Gainsborough’s Family Album @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition is pure visual, intellectual and emotional pleasure. It is beautifully hung and really informatively labelled and guided. In particular the American scholar who curated it, David Solkin, is pitch perfect in his audioguide commentary, telling you exactly what you need to know about each key painting, and about Gainsborough’s wider family background.

It’s a simple enough idea: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the 18th century’s most successful portrait painters, rising from modest beginnings in Sudbury Suffolk, to owning a mansion on Pall Mall and being painter to Britain’s aristocracy, rivalled only by the towering figure of his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But alongside his formal commissions he painted an unusual number of portraits of his immediate and extended family. This exhibition brings together some 50 of these paintings and a few drawings, some familiar from national collections, some never before publicly displayed, to tell the story of his changing and evolving painterly style, as well as the biographies of himself, his wife and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, and other members of the extended family.

It’s not quite a portrait of the age but it’s certainly a portrait of a charming, sometimes tragic, often comic and endearing family, told via sketches, drawings and paintings which are sometimes breath-takingly beautiful.

The two Gainsboroughs

It’s always seemed to me there are two Gainsboroughs: the early paintings from the 1740s feature beanpole figures with Woodentop faces which I personally find difficult to take seriously.

the artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

The artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

Then something seismic happened to his technique during the 1750s, so that within a decade his handling of the human face had become marvellously expressive, and his handling of the volume and shape of the human body, masterful.

The following is one of my all-time favourite paintings, one of the best depictions of love and affection and innocence I know of. it looks and feels as if by a completely different artist from the painting above.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

It demonstrates several of Gainsborough’s qualities. One is the characteristic ‘feathering’ of the trees and clouds in the background. Another is that it is unfinished – a lot of the paintings in this exhibition are unfinished. They demonstrate his sprezzatura, his ability to rough out an image at astonishing speed.

And for me, personally, I love the way you can see the artist at work. I almost like the rough sketching of the arms and hands as much as the smooth finish of the seraphic faces. They remind me of the quick evocative charcoal sketches by Degas which were exhibited next door at the National Gallery earlier this year. I love draughtsmanship, outlines, the miraculous way a few lines on a flat surface can conjure up the look and feel of warm human bodies, and many of even the most mature paintings on display here have an unfinished quality, which allows you to enjoy Gainsborough’s terrific verve and confidence.

Gainsborough’s speed

In fact Gainsborough’s legendary speed often caused him problems. One was that, even once he was famous, his clients regularly complained that he’d left his paintings unfinished. There’s an example here of his wife, done in sumptuous silks but, when you look closer, lacking hands, as if he was in too much of a hurry to bother.

As to sheer speed the commentary tells us that he made this painting of his nephew and protégé, Gainsborough Dupont, in one hour. One hour. It is riveting to be able to examine this painting really closely and observe the nerveless precision of his draughtsmanship and the dash and confidence of his brushstrokes. The eyes and eyebrows in particular dazzled me. Note the ‘feathering’ effect of the background and the quick, dashed-off impression of the boy’s ‘cavalier’ costume.

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

The influence of van Dyck

As he became more successful the young painter moved from his Suffolk home to the fashionable spa resort of Bath. Here he made important contacts with rich clients and also got the opportunity, when visiting the aristocracy, to see their collections of Old Masters.

Of all the past masters, the one that struck him most was Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter who came over to work at the court of Charles I in the 1630s. I’d love to know whether it was the deliberate attempt to copy van Dyck which led to the revolution in his work which I indicated above. Certainly Gainsborough revered van Dyck till his dying day. In fact the exhibition tells us that, as his death from terminal cancer approached, he told those around him he wanted to be measured against van Dyck, and apparently his very last words were ‘Van Dyck is right’.

The commentary on the Gainsborough Dupont portrait mentions that van Dyck used flicks of red to create depth of colouring of human skin and then points out just such red flecks which you can see if look closely above the figure’s left eye. It’s the type of opportunity to lean right into the real paintings, and to really appreciate their subtle technique – to see at first hand exactly how paint is laid onto the canvas – which makes visiting exhibitions like this so worthwhile.

Gainsborough’s daughters

The exhibition brings together all twelve surviving portraits Gainsborough made of his beloved daughters. The ones of them as children are wonderful (see above) but the portraits follow them through into young womanhood and then maturity. We learn at one point that he taught them both how to paint landscapes so that they would have a trade to fall back on in case he should be struck down. Later on we learn that the younger sister married but the marriage broke down after just two years. She suffered mental illness and moved in with her older sister who never married and cared for her for the rest of her life.

In this painting I was drawn to the peripheral details, to Gainsborough’s ‘feathery’ treatment of the trees’ foliage, and to the shaggy dog, a symbol, we are told, of fidelity, to the extraordinary finish on the shimmering silk of the daughter on the left. But keep returning to the faces, especially of the daughter on the right, which seems to frank and open and candid.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Gainsborough’s wife

Family tradition had it that Gainsborough painted a portrait of his wife every year and gave it to her as a present on their wedding anniversary.

The commentary doesn’t make a meal of it but strongly hints that Gainsborough was serially unfaithful to his wife who was well known for having a fierce temper. Maybe the paintings were a form of atonement.

Rather beautifully, their relationship is discussed in terms of their dogs because Thomas owned a brisk alert collie which he called Fox (maybe because it looked a bit fox-like but also in humorous reference to the fat radical politician of the day, Charles James Fox). His wife owned a spaniel, which she named Tristram after the hero of the wildly popular contemporary novel, Tristram Shandy. Moreover:

‘Whenever [Gainsborough] spoke crossly to his wife …he would write a note of repentance, sign it with the name of his favourite dog, ‘Fox’, and address it to his Margaret’s pet spaniel, ‘Tristram’. Fox would take the note in his mouth and duly deliver it…’

In 1746, aged just 19, Gainsborough had married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on the couple. The commentary points out that at various tight moments in the 1750s and before he became successful, the couple had to borrow extensively against the promise of this annuity.

