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Correlations- Steinbeck to Caravaggio

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

An essay on the relations of iconic imagery- From Ancient Rome to the America of the 1930's-

Brian Keeler

Sacrifices in life that dovetailed for me recently are in two films, one in the theatres now, Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon" and John Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's book "The Grapes of Wrath" from 1940. The ending scene in Steinbeck's book is the clincher and the moment of the peak emotional pathos and angst. This dramatic and iconic vignette shows a young woman breast feeding an older dying man. This theme has precedents as it is used in ancient art as far back as the first century AD in a fresco. This fresco was recovered under the ashes and rubble in a dining room in Pompeii and now in the National Archeological Museum in Naples. This fresco is said to have been displayed in this central room of importance so as to show the values of the family that owned the house. The imagery and narrative seem jarring by today's standards, after all who would be comfortable with such an intimate act of opposite generations and potential incest on display? But the ancients underscored the importance of this story as representing an act of sacrifice and devotion to the family in first century Italy. The higher good is honored and the personal and smaller motives are eclipsed.

Above- Brian Keeler in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2023 sketching from a painting by the 17th century Dutch painter, Willem Drost. The painting depicts a scene from ancient Roman history. The painting of 1655-57 is titled "Roman Virtue."

I recently saw Killers of the Flower Moon here in Ithaca at Cinemapolis (our art theatre on the Commons). It was not a feel good movie- but it is important and perhaps one of Scorsese's best. I have not viewed many of his works, as I am not a fan of Mafia films that use black humor to glorify bad behavior. His recent film The Irishman, another gangster film, also starring Robert Di Niro, is a case in point. This new film, by contrast, has an important mission- to confront a despicable episode of American history that unfolded with the Osage Indians in Oklahoma after World War I. There are overtones and similarities to Ford's movie, also chronicling this same era in Oklahoma and California. The film may be hard to take as it portrays such abominations but it is a great work of art in many respects. Confronting the underbelly of life and exposing evil, albeit from over 100 years ago, is a noble and worthwhile endeavor.

Above- The fresco of Cimon and Pero from the National Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy. It is a small piece dating from the first century AD from Pompeii. It was in a triclinium (three-couched) dining room.

In Killers of the Flower Moon I kept waiting for some sort of virtue to be displayed in the character of the actors. The actors, Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert Di Niro do an amazing job portraying fellows without a scintilla of integrity or empathy. They are complete self-serving opportunists and to the very end they do not come clean. In the final scene, we are hoping for some degree of atonement or cleansing in Di Caprio's character as he confronts his wife, Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone, after a damning testimony in court. Our hopes are not realized, as he does not admit to himself or to her that he has been complicit in the murder of her family and for administering a poison that he puts in her daily insulin dosage. The duplicity and backstabbing are off the scale by doctors, police and many other characters in the narrative based on true events researched by David Grann, the author of the book of the same name. In short, an epic confrontation of evil and good is represented in this story.

The virtue that comes through in Scorsese's film, is in the character of Mollie, an Osage Indian woman who has to balance her love against the duplicity she feels is being doled out by her husband. Mollie is a paragon of quiet wisdom and strength throughout. Although we find her being too passive and unassertive in the face of these steep challenges. Is her mission that of self- sacrifice like Rose of Sharon Joad in Grapes of Wrath? Well no, but the two families are both confronting the weight of a heartless force of big business- the oil companies and agribusiness.

This correlation of actual histories, (US History of the 1920's and 30's) ancient histories ( The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Ancient Rome) and art history ( Dutch and Italian art of the 16th and 17th century) is what intrigued me and inspired me to wonder about the relations of literature and painting. Finally an exhibit of Dorothea Lange's photos at the NGA in DC (just viewed this weekend) added another connection and interpretation of the downtrodden and run amok greed.

Above- Dirck Van Baburen's canvas of Cimon and Pero- He illustrated an episode from the Seven Virtuous Acts in ancient Rome. Was John Steinbeck versed in anicent history or Renaissance art? Could he have used this ancient narrative as an inspiration for his final scene in The Grapes of Wrath?

