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

A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock (2009)

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War  by David Boyd Haycock (2009) is the book which led to the lovely exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The artists in question all attended Slade Art school in the years just before WWI and this group biography – weaving together their family stories, their love affairs, their letters and diaries and works of art – gives a wonderful sense of what it was to be young (very young in some cases, 16, 17) and dedicated to Art at a great turning point in history. The five are:

Paul Nash (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11. Parents artists, but his unstable mother had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental asylum in 1910. Served with the Artists’ Rifles 1914–17; appointed Official War Artist as a result of his exhibition Ypres Salient at the Goupil Gallery 1917.

CRW (Christopher) Nevinson (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11, from an artistic middle class family, Nevinson was a loud bombastic man who joined the Futurists, was briefly allied to Ezra Pound’s Vorticists, before achieving his height of fame as a war artist during the Great War with a series of wonderful Modernist depictions of the conflict, most famously La Mitrailleuse.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) at Slade 1908. From very poor Jewish immigrant family struggling to survive in the East End, popular and famous in his day he is best known for the harshly Modernist the Merry-go-round.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) at Slade 1908-12. From a populous family of a come-down-in-the-world middle class family living in Cookham, Berkshire, which Spencer came to idolise. Served with the R.A.M.C. and the Royal Berkshire Regiment, mainly in Macedonia, 1915–18, and was commissioned to paint a war picture for the Imperial War Museum

Dora Carrington (1893-1932) at Slade  . From a smart, professional and arty middle class family but with a spectacularly repressed Victorian mother who passed on her sexual ignorance to Dora who spent her entire life trying to break free until she ended up in a very Bloomsbury menage with the gay writer Lytton Strachey.

The book falls into two halves: the first half where a selection of promising art students arrive at Slade, in slightly different years, at different ages, from different backgrounds, and set about trying to make careers in London’s difficult and treacherous art and literary world; and the second half when, quite by surprise, the First World War begins and all of them (except the only woman, Dora Carrington) find themselves dragged into it. Although it brings out the artistic best in Nevinson above all, but also in Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, the War destroys their innocence and optimism and neither the world nor they are the same afterwards.

This book more than anything I’ve ever read conveys the way the Great war smashed lives. It creates such a compelling sense of the group, the gang of friends and hangers-on and aquaintances, all living their rather self-obsessed literary or artistic lives, squabbling and falling in love and issuing little manifestoes – and then, BANG! Horror and terror. Never before have I shared the fear and anxiety these young men and their brothers felt about whether or not to enlist and then, as conscription spread like a plague, how or if they could escape being conscripted and being forcibly sent like sausage fodder in trains to the Front to be murdered in their millions.

The book begins with the light airiness of Cookham by the Thames but by the time it draws to a conclusion at the same beauty spot 50 years later too much has happened, too many lives been lost and cultures been broken and hopes been dashed for it not to be shadowed and riven. This is a wonderful book and at the end I was nearly crying.

A marvellous nude by Dora Carrington aged 19, the varieties of flesh tone set against an impenetrable black from Fuseli.

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later the sensuous comfort, based on centuries of realistic painting, of Carrington’s nude, was swept away by faceless masses, by the semi automatons which were created by war on a hitherto unimaginable scale, captured by one of Nevinson’s wonderfully evocative war paintings, Column on the March.

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

A Crisis of Brilliance @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

To the small and beautifully formed Dulwich Picture Gallery for a typically petite and poignant exhibition, “A Crisis of Brilliance“, bringing together 70 or so paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Paul Nash who all studied at the Slade in the years leading up to the Great War. The exhibition stems from a book, David Boyd Haycock’s group biography of these artists, ‘A Crisis of Brilliance‘, published in 2009, so this is the exhibition of the book:

Mark Gertler developed a stylised way with chunky figures (eg the strange and wonderful The Fruit Sorters) and blocky landscapes (The Pool at Garsington) – though he’s probably best known for the highly stylised Merry-go-round, currently hanging in Tate Britain. Paintings by Mark Gertler on Google images.

