Posted: 17th November 2020
Looking at Pompeo Massani’s small canvas The Golden Wedding, painted at the turn of the 20th century, I wonder how the couple portrayed might fare during these weeks and months of lockdown. Coronavirus is forcing us to spend more time isolating and sheltering in place, whether alone, or with our partners, families or friends. What might that be like for this pair?
Massani presents a closely observed double portrait of a woman and man, marking five decades of married life. We are invited into the private space of their bedroom, to observe them as they lie in bed, their heads framed by the stripped quilt, the swirls of the iron headboard, and the pillows they rest on.
By focusing on the tightly cropped heads and limiting the space to one small part of the bed, Masani creates a real sense of intimacy. This is intensified by the high viewpoint, which allows us unrestricted access to the scene, and by the reduced scale of the canvas (approximately 7 x 8½ inches), which beckons us closer to look at the details. Despite all this, however, the act of looking doesn’t seem voyeuristic. We’re made to feel comfortable, as though it’s natural for us to witness the scene, and we have every entitlement to do so.
Several elements in the painting contribute to this sense of ease. Massani’s realism for a start. Notice the beautifully observed studies of the two faces, the bedding and headwear. And the play of light and shade on the facial features, bringing to life the jovial expressions and accentuating the lines and wrinkles that reveal character and age. It’s a social realist approach, infused with deep humanity and tinged with humour.
Then there’s the blurring of genres. The subject lies somewhere between portraiture and a genre scene depicting the everyday lives of ordinary people. Although in their seventies (or thereabouts), the unnamed man and woman may still be actively employed. He is more weathered than she, and perhaps works outdoors. Both have ruddy cheeks, and I’m thinking they might have had a shot or two of some heart-warming tipple not long before.
We get the feeling that they themselves are comfortable being here, in the picture, and at ease in the familiarity of each other’s company. They seem knowing and acquiescent as subjects of the painting. They’re not really sleeping, or even approaching sleep, are they? Look at those smiles. And their eyes. I’d say they’re role playing, posing as sleepers at the end of a busy day.
Massani was a successful genre painter in his native Florence and exhibited widely throughout Italy. He specialised in depicting older people, whom he painted in novel and uplifting scenes, sometimes approaching caricature. To me, (though I admit to some bias here) the Ferens painting definitely stands out as a masterful work. The beautifully detailed observation takes it to another level, with its subtle colour range, lightness of touch, and above all its humour and affectionate tone.
This work was selected by Ferens volunteers for the exhibition A Silent Conversation, which explores representations of human conversations, communication and connectedness across several centuries. Despite its small stature, it held its own in conversation with other masterpieces from the Ferens collection, offering fresh insights into the ways we speak, behave and exist together and alone. As I revisit the painting at one remove, viewing a digital reproduction rather than the real thing, I feel pretty sure that our Golden Wedding couple would manage just fine shielding together during our long lockdown.
Written by assistant curator of art at Ferens Art Gallery, Leonie O’Dwyer.
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