Veronese’s Big Pictures Best in Bits and Pieces

The finest bit of painting featured in Veronese’s Allegories: Virtue, Love and Exploration in Renaissance Venice, an exhibition devoted to Paolo Veronese on display at the Frick Collection, isn’t exactly part of the show; it’s in the accompanying catalog. Opposite the title page is a detail from a canvas you’ll find in the museum proper, Wisdom and Strength (c. 1565), an allegory about the follies of materialism. The detail entrances, ironically enough, because it’s devoted solely to materiality: a piece of fabric seen wrapped around the painting’s central female figure, shimmering with a lilting alternation of blue and gold fleur-de-lis patterning.

Unbound from a rather stilted moralism, this stunning passage of painting is as wild and free as Veronese must have felt when putting brush to canvas. It’s something of a cheat to hone in on just one portion of an elaborate scenario replete with Hercules, Cupid, an idyllic landscape, architectural surroundings, sumptuous bric-a-brac and (you almost miss it) a floating face that is the embodiment of divine light. A book designer’s decision shouldn’t override painterly fact. Still, whoever chose to highlight the drapery knew that Veronese’s art thrives—at times with thrilling verisimilitude—in bits and pieces and not in the big picture, which is less than the sum of its parts.

At least that holds true for the five paintings featured in Veronese’s Allegories and, in particular, the main works on display: the aforementioned Wisdom and Strength, The Choice Between Virtue and Vice (c. 1565) and Venus and Mars United by Love (1570’s). The Frick has made a specialty in recent years of mounting small exhibitions that remind us that connoisseurship is indeed a virtue—an obvious but increasingly overlooked truth. In its careful appreciation for artistic nuance and historical accuracy, Veronese’s Allegories continues a sterling tradition.

Too bad Veronese himself doesn’t meet the standards set by the Frick, though he’s far from being a slouch. Born in Verona in 1528, the painter’s father and grandfather were spezzapreda—stonecutters. The family trade may have had a decisive impact on the burgeoning artist. According to art historian Carlo Ridolfi, the elder Veronese taught his young son how to make clay models; if true, it would have been his first artistic experience. Conjecture has it that Paolo continued this practice long after establishing himself as a painter, though no examples of the sculpture are known to exist.

Veronese studied painting with an uncle beginning at age 13, yet his early career remains obscure to us. He later found fame in Venice, receiving important commissions and a nod from his betters: Titian was among the judges to award him a prize for the best roundel among the 21 commissioned for the Libreria Marciana.

Inspired by The Choice Between Virtue and Vice and Wisdom and Strength, staples of the Frick, the curators have brought together the five large-scale allegorical Veronese canvases that are held in American museums. The paintings aren’t narratives exactly; they’re more like carefully choreographed arrays of emblems meant to illuminate what it means, say, to be in love. Veronese was serving as a translator for high-minded abstract concepts.

In that regard, the two paintings borrowed from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Allegory of Navigation with an Astrolabe and Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff (both c. 1565), are the odd ones out. An aged navigator, clad in robes, fiercely protects an astrolabe, an instrument used to tell time during ocean voyages. Another sailor, much younger and bearing a dashing green tunic, holds a ballestriglia, a tool for determining latitude. These paintings represent hands-on experience—real work, you might say—not moral precepts. Perhaps that explains why they’re a lot less ambitious and, on the whole, kind of dull: Prosaic underpinnings, it would seem, asked less of Veronese’s imagination.

But that’s not to say he’s much better tackling complexity. The more ambitious allegories are incredibly piecemeal. Take advantage of the bench in the middle of the Frick’s oval gallery and inspect Wisdom and Strength. Its theatricality is a given; Veronese is out to make a point. He positions his players inside the perimeter of the canvas like actors on a stage. The woman (Wisdom) puts a dramatic hand to her bosom, Hercules looks bored and Cupid sits at bottom right. There’s no life in these figures; they’re types and, as such, hollow. An allegory is supposed to teach a lesson, but what kind of lesson can be taught with cardboard cutouts? Not a very profound one.

Veronese’s outsized sense of artifice is apparent in the structure of the paintings. The cast shadow underneath the Arcadian landscape in Wisdom and Strength is a delightful ruse, a painterly in-joke unapologetically exposing deep space as a mere backdrop. But the other compositional elisions aren’t as cute. They’re consummately constructed, but they remain strangely disjunctive. There’s no flow in how forms relate to events. Dynamism is stunted by an insistent literalism; “meaningful” incidents are packaged in discrete parcels. You could take apart a Veronese painting as if it were a puzzle.

If the paintings cohere more through narrative than form, it’s not inappropriate to relish them in fits and starts. Veronese’s ability to harmonize disparate parts is what’s in question—not the adroitness of his touch and palette. The fall of drapery in Wisdom and Strength is the most obvious example of his expertise. There’s also Venus’ densely tactile flesh in Venus and Mars United by Love and the clean, cool blues sweeping through Virtue and Vice. Clearly capable of magic, Veronese’s high-flown contrivance nonetheless distracts from the spell. Veronese’s Allegories is a serious exhibition devoted to a flawed master. You take away more from it than you might expect, but less than you really want.

Veronese’s Allegories: Virtue, Love and Exploration in Renaissance Venice is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until July 16.

Veronese’s Big Pictures Best in Bits and Pieces