Monday, March 23, 2015

Jolly Flatboatman in a Divine Pose

Years ago, my wife Beth and I worshiped at a church which featured a reredos copy of Raphael's The Transfiguration of Christ. It was an excellent rendering of the 1516-1520 masterpiece. I never cared for this particular painting; I wish Elijah (on the left) didn't look so much like he's floating like one of the kids in Peter Pan, and Christ's hair looks poorly trimmed rather than wind-blown. As my daughter points out, too, the depiction of a different gospel story in the painting's bottom half seems distracting.

How interesting, though, to learn the connection between this painting, and work by the American painter George Caleb Bingham, who is the subject of a wonderful exhibition currently shown at the St. Louis Art Museum. This past weekend, the traffic through Forest Park was horrendous, but we had already given up on a previous outing to the park because of traffic---people desperate for a respite from winter and taking advantage of a pretty day. So we hung in and finally arrived at the museum--walked down to the zoo, too maddening to access by vehicle, and then toured the gallery. The Bingham exhibition contrasts several of the artist's paintings with drawings and sketches Bingham made of river workers and travelers.

One, I was amused to learn, has nearly the same pose as the transfigured Christ in Raphael's painting, revealing Bingham's knowledge of the artistic tradition. From now on, I'll enjoy Raphael's masterpiece a little more, because I'll remember the "jolly flatboatman," being his own lord of the dance as he and his friends float down the beautiful river.

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