Recent research has been looking into infants’ ability to tell right from wrong. Paul Bloom (professor of psychology at Yale), has been running studies that probe the key question: is it biological evolution or cultural experience that moulds human nature? Using the limited responses that babies can control (looking and grabbing), his lab has learned that babies choose time and again for the ‘good’ or ‘pleasing’ thing.
He detailed one experiment that staged a puppet show for a one year-old in his recent article The Moral Life of Babies. A puppet played ball, interacting with two other puppets. The central and right puppets passed the ball between them, but when the central puppet passed the ball to the left-hand puppet, he ran off with it! As the tot was asked to ‘choose’ between the left and right puppets, he picked up the right (‘good’) one and thwacked the left (‘naughty’) one on the head!
Whether it was this article or something else that drew me to today’s painting, I’m not sure. This Madonna of the Goldfinch (c. 1770) is by the Italian painter Giambattista Tiepolo, and is actually one of two paintings of this same subject by the artist at the NGA. Tiepolo (1696 – 1770) was born in Venice, the son of a shipping merchant. He became the finest Italian artist of the Rococo era, which saw a lighter and more playful version of the Baroque come in around 1700, until Neoclassicism came into fashion in the 1750s and 1760s. Tiepolo is typically associated with huge, illusionistic scenes, frescoed across vast ceilings: these large set-pieces (plastered across palaces in Germany, Italy and Spain) are painted with verve and imagination. Patrons much marveled at his ability to paint with pace, saying he could finish a picture “in less time than it takes another to grind his colors.”
So this small (62 x 50 cm), more subtle oil-on-canvas work, taps a more toned-down style in Tiepolo. What’s arresting is the proximity of the Virgin and Child: she’s cropped in half and at the sides to enhance our sense of sudden intimacy. The colors are principally the primaries of red, yellow and blue (even the baby’s hair has taken on russet tones) and lends a hot glow to the room. Add to that the deft, swift shading across the surfaces, bringing a fat and rounded feel of 3D, and we have a full-blown ‘connection’ with this mother and child.
Which brings us to the goldfinch in the picture: at first, from the way the baby is jutting his chub-cushioned hand towards us (almost as if to say “look what I’ve got!), the finch might be seen as an innocent, feathered friend. But the bird bears a meaning that would’ve been blaring and obvious in the 18th-century: since finches eat thistles and thorns, they’re a symbol of Christ’s Passion. So suddenly the picture swells with sadness, and the sense of Christ’s future, violent death. Now I see the baby’s fat feet with fresh eyes, those smooth soles that’ll be pierced in the years to come.
Paul Bloom ends his article with the supposition that babies likely have little “access to moral notions” but that they respond on a “gut level” to things around them. For me, this is what makes Tiepolo’s picture so spot on: the big eyes of his (human, relatable) baby may be cognitively ‘empty’, but at the same time they’re filled with emotional intensity. And he seems (like Bloom) to be suggesting that adults aren’t so different from the babes we once were: this mother’s face is full of her instinctive sadness, despite her increased adult faculty for reason.