I was at the Rijksmusuem twice this year and was attracted to a painting by Willem Drost, a 17th century painter who was a student of Rembrandt, who later lived in Venice and was influenced by Titian. His painting of Cimon and Pero, a tale from ancient Roman history, depicts a woman breastfeeding her father who is starving to death in a Roman prison. Her act is discovered by the prison guards and they are so moved by her selfless act, that the man is eventually freed. The painting by Drost is a remarkable canvas and I could imagine Rembrandt working with Drost as models were set up in the studio in Amsterdam. The lighting is wonderful and the figures are articulated masterfully.

There are several other versions that are also remarkable. One canvas by Dirck Van Baburen (shown above) is a tour-de-force of figurative painting with a dynamic composition using a strong "Z structure" or (zigzag) dynamic with a marked diagonal thrust, consumate articulation of the flesh and great expressions with dramatic lighting. Many of these versions are the result in many ways of Caravaggio's large oil that utilizes the same theme as one secton of his painting.

Above- Caravaggio's canvas that influenced and inspired many other versions of Cimon and Pero- this canvas combines all the Seven Cardinal Virtues in one large canvas. Included here, Bury the dead, Visit the Imprisoned, Shelter the Homeless, Clothe the Naked, Feed The Hungry, Visit the sick and Refresh the Thirsty.

In regards to Roman Virtue- we may also think of Rembrandt's canvas of Lucretia in the National Gallery in Washington DC and another version in Minneapolis. It depicts a similar subject that has parallels to the Pero and Cimon narrative as it represents a woman, Lucretia, commiting suicide after she has been raped- in order to preserve her family's honor. Thus the appeal of this story from ancient Rome to artist and patrons thorghout the centuries.

Above- Rembrandt's Lucretia in the Minneapolis Museum. Self sacrifice to preserve virtue in ancient Rome is the underlying theme of this canvas. Lucretia's blood soaked chemise after she has just stabbed herself is central to this iconic image.

We wonder if Steinbeck knew of this tradtion in the history of art? He chose this iconic and dramatic narrative and readapted it for the final scene in The Grapes of Wrath. That scene shows Rose of Sharon, the daughter of the Joad family, offering her mother's milk, as her child was stillborn, to a man dying in a barn on a rainy night. The family has endured incredible adversity and abuse during the American Dust Bowl of the 1930's. This ending scene was reportedly controversial in the extreme at the time of its publication. Right wing groups tried to boycott the book and the film and prudish readers thought the ending scene beyond the pale. We can now understand the dignity and depth of the scene. It also marks a turning point in the character of Rose of Sharon, who had been rather shallow and selfish up to this dramatic point. The biblical overtones of Steinbeck's novel are also noteworthy as Tom Joad warns union busters who are about to kill some strikers that they do not know what they are doing. Of course, we think of Christ on the cross asking the same of his Roman Centurions who are about to kill him.

Both films have relevancy, as these issues continue today. We think of fracking, oil companies and others continuing with an abusive approach to the Earth. Another recent film with a similar message and relevance to environmental collapse was James Cameron's film, Avatar.

As if to underscore the theme of migrant workers and the oppressed in the work of Steinbeck and David Grann there is currently a wonderful exhibit of the black and white photographs of Dorothea Lange at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The exhibit, "Seeing People" is an incredible show by a master photographer that documents this same period of American history as the two movies discussed here. These unflinching portrayals of people caught up in the tribulations of the era are affecting documents of America.


Above- A 1928 photo by Dorothea Lange, titled, "Hitchhiking from Joplin, Missouri to a sawmill in Arizona."

We see the mass exodus of entire populations throughout the globe, forced from their homes by war, politics, disease, environmental degradation and overpopulation with similarly cruel treatments. The plight of Steinbeck's Joad Family has numerous current manifestations. We need look no further than the southern border of the US or the situation in Israel and Palestine today. We also think of the emblem on the Staute of Liberty, Give me your tired, your poor and wonder how these lofty ideals that are so central to the American dream can be maintained with such overwhelming circumstances challenging them today.

To view a video- of Keeler sketching in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from the painting of Willem Drost (mentioned in this essay)- check out this link-

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