MICHELANGELO is the lord almighty of the naked figure. His great nudes have
no duplicates in nature: he painted them, technically, from his fund of knowl
edge-from a study of the figure beginning in boyhood and carried forward
by incessant industry,
by anatomical dissections and struggles with the highest
and hardest problems of sculpture-inventing new proportions and attitudes.
If they seem completely satisfactory as human organisms, it is because they
are so perfectly put together.
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Nothing in art is so difficult to produce or so hard
to find as a completely convincing nude. In the work of almost every master,
there is some perceptible weakness of structure; but there are no weaknesses
in Michelangelo’s nudes.
They are, in truth, of superhuman construction, and
to dwell with them for any length of time is to make one turn to the relaxing
earthliness of less prodigious artists,
Some conception of his powers may be formed by giving thought to his
Adam, painted while flat on his back on a scaffold, and pamted in three days
on wet plaster, without corrections or later embellishments!
This superb giant
is more beautifully articulated and immeasurably more vital than anything the
Greeks ever did-and should the dormant figure rise to its feet and extend its
compressed energies, it would be more than a match for the agents of earth.
The art of painting, unable to present continuous narrative, is limited to cer
tain instants of action or contemplation;
and the reclining Adam is portrayed
at the instant of receiving the life force communicated to him by the Creator.
It is not likely that the world will ever again produce the equal of Michelangelo
in the painting of the nude; and it is not rash to say that the figure of Adam
is superior to all other nudes not only in size, power, and physical perfection
but also in those qualities which are the opposite of the material.
With the Sistine Chapel, the main fabric of Michelangelo’s world was com
pleted. One might think, on beholding the vault of the chapel, that he had
exhausted every imaginable human attitude;
but he returned to the room thirty
years later, a tired old man, and painted on the back wall two hundred more
figures in The Last Judgment without a repetition of posture!