Rembrandt’s Light @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This beautiful exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is celebrating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1669 by bringing together 35 of his iconic paintings, etchings and drawings, including major international loans including:

  • The Pilgrims at Emmaus, 1648 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
  • Philemon and Baucis, 1658 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
  • Tobit and Anna with the Kid, 1645 and The Dream of Joseph, 1645 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

The theme of the exhibition is Light and each of the six exhibition rooms focuses on different ways and different media in which Rembrandt showed his mastery of light and shadow.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Before we look at any of the works in detail the curators introduce us to a couple of key ideas:

1. Theatrical

Apparently a new theatre opened in Amsterdam in the 1640s, and the curators quote its owners as pointing out that all the world’s a stage. There’s no direct link, apparently, between the new theatre and Rembrandt’s work except as a peg to bring out the theatricality of his conception. Once it’s pointed out to you, you realise how obvious it is that so many of Rembrandt’s paintings have been posed and staged and set and lit as if for a stage play or opera; that Rembrandt time after time chooses moments of great human drama to depict.

Hence the centrepiece of the first room is the enormous, square painting showing the moment the cock crows in the story of St Peter denying Christ, a moment of phenomenal psychological and religious drama.

The Denial of St Peter (1660) by Rembrandt van Rijn © The Rijksmuseum

This painting alone would repay hours of study. Suffice to point out the obvious, that most of the picture is in deep shadow or gloom, with the result that where light is portrayed it powerfully draws the eye – towards the mysterious glow behind the woman’s hand and onto Peter’s cloak. It was possible to spend quite a long time in front of it just enjoying the burnish on the soldier’s armour and elaborate helmet.

Reflections and jewels

In fact a kind of sub-theme of the exhibition, for me at any rate, was not only Rembrandt’s use of light so much as his use of reflections, especially off metallic surfaces and jewels. For me an exciting part of the Philemon and Baucis painting is not the light as such, but the way it highlights the gold filigree work on Jupiter’s chest and what looks like a band of pearls around Mercury’s head.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Detail

Similarly, the exhibition includes Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait with a Flat Hat, but among all the visual and psychological pleasures of this wonderful painting, I was attracted by the light reflected from the pearl necklaces around Rembrandt’s chest, on his gold bracelet, and his cheeky, dangling pearl ear-ring.

Self Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, (1642) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Detail

Light not only has a source and comes from somewhere, but also impacts, illuminates and is reflected back from its targets. What I’m struggling to express is that I didn’t just notice the cunning use of light sources in Rembrandt’s paintings, but the extremely clever, inventive and beautiful ways he uses these often obscure light sources to highlight, burnish and illuminate telling details in the compositions.

A word about reproductions

Back to The Denial of St Peter. What’s a little hard to make out in this little reproduction is that off in the background at the top right is Jesus, a shadowy figure with his hands bound behind him being led away and turning to look at the doleful scene of faithless Peter. Which brings us to a general point:

There’s a good catalogue of the exhibition but flicking through it you realise that all reproductions of Rembrandt are inadequate. No photographic reproduction can do justice to the subtlety and depth, the multiple levels of light and shade and darkness which he manages to achieve with oil painting.

One of the best paintings here is Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt van Rijn (1647) National Gallery of Ireland

In the flesh it is a marvel, with multiple layers of paint conveying a dark and stormy night, hills in the background and up on a distant hill the silhouette of some kind of building with tiny glowing windows, while down in the foreground the tiny figures of Mary and Joseph and a servant tend a fire which shines out in a darkness which includes multiple shades of grey inflected with the orange of the fire and morphing into a strange preternatural almost purple sky of dusk. But in the catalogue reproduction almost all of this is jet black.

That’s the point of going to art galleries. The real actual art is always, in the flesh, a thousand times more sensual, rich, deep and mysterious than any colour print.

2. Rembrandt’s house

The curators go large on the biographical fact that in 1639 Rembrandt bought a big house in the Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam, where he lived and painted until he went bankrupt in 1656 (today the Museum Het Rembrandthuis). One wall of room two has an architect’s drawing of the building printed on it.

Rembrandt had his studio on the first floor with its big windows. On the floor above were the smaller studios where he supervised his students. Here, we learn, he set his students all kinds of challenges designed to broaden their technique. Draw or paint a composition with a light source above, to the side, beneath the figures. Make an image with two light sources, one outside the frame. Paint a scene at night. Paint a scene at dawn. Thus the exhibition features drawings by a number of Rembrandt’s students showing them working with light, or by the master himself.

The Artist’s Studio (c. 1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Mock-ups

This brings us to another notable aspect of the exhibition, which is the way it is laid out and staged. The curators have gone to a lot of trouble to make it a dramatic experience, with each room lit and arranged in a different way. But over and above the lighting, in the room where the drawing above is on display, they have recreated the scene by building into the partition wall high, latticed windows that you can see in the drawing, and above the windows a sheet of muslin or cotton has been hung in a kind of billow, while the lower tier of windows has been blocked off, either by fabric of wooden shutters.

The point, for understanding Rembrandt, is to show how carefully he arranged windows and fabrics in order to create light effects in his studios. The point, for visitors to this exhibition, is to be impressed by the trouble the curators have gone to to recreate this aspect of Rembrandt’s studio in the gallery.

Peter Suschitzky, cinematographer

Related to the care taken over the design and layout of the exhibition, is the fact that the two curators – Jennifer Scott and Helen Hillyard – have collaborated with the award-winning cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, famed for his work on films such as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to create ‘a unique viewing experience’.

What this means is that, having established which works they were going to display, they collaborated with the lighting guy to really think about how to group them into rooms each of which has its own special lighting design and feel.