Apparently, Margaret was the tough-minded, business-minded person in the relationship, with Gainsborough being the more slothful and phlegmatic. He casually had affairs. She went mad with anger.

None of this is present in the later portraits of her, quite a few of which are gathered here, which really beautifully capture the flavour of mature married love, of mutual forgiveness and affection. Next to the daughters with the invisible cat, this painting of Margaret Gainsborough was my favourite work in the show. It is marvellous how he has captured (or invented or created) the impression of deep and affectionate character in her face, in the deep calm accepting maturity of her gaze.

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Other points

The exhibition has other themes. Although he made his living as a Society portrait painter, throughout his life Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting, and the exhibition contains a massive unfinished landscape, included on the pretext that two of the figures in its central incident of a farm cart pulled by unruly horses are based on his two daughters (the white-chested figure looking up, and the woman being pulled up into the cart).

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

We learn an awful lot about Gainsborough’s extended family and there is a big family tree at the start of the show showing just how extensive it was. The wall labels give us interesting anecdotes about his father and mother (he went bankrupt) about his sisters (one was a milliner which gave him a lifelong interest in fabrics and women’s dresses) about one brother, Humphrey, who became a non-conformist minister and was also a noted inventor, while the other one, John, became known in the family as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his endless moneymaking plans and schemes all of which came to nothing with the result that Scheming Jack and his family lived on handouts from his siblings.

In other words, there’s a lot of fascinating gossip-cum-social history mixed in with the art appreciation.

And then there is the steady sequence of self-portraits, not quite as profound and searching as, say, Rembrandt’s, but stretching from his earliest works in the 1740s right to the end of his life in 1788, which take you on a fascinating journey from ambitious neophyte, to proud father, to accomplished craftsman, to ageing husband.

The exhibition tells us that he wanted this self-portrait to be the approved one, with (as the commentary points out) its rather quizzical raised eyebrow, and the air of a calm mature man, confident in his powers and conscious of a life well lived (and note the jazzy, unfinished squiggles which depict his neckerchief. Dazzling sprezzatura and confidence right to the end!)

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

This is a wonderful, gossipy, beautiful and life-affirming exhibition.

Battle of the videos

NPG have commissioned an official video of the show:

But there’s also an informal review by Visiting London Guide which shows more pictures and gives more information.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels by Christopher Lloyd (2014)

Degas’s forensic approach favours those moments when humanity reveals its frailties. (p.191)

This book contains 238 illustrations, mostly in colour, of the pencil, black-chalk, pen-and-ink and charcoal drawings and the innumerable highly-coloured pastels of the master draughtsman among the Impressionists, Edgar Degas (1834–1917).

As a devotee of disegno (the Renaissance term for the art of drawing, and by extension of creating a composition) I found many of Degas’s drawings as ravishing as a work of art can be. Size-wise the book is half way between normal paperback and coffee table so the reproductions aren’t big, but they’re big enough to delight and amaze.

The text is by one-time Surveyor of the Queen’s pastels, Christopher Lloyd (b.1945). Lloyd points out that it was only after Degas’s death in 1917, when the contents of his studio were auctioned off, that anyone really appreciated the enormous number of sketches and pastels which Degas had created throughout his life, not to mention the contents of the 30-plus notebooks he left. There is a vast amount of material.

Lloyd treats Degas’ life and works in straightforward chronological manner:

  1. Beginnings 1853–1855 – His family was affluent: Dad was a banker from a French family who emigrated to Naples. Another branch of the degas family moved to New Orleans, USA and became successful in the cotton trade.
  2. Italy 1856–1859 – Degas goes on a self-financed odyssey round the great galleries of Italy, sketching everything he saw.
  3. History Paintings 1860–1865 – Degas makes a concerted effort to conform and paint the kind of history paintings which French High Society and the official Salon prized most. The book includes reproductions of Semiramis Building Babylon, 1861, The Daughter of Jephthah, 1859-1860, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, 1865 and so on – which are, frankly, not that convincing. By contrast, the preparatory sketches to these big works are almost all breath-taking. Degas kept the early work, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860, in his studio and carried on tinkering with it well into the 1880s, though he never got the faces right. Anyway, the history strategy failed, with none of the history paintings being accepted by the Salon.
  4. Changing Directions 1865–1870 – Degas meets Manet, only two years older than him (b.1832). Overlapping with his history paintings he starts to sketch scenes of modern life. Compare Portrait of Mlle Eugenie Fiocre a propos the ballet ‘Le Source’, 1868, with Racehorses before the stands, 1866-8.
  5. Confronting the Modern World 1870–1879 – Degas takes a five-month trip to his relatives in New Orleans, which opens his eyes about the vastness of the modern world. But it’s back in Paris that Degas becomes part of the new avant-garde, meeting Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir et al, and playing a key role in organising the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. During the 1870s he really consolidates his interest in certain key subjects: ballet dancers, horse-racing, women at work (washerwomen, milliners), women at their toilette.
  6. Retreat into the Studio 1880–1890 – Degas diversifies into print-making, painting fans, and making sketches for large-scale friezes – though these never seem to have been completed. He experimented with stylised viewpoints, compressing the picture space, and deliberately cropping images, an aesthetic effect copied from photography.
  7. Landscape Drawings – Degas notoriously deprecated landscape painting (odd, really, considering that that was the core motif of Impressionism). He made some landscapes on his travels (he was probably the most-travelled of the Impressionists) but as objects of fact rather than sentimental ‘beauty’. Then in the 1890s he began to extend his interest in the monotype technology he’d first used in the 1880s, this time experimentally manipulating oil paint over the basic printed image. This created a suite of works which, ironically, was the subject of the only one-man show ever devoted to him in his lifetime (in 1892) . They surprised his devotees by moving decisively beyond Impressionism and into the hazy, half-imaginary world of fin-de-siècle Symbolism. – Landscape with smokestacks, 1890. Landscape, 1890.
  8. ‘The Dying of the Light’ 1890–c. 1912 – Degas’s eyesight deteriorated at the same time as he switched to the chosen medium of his final years, intensely coloured pastel, laid on with repeated, thick lines and hatchings, each layer preserved with a fixative and then drawn over again. This produced super-luminous visions which he often dabbed with wetted pastel sticks to produce magical sparkles and highlights. – After The Bath, Woman With A Towel, 1897. The dancers, 1892.

