veronese uses movement alot in his work yet it never detracts nor looks artificial. Look at the drapery in these figures...utterly stunning. Note how Veronese uses hands as a distinctive narrative device to explain the action. I love how the right hand side of the composition fades into the far distance with figures and angels in the sea. Veronese was a passionate poet with the brush.

Sacrifice of Isaac (Veronese)
The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1586

A nearly flawless compostion that flows downward so gracefully for such a somber theme of the Old Testament. Some may criticize this for being too bright and casual, even but for me the body language of the figures conveys the story perfectly and although it is more colorful than necessary it works. And this is because the theme is about love and sacrifice, not cruelty or blind injustice as it is sometimes portrayed as.

Paolo Veronese - Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus - WGA24784
Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus, 1556

Mysterious light bathes this painting and I am transfixed by it, along with the low angle perspective as it was most likely meant to be viewed from below. The use of the figures as movement and diagonal compositional elements to lead our eye to Esther is indeed clever here. Note the contrast of shining armour with beautiful drapery. And the way all the faces are in such a mysterious shadow...I've never quite seen this theatrical effect before in this way. Every figure here is a sculpture in its own right.

Veronese, The Marriage at Cana (1563)
The Wedding at Cana. 1563

The infamous painting that nearly got him burned at the stake. I fondly remember looking at this painting in the Louvre last year and being transfixed at the face of Christ, who is clearly perplexed by what is going on all around him. Veronese was not just a painter of pretty pictures...there is keen cynicism in the religion of his day and how the Church carried itself. All of the figures here are grandiose and yet musical at the same time, a brilliant synthesis of complimentary colors and elegant body language. Veronese creates a masterpiece here that needs to be seen in person to be fully understood.

The Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy 1582 Veronese
The Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy, ca. 1582

Veronese here is a master of mood and deeply subtle light. Those skin tones glow, as do the drapery that is a testament of his incredible glazing skills. Note how the drama is stronger here and there is less vibrancy in the palette, with emphasis on the story and the figures. Veronese still however, uses the motif of blue sky in the distance and Venetian architecture with vanishing figures in the distance. I love how the hands once again narrate here.

Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari) (Italian - Portrait of a Man - Google Art Project
Portrait of a Man, ca. 1578

An example of Veronese's incredible versatility. The understated elegance of this portrait. No bright colors, only a muted palette. Just dignity and confidence yet in a highly natural pose.

Paolo Veronese 044
Portrait of Alessandro Vittoria, ca.1575

One of the great underrated Italian sculptors, Alessandro Vittoria here is depicted with immense respect and appreciation, and for good reason. Veronese could have easily made a career of portraiture just by his sensitivity to his subjects. We feel like we know him somehow, looking at this portrait here, which is the goal of all portraiture.

Paolo Veronese 023
Martyrdom of Saint George, ca. 1564

A spectacular array of confusion and composition. This kind of narrative is extremely complex to depict, for obvious reasons, and yet Veronese makes it look totally effortless. Movement and eye direction are key here. The flow of the composition is musical in how our eye moves, once you really look at it but Veronese also uses color as the main component to lead our eye around. There are still complimentary colors at work, but the range of tonality he uses in these hues is incredible. The figures are also among the most expressive he has ever painted, and the most naturalistic. It makes me want to grab a brush or pencil and study these faces and body language.

Moses saved from the water-Veronese-MBA Lyon A66-IMG 0313
Moses saved from the waters, circa. 1580
I love how the use of light here is a sort of Venetian chiaroscuro, with transparent shadows and colorful costumes. The figures appear to be lit as if from a spot light above them. Look at how they blend in with the dark trees and sky behind them. They are overdressed in Venetian style yet we are drawn to it, entranced by it.

Paolo Veronese - Last Supper - WGA24886
The Last Supper, ca. 1585

A composition that clearly is influenced by Tintoretto, yet once again the motif of placing all the action at the left in cluttered fashion with only two figures off to the right. This is arguably the most physical depiction of the Last Supper ever painted, maybe overly dramatic, but Veronese still maintains body language and details in facial expression that are naturalistic and not mimicking Da Vinci. Movement again is highly concentrated to the left yet diminishes in body language as our eye moves toward the right. This warm Titian-style palette is so beautiful to watch yet his figures are what keep our attention and what they are doing.

Veronese is a grand Master and one who breathed Humanism into figures that would be dramatically downgraded by tenebrism much later. Much can be learned from the numerous works of Veronese and how he approached his palette and his figures. He was much more than a colorist. He was a musician with the brush.


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