The most dramatic example of this is room five which is stripped back to its simplest essence with just one painting hanging in it, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638). All kinds of things are going on with light in this painting, as you can see for yourself.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb by Rembrandt van Rijn (1638) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The thing, the schtick, the gimmick or the stroke of brilliance cooked up by Suschitzky, Scott and Hillyard, was the decision to have one narrow spot light focused on this painting and have it set to very slowly fade away to nothing, and then very slowly come on again till it’s bathing the painting in full light.

As it fades and then returns, something really weird happens: at certain moments in the dimming and fading process, it really as if a ray of light from heaven is falling across the scene. In particular, there’s a certain pint when the face of Mary, the light lower left half, becomes briefly luminescent. And you can simply see why this experience required a whole room to really savour.

Draughtsmanship

The middle rooms contain the etchings and drawings, including ones from his pupils. I have to be honest and say I was underwhelmed by these. His capture of light and shade in the punishingly difficult medium of drypoint etching is marvellous; but his actual draughtsmanship isn’t. In fact sometimes it feels positively wonky.

A good example of this mixed impression is Woman with an Arrow, which is important enough to have an audioguide item devoted to it. Now I can see the dramatic contrast between the whiteness of her naked body and the deep gloom of the background. But.. but if you look at her right arm, at some point I think you realise it isn’t quite in the same picture plane as the rest of her body, has a kind of deformed look. It took me a while to notice there’s a face (presumably of a student drawing her) by her left shoulder. Not very good is it? Crude.

Woman with an Arrow (c. 1661) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam

This kind of rather blodgy wonkiness with the human figure runs throughout Rembrandt’s work. Sometimes he rises effortlessly above it. But other times, I found it distracting. If you scroll back up to the painting at the start of this review – the painting captures the moment from the Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis when the old peasant couple welcome in two wandering strangers and go to the trouble of slaughtering their best goose to make  meal. And at this point, the wanderers reveal themselves to be no other than king of the gods Jupiter and  his messenger Mercury.

It is a typically dramatic moment, and the lighting effect is characteristically subtle, with the natural light coming from the little fireplace on the left eclipsed by the golden light now suddenly emanating from the heads of the visiting gods.

But look closely at those godheads and you might be disappointed by their wonkiness. Jupiter’s eyes in particular look uneven, almost making him look like a cranky Cyclops rather than a figure of majesty and awe.

Heartbroken tenderness

So I’m a big fan of very precise draughtsmanship, for me one of the great thrills of art is the way a handful of pencil or brushstrokes can create a world, and so I felt myself being brought up again and again by the apparent wonkiness of many of the images, viewed as pure exercises in draughtsmanship.

BUT, and it is an enormous but, Rembrandt’s paintings (especially) have a quality which supersedes and outweighs any strict concerns about linesmanship, and this is their immense human warmth. The catalogue quotes a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother in which he describes Rembrandt’s tenderness and then goes on to be more precise, praising the heartbreaking tenderness of his images.

Rembrandt in fact made a very large number of images – paintings, drawings and etchings – and you can see why it’s possible to argue – even on the basis of just the 35 works here – that he inhabited a number of different styles.

But the ones we remember, the famous ones, the ones in the anthologies and you were shown at school all share his great and wonderful quality, a sense of almost superhuman sympathy and understanding with the poor weak vulnerable human animal. He liked painting old people because their faces convey the depth and ravages of experience and yet tremendous dignity. His own mature self portraits convey volumes about human experience which no words can match.

Which is why the sixth and final room of this exhibition is worth the price of admission by itself because it brings together half a dozen of Rembrandt’s greatest hits and the impression is overwhelming. There’s the Self Portrait in a Flat Cap, the Girl At a Window, a wonderfully sensuous and intimate portrait of a woman in bed. All of them convey that sense of immense, almost god-like tenderness which van Gogh described.

Maybe most tender of all is the famous painting of the woman wading into a stream, supposed to be a portrait of his mistress.

A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654) by Rembrandt van Rijn, © The National Gallery, London

In line with my narrow (and maybe illiterate and philistine) views about Rembrandt’s abilities as a draughtsman, I don’t think the face bears too much scrutiny. But detail like that is beside the point. By this stage (the end) of the exhibition, we have been tutored to appreciate:

The theatricality of the image – not a melodramatic moment from the Bible or classical myth, but nonetheless a very telling, precise and revealing moment of domestic intimacy and candour.

The human tenderness the tremendous feel for the beauty of the exposed, trusting human being in a moment of vulnerability and honesty.

And – to bring us back to the main theme of the exhibition – to the importance of light in creating the overall effect. In a sense, it is only because he is such a master of light that you don’t really notice the importance of the light to the impact of the image until it is specifically pointed out to you, it is so totally subsumed into the overall composition.

The cumulative effect of looking closely at, and having explained to you, Rembrandt’s various ways and techniques with light is eventually to make you realise that rather startling fact that light alone can convey emotion. Light alone can create meaning in a painting. Light alone can shape images which prompt such powerful feelings of human sympathy and compassion.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life @ the National Gallery

Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761 – 1845) was 28 and an established painter when the French Revolution broke out. He managed not to get his head cut off by the apostles of freedom and equality, going on to survive the rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and enjoying a long and successful career – 84 was quite a ripe old age, especially back then.

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The National Gallery owns just one Boilly painting, the small but intriguing A Girl at a Window. For this exhibition they’ve borrowed 20 works from a British private collection which have never previously been displayed or published and hung them all in Room One of the gallery (up the stairs and immediately to your left, if you come in the main entrance).

So this really is an unparalleled opportunity to find out more about an artist who is little known in Britain.