Lloyd not only takes us through Degas’ life, but systematically covers Degas’ various subject areas – the dancers and ballerinas (which form over half of Degas’s total oeuvre), the racehorses, the women workers (milliners, laundresses), and the women at their toilettes.

Half the pleasure comes from the sketches of subjects which don’t figure so much in the finished pastels or oil paintings but which he endlessly explored. Studies pure and simple of faces, men standing around, nude women and more ballerinas.

What an eye! And what an ability to rough out the forms and gestures of human beings with such conviction, creating brisk, confident lines on paper which bring an entire human moment to life.

Some staggering sketches

Study of a ribbon (1882) by Degas

Study of a ribbon (1882) by Degas

New terms

  • balletomane – a ballet enthusiast
  • contre-jour (‘against daylight’) uses sources of daylight in a painting or pastel to produce backlighting of the subject. The effect usually hides details, causes a stronger contrast between light and dark, creates silhouettes and emphasizes lines and shapes.
  • les rats – nickname for the youngest ballet dancers in the corps de ballet. Edmond de Goncourt described them as ‘little monkey girls’ (quoted page 118)
  • mise-en-page – fancy French term for page layout and design
  • repoussoir is one of the pictorial means of achieving perspective or spatial contrasts by the use of illusionistic devices such as the placement of a large figure or object in the immediate foreground of a painting to increase the illusion of depth in the rest of the picture.

Related links

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable tour through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. At this first exhibition, thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that first mentioned the word ‘impressionist’, a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to how and why the scandal was caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds after the generally harsh reviews, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed by the press to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down.

When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the Albert Wolff (himself an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels). Roe quotes it at magnificently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said, I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book describes how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s own troubled household in 1877. What a household it must have been!

And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, Hoschedé’s wife, Alice, would end up falling in love with Monet. It appears to have taken all parties several years to realise what was happening, and caused Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to leave Ernest and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891, whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone was wary of surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of ‘the blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised by the energy and commitment of Degas to the cause. He made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues about thier content or timing. It was news to me that he took a five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses over there. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists whose ambitions were blocked or stymied by an all-male establishment.

In relation to point a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art which tends to foreground heroic men, to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, but they all show her as fully clothed, deploying a very imperious, commanding gaze of her own. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

As to point b), it’s a relief to read how generally pro-women artists the Impressionists were. Degas went out of his way to make sure that Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows and gave them the opportunity to hang their own works. Indeed, Cassatt and Morisot (both independently well-off women) played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, for example the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the risqué bathing suits (p.134). I noticed the boobs thing on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead, very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of gossip about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history – the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks (which seemed to drag on for decades) sharply contrasted with the bohemian atmosphere around the hill of Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes, its slum shacks packed with vagrants, poor workers, circus performers and impecunious artists.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics.

Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (mentioned above), although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled. He managed to father seven children by his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid, who he had married in 1871. Roe quotes from her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

Through all these woes, it really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and the book is littered with quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return.

It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctively narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the fifth Impressionist exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit. Wow.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studded with good anecdotes. Here are a few sample:

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

One afternoon Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops, along which lie the villages where the Impressionists rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenery. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere, and their relationship with the ever-changing street map of Hausmann’s Paris.

I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. This book would be a handy resource if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement.

American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters. Looking these up on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early, wonderful depiction of Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves (and many of their critics agreed) as painting the (often pretty rough and lowlife) reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light, lost age of innocence.


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Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell @ The National Gallery

A loan from the Burrell Collection

The Burrell Collection Glasgow is currently closed for a major refurbishment until 2020. Among other things it houses a spectacular collection of works by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas who, as it happens, passed away a hundred years ago this September (1834–1917). So what better way to celebrate this centenary – and display works which would otherwise be gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere – than by loaning this priceless collection to the National Gallery in London, where it nicely complements the National Gallery’s own collection of Degas pastels?

Thus, in the Ground Floor galleries (conveniently close to the café and restaurant) you can visit this fabulous FREE exhibition of 13 pastels, three drawings, and four oil paintings by Degas, the first time that most of them have been seen outside Glasgow since they were acquired in the early 1900s.

At the Jewellers(1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

At the Jewellers (1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The show is downstairs in the fairly newish exhibition space of the Annenberg Wing. The light is deliberately dimmed to preserve works which, we are told, have already faded significantly in their 130 years of existence. It’s like entering a cathedral and oh, what entrancing, ravishing objects are here to worship!

There are some oil paintings, a few rough sketches and one statue – but this show is mostly about Degas’s supernatural gift with pastels – and what a gift it was!

