London: National Gallery, 272 pp., $65.00 (distributed in the US by Yale University Press)
In 1909, Henry James wrote of seeing Paolo Veronese’s The Family of Darius before Alexander in London:
You may walk out of the noon-day dusk of Trafalgar Square in November, and in one of the chambers of the National Gallery see the family of Darius rustling and pleading and weeping at the feet of Alexander. Alexander is a beautiful young Venetian in crimson pantaloons, and the picture sends a glow into the cold London twilight. You may sit before it for an hour and dream you are floating to the water-gate of the Ducal Palace.
Long regarded as among the greatest Venetian paintings, it has attracted the intense admiration of many writers, including Goethe, Hazlitt, and Ruskin, as well as James. Its acquisition by the National Gallery in 1857 was considered a triumph; Queen Victoria even made a special visit to the museum just to view the picture.
It is now one of the high points in the magnificent show about Veronese on view at the National Gallery, the first comprehensive exhibition of the painter in over twenty-five years. For much of the twentieth century Veronese was regarded more as a skilled purveyor of decorative finishes than as a profound master, and his reputation was in decline, but of late there are signs of renewed interest, which this show and its catalog will certainly do much to advance. Perhaps more than any other picture in the show, The Family of Darius before Alexander reveals his great strengths as a painter; it also makes clear why he can seem so foreign to common modern ideals of art and of the artist.
Made around 1565–1567, the painting represents the widow and daughters of the Persian emperor Darius, who beg on their knees for mercy from Alexander the Great; they mistake Alexander’s friend Hephaestion for the Greek conqueror, and yet such is Alexander’s magnanimity that he forgives them nonetheless. All the other figures surrounding the main group—the dwarf and monkey, the lords and ladies and horses in the background and in the flanks—are there merely to amplify the sense of momentous and stately occasion.
Remarkably, despite its gigantic scale—it is over fifteen feet wide and nearly eight feet tall—the picture was commissioned by a private person, Francesco Pisani, for the decoration of his palace. It was in mid-sixteenth-century Venice and the Veneto that for the first time since antiquity private patrons regularly began to order artworks of a scale and grandeur previously reserved for heads of church and state. The Venetian elites of this era were…
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