The Nymph Galatea (c. 1512-14), Raphael
Although my preferences in art tend toward flat and highly stylized, I cannot deny how exciting and important the Renaissance was to the arts, humanities and sciences. One piece of Renaissance work that I always come back to is The Nymph Galatea by Raphael. The complexity of the composition without being cluttered, the lines of inferred movement and the contrasting colors are design elements I am drawn to, but I am also drawn to the importance of the subject matter and where the painting is physically located.
The Nymph Galatea is a fresco painting in the villa (now called Farnesina) of a wealthy banker in Rome named Agostino Chigi. As the Renaissance came into bloom, the merchant class came into power (such as the Medici family in Florence). Grand frescoes that had typically been more reserved for the church were commissioned by wealthy merchants and bankers, making art accessible to more than just the church.
The subject matter of Raphael’s fresco falls within the humanist ideas of the age: classical stories and characters and interest in the human form. Galatea is a nymph in Greek mythology who is the subject of many stories, typically centering around being the consort of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. Polyphemus sang love songs to Galatea as she fled across the sea from him on her chariot pulled by two dolphins. Raphael’s prior interest in classical themes can also be seen in the fresco The School of Athens, completed in 1511.
What I found most interesting about the subjects in The Nymph Galatea is that while great care was taken representation of the human form, they were highly and deliberately idealized. Raphael was questioned by a courtier about who Galatea was modeled after, and he replied that he didn’t follow a singular model, but rather a certain idea that he had formed in his mind (Gombrich and Gombrich 1995).
Technically speaking, this particular fresco employs mastery of many innovations and practices of the Italian Renaissance. The fresco technique of painting pigment into wet plaster had been used since classical antiquity, but the artist of the Renaissance pushed it to greater heights with their enormous works. The soft treatment of the blue background lends itself to a gentle atmospheric perspective, which gives the painting just enough depth to make the chairoscuro rendering of the foreground figures even more dramatic. Galatea’s red drapery being caught in the wind and the only use of deep red used in the composition brings contrast against the different hues of blue, as well as brings the focus to Galatea herself in the center.
Despite the dramatic lighting of the foreground figures, color contrast of Galatea and the commotion of the scene (tritons abducting nymphs around Galatea and cherubs pointing their love arrows at her), everything is serene in an almost unsettling way. Between the balance of the figure-eight composition, they seem entranced and ignorant of the fact that they are being kidnapped by servants of a giant.
I think that’s what draws me to this image in particular out of many other Italian Renaissance paintings. The Renaissance masters painted stories of antiquity that were downright horrifying; abduction, entrancement and murder (just to name a few), but they did it with harmonious compositions and serene subjects that were absolutely beautiful.