The wall panels (and the book in the shop outside) liberally describe Degas as the most gifted draughtsman of the 19th century and his skill at creating outlines and shapes is breath-taking. Look at the horse on the far right of Jockeys in the rain. The closer you look the more perfect it becomes.

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

His early training was academic, trained to draw in studios with a spell in Rome to sketch and draw from classical masters. But he wasn’t satisfied and embarked on a lifelong course of technical experimentation with materials, and particularly with the supremely flexible medium of pastel that he came to prefer over painting in oil.

Degas had a deep interest in Japanese prints and helped bring them to public attention in 1870s Paris. He used photographs as models for his subjects. And he studied classical friezes for their posing of the human subject and of horses.

Pastel became increasingly important to Degas in his later years at a time when, coincidentally, brilliant colour began to play an essential role in the contemporary art he admired, and his own eyesight started to fail. The tactile immediacy and luminous colours of pastel, as well as its ephemeral and fragile quality, allowed him to create astonishingly bold and dynamic works of art, distinct from those of his fellow Impressionists.

Degas and pastels

  1. Smooth In his early works (1870s) Degas uses pastels ‘unfixed’ by oil or fixative; they are flat, and highly smudged and blended in order to create an oil painting effect.
  2. Rough and lined As he became more proficient (1880s) Degas came to use a ‘fixative’ between successive layers of pastel to build up layers, to create what experts call a ‘crust’. In tandem he dropped the technique of blurring and adopted strong, visible, directional strokes, strikingly virile lines which seem gouged across the paper as you look closely. The harshness of this cross-hatching is evident in the two works above which are to a large extent made up out of lines.
  3. Colour As the 19th century progressed industrial scientists developed new ranges of vivid and vibrant colours. These became available as readymade oil paints in tubes – which greatly helped the Impressionists aim of painting out of doors, far from the studio. But they also became available as pastel sticks, sticks made from chalk, binding agents and dyes.
  4. Water Degas developed a technique of dipping the tips of the pastel sticks into water in order to dab thick and bright highlights on top of finished works, for example the decorative highlights on the dresses of the Three dancers

Innovations

Degas was one of the greatest artistic innovators of his age.

1. Subject matter

He turned from the traditional subjects and technical conventions of his training to find new ways to depict modern, urban life. In Degas’s work, both the highs and lows of Parisian life are depicted: from scenes of elegant spectators and jockeys at the racecourse, to tired young women ironing in subterranean workshops.

His most famous subjects were ballet dancers, generally caught in informal, behind-the-scenes moments; and women at their toilette, bathing or combing their hair. If we didn’t know it before, we learn that Degas lived close to the Paris Opera where ballet was performed and gained regular entrance to the rehearsal studios, and even to the wings of the theatre itself.

2. Private moments

With his intimate depictions of women bathing or combing their hair Degas knew he was subverting artistic tradition. Until his time women had mostly been posed in a way that presupposed an audience (for example, the great odalisques of Ingres). Degas’ women aren’t posing for anyone.

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The apparent crudity and the unashamed frankness of these works shocked and repelled contemporary audiences. Obviously we in 2017 have seen and read everything, nothing shocks us. But these works momentarily begged the question: are they more ‘natural’ than the Ingres/Salon tradition of perfectly portrayed naked women? Or are they more creepily ‘voyeuristic’? Is there something suspect about viewing naked women at such vulnerable and exposed moments?

The wall labels raise this question without resolving it: I think the answer is that the subject matter is mostly eclipsed by the technique. Sure, they’re scantily clad women; but quite obviously there is nothing salacious or pornographic about them – there are hardly any bare boobs whereas there are lots of backs bent or stretching. The real interest of the pictures is in their unusual composition, and especially in their vibrant use of colour.

3. Unconscious movements

Having studied the human figure as it is carefully posed in art school, in statues and in all previous art, Degas was restless to capture fleeting movements and impressions of modern life. His private women, the famous ballet dancers, and the jockeys, are all caught in off-guard poses.

You never (so far as I know) see the horses racing. You see them jostling nervously before, or calming down exhaustedly after, the race.

Similarly, the hundreds of sketches, pastels, oils and sculptures he made of ballet dancers are very rarely of performances – overwhelmingly, they’re of ballerinas backstage, or from the wings, in rehearsal, resting, stretching. The show includes an example of a ballerina adjusting a shoulder strap. Moments like that. Or these three ballerinas. What are they doing? Where are they? In a rehearsal studio? In the wings during a performance?

Unofficial locations, off-guard moments, unconscious gestures. (Look at the hand of the ballerina on the right. The other two ballerinas pressing against the wall or theatre ‘flat’.)

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

And yet these fleeting moments are given an extraordinary permanence. The stunning contrast between vibrant orange of the tutus and the lurid green of the flat create an incredibly visual dynamic. But is is the very strong outlines  in black (look at the confidence of the black strokes over the tutus to indicate folds of fabric) and the fact that the figures are lit from above, which combine to give the image a monumental, sculpted feel.

4. Composition

Several points about the compositions:

Ungainly He is interested in the ungainly in human posture. In no way is the woman bending over in her bathtub gracious. In fact, the more you look at her the more her posture begins to dissolve into a purely formal arrangement of colours. (Degas was affected by the later, semi-abstract work of Gauguin.) What do his two most famous subjects, ballerinas and horse, have in in common? They are both in constant motion, an endless supply of odd, awkward, spontaneous, fleeting poses.

