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A Contemplative Analysis: Giovanni Lanfranco versus Albert Bierstadt

Updated on October 14, 2014
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Museum of Art, Birmingham

Giovanni Lanfranco (Italian)

The Liberation of Peter

Ca. 1620-1621

Oil on canvas, 154 x 122.2 cm

Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama


Albert Bierstadt (German-American)

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Ca. 1865

Oil on canvas, 162.6 x 244.5 cm

Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama

The Liberation of Saint Peter
The Liberation of Saint Peter | Source
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California | Source

A Critical Analysis

A critical analysis of The Liberation of Peter by Giovanni Lanfranco and Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California by Albert Bierstadt will result in similarities and differences between these two works of art. When the viewer contemplates each artist’s composition, it is apparent that the period in which the painting was completed had a direct effect on the technique used by the artist and is, therefore, one of the primary differences between these two paintings.

Baroque vs. American Romanticism

Whereas in Baroque paintings of the 1600s, one sees subjects such as religious figures, a strong use of color, drama, theatricality and tenebrism, a severe form of chiaroscuro, which is a way of arranging highlights and shadows in a manner that makes a flat surface appear to have depth and dimension, during the period of American Romanticism, a painter substituted natural landscapes and scenes from ordinary, everyday life in place of historical figures, religious or otherwise.

Lanfranco was a Baroque artist who followed the style of tenebroso in The Liberation of Peter to capture the dramatic biblical scene of Peter’s encounter with an angel sent to rescue him from captivity. Consistent with this style of painting, the subject is not idealized, but looks like an average, ordinary man. Bierstadt, on the other hand, was a student of the Hudson River School, “a school of artists,” who painted landscapes around the Hudson River. He was inspired to paint his landscape of Yosemite Valley, California, a part of the American West, because he was struck by “the pristine wilderness . . . inhabited only by a blue bird perched on the branch of a tree. . .”

The Effect of Lighting

The effect of lighting is also in sharp contrast. The Liberation of Peter was painted in the tenebroso (dark) style. Consequently, Peter and the angel are the largest figures in the picture plane. To emphasize their importance, Lanfranco used a soft light to capture the angel’s pure, genteel image, to illuminate Peter’s body, and to reveal the fear, surprise and terror on his face, when he is startled by her presence, as he lay on a cold, dark cell floor. The remainder of the canvas is left very dark and mysterious in contrast.

Conversely, Bierstadt used light throughout his life-size composition with great effect. The golden light of sunrise appears to cut the valley in half as it travels from the highest mountain ranges to the deep valley below. As in nature, and due to the vastness of the landscape, the light of early dawn illuminates some areas, and one sees a reflection of daylight off a still body of water, but leaves some places in the shadows, in partial darkness, such as the sides of mountain ranges that are untouched by the light at this time of the day.

Oil on Canvas

There are two main similarities between the two artworks. One is the use of the same medium, oil on canvas. This type of medium, which is a combination of ground pigments and, usually, linseed oil, provides the most detail and depth of color, illuminating subtle variations in hue. The drying time is slow and it can take weeks, but it is also very flexible because it allows an artist to rework images and to demonstrate a wide range of techniques.

The medium was beneficial to Lanfranco because he used it to capture and create depth of color and dimension in his painting. It was also essential for Bierstadt’s use. Because of the sheer scale of the landscape, it was, likely, necessary to paint it in several stages, which took a great deal of time and, probably, required numerous reworkings and touch-ups, throughout the painting process. Additionally, because attention to detail was paramount, the use of oil paint was the only choice.

The Use of Naturalism

A second similarity is the use of naturalism by both artists. Bierstadt captured the beauty and serenity of the American wilderness in 1865. Although the scale of the painting was challenging, he was successful in portraying the essence of this natural landscape in its full splendor, “untouched by humankind,” and in enveloping the viewer in this pristine place, where he or she could take in the natural beauty created by God.

Like Bierstadt, Lanfranco uses naturalism to characterize Peter, a disciple of Christ, as a real, working-class individual. A person who lived during this period could identify with his image, as someone who was “real” and ordinary, like him. Lanfranco’s depiction of a human interpretation of an angel’s image, benevolent, ethereal, and compassionate, adds to the realistic nature of this moment, and to Peter’s natural, dramatic and suspenseful response to the presence of the angel.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in a critical analysis of Lanfranco’s The Liberation of Peter and Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, one can find similarities, as well as differences, in the techniques and processes that were used by the painters. Through contemplation and introspection, one is able to acquire an appreciation of this visual art on many different levels.

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