A Tale of Two Paintings

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has in its permanent collection a number of cannot-miss-works, including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Cezanne’s Bathers, and an entire room full of Marcel Duchamp paintings and readymades (although some are noted as replicas).

But there are two outstanding paintings, which have left me breathless during the past few days — both for different reasons, however cumulatively similar their effect may have been. The first is Antonio Mancini’s Il Saltimbanco — a nearly seven foot tall stretched canvas of remarkable execution. This Italian-born painter and contemporary of John Singer Sargent may be lesser known than his friend to popular art history, but he’s certainly acheived a similar greatness as a painter. Known for his portaits of homeless children and street performers, a closer inspection of Il Saltibanco shows the artist’s remarkable technique, which embraces a poetic realism along with an expressionistic tendency far ahead of his time.

Standing a few feet away reveals the artist’s use of reflective gold and thickly applied paint. From this distance as my eyes weaved around the composition of the various staged props, I immediately gained a profound respect for Antonio Mancini. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has recently acquired over 40 works by the artist, which will be exhibiting in October. If his other paintings are anything like Il Saltibanco (and I’m convinced this one has to be an exception), the show should not be missed.

Antonio Mancini - Il Saltimbanco

Antonio Mancini
Il Saltimbanco (detail) 1877-78
Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another remarkable piece, which could easily be passed given it’s diminutive 5 inch size (and especially in comparison to the Mancini), is Jan Van Eyck’s rendition of Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata. This extraordinary work is a technical marvel to be seen. But be warned–a recent trip to an optometrist is probably required before viewing.

Although a provocative examination of it’s true identity has recently been articulated and despite the existence of an identical, yet four times larger, duplicate of the painting in Turin, Italy, the Philly version is no less a significant achievement. Indeed, as I looked at the four centuries old work with my own eyes, I felt forced into some kind of awe struck concentration–engrossed at the pain staking realism, which is hair-painted into such a small area. Save for the curious misplacement of the iconic figure’s feet, it is executed to near perfection.

Jan Van Eyck - Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata

Jan Van Eyck
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata c. 1438-40
Oil on vellum on panel
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Both these works are exquisite in their own ways and I find their dichotomy in scale to be particularly charming. If you’ve never had the chance to run up the Philly museum’s front steps, I recommend making a point of doing so at some point in your life. And after you’re done posing like Rocky (dont’ worry, you undoubtedly won’t be alone), I recommend going in to see these master works. They are among the best that have ever been created by human hands.