The Italian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first good art history, said art was after beauty.
Beauty? What was that?
A magic amalgam of natural truth and artistic interpretation: Raw natural fact had to be worked over by the artist. It had to be modelled according to the laws of beauty, which were a priori laws—that is, they were in every man’s head already when he was born. They had to do with the shapes, distributions, proportions that please; symmetry; geometrical shapes, such as circles and triangles; color combinations.
Vasari thought the greatest painters were Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael Sanzio, and Michelangelo Buonarotti. No one had painted or sculpted as well as they, ever—nor ever would again. They had discovered just the right formula for beauty, just the right recipe for good art: something like fifty percent raw nature and fifty percent art (or artistic interpretation).
Of course if Vasari was right, what was a poor artist to do AFTER those men were dead and gone? He could only imitate them, not equal them or surpass them. He might as well give up and turn to engineering.
And in fact, artists got lost. They floundered around. Some decided to break Vasari’s rules for good art and to experiment on their own. Beauty was nice as an end, they thought, but there were other things you could aim for in a picture. There was expression. Vasari’s top artists had all restrained their figures according to the demands of grace and beauty. They didn’t paint men with their arms flailing or in unstable postures or in a rage, for example, because that ruined the harmony and serenity a beautiful picture required. Rather, they showed men and women in quiet reflection or graceful movement. They tried to make each of the details of their picture as beautiful as they could.
These new, lost, artists thought maybe beauty, or Vasari’s notion of beauty, might be crippling a picture. He said the artist should observe nature but then correct it. Why correct it? Maybe it was wrong to weed out the bad you see in nature. Maybe you should present it just as you see it, the bad along with the good, the crooked along with the straight. The raw facts, the crude facts, of nature contain as much truth as your selected “beautiful” facts.
A few started pulling their figures like taffy, making them long. The idea was to achieve some new expression. Parmigianino and Bronzino stretched them out.
El Greco pulled them even harder and misshaped them in order to show what spiritual beings they were.
Greco downplayed the truth of the physical world. “We are spiritual beings basically,” he might have said. “Our struggles are all inside. Our body and the world itself is just the container where these struggles are going on. I’m not going to waste my time observing what doesn’t last. My paintings are about souls, not bodies.”
Nobody else went as far in distorting his figures as El Greco. Most painters took the middle ground and created half-beautiful paintings, trying to give their works both grace (the old beauty) and raw or even upsetting realism at the same time. An artist named Caravaggio painted dramatic scenes, some of them horrorific, with spooky stage lighting. The figures in his paintings—the prophets, the Virgins, the angels—were obviously copied from real people instead of the designs dressed up as people that the old greats had created. They weren’t beautified: if anything they were uglified for truth or emotion.