The twenty paintings and drawings on display show that Boilly was a lot of fun. He comes from an era when people used paintings for amusement and entertainment and information and titillation.

The latter motive is to the fore in two or three of his paintings from the 1790s. In these boudoir scenes or ‘seductive interiors’ Boilly combines two or three of key concerns. One is human interest. This is an anecdotal scene of two nubile young women comparing feet (and stockings). For the time this was quite a ‘saucy’ picture in that you can see a lot of the ladies’ stockinged feet and (as the wall label points out) a titillating amount of bosom on the verge of falling out of both women’s dresses. Boilly was certainly not highbrow. He wanted to please and entertain.

Comparing Little Feet, about 1791 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Comparing Little Feet (about 1791) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

But the second feature of this painting is the phenomenal attention to detail. When you lean in you can see how much fun he’s had capturing the difference textures and surfaces and the play of light on the wooden table, the pink sash, the silver tankard and the sheets of paper behind them. A tremendous eye for detail and a concern that the image is completely finished. The looseness of brush we are used to in the Impressionists and everyone who followed is inconceivable here. Every millimetre of the canvas is covered in paint which depicts the scene in loving detail.

But it was scenes of Parisian street life that made Boilly famous. the exhibition includes half a dozen paintings of street scenes – working men gambling at a tavern, a beggar importuning a smartly dressed couple couple, a small crowd of gawpers gathered round a punch and judy booth.

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

This is narrative or anecdote painting. You’re meant to admire the overall composition, but then are encouraged to look out for all the humorous touches and details the painter has included – the boy at far right trying to look inside the booth, the soldiers at far left commenting, the old lady nursing a baby under the tree, the dog on the left has he seen or smelt something? And of course the central event they’re all looking at which is the hand puppet of Mr Punch trying to fit a hoop over the neck of a cat.

Note the twee little girl in a bonnet with her face turned towards us. Boilly’s crowd scenes nearly always include someone looking out directly at the viewer, including us in the scene. And then, stepping back, note that by far the brightest, best illuminated part of the painting is the bright pink and white dresses of the two young ladies with their backs to us.  Once you’ve noticed how dazzlingly bright they are, you can read the painting again, purely in terms of the play of light and shade. When you do that, you come to appreciate how cannily Boilly has used various levels of lighting to create a dynamic interplay between different parts of the composition.

The French Revolution brought a new class to power, very loosely definable as the bourgeoisie, the educated middle classes who supplanted the French aristocracy in positions of power. Boilly’s naughty but nice interiors, and his observant depictions of street scenes were aimed at this new market. Instead of lofty allegories about Greek gods – the kind of thing which made aristocrats feel clever and godlike – Boilly’s pictures depict Parisian life as it actually was, naughty young ladies, beggars, the homeless, street entertainers, fine looking bourgeoisie, workers in rags.

The teemingness of it, the panoramic effect reminds me of the huge series of novels written by Honoré de Balzac which commenced in the same year as the Poor Cat and as what is arguably Boilly’s masterpiece, A Carnival Scene.

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

It is a winter’s afternoon and characters from the Italian commedial dell’arte are roaming the streets of Paris alongside men dressed as monkeys and aristocratic spectres from the pre-revolutionary era. Down at the front is a dog leaping with a theatrical mask over its tail, a boy is blowing a horn, a fat lady is climbing into the coach in the middle and her skirts have blown up to reveal her bare buttocks. This is the largest panorama of Paris life Boilly attempted, and I think you can detect its influence in later panoramic anecdotal paintings.

There’s a (slightly spooky) figure at the front a third of the way across the painting which is holding out its arms to the scampering dog. This gesture reminded me of William Powell Frith’s classic panorama, Derby Day, painted about 25 years later in 1858, where, in the centre at the front an acrobat entertainer dressed in white with yellow shorts is holding out his arms to his son who is completely distracted by the lavish meal being laid out on a picnic to his left (our right).

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 - 1858)

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 – 1858)

Comparing the two paintings brings out how totally Frith has assimilated all the lessons of painting and applied them directly to depicting his day with complete realism, fastidiously capturing costume, human types, and the chaotic teeming of the crowd.

By contrast Boilly seems very dated. The pink sky and the overall brown hue refers back to the countless landscapes of the Dutch school of the 17th century. Although his crowd is teeming, too, a look at any individual in it indicates that they are either caricatures (all the masked and costumed characters) or sentimentalised (the young ladies) and Boilly uses bright white light to lead the eye towards the centre of the composition and the fine lady in an expensive yellow dress, which acts as a sort of visual and psychological anchor. The well-heeled bourgeoisie are still at the heart of, still in control of things.

Portraits

Boilly’s depictions of modern urban life made his reputation at the Salon, but it was his vast output of portraits which made him his income. Over the course of  his career he painted over 5,000 small portraits for a huge range of patrons, soldiers, lawyers, members of the Napoleonic nobility and the bourgeoisie.

Most of these were smallish oil portraits measuring about 22cm by 17cm. It is recorded that they took him about two hours to complete. He was nothing if not a pro. But I’ve chosen to represent his skill at depicting the human face with this set of charcoal and chalk drawings of Jean Darcet and six members of his family. It’s a funny mix of the conventional and the truly realistic. The two young ladies on either side of the venerable patriarch have rather simpering expressions and the chap at bottom left looks like a certain stock type of 18th century portrait. It was the row of sons along the bottom that caught my attention, specially the chap with the porky cheeks second from left. I really like the way they all have very loose and scruffy haircuts.

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sentimentality

Connected to the portraits are Boilly’s rather sickly sweet treatment of small children. Boilly was married twice (both wives predeceased him) and fathered ten children, of whom four died young. This picture depicts three of Boilly’s young sons, Julien adjusting the position of Alphonse’s head, while Édouard (left) looks on. It’s one of several which focus on small children and mothers.

