Art Term Tuesday: Tondo

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

Shaped canvases, anything other than the usual rectangle or square, are always attention-grabbers. Understanding the construction of a “normal” canvas, I find myself curious how they are built and stretched. While we wouldn’t question the use of a standard rectangular support, an artist who selects an irregular trapezoid, for instance, gives viewers another decision to interpret. Unconventionally shaped canvases, at least in modern art, are traced back to Constructivist “cut-out” paintings of the 1920s; but, there is one shape with much older roots: circular artworks called tondos (properly tondi, singular tondo). From the Italian for round, rotondo, the tondo became a popular format for relief sculptures (also known as roundels) and paintings in 15th-century Florence. What tondos can you find at FWMoA, and what is important about their shape?

To understand contemporary tondos, we should first look back at their history, which is traced to ancient Greece where small paintings decorated the insides of vases and shallow wine cups. These were round by necessity, and depicted both mythological and everyday scenes. It seems that tondos generally fell out of favor until 15th-century Italy, where artists like Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael made them fashionable again. Renaissance tondos may have been inspired by the tradition of round birthing trays, intricately decorated and used to carry food to mothers during childbirth, and roundels used to decorate wall tombs. Easel paintings (those on panels small enough to rest on an easel as opposed to a fresco on a wall) rose to prominence during the 13th century, so it makes sense that artists would soon begin experimenting with their shape. Renaissance architecture, striving for order and perfection, often employed hemispherical domes and arches, so painters and sculptors worked in forms that complemented the buildings they adorned. Perfect circles also lent themselves well to the divine nature of many Renaissance subjects; thus, they often portrayed the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, linking them thematically to their predecessors, the birthing trays. 

Consider any significance or symbolism you associate with circles. A shape without beginning or end, top or bottom, circles hint at the cyclical nature of something. They can represent unity, infinity, balance, or perfection; all appealing notions to the Renaissance artist. More recently, numerous studies show that humans tend to prefer gently curving shapes rather than pointy, jagged ones, finding them more beautiful and soothing. Our natural field of vision is even a circle! Despite the prevalence of roundness in our world, a circular composition bestows a set of challenges upon an artist: traditional guidance on placement and the use of perspective go out the (rose) window. Like a bullseye, the round shape draws our attention to the center of the canvas, and, especially in multi-figure compositions, there is little space for the background, further emphasizing the subjects. Triangular arrangements of figures popular during the Renaissance for their sense of stability fit well within the circular format. Artists have occasionally dabbled in the tondo since its peak in the 15th and 16th century, but it may now be seeing its biggest resurgence so far! Because the tondo is a relatively uncommon format with historical associations, artists who work in the format today are no doubt aware of its past, using it to add another layer of meaning to their work. Let’s take a look around the FWMoA collections and galleries for some recently made tondos…

Karen Fitzgerald, American, b. 1956. Spring. Oil on round wood panel, 2004. Gift of the Artist, 2019.133. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
Karen Fitzgerald, American, b. 1956. May Morning #2. Watercolor on prepared paper, 2016. Gift of the Artist, 2019.134. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

While the tondo is a challenge for some artists, Karen Fitzgerald found that it solved her compositional woes, as she no longer had to contend with corners. When abstract, her nature-inspired paintings resemble moons or planets, while her landscapes create unusual negative space within the circular format. For the past 30 years, Fitzgerald has worked exclusively with the tondo because, she says, “Roundness has a distinctive presence: it suggests interconnection, wholeness. It is itself, inhabiting its own form in a natural way and reminding us of where we are. (On a round, blue planet, spinning with others around a round, glowing sun.)”

Tim Tate, American, b. 1960. Intimation on Immortality. Cast poly-vitro, lacquer, mirror, and LED lights, 2017. Museum purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund, 2019.179. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The round shape of Tim Tate’s Intimation on Immortality complements the infinity-mirrored interior and creates the sense that we’re peering through a portal. His relief-sculpted glass follows in the tradition of Renaissance sculptors like the Della Robbia family, whose terracotta roundels, often crafted as architectural adornment, were intricately framed and used natural motifs. 

Along with the title of Hebru Brantley’s exhibition, Saints and Shepherds, his round canvases align his contemporary Black subjects with those that graced Renaissance tondos. The two paintings above demonstrate the compositional range possible with the form: Neighbor Hood Watch is crowded, centering on the conflict between the two closest figures while New Mythos: The Other Side displays its subjects as well-organized, floating motifs against a soothing blue background.

Dazzle, Pattern, Color, Bling: The Alluring Patterns of Liz Quisgard, on display at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Are Liz Quisgard’s yarn-on-buckram rounds tondos? By definition, only painting and relief sculpture are included, but contemporary artists increasingly defy such distinctions. An artist informed by myriad art historical influences but insistent on the purely visual nature of her work, she simply calls them “circles.” 

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