1828-1909 | Italian
The Master Light of All Our Seeing
Signed "A. Gatti / Florence" (lower right)
Oil on canvas
“If I see further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulder of giants.”
- Sir Isaac Newton
Monumental in both size and artistry, The Master Light of All Our Seeing is a magnificent oil on canvas that captures some of the greatest creative and scientific minds in history. It was painted in homage to the legendary Sidney Lanier, one of the most influential American poets of the 19th century who was also a remarkable musician, a novelist and a respected lawyer. Commissioned by his dear friend, the poet and patroness Frances Turnbull, and later owned by Johns Hopkins University, it is one of the most spellbinding works that has ever entered our collection.
Sidney Lanier was a true Renaissance man, serving as a soldier during the Civil War and briefly practicing law. He was named first flautist of the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore, and later became a professor of literary theory at Johns Hopkins University. First and foremost, he was a highly celebrated poet, and his talent brought him into contact with Frances Turnbull, the founding president of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore. Lanier became so close to the Turnbull family that he is even buried in their family plot.
It was Turnbull who commissioned this extraordinary painting to honor Lanier, placing him alongside many of the great artistic minds of history. Brilliantly composed by the Italian fresco painter Annibale Gatti, the painting depicts a sweeping view reminiscent of Raphael’s The School of Athens. Gatti’s figures are similarly sprawled across his canvas, displaying the same symmetry and careful placement as Raphael’s composition. The works even share a handful of figures, from the Renaissance architect Donato Bramante and philosopher Pythagoras of Samos to Michelangelo and Raphael himself.
Though Gatti’s work follows in the classical spirit of Raphael’s fresco, The Master Light of All Our Seeing takes on a grander meaning than the Renaissance composition. Depicted at the center is the figure of Jesus, symbolically positioned as the “Master of All Our Seeing” as his light shines on the multitude of figures who surround him. Grouped around the central mound are all the great geniuses of the past, present and future — the latter being depicted as the children in the center. Furthermore, the Duomo of Milan and Acropolis of Athens can be viewed in the background, rounding out the great accomplishments of humankind.
It is a stunning ode to Lanier, a man whose influence and name lives on to this day. His legacy is considerable — two large lakes are named for him, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina. A statue of him stands alongside Thomas Jefferson at Duke University, and a memorial plaque at Johns Hopkins University commemorates his accomplishments. Fifteen different schools bear his name, and even an entire county in the state of Georgia.
In the present work, he is shown standing in conversation with Robert Browning, while around them are the great writers including Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare and Homer. Composers including Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven are all included, as well as artists including Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The impressive painting is matched by its stunning, original frame. The giltwood masterpiece is intricately carved and features the symbols for the arts at each corner. A painter’s palette graces one corner, while symbols for music, literature and science are featured in the other three. The painting’s title, The Master Light of All Our Seeing, is etched into a plaque on the lower part of the frame, and the stunning piece is crowned by a brilliant etched sun. While it is rare to find a painting in its original frame, it is even more rare to find one that so beautifully matches the artistry and symbolism of the painting it contains.
The son of a decorator, Annibale Gatti was born in Forlì in 1828. He enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1843, and by the 1850s had already achieved a number of successes for his historico-religious works such as the present piece. He became renowned for his figural compositions that captured religious and historical subject with great technical virtuosity, and his Moliére Reading His Plays to his Maidservant was exhibited to great acclaim at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878.
His mid-career collaboration with the Italian architect Giuseppe Poggi (1811-1901) was a fruitful one; Poggi was responsible for the urban development throughout Florence, including the restoration of a number of deteriorating estates. He commissioned Gatti on numerous occasions to create frescoes for some of Tuscany’s most important historic buildings, including the Verdi Theatre in Pisa and the Throne Room in the Pitti Palace. Today he is best remembered for these frescoes, and his stand-alone paintings such as the present work are exceptionally rare.
Canvas: 45" high x 64 3/4" wide
Frame: 59 1/2" high x 79 1/2" wide
Publications of the Southern History Association, The Association, Washington D.C., 1899, p. 211
Cronache della Civiltà Elleno-Latina, Società Elleno-Latina, Rome, 1904, p. 178 (illustrated)
Sidney Lanier, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1905, by E. Mims, p. 306
Mrs. Frances L. Turnbull, Baltimore
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore