Thursday, 7 February 2013

Open Mouths

There's a nice post on open mouths in Baroque art over at Alberti's Window yesterday.  It made me think about the development of these images, so common in seventeenth century art but rare in the early Renaissance.  Here are a few of my thoughts - fallible personal impressions, but I've been looking at Raphael a lot recently and I think his drawings are a key part of the genealogy of this motif. 
As is so often the case, sculptors were ahead of painters; all the early examples that come to mind are sculpted.  Donatello often carved and cast open mouths, for example in the Cantoria for the Duomo in Florence (1430s), and Desiderio di Settignano's famous Laughing Boy is another example (1460s): 
Picture: Web Gallery of Art
It seems to have taken some time for the motif to be established in painting, beyond isolated examples (e.g. Tura's Terpsichore).  Even Uccello's battle scenes have a strikingly limited range of facial expression.  The best example from early Renaissance painting that I can think of is Piero della Francesca's frescoes in Arezzo, such as the Death of Adam (detail below). 
Picture: Wikipaintings
The most important source in painting is perhaps Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari, which can be appreciated from the extant preparatory studies such as the wonderful drawing in the Szepmuveseti Museum of an open-mouthed soldier (below), which I saw at the Treasures from Budapest exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years ago. 
Picture: Guardian
Interestingly The Battle of Anghiari (1505) was painted just before the discovery of Laocoön (in 1506), an ancient sculpture that may also have influenced the development of open mouths.  I recently saw a drawing by Raphael in the Royal Collection at Windsor (Studies for The Parnassus) that quotes Laocoön directly, although the source is less obvious in the final fresco.  Raphael also learnt from Leonardo, creating the most exceptionally varied and dynamic multi-figured compositions, using open mouths as an easily readable way of differentiating emotion.  The open mouth is particularly effective in drawings and prints, where nuances in the eyes are harder to capture.  Below is another Raphael drawing that I saw recently, this one at the Ashmolean; the shouting man at bottom right is clearly derived from Leonardo's Anghiari studies. 
Picture: Ashmolean

Raphael's compositions were very influential.  The Raphael-esque open mouth became a cliché in Giulio Romano's drawings in particular, and it's a trope found widely in the work of Raphael's school and his followers. They scattered widely; Giulio Romano went to Mantua, Polidoro da Caravaggio fled to Naples after the sack of Rome in 1527 and Luca Penni went to Fonatainebleau. But Raimondi's prints were surely the key route through which these images reached the widest audience, such as the Massacre of the Innocents below, which has been seen as Raphael's public demonstration of his burgeoning talent after working on the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, which was a private room that couldn't be seen by many (see for example Chapter 1 of Francis Ames-Lewis The Draftsman Raphael Yale University Press 1986). 

Picture: Teylers Museum

The post at Alberti's Window opens with a Rembrandt print.  I suspect that open mouths continued to be more important in Rembrandt's graphic work, whereas in his greatest paintings (like those of Velazquez) the eyes do more of the work of conveying expression, taking psychological differentiation even further.  But lesser artists couldn't quote those fine details as easily as they could replicate the open mouths and grandiloquent gestures that were popularised in mainstream Baroque art.  
Neoclassical art seems to make rather less use of open mouths.  My sense is that the likes of Ingres and David are something of a synthesis of the serene figures of the early Renaissance and the animated dynamism of High Renaissance and Baroque compositions.  I think Monica Bowen (Alberti's Window) is right to link the more widespread depiction of open mouths in baroque art with increased interest in psychology, but it also reflects the evolution of visual forms from the renaissance, deploying pictorial ideas developed by the greatest masters of the High Renaissance.  I enjoyed her post, which got me thinking. 


  1. A great post! It's so interesting to see that the open mouth was used in Renaissance art before the excavation of the Laocoon in 1506. I think Leonardo was just prepping the Italian world for the "Laocoonic" obsession which would reign for the next century or two.

    I look forward to following your posts. Thanks for mentioning my own blog. I'm glad that it served as inspiration for such a lovely post.

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