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

If you look on the left you can see the boys’ pet dog is sitting to attention, with a stick over one soldier like a soldier. Yes, this is sickeningly sentimental tripe for a sensitive bourgeois audience, but Boilly knew his market very well. Pictures like this sold very well, particularly to mothers, which is why many of them feature a mother amid her oh-so-lovely brood.

Trompe l’oeil

I had no idea that Boilly coined the expression trompe l’oeil, which is French for ‘deceives the eye’ and has come to be the term used to refer to tricks with paint which create visual illusions. The final little section of the display shows three or so paintings which use trompe l’oeil effects including this, the only Boilly painting the National Gallery possesses, A Girl at a Window.

It dates from 1799, the decade when Boilly was painting his saucy interiors, and it is an interior with a young woman but there’s nothing hugely saucy about it. As in so many of the paintings the figure is looking directly out at us, inviting us into the scene and at first we are – as we’ve seen in some of his other works – mainly taken with her face and dress because this is so very highlighted, so bright, the best lit part of the composition.

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

Only slowly do our eyes adjust to the relative gloom of the rest of the scene and slowly come to realise how absolutely packed it is with anecdote and detail. To the right not just a vase but a bowl with a fish swimming in it, echoed by the smaller vial in front of it and then some kind of stick (or flute). And when you really look you realise there is a bird cage hanging on the wall above the goldfish bowl.

And to the left is an attractive young boy peering through a telescope trained off to the left. Look at the catchlight on the rim of the telescope and then on the frame and tripod supporting it. The depiction of light and reflection is wonderful.

And then you notice the frieze carved into the stone beneath the window ledge. Half a dozen characters are depicted in that, caught in some mythological travails.

It qualifies as a trompe l’oeil, as a humorous attempt to trick the viewer because although it is painted, every aspect of it is designed to make it look like a print, namely the fact that it is monochrome, painted only in shades of black, white and grey. This illusion is accentuated by the grey mount or surround for the picture which is itself painted, and by the artist’s ‘printed’ signature at bottom left.

Coming to A Girl at a Window hanging on its own in the National Gallery, you might have been intrigued for a few minutes and then passed on. The achievement of this small but beautifully formed little exhibition is to place it in the context of a life and career which was artful, clever, stylish and fun.

This is a FREE exhibition and you leave it with a smile on your face.


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The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory @ Tate Modern

This is the first major UK exhibition of Pierre Bonnard’s work in 20 years.

It brings together over 100 paintings, sketches and drawings, photos and some rare film footage of the great man, many being loans from galleries abroad so that, for fans, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revel in Bonnard’s strange, entrancing art, and for those of us who are less familiar with his work, an opportunity to educate ourselves.

Dining Room in the Country (1913) by Pierre Bonnard © Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dining Room in the Country (1913) by Pierre Bonnard © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The key facts that come over are:

  • colour although born in 1867, and a successful painter by the 1890s, it was only in 1912 that Bonnard undertook a major overhaul of his style, placing far more emphasis on colour and becoming much more relaxed about composition – hence this exhibition concentrates on the period 1912-47
  • memory although there are some very early, tiny photographs of himself and his partner naked, back around 1900, and one or two later on which he used to help him with composition – the key thing to bear in mind is that Bonnard worked from memory, recreating scenes in his mind
  • long working and this is related to the way he worked on paintings over very long periods of time, sometimes decades; the commentary picks out works which were painted, then repainted, then worked over, then reconfigured, for years and years (he started Young Woman in the Garden in 1921 but revisited it in 1946, repainting a large section of it was was working on it at his death)
  • domestic his subject matter is unremittingly low key and domestic, homely and interior: about four subjects dominate the works – looking out an open door or window into a garden; people round a dining room table; his wife in the bath or washing in a tub; a naked woman reflected in a mirror
Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Overcoming your prejudices

If writing this blog has taught me anything about myself it is that I like disegno, the art of drawing, the magical creation of shapes and forms and depth and weight on two-dimensional paper or canvas through the use of confident, incisive lines.

Therefore, I had to make a conscious effort not to judge Bonnard by what I like, but to relax and try and let him show me new ways to make painting. What I mean is, Bonnard is the opposite of my usual taste. There isn’t a straight line or regular geometric shape in sight. Instead the lines and frames are there in order to let the colour run riot.

If you look at Dining Room in the Country (1913) there are, in fact, quite a few geometric objects which ought to have straight lines – the door frame and open door, the window frame and open window. But quite obviously he is not interested in photographic accuracy – all the lines are there in order to create an illusion of three dimensional space, in which something else is going on.

I always listen to the audioguides at exhibitions. Sometimes they are bossy, sometimes briskly authoritative. I found the commentary on Bonnard’s paintings by curator Matthew Gale struck just the right note of hesitancy: something is quite clearly going on, but it regularly takes quite a lot of looking to figure out precisely what.

Gale tells us it is a characteristic of Bonnard’s paintings that the more you look, the more you begin to notice half-buried details. It’s not as if any of these provide the key, as if they were Renaissance works packed with arcane symbolism. The opposite. Nothing is arcane about them. A woman is lying in a bath. Not very difficult to parse or understand. And yet… her head is at an inconvenient angle compared to the rest of her body. Her right leg is unrealistically straight with, apparently, no knee. The tiles beside the bath display an amazing richness of colour, an embarrassment of gold and orange, and then the tiles beneath the bath have stopped being accurate representations of an actual floor and have become a pattern of turquoise squares with a pattering of gold towards the right.