Dora Carrington is the most elusive of the bunch: a note on the exhibition wall claims the patriarchal sexism of the Georgian art world undermined her confidence. It is telling that the images Google images bring together for her are a) not particularly distinctive b) feature lots of photos of her with men including the Love of her Life, Lytton Strachey. The show features some striking pencil drawings of heads and wonderful female nudes (the powerful Female Figure Lying on Her Back, 1912) testament to Slade’s insistence on teaching its students draughtmanship. She married the writer Lytton Strachey and moved to rural Berkshire, where she painted local scenery eg The River Pang above Tidmarsh, in stark contrast to the urban and/or modernist approach of the five men.

David Bomberg was, apparently, one of the first painters to experiment with pure abstraction in 1913 and 1914, in paintings like The Mud Bath or In The Hold (1914), below, painted when he was just 22!

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

But Bomberg seems to have capitalised on this breakthrough in relatively few paintings and after the War relapsed into a sub-Cezanne murkiness. He became a respected teacher but was erased from art history.”He was in his lifetime the most brutally excluded artist in Britain. Having lived for years on the earnings of his second wife Lilian Holt and remittances from his sister Kitty, he died in absolute poverty.” (Wikipedia)

Paul Nash had a long and successful career developing his early knack for landscape into a particularly surreal vision of an essentially quiet pastoral England. Throughout his career he produced vivid and strange images, of the Great War (The Menin Road), of the South Downs in the 30s (Landscape from a Dream), and then haunting depictions of the Second World War in the 1940s (Totes Meer). Paintings by Paul Nash on Google images.

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

C.R.W. Nevinson quickly took to the Futurist/Vorticist style in with its dynamic angles, bright colours and sense of boundless energy bursting out the confines of the picture frame. I liked The Towpath, an early example of industrial impressionism which reminded me of the Paul Valette painting I saw at the Lowry exhibition: it was done in 1912 but only a year later he had moved beyond this into the modernism of Dance Hall Scene, below, or the Le Vieux Port, both 1913.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

Nevinson found the subject to match his angular, vibrant style in the Great War, working in the Ambulance Corps and producing unforgettable images of which maybe the most famous is La Mitrailleuse. Everything Nevinson did in these few hectic years is excellent, virile, lucid, alive, like the darkly vivid Column on the March, or the grim scene in a field hospital,La Patrie. He did a series of paintings of airplanes in the Great War and there is a perfect, exquisite example here – Spiral descent – a sliver of blue heaven with a tiny matchstick airplane swooping down the metal curve of the sky – breathtaking. Paintings by CRW Nevinson on Google images.

Stanley Spencer was to become the most successful of the group, going on to fame and a knighthood, all very odd for the shy visionary from Cookham. The early works in the exhibition show the quirky naive style Spencer was developing, the Christian subject matter embedded in his native Berkshire village and the awkward angular handling of the human figure (John Donne arriving in heaven) – but they seem like apprentice works, none of them have the finished, oiled richness of his amazing shipbuilding paintings from the Second World War or the mature Cookham paintings. Paintings by Stanley Spencer on Google images.

The last room, detailing the fates of the six artists after the Great War, is sad: Nevinson never recovered the swashbuckling style or intense subject matter of the War, reverting to a more figurative style, sinking into despair by the mid-20s and dying unknown in the 1940s. Gertler gassed himself in 1936. Dora Carrington shot herself in 1932 shortly after Lytton Strachey died. Bomberg, though a brilliant teacher, sank into critical obscurity. Only Nash and Spencer went on to unquestioned success.

This is a wonderfully intimate exhibition, showing early and minor and experimental works from six very interesting artists, as they found their feet and navigated through the hectic style wars of the experimental 1910s and the brutal War Years.

The exhibition continues until 22 September at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

List of Crisis of Brilliance artworks (PDF)

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