Cropped Degas had the habit of cropping images in mid-person or subject. Many of the horse pictures crop horses half way through. None of the examples I’ve included really show this brutal cropping, but some in the exhibition do. It’s related, in some of them, to the way he often began a composition on one sheet, and then added other sheets around it, as the composition grew. Sounds odd, but you can see the joins in several of these works (which you are allowed to view from gloriously close-up, really feeling every stroke of the pastel stick).

Cramped Degas’ routine cropping of subjects is accompanied by his often experimental construction of pictorial space. The people depicted are frequently cramped right into the frame of the picture. Take the vertiginous perspective of the two women crammed together in the work at the top of this post, At the Jewellers or the way the two women in a theatre box are cropped at the edges to make us feel as if we’re thrust right into the scene in the final picture below, Women in a Theatre Box.

Empty Conversely, there can be oddly empty space, as in Woman in a Tub. Come to think of it, where is this tubbing taking place? Where are the details of the room which would give it perspective and context, window, door, carpet, mirror, cupboards? Is the white patch on the left a rug? You realise the tub and woman are floating in an abstract orange space.

A little more intelligible, more readable, is the great gap on the left of Jockeys in the Rain. Combined with the unusually realistic depiction of the horizon, very high in the picture, the composition creates a great sense of space, itself indicating… what? The restlessness of horses, and riders, jostling and shuffling, ready for the race to begin? And why on earth is it in the rain? The scattered blue slashes of pastel from top right are also on a (mild) diagonal and, once you notice them, add to the sense of unease and restlessness.

Empty or cramped or oddly cropped, Degas is always experimenting with compositional space.

Unfinished Degas had a lifelong habit of leaving works unfinished, whether it’s because he was a perfectionist, or restless to move on, or on aesthetic principles, is difficult to gauge. Different models and colleagues have left different accounts of his feverish impatience.

Look at At the jewellers (above). Not only are the two ‘finished’ figures awkward and cramped but (and I have to admit I didn’t notice this at first, maybe because I was standing too close to it) but there’s an entire third figure on the right, barely sketched in and left completely abandoned. Why? Lots of the ballet dancer works reveal big patches of unprepared canvas left exposed.

You can see how this could be part of the aesthetic of catching life on the fly, on the move, the brief unconscious gestures of his subjects, patting their hair or adjusting a strap – just those quick fleeting glimpses of entirely modern life which – as Degas knew from his impeccably classical training – nobody in the history of art had tried to capture before.

So maybe their incompleteness is part of the fleetingness.

5. Colour

Some of the sketches are more or less monochrome and the oil paintings are fairly conventional in colouring – but the pastel works – wow! They are an explosion of the most vivid reds and greens and blues, mauves and oranges.

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

It’s striking to see green used so routinely to convey flesh colour (see the haunch of the woman in the tub) but in fact this technique goes back to the Renaissance.

But the real shock is the red and oranges. The background to the woman in a tub or the women in a box and the ballerinas’ dresses. Wow. It is a shocking and intense colour which dominates the exhibition rooms and has, appropriately enough, been chosen as the exhibition poster. Incredibly, conservationists have shown that the colours were all originally much more intense but that exposure to light has faded them. Dayglo Degas!

In these works you can really see why he came to love pastel: not only were a) new industrially-developed and astonishingly vivid colours available, but b) you can build up a real depth of colour by repeated hatching and ‘fixing’ and colouring again but c) but without having to paint right up to the lines, as you’re obliged to in oil, able to leave large amounts of the surface rough and patchy – the hatching style gives you visual permission to do this – and so d) fulfilling the contemporary, fleeting, impressionist aesthetic.

The commentary uses words like iridescent, fluorescent, vibrant, but words can’t really do justice to quite how astonishingly, violently loud these colours are. They leap off the surface. And yet this vibrancy is always mediated, compromised, somehow made all-the-more dynamic, by the very obvious hatching, the rough bare lines of blue or orange or black which create a tremendous sense of dynamism and excitement.

It’s small, it’s free, but this is one of the most visually exciting exhibitions I’ve been to in ages.

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

P.S.

Nowhere in the exhibition information did it mention that the National Gallery does have other Degas works on display, upstairs in room 42. Worth walking up a flight of stairs and through a few rooms to make your Degas experience complete!

Video

Most galleries nowadays produce short highlights videos to promote their exhibitions. But the National Gallery is now making available recordings of the fifty-minute-long lectures or introductions to their main exhibitions, given by the exhibition curators.

This is an excellent idea, as it helps you get a real sense of what the curators are trying to do, of the practical problems of arranging exhibitions by theme or chronology or medium and so on, plus snippets and insights not available at the show itself.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

Related links

Other museums and galleries

Every room in the National Gallery

A friend’s son is over from Spain. He’s studying art and so we spent one full day, from 10am till closing time at 6pm, on a mission to visit all 66 rooms in the National Gallery. We did it, and with 20 minutes left over to slip into the Goya exhibition as well.

The four sections

The Gallery holds some 2,300 works. They’re divided into four periods or themes, all of which are found in the 66 or so rooms spread over the gallery’s second floor:

  • 13th- to 15th-century paintings (rooms 51-60, west or Sainsbury wing) Duccio, Uccello, van Eyck, Lippi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Dürer, Memling, Bellini
  • 16th-century paintings (west wing, rooms 2-14) Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Bruegel, Bronzino, Titian, Veronese
  • 17th-century paintings (north wing, rooms 15-37) Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Claude, Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer
  • 18th- to early 20th-century paintings (east wing, rooms 33-46) Canaletto, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh

Floor plan of level 2 Hover your mouse over a room to see its title and click through to a detailed listing.

