Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Picasso Museum @ Barcelona

There are Picasso Museums all over the place – Paris (where he worked), Malaga (where he was born), Antibes (where he went on holiday) – reflecting the man’s enormous fecundity and iconic fame.

There’s a Museo Picasso in Barcelona because this is where the young Picasso (born in 1881) came to study and make a name as a student and young artist before his first trip to Paris in 1900. The publicity makes much of the fact that this is the first and oldest Picasso Museum (founded in 1963), the only one set up during his lifetime (he died in 1973), and has one of the largest collections with some 4,251 works.

(It was the only cultural venue my teenage kids absolutely insisted on visiting on our recent trip to Barcelona. There was a queue though, to be honest, not as long as the ones at the London Royal Academy, let alone the monster queues at the National gallery. Nonetheless, you can skip past the queue if you buy an Articket or Barcelona Museum Pass, a collective ticket which costs 30 Euros and gets you into six Barcelona museums – Picasso, the Fundació Joan Miró, the National Museum of Catalan Art, the Centre of Contemporary Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Not only is this good value if you can manage to visit all 6, but the Articket also lets you jump the queues at all these places, making for a much smoother experience.)

The Picasso Museum has been beautifully crafted out of several adjoining buildings in the historic Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, not far from the cathedral. The buildings are from the 13th or 14th centuries and each one has a small atrium or central open space with an external staircase going up and around the walls to a first floor arcaded balcony and so into the gallery rooms. These balconies were packed with tourists getting shots of themselves against the ancient stone backgrounds.

Arcaded balcony and steps inside the medieval Picasso Museum, Barcelona

In the cool ground floor rooms are not one but two art bookshops, which were well stocked and fascinating. Surprisingly for such a major attraction, and despite numerous street signs, such is the maze-like nature of the Gothic Quarter that the museum took a bit of finding.

The museum

So after all the effort to find it, figure out the Articket system, and the general build-up, it was a big surprise to discover that the collection is so patchy. There is a great deal of work from PP’s earliest years – very realistic academic studies of nudes, portraits and sentimental Victorian scenes from the 1890s.

It’s tempting to think how conventional and so-so these are, until you realise that Picasso was 14 and 15 years old when he painted them! The museum divides this juvenile period into:

  • the early years (Málaga, Corunna and Barcelona, 1890–97)
  • the training period (Barcelona, Horta de San Juan and Madrid, 1897–1901)

By the turn of the century Picasso is hanging round with bohemian types at the Els Quatre Gats cafe in Barcelona, and amusing them by knocking off sketches and caricatures of his friends, music hall performers, writers and notables in Bohemia.

He makes his first visit to Paris in 1900 and you can immediately feel the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas in his paintings. In fact, the museum lets you see Picasso motoring through all the available influences, trying them on for size.

There are several rooms focusing on the famous Blue Period, of sentimental, stylised, blue-coloured people and landscapes from 1901 to 1904.

So these first 4 or 5 rooms have been very thoroughly about his earliest years as pupil, student and young Bohemian, just tinkering with the influences of the day, when you step through to the next room… Then you walk into the next room and — it’s 1917 and Picasso is suddenly in Paris with the Ballets Russes collaborating on the scenery for their production of Parade.

Whaaat? The entire period from about 1905 to 1917 is absent i.e. the invention of cubism, the basis of modern art, is not here. His combination of Cezanne and discovery of African and Oceanic masks resulting in weird masterpieces like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the entire adventure of collaborating with Braques in the invention of the different types of cubism – nada, nichts, niente, a blank. Instead we leap over the crucial decade to find ourselves among Picasso’s post-cubist work with absolutely no visual explanation of how we got here.

There’s much to like here but then we walk into the next room and… it is suddenly 1923, the war is over and across Europe the arts are undergoing a return to the clarity of neo-classical art in art and music. Here is a room of light, playful lithographs of classical ladies, bearded gods, pillars etc – and some of the later, darker but still mythological lithographs in the style of the Vollard Suite. Again, it feels like we’ve taken a massive leap forward in time, skipping over various key milestones in Picasso’s career.

In an even bigger leap, we then enter a room containing 30 or so of the 58 odd variations Picasso made on Velázquez’s classic painting Las Meninas in 1957. The bitter style of Guernica, the war years, the early Cold War years – invisible. Admittedly the Meninas variations are, apparently, the only series of Picasso variations which is still together and can be viewed in its entirety. But it feels like another massive leap.

In another room there is a similar suite of variations on the dovecot Picasso owned in the south of France, in much the same style as the Meninas variations, and from the same year.

Off to the side are several rooms of Picasso’s ceramics, donated by his last wife Jacqueline Roque – quirky, inventive, humorous plates featuring a basic smiling face or an embossed Picasso fish.

And that’s it. So the Picasso Museum, Barcelona does very much not present a comprehensive overview of Picasso’s whole career. It is a hefty collection of the early student and young-man work in Barcelona – and in this respect it is certainly a place to visit to really study his earliest realistic style and the origins of his art – and after that, there are sudden bursts from what appear to be almost random moments in the rest of his long, creative career.

Likes

My kids liked the blue period and harlequin style paintings best. My daughter liked:

I didn’t disagree, and there were were quite a few other good early works on show – but I ended up liking the room of Las Meninas variations most of all.

By this stage in Picasso’s life, the late 1950s, he really had conquered the world of art and the variations bespeak a superb confidence: he can do anything and he is not afraid. If the images look slapdash, the colours don’t go to the edge of the spaces, if daubs create an effect, lines clash here or there – it doesn’t matter. The variations demonstrate am almost boastfully virile knowledge of the inner workings of oil and art.

The kids and I walked round the room identifying motifs, listing the visual elements which appear in each of the version, re-envisioned in successive variations – some dark and intense, some light and colourful, some detailed and cluttered, some simple and clear.

For example, almost all the variations feature

  • a vertical grid of squares which reappears in different colours and severity
  • two figures at the back which appear as smiley faces atop columns with black-and-white minstrel-type hands sticking out
  • cartoon faces with dots for eyes and ticks for noses as, after all, the original is a portrait of half a dozen or so people.

Most compelling of all is the figure of the man opening the door into the room which appears in all the variations against different coloured backgrounds. My daughter quickly took to thinking of this figure as the centre of a psychedelic title sequence to a science fiction TV series, opening the same door and each time finding a madly different scene before him. He’s in the top in the middle of the first image below.

It became a fun game to identify the elements in each version and see what he’d done with them. This Where’s Wally approach to looking closely at each variation put me in the mood to also enjoy the room of variations Picasso painted on the dovecote and the strutting doves he owned at his home in the South of France (the Museum handily includes black and white photos of the great man among his doves).

Again the same basic theme is remodelled multiple times with varying colours, designs, with an intensity of black lines or a lighter touch. It was fascinating to experience the way different treatments of essentially the same semi-abstract scene evoked widely different emotional and visual responses.

Summary

In summary, you should definitely visit the Picasso Museum (next time you’re in Barcelona) but you should be prepared for the fact that it isn’t at all an overview of his career – it is a thorough look at Picasso’s very earliest work, something which may be mainly for scholars and real devotees – and then snapshots of half a dozen other moments or sets of work of which the Las Meninas variations, as I’ve made clear, would in my opinion be the best reason for going.


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