Origins in Staging

November 13, 2011

Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) has been credited as the first artist to create a type of picturesque ‘staging’ in the landscape. The formulas begun by Claude are still employed in animated productions today.

Notice the tonal devices used in the following examples: Dark and contrasted foregrounds versus a softly lighted backgrounds.  There are tonal shifts related to the horizontal planes against the verticals. Trees function like draw drapes leading the viewer to the center of interest.

View of Tivoli at Sunset:


Disney films have utilized Claude’s formulas very well:



One of the most influential production designers in the animation business is Hans Bacher, who began his career more than forty years ago. He’s created a wonderful book on production design called Dreamworlds. On a separate occasion, Hans has said that you can watch a Disney film from across a room and still identify the character or focal point. That doesn’t always hold true for other film studios, and even less so in the gaming industry…But most recently that’s changing.

And back to influences…In Europe, artists have been creating a type of stage in their pictures as early as Cimabue, and further developing the stage during the Baroque period. Theater and film have long influenced pictures which may have originated with the early European outdoor plays.

Mary and the Angels 1280


Below is, The Lamentation, 1305, by Cimabue’s great student Giotto, who abandoned earlier conventions about composing figures within a man-made structure in favor of more life-like, dramatic scenes. Christ is seen at the lower left corner of the composition, a weak spot in the visual vocabulary of western culture, and appropriate in reinforcing the idea of death. All other elements draw our eye there. The sad expressions are so moving.

The Lamentation, 1305


Domenichino, The Last Communion of St. Jerome, 1641: Here is St. Jerome, nearly at his death. You can see the similarities with Giotto’s picture, such as the placement of the dying man, but Domenichino includes an architectural structure, like Cimabue, but with the addition of a deep space in the background. The scene is made to feel real (as we suspend our disbelief of a snuggling tiger and floating putti, of course!).

It’s another touching picture of a holy man at his loving death.

The Last Communion of St. Jerome. 1641


Around the same time, Claude Lorrain has revolutionized the landscape, as already presented above. Here, once again is View of Tivoli, an idealized and imagined city between towering trees, bathed in the light from setting sun. The landscape dominates in Claude’s pictures. This can be seen not only by evaluating the proportion of figures versus ground but also by evaluating what the light is illuminating. Compare the arrangement to the Ferdinand Bol that follows…

View of Tivoli at Sunset, 1644

A student of Rembrandt, Ferdinand Bol painted The Crowning of Mirtillo, in 1650. The scene is from an Italian play by Battista Guarini called, The Faithful Shephard. The motive for this painting is all about the characters’ story; the landscape’s only functions to give a hint of place. These figures are arranged toward the viewer in a distinctly theatrical composition. In the play, Amaryllis (the central figure), is betrothed to the god Achilles; she had engaged in a kissing game, whereby she evaluates the kisses given by each of the nymphs in her attendance, all the while blindfolded. Mirtillo, who had been spying on the group, was in love with Amaryllis and wished to sabotage her marriage. He disguises himself as one of the nymphs, kisses Amaryllis and becomes the winner of the contest. Mirtillo is seen on one knee receiving the crown. But after a second look at the women surrounding Amaryllis and Mirtillo, it is clear they have realized the true nature of Mirtillo. Bol sets the stage in a pastoral setting, including background characters playing musical instruments. The front lighting illuminates the foreground characters. In person, the textures in this painting are superb and it’s hard to comprehend that a talent as great as Ferdinand Bol completely stopped painting later in life.

Crowning of Mirtillo, 1650


Of the Rococo painters, Watteau is my favorites. The Foursome depicts actors from a popular outdoor play. The character on the right has his back turned toward us and we can’t see his expression.  The scene is dreamlike, set in a darkened garden with a kind of omni light effect. The foursome appears to be flirting (the guitar points to Cupid riding a dolphin). Whether or not they’re acting in a scene or hanging around in the evening after the play has ended is unknown. But it’s not hard to imagine how their behavior must have seemed to an artist who didn’t feel he had much stake in this world.  Watteau suffered from illness for much of his life and died from tuberculosis at only 38 years of age.

The Foursome, 1713



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