NB Rooms 41 and 42 are closed, some of the paintings have been moved to rooms C, D and E on level 0. Floor plan of level 0

Audioguide

There’s an audioguide: it costs £4, covers almost every painting in the collection and takes 5 hours to listen to non-stop. Obviously, if you pause it to wander from picture to picture, have lunch or take a comfort break, it will take longer. Maybe reckon on doing one of the four themes or periods on each visit.

Personal highlights

As with my recent trip to the British Museum, these are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note:

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon') (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519. The National Gallery, London.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’) (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 – 1519. The National Gallery, London.

  • Leonardo da Vinci The Burlington House Cartoon (1500) This is kept in a small darkened room by the entrance to the Sainsbury wing where you can sit and admire genius. It is worth visiting the National Gallery to see this one image. Has any artist ever made any image more perfect, more mysterious and profound than this one? Leonardo is in a class of one. If you had to explain Western art to a Martian this painting would do it.
  • The Wilton Diptych (1395-9) This was a portable altarpiece made for the use of King Richard II (1377-99). I like the sideways posture of the young king and the generally static, hieratic posture of the figures. A gallery attendant explained Richard has ginger hair and therefore so do the angels. I really liked the image of the white hart on the reverse, with a crown round its neck and a golden chain. It was Richard’s personal emblem and therefore it is stamped onto the chests of the angels’ astonishingly blue tunics, like the logo of a football team.
  • Jan van Eyck Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) Next to the famous Arnolfini Portrait is this work. Like so many works of the northern Renaissance it is of a real person. No Christ child, Mary, angels, Magi, disciples or attendant saints. A real person commemorated for all time in their hereness, nowness, personhood.
  • Robert Campin A man and woman (1435) Real people.
  • Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (about 1470) Swabian. A real person painted with great delicacy and sensitivity.
  • Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (1485) Not really looking like any human beings ever seen, this is like a high class cartoon, complete with lines around the figures, and the stylised neck, jaw and hair of the woman.
  • Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Gentleman (‘Il Gentile Cavaliere’) (1564) Not a beautiful man but the rendition is perfect in every detail, including the gold lining and buttons up the front, and the loose binding of the leather-bound books under his left hand.
  • Titian emerges as one of the great geniuses of painting. He seems to have introduced a new much brighter palette. His portraits of 16th century notables are striking and individualistic. But I was struck by the handful of outdoors paintings which seem to have created a new way of conveying the human figure in outdoor settings, complete with realistic trees and earth and streams, old ruined buildings, in a brown palette. Before him there was nothing like this and after him everything looked like this for centuries: the effect on Gainsborough, for example, seems obvious:
  • Paolo Veronese The Dream of Helena (1570) The posture of the dreaming woman is perfect and the light on the dress, shimmers impressionistically.
  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) A whole room is devoted to Poussin (room 19) and I thought it significant that it was almost empty (three people). I’ve read that Poussin is a very intellectual painter and appreciating him is a developed taste. But I find his paintings empty of all passion or feeling, the characters positioned in stylised gestures, the overall composition draining the mythical events depicted of all energy or meaning. They are like a kind of abstract idea of painting, specimens of what painting would be if drained of all passion or feeling:
  • Peter Paul Rubens (room 29) is famous for his plump women. Out of his big compositions I noticed his subjects’ black eyes, white breasts and shiny armour, all three exemplified in Minerva protects Pax from Mars (1630). In The Judgement of Paris (1632-5) the black eyes and white boobs are obvious, but the shiny armour is there in the bottom left, in the shield with an image of the Gorgon and a discarded helmet on the ground.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Aechje Claesdr (1634) I like north European art because its humanism trumps the Mediterranean’s emphasis on Christian ideology. The compassion doesn’t come from choruses of angels or saints turning up their tearful eyes to heaven, but from the honest depiction of real people in all their frailty and humanity, deserving our empathy and compassion.
  • Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-6) by Rembrandt. His mistress, apparently, young, fresh faced, innocent, her open chemise hinting at her warm body, the whole image exudes intimacy, trust and love.
  • The solid, thick-waisted, small-breasted Rubens women make the Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velázquez in the next room (30) all the more striking, her very slender waist, narrow back and defined shoulder blades looking anorexic by contrast.
  • Frans Hal Portrait of a Young Woman (1650s) A real person, looking innocent and vulnerable. You expect her to start talking to you
  • The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy (about 1760) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, only a sketch but the more powerful for that.
  • Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1760) What could be lovelier, more charming, more innocent. After all the friars, monks, weeping saints and tortured Jesuses of the Spanish and Italian Baroque, coming into the Gainsborough gallery was like being able to breathe again. Generally, arriving in the English gallery with its trees, open country and educated landowners was a great relief: sun and air, trees and rivers and not a tortured, bleeding Christ in sight.
  • La Coiffure (about 1896) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. In last year’s Impressionism exhibition I was surprised not to like more Degas. But this painting seems to me a masterpiece: the combination of reds; the unfinished parts on the left; the heavy black lines giving a cartoon quality; the ordinary everyday subject matter; the two quiet women, not kings or gods or angels; the intimacy. A ragged modern perfection.

I learned…

Ugly babies There are a lot, a really huge number, of terribly painted babies masquerading as the little baby Jesus. I don’t think we saw one believable image of an actual baby, and so many horrid ones we started a competition to find the ugliest baby Jesus. From a strong field (eg Virgin and Child (1475) by Hans Memling) the winner was The Virgin and Child in a Garden (late 15th century) in the style of Martin Schongauer. Enlarge the image to savour the full horror of the old man baby.

Geniuses who died young

  • Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520) aged 37.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) aged 36.

Carlos’s Law All the Dutch winter landscapes under snow (room 26), of villages or towns with people ice skating on frozen rivers and so on, are immediately appealing:

My friend’s son is called Carlos and after he pointed this out we developed a hypothesis – maybe one day it will become Carlos’s Law – which is that: No painting of a winter scene can be bad. Or, Every painting of a winter scene is automatically good. This held pretty much true from the 17th century Dutch painters where it began to dawn on us, through the intervening centuries to the wintry Impressionist works at the end of the gallery eg:

Personal taste

Turns out I like medieval and Gothic art and don’t like the Renaissance. I like medieval art’s emphasis on the humane, on gorgeous or quirky detail, the prevalence of design and pattern over the clear and (to me) often empty or sterile backdrops which Italian Renaissance art uses to show off its mastery of perspective. Thus I prefer the tight composition, the symmetry, the packed and slightly claustrophobic feel, the sumptuous fabric and cracked floor tiles and the dense foliage climbing over the cloisters of The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510) by Gerard David to, say, The Nativity (1470-5) by Piero della Francesca, with its – to me – sense of abandonment in a sterile, rocky, Beckettian landscape.

And so I preferred almost any northern Renaissance painter – van Eyck and the fabulous Hans Holbein and Rogier van de Weyden – to the more famous Italians, because they seem to me to be more humane; to value the truly human, often ungainly, individual over the more religious types of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars are smoothly executed cartoons: Robert Campin’s man and woman are people.

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Inventing Impressionism @ The National Gallery

Popular

This is the biggest exhibition of Impressionist art in London for 20 years. It was packed. There was a long queue well before it opened at 10am and by 11am it was difficult to see the paintings without people in the way.

The commentary, booklet, audioguide and wall panels all emphasised how revolutionary Impressionism was and what a complete break it represented with official French Salon art (all true enough – there was some dull pre-Impressionist art here to compare it with). But nothing really addressed the more obvious point: why is Impressionist art so incredibly popular today? Why are paintings, once ridiculed as the inept daubs of idiots and incompetents, now sold for tens of millions and plastered over countless chocolate box lids, calendars, posters etc?

Is it because: Impressionist art is colourful and naive, it doesn’t require a knowledge of classical myth or history, it doesn’t depict the intimidatingly rich and powerful, and it is mostly set in a generalised rural idyll – sunshine on fields of poppies and ponds full of lilies? Because it is an escape from anything solid, defined, intellectual or demanding?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881 Oil on canvas 100.4 x 80.9 cm The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection 1933.455 © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Durand-Ruel

The show isn’t actually about Impressionism the art movement: it is about one man – the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. A pretty convincing case is made for him being the inventor or godfather of Impressionism, the man who bought up the early works of all the major Impressionists, as well as organising one-man shows for the artists, opening galleries in Paris and later, America, to showcase their works, paying the poorer ones salaries to allow them to work, whose efforts pretty much single-handedly enabled many of the painters to survive and flourish, who helped to create the narrative that Impressionism is the founding movement of Modern Art and who, along the way, invented many of the methods which underpin the modern art market. A really impressive achievement.

Thus the first room features large wall-size photos of Durand-Ruel’s living room in Paris, liberally hung with the great paintings he owned, and the curators have tried to reunite as many of these paintings as possible in order to recreate the scene. Similarly, the last room contains photos of the key 1905 Grafton exhibition in London and, again, the curators have tried to hang a lot of paintings from that exhibition in the same space.

This exhibition is not a history of the theory or practice of Impressionism. It is about how one man more than any other spotted it, identified it, funded and sustained it, marketed and promoted it, defined and made it what we think it is today.

Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market

To quote the guide, when Durand-Ruel took over his father’s art dealership in 1865 he immediately began applying the techniques of high finance: he found backers and partners for his purchases, sought exclusivity deals, worked to push up prices at auction and brought his product before the public at carefully staged group and one-man shows.

For example, when he was introduced to Manet in his studio, he bought all the available paintings on the spot – 23 paintings in one day – for 35,000 francs (nearly 40 times the pay of the average French worker). By cornering the market (in admittedly unpopular artists) he realised he could leak them onto the market at inflated prices.

I didn’t like any of the Manets on display here – Moonlight at the Port of Bolougne or The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama. The audio commentary itself pointed out there is something wrong with the perspective and details of the still life The SalmonMusic in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) looks, to me, cramped and badly composed, excessively black and, when you look closely, really badly painted.

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917 © The National Gallery, London

Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) by Edouard Manet © The National Gallery, London

The one-man show

In 1883 Durand-Ruel pioneered the idea of the one-man art show, staging a series of month-long, solo exhibitions by Boudin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley. He ensured they were retrospectives i.e. showed the progression or evolution in the artist’s style, and accompanied the shows with advertising campaigns, provided images for the Press to print and publicise, and hosted lavish private views to encourage wealthy buyers.

Selling the ‘series’

This led naturally to collaboration with Monet on his ‘series’ paintings i.e. when Monet set about painting series of versions of the same subject. One of the first was the Poplar Series, 24 canvases of a set of poplar trees on the bend in the Epte river. In February 1892 Durand-Ruel displayed 15 of them in his gallery, facilitating their critical reception and their sale. Five of Monet’s poplar paintings are brought together here, in one of those recreations beloved of curators.

30 years ago I hitch-hiked to Rouen just to see the facade of the cathedral which Monet had painted in a series of paintings which I worshipped as a schoolboy. The paintings magically capture the imposing Gothic architecture in the differing light of different times of day. But now, all the poplar tree paintings in this exhibition left me cold. Either I’ve changed or this poplar series is just not as good. The reproduction below makes the source painting seem much smoother and more finished than it is in real life. In the flesh all the poplar paintings seemed to me lumpy and bumpy and unconvincing.

Claude Monet, Poplars in the Sun (1891) The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo P.1959-0152 © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Poplars in the Sun (1891) by Claude Monet © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Apart from all the other factors – could the enduring popularity of the Impressionists have something to do with the fact that the reproductions – in posters, calendars, chocolate boxes, biscuit tin lids etc – render small and smooth and seamless images which, when seen in the flesh, and much much larger, are surprisingly pock-marked and blodgy?

Bad paintings

In fact, the show contains an unusually large number of bad paintings. I certainly learned a lot about Durand-Ruel and the birth of art marketing, but an unintended outcome of the show was to make me feel quite a lot of sympathy for the early critics of Impressionism. Quotes from these poor benighted souls are printed large on the walls and included in the wall panels for our derision: what philistines! How could they not recognise the shimmering wonders of Monet’s water lilies?

Well, because a lot of the recognised masterpieces of Impressionism weren’t created for another 10, 20 or 30 years after the critics wrote these words. All the critics could do was react to the paintings put in front of them in 1872, 1874, 1876 – and, as this exhibition conclusively proves, a lot of these were genuinely poor, in terms of composition and technique.

Even the audioguide admitted that at first glance Green Park, London by Claude Monet looks so bad it might have been painted by a child. Hanging Out The Laundry To Dry (1875) by Berthe Morisot: is this not an amaterush ‘daub’? I thought I was an unquestioning fan of Dégas – the show features the fabulous Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando and a number of so-so ballet studies – but this show revealed how many bad and awkward paintings he made, as well: Horses before the stands may be famous but I find it gawky and unappealing; and surely Peasant Girls Bathing In The Sea At Dusk is just really bad.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75) Private Collection, Ireland © Photo courtesy of the owner

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75) Private Collection, Ireland © Photo courtesy of the owner

The final room is dominated by a full length portrait of Eva Gonzalès, herself an artist, by Manet (1870). I’ve been spoilt by recently visiting exhibitions of portraits by John Singer Sargent and beautiful late-Victorian female portraiture at the Leighton House Museum – in comparison with those artists, I thought this was a poor painting – look at the face, the heart of any portrait, look at those bug eyes.

Nonetheless, Eva Gonzalès starred in a ground-breaking exhibition Durand-Ruel organised at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905. It was curated with his usual entrepreneurial flair, arranged to tell the story of how the movement evolved from tentative early steps, then burst into maturity with masterpieces by Dégas, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir et al.

The 1905 show had far-reaching influence in this country, helping to popularise the loose sunlit approach to subject matter and style, and establishing Impressionism as the forebear of all Modern Art. I know people who not only loathe Impressionism but hate the way its continuing dominance overshadows far more interesting developments which took place in other European countries, specifically Germany and Scandinavia.

Good paintings

I found a lot of the Impressionist works on display here surprisingly poor. Many of them really did look like the unfinished daubs contemporary critics castigated. But with around 80 paintings on show, there were, of course, plenty of others which are a joy to see.

I think Renoir emerged as the most consistent artist here: he crystallised his vision early on and thereafter poured forth an apparently limitless number of chocolate box people in sunny settings. His Parisians socialising in the open air, his portraits of smiling women and children, his dancing couples, all have an indisputable joie de vivre to them.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Impressionism was about taking the train out of Paris to the still-unspoilt suburbs with newly-available tubes of ready-mixed oil paints, and painting in the open air, and so there are a lot of depictions of Paris’s suburbs, maybe touched with slight signs of industrialism, with railway bridges or distant factory chimneys. Not too much, though.

This work by Sisley, daub or not? Does the light airy sunlit feel compensate for the lack of finish and draughtsmanship? Does the blue sky compensate for the bridge looking wonky? I like clear lines and solid draughtsmanship so, for me, No. For other people, who respond to the overall feel and warm impression an image evokes in them, well, Yes.

Sisley, Alfred, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr., 1964 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872) by Alfred Sisley © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And there were plenty of blurry landscapes by Pissarro or Monet, including several old favourites which are part of the National Gallery’s regular collection, a number depicting London during the artists’ exiles here to escape the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Easy-going nostalgic reminders of what London looked like in the halcyon fantasy-land these artists created and which so many of us hearken back to.

Camille Pissarro, The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) The National Gallery, London, Bought, 1984 © The National Gallery, London

The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) by Camille Pissarro © The National Gallery, London

What I liked

Ezra Pound said that, at the end of the day, all a critic can do is point at something and say ‘I like that’ and then attempt to explain why. I was surprised how many of the paintings on display here I actively disliked. It was a genuine revelation how poor some of the paintings by all these famous names turn out to be.

More or less the only work I really liked – that I could imagine having in my house and seeing every day – was St Paul’s from the Surrey Side by Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), a predecessor of the Impressionists. Not a blue-skied escapist landscape but the big bad city under no illusions. Below is a dark and rather misleading reproduction of it; in the flesh it felt deeper and more evocative. It looks forward to Whistler‘s later impressions of London.

Though blurry, though painted en plein air, it still has an underlying accuracy of draughtsmanship and confidence of line which is what I enjoy in art and found missing in so many of the other paintings on show here.

Charles-François Daubigny St Paul's from the Surrey Side (1871-3) Oil on canvasThe National Gallery, London Presented by friends of Mr. J.C.J. Drucker, 1912 © The National Gallery, London

St Paul’s from the Surrey Side (1871-3) by Charles-François Daubigny © The National Gallery, London

Could the success of the Impressionists not only be down to the fact that their paintings reproduce very well across the range of products and channels the twentieth century invented – but that their rivals and predecessors, the official Salon artists’ works, reproduce very badly, often looking as dark and dingy as the misleading reproduction above?

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