Nude in the Bath (1936-8) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Nude in the Bath (1936-8) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Should you be put off the painting by the apparently ‘bad’ draughtsmanship of the human body? Or should you let yourself be dazzled by the gorgeousness of the colour and the entrancing half-abstract design?

That is the question I found myself asking again and again as I faced paintings with almost deliberately poor drawing and composition – and yet dazzling displays of gorgeous colour.

Possibly it could be put as an equation: where colour triumphs you are prepared to overlook dodgy elements in the design; but in other compositions the poor draughtsmanship predominates and so, on balance, I didn’t like.

Here’s an example which hangs in the balance, Coffee from 1915. Various elements are – judged purely by their accuracy, their verisimilitude, their anatomical or perspectival correctness – less than good, for example the right arm of the person putting something on the table, let alone his or her hand. Yuk. Clumsy. Gauche. The dog is sweet but not that well done. What’s happened to the woman in yellow’s left hand?

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

And yet… clearly this is a strong and powerful painting. it makes a big impression, for maybe two reasons: dominant is the red and white pattern of the tablecloth which sets slightly slapdash tone, in which colour and vividness is more important than accuracy; and then it is obviously catching a mood, the dog and the woman – although badly drawn – nonetheless conveying a calming, homely, domestic mood. These are the kind of paintings which led to him being called an ‘Intimist’.

So I think Coffee supports my thesis that, in Bonnard’s best paintings, colour and mood overcome weaknesses in depiction. And then there is that other element, which I quoted Matthew Gale referring to, the way that. The more you look at it, the more you become aware of odd details, the more drawn in you find yourself. Thus in the commentary for this painting, Gale candidly tells us that ‘no-one knows’ what the band of design down the right hand side of the canvas is: it doesn’t look like it represents anything ‘in’ the picture space; is it purely decorative?

Many of the paintings are cut off at edges like this, clipped at the edges and sides, creating the sense of something overheard and accidentally seen, helping to shape that sense of closeness and intimacy.

Mysterious moments in time

The dominance of colour and visual impact over strict, literal accuracy, brings us to the notion that Bonnard was interested in capturing moments in time, moments like (to describe the four paintings above) a woman looking in at an open window, a woman glimpsed fixing up her hair, lying in a leisurely cooling bath, or sipping a cup of coffee while the dog sits up at the table.

Certainly this notion, of intimate moments captured and then meditated on, turned over in the painter’s memory and converted, over a long period of time, into essays in colour and composition, fits the many, many paintings of naked women, and the recurring themes of – naked woman in front of mirror, naked woman in bath, dressed woman at table.

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Psychologising

And it’s about here that you need to know that Bonnard had a small but turbulent love life. For most of his life his partner was Marthe de Méligny. They lived together for thirty or so years before marrying in 1925. So far, so idyllic. But for the two years before the marriage Bonnard had been having an affair with Renée Monchaty, who sometimes modelled for him. They visited Rome together in 1921, an experience memorialised in several paintings. He even proposed to her in 1923, but then broke off the engagement. When Renée learned that Bonnard had married de Méligny, she killed herself. Hmm. Not quite so idyllic as it all first seemed.

And then we learn that de Méligny herself suffered from a number of psychological illnesses, some biographers interpreting it as a form of paranoia. Certainly she was reclusive and disliked company. Bonnard wrote to a friend in 1930:

For quite some time now I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely anti-social and I am obliged to avoid all contact with other people.

So the theme of domestic intimacy, of just the one figure in so many of the paintings, takes on a slightly more troubled tone.

Moreover, as part of the treatment for her complaints, or maybe a symptom of her compulsions, Marthe took baths and washed herself several times a day.

Ah. Now the countless paintings of a woman in a bath or a woman naked in front of a mirror fiddling with her hair take on a new and maybe troubling significance. Without much effort you can to interpret the mirrors as symbolic of a divided self, of a mind split into unhappy fragments, all the more so because of Bonnard’s habit of cropping the mirrors themselves (so you rarely see the entire mirror) and of showing the reflected image as itself cropped and ‘mutilated’.

So the scope is there, if you like psychological interpretations, to make quite a lot out of the ‘cramped’ interiors’, the woman divided against herself, the woman as passive object of the male gaze in the bath tub, and so on. (You might even notice, as I did, that more often than not the nude woman is wearing white high-heeled shoes. Everyone to their own fetish.)

But, in the painting above, Nude before a mirror, seeing it in the flesh, much more vibrant and garish than in this flattened reproduction, what grabbed my attention was the black circles drawn on the curtains at the top right. And it took me a while to realise that the green rectangle half way up the right of the picture is the end of a bed, and that the other colourful patches must be clothes placed on the bed.

In other words, once I had gotten over a) my standard heterosexual response to seeing a naked woman with a slender shapely bare legs and bum, and b) once I’d got over the unhappy squat shape of her head, and stopped worrying about the stumpy depiction of her left arm and hand (i.e. Bonnard’s shortcomings as a draughtsman) – then I was ready c) to take in the whole image as an exercise in colour, laid out in strange and beguiling composition (the picture is, once you start looking, really cluttered with angles and objects and stuff, which become slowly more puzzling and beguiling the longer you look at it.)

In other words, if you make the effort to overlook some shortcomings, if you suspend judgement, if you slow your mind right down, you find yourself becoming absorbed in the play of colour and composition, drawn in, absorbed and, if you really let go… entranced.

Gardens

But it wasn’t all baths and mirrors; Bonnard also painted gardens, of his home in the village of Vernonnet in Normandy and at his mother’s home at le Grand-Lemps in the Daupiné in south-east France then, from 1926, at the house he bought in the village of Le Cannet. From this date onwards he spent more and more time in the south, depicting the explosive impact of the Mediterranean light.

Take this work from late in his life, The Garden 1936.  It is a dazzling explosion of colour and, once again, as Matthew Gale suggested, repays prolonged looking. As to trivial details, can you see the two pairs of pigeons, two brown at the back of the path, two white at the front? But it’s really the purely painterly elements, like the vertical tree trunk on the right contrasted with the green diagonal plant stem, or the strange almost square chunk of sand at the top right decorated with orange blobs. Words (as you can tell) can’t really convey the richness of the visual impact.

The Garden (1936) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

The Garden (1936) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Other themes

Because it is so comprehensive the exhibition has space to explore other themes (i.e. show a number of paintings of other subjects in other styles).

Self portraits These include three or more of his later self-portraits which are sombre and grim, very unlike the blazing colour of the domestic interiors and gardens.

War and crowd scenes There’s also a roomful of works from the Great War, showing a ruined village and some crowd scenes from Paris, which I thought were complete fails – where the drabness of the colours (brown and black) failed to compensate for his bad or ugly draughtsmanship. They have a room to themselves designed to show that he was more than just bathrooms and gardens: but they don’t really convince. When Bonnard goes wrong he really goes wrong.

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

Bonnard isn’t consistently brilliant. Each painting needs to be looked at and absorbed on its ow merit, and since there’s over 100 pictures and sketches and photos, that’s a lot of time and a lot of attention required.

Half a dozen of them really made me stop, sit down, and just stare… and the more I looked, the more entranced I became. It is easy to criticise Bonnard’s weak points, but it’s harder to put into words the really powerful, strong, sucking impact the best of his paintings have.

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

I found that Bonnard’s paintings did something which virtually all curators claim for their artists but which few ever really do: they made me see in a whole new way; see, think and feel about paintings in a more open, receptive and joyful way than I’m used to. The best of them – the gardens, baths, open windows and women at mirrors – made me feel like I was seeing, experiencing colour and the world around me – an a completely new way.

I was converted.

Video

I’m getting into the habit of seeking out the video reviews made by Visiting London Guide. They are always longer (two and a half minutes) than the galleries’ official promotional videos (generally thirty seconds) and, with their hand-held style, they give you a better idea of not just what the pictures look like, but of the overall hang and the arrangement of the rooms.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery uses room 1 to focus on particular works. (To get there go into the main Trafalgar Square entrance of the gallery, then turn immediate left up the steps, and left again at the landing). These exhibitions, small and thoughtful, are always free.

At the moment they’re displaying one of the world’s best-known animal paintings, Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, alongside fourteen other paintings and drawings, to set the picture in the context of Landseer’s own technical and psychological development, showing how he developed his distinctive approach to the representation of the stag as hero.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The double doors take up most on one wall so there are in effect three walls in the room:

  • the left-hand wall indicates some of the intellectual and artistic preparation
  • straight ahead is the monarch himself, magnificent, flanked by two other Landseer oil paintings of stags
  • the right-hand wall is devoted to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square

1. Preparation

Landseer (1802-73) was one of the most famous and successful artists of his time. Immense painterly talent, charm and good looks helped Landseer achieve early success and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850. I didn’t know that, even this young, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness.

Landseer had a deep knowledge of earlier painters, such as Rubens, and experimented with large scale complex compositions in the style of the Old Master.

The half dozen drawings and paintings here include a copy of the head of Christ on the Cross, taken from a painting by Rubens. In 1840 Landseer had had a breakdown, and, for his recovery, his doctors suggested a change of scene, so he went on the tour of Europe. He made this very evocative copy on a visit to Antwerp. We know that Rubens compositions lay behind some of Landseer’s earliest representations of horses and dogs, but the head of Christ powerfully introduces the idea of nobility and sacrifice. More, the Rubens Christ suggests a vision of a lone animal struggling against a hostile universe.

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unexpectedly, there’s a drawing by George Stubbs, with a story behind it. Stubbs (1724-1806) was of course the great painter of horses. In the 1750s he made hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings of horses for his revolutionary book, The Anatomy of Horses, published in 1766. Amazingly, Landseer acquired the entire collection in around 1817 (i.e. still a boy) and they provided crucial inspiration for the young Landseer’s own studies of animal anatomy.

Next to it is a detailed (and rather gruesome) study by Landseer of the flayed leg of a dog. This kind of detailed study of the weaving of muscle and tendon over bone was and is still referred to as an écorché. This is just one of countless écorchés which Landseer made the better to understand the anatomy of the animals he wanted to pain.

Nearby a pencil study of a dead stag combines some of these themes, Landseer’s staggering draughtmanship, based on detailed study of anatomy, underpinned by profound pathos at the fate of a noble animal cruelly, tragically struck down.

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

2. Monarch and other stags

The Monarch of the Glen is hung on the wall facing the visitor, flanked by two other paintings featuring stags. It is by far Landseer’s most famous painting and one of the most famous paintings of an animal in the world.

It was undertaken for the Parliamentary Fine Arts Commission as one of three paintings showing ‘the chase’ i.e. hunting deer. It was originally commissioned to hang above panelling in the dining room of the House of Lords. What a grand location, a constant reminder to the Lords of their nobility and the striking scenery of one of the constituent parts of Great Britain! However, in a typically British fashion, when the time came to pay, the House of Commons refused to grant the £150 promised for the commission, and so the painting went on public sale in the National Gallery and was sold to a private owner. Since then it has passed through about ten sets of hands before the Scottish National Gallery successfully ran a public campaign to buy it for £4 million from the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

It was intended to be hung above head height. In other words we are looking up, while the stag is painted serenely looking over our heads into an imagined distance.

Knowing what we now do about Landseer’s mental problems and having Rubens’ Christ fresh in our minds we at least understand Landseer’s intention, if it is in practice difficult to put into words, of conveying the idea of nobility, the idea of a kind of superior spirituality which retains its dignity even in a hostile world.

The commentary points out how Landseer gives tints of light to the tips of the stag’s antlers. This subtly conveys the idea of a band of sunlight breaking through clouds to reflect on the antlers, which we cannot see but which the stag can. It sees the view our backs to. It sees – and knows something which we cannot.

There’s a lot more to be said, about the fantastic painting of the deer’s skin and pelt and fur, the way Landseer captures its variations and shimmer – and of course about the violet colouring of the distant crags, a bringing to perfection of the romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands which was to become iconic.

It comes, then, as an amusing surprise to discover that Landseer painted the entire picture in his studio in St John’s Wood where he kept an extensive menagerie, including deer. And he had, of course, been undertaking regular trips to Scotland, sketching and painting, since 1824,

3. Lions

In 1858 Landseer accepted a presitigious commission to create four sculptures of lions to flank Nelson’s column, directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, completing William Railton’s original design for the monument. Landseer’s appointment proved controversial because he was not a sculptor, however his widespread fame as a painter of animals outweighed reservations.

Landseer prepared by, among other things, spending several years doing detailed drawings of the lions at London Zoo. This all contains four drawings and oil sketches, plus a portrait of Landseer working on the actual sculptures in his studio. This is one of two large oil sketches that Landseer made at the London Zoological Gardens which wonderfully captures the menace and power of a pacing lion.

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

There are several more sketches and the painting of him working on one of the clay sculptures which were then cast in bronze, done by John Ballantyne.

it was not immediately obvious why four pictures of lions were in an exhibition devoted to the Monarch of the Glen, except that they are further proof of Landseer’s stunning skill at painting animals and the even simpler fact that the results are there for all visitors to go and visit, after they’ve exited the gallery into the square outside.

Curators talk

I really praise the National Gallery for not only hosting extended talks or lectures or discussions about their exhibitions, but for going to the trouble of filming them and posting them on YouTube.

If you have the time, this is a really good way to enter the world of the art or exhibition being discussed.

Here are Susan Foister, curator of Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, and Daniel F. Herrmann, National Gallery curator, discussing the Landseer display.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries. The original one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler Gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because, she explained at the press launch I attended, it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint, getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing is being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, until shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them more approachable in an obvious physical sense, but also in a more subtle aesthetic way.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, unlike so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off an immediate and full cognition of the image.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly examine the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All of this has been done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted as if casting ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers, each one creating its own mood, colour, music and imagine-world.

In a way Abt’s paintings are like ballets, each with a unique set, with dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar ‘music’.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three big ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.

Conclusion

These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys @ The Courtauld galley

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) was one of the leading painters in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a Russian Jew who fled to Paris in 1913, soon settling into bohemian Montparnasse where he befriended, among others, the young Amedeo Modigliani.

His paintings are garish, heavily distorted and reveal a strong sympathy for working people. Because of this some contemporary critics considered him the successor of van Gogh, but Soutine’s works are really painted in a quite different way.

Among his themes or subjects Soutine developed the notion of painting portraits of the service staff from the fashionable hotels and restaurants of 1920s Paris. After ten years of penury, in 1923 the American collector Albert C. Barnes saw one of the hotel staff paintings and bought it and everything else Soutine had to sell (50 paintings in all), giving Soutine financial security and art world credibility at a stroke.

Nowadays the hotel staff portraits are considered among Soutine’s greatest achievements and this exhibition – the first devoted to Soutine in the UK for 35 years – is the first ever to focus on the hotel portraits, bringing together an unprecedented number for us to compare and contrast.

Bellboy (c.1925) Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou

Bellboy (c.1925) Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou

As with all the Courtauld Gallery exhibitions, it is small (two rooms) but thoughtfully and beautifully presented. In total there are 21 paintings, brought in from a variety of collections, public and private, hung and spaced in just the right way, with wall labels which give you just the right amount of information.

The Roaring Twenties

It was the Roaring Twenties and Paris was a cheap tourist destination, especially for Americans. The grand hotels boomed and seethed with an elaborate hierarchy of staff – waiters and maitres d’, cooks and chefs, bellboys and chambermaids.

Although all was luxury up above, in the lobby and dining room and luxury suites, the staff making it all happen and jumping at rich people’s beck and call, worked very long hours, under constant pressure, for minimum wages. George Orwell describes the hellish world of the kitchens of such a hotel in Down and Out in Paris and London.

The Chambermaid (c.1930) by Chaim Soutine, Courtesy Kunstmuseum Lucerne

The Chambermaid (c.1930) by Chaim Soutine, Courtesy Kunstmuseum Lucerne

Twisted and distorted

Quite obviously these are figurative works in that they depict real objects, real people. Just as obviously, they are all hideously, perhaps nightmarishly, twisted and distorted. As with the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery I found the commentary a touch sentimental in that it dwelt on the supposed characters, personality or feelings of the sitters. The one above, The Chambermaid, is one of the few which seem to have any facial expression and is ‘realistic’ enough to perhaps warrant a psychological interpretation. (Which is, unsurprisingly, that she looks pretty unhappy.)

But the great majority of the portraits are, in my view, too elaborately bent and deformed to really lend themselves to psychological interpretations, certainly of individuals – not least because they are unnervingly similar, the faces deliberately asymmetrical, the eyes on different levels, the skulls elongated or unnaturally thin.

Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) by Chaim Soutine. Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas

Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) by Chaim Soutine. Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas

The commentary invokes one of the great cultural themes of our times, identity, to suggest that the figures are straining against the constraints of their uniforms which categorise, pigeonhole and limit them. It’s a plausible idea. But its rather undermined by the fact that Soutine nowhere, anywhere, gives his sitters names. The reverse, they are titled solely by their job description – chambermaid, cook, maitre d’.

Maybe the no-name thing was part of the general aim, to create a kind of pathos. Maybe we are meant to think: ‘Poor people, stripped of their personality, stripped even of their names, and reduced to slavish flunkeys’.

Page Boy at Maxims (c. 1927) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Edmund Hayes Fund, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Page Boy at Maxims (c. 1927) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Edmund Hayes Fund, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Rather like in Cézanne, the sitters are placed in straightforward, point-blank frontal poses, a posture which tends to emphasise a kind of forlorn helplessness. Maybe all of this does contribute to a triste vibe.

So much for the psychology. But what I haven’t mentioned yet is the colour.

Colour

These paintings are intensely colourful. The visitor’s first impression as you enter the gallery, before you’ve even got to grips with the hotel staff idea, is of flaring reds, intense midnight blues and big whites.

There may be some kind of pathos of poverty in the pictures, but what is beyond doubt is their intense colourfulness. In particular I was bowled over in the first room on the first wall by Soutine’s use of an intense midnight blue as the abstract background to two portraits of a page-boy.

The Page Boy (c.1928) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Private Collection

The Page Boy (c.1928) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Private Collection

A blue deep enough to swim in, to merge into, to walk into and be lost forever.

In other portraits the dominant colour is white, the colour of the uniforms of the cooks and kitchen staff. But when you look closer you see it is a white made up of all kinds of shades of white, and laced with lines of blue and dabs of pink to create an intense and ravishing visual experience.

Up close you can see how the paint has been laid on thickly in confident strokes and sweeps to create a very dynamic experience. The pastry cook of Cagnes is one of the works where the commentary thinks we’re meant to feel moved by the pathos of his character etc, but I didn’t get any of that. What I saw was a brilliantly confident exercise in colour, an experiment in whites, and a dashing confidence in the sheer technique of painting with oils – the browns of the distorted chair, the shadowed whites of his buttons, the sudden flare of his red handkerchief.

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (1922) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery / Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (1922) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery / Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

The humanist interpretation focuses on the standardised uniforms of maitre d’, waiter, chef and so on as constraining straitjackets. But I think it’s quite obvious that – whatever effect their uniforms had on the staff – Soutine himself was, on the contrary, inspired and liberated by the extremes of colour which they offered.

Here was a God-given excuse to create really forceful effects of colour from the bold whites, reds and blues of the different liveries, all emphasised by the full-on frontal poses, to create an almost physically jarring effect.

In this respect, maybe my favourite was Le petit patissier – not for her expression (which, quite frankly, looks much the same as the expressions of all the other sitters i.e. unreadable) – but for the extreme contrast between the midnight blue of the background and the stark white of her uniform. And for the way the two interact, so that the theoretically white smock is invaded by squiggly lines and dabs of not only blue but green and red and flesh colour – to create a strikingly bold and declarative statement.

The Little Pastry Cook (Le Petit Pâtissier) 1927 by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, The Lewis Collection.

The Little Pastry Cook (Le Petit Pâtissier) 1927 by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, The Lewis Collection.

The bold brushstrokes and really fierce colour contrasts look forward to Abstract Expressionism, a thought which had occurred before I read in the commentary that the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning singled Soutine out as his favourite artist.

And you can also see why British artists like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, and especially Lucian Freud, cited Soutine as a key influence. The thick impasto paint. The distorted figures. Soutine got there first.

Reading around the subject, I discover that Soutine was also well known at the time for painting a series of still lives of sides of beef. Not much sentimental pathos in these portraits! although they share the same visual language, of a distorted subject depicted in extreme reds and blues.

In 2015 one of them was sold for $28 million.

The video

Every modern exhibition has a promotional video. The Courtauld had the bright idea of getting Fred Sirieix, a French maître d’hôtel best known for appearing on Channel 4’s First Dates programme, to give his professional view. Oddly for something so bang up to date, all the colours are very bleached out in this film, so that Soutine’s virulent reds look misleadingly cosy and orange.

This short montage gives you a better idea of the paintings’ vibrant colouring, but still doesn’t capture the intensity of the dark blues, bright red and wild whites which Soutine uses. To experience that fully, you have to visit this exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Courtauld Gallery

Cézanne Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery

Over a working life of some forty-five years, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) made almost 1,000 paintings, about 160 of which are portraits. This major international exhibition brings together over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from collections across the world, including quite a few which have never been seen in the UK, allowing us to review the development of his style and technique through the prism of this one genre.

It proceeds in a straightforward chronological manner, starting with family members, especially the series of his Uncle Dominique, dating from the 1860s – some 26 self-portraits – a whole room devoted to portraits of his wife, Hortense – and ends with his portraits of working class men and women near his home in Aix-en-Provence, particularly portraits of his gardener, Vallier.

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early on we learn that Cézanne was schoolboy friends with Émile Zola who went on to become one of France’s most famous/important novelists. Zola pioneered a fictional approach he called ‘Naturalism’, according to which the work of art is a scientific experiment to investigate the impersonal forces, both genetic and social, which shape people’s lives, an attitude in which ‘the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view’.

Throughout the exhibition the curators, as you’d expect, go to some lengths to explain who each sitter was, what their relationship to Cézanne was, with anecdotes about the number of sittings it took (115 sittings for the portrait of the art dealer Vollard), whether the sitter was happy etc, along with speculations about what the portrait tells us about Cézanne’s feelings for the sitter – respect, love and so on.

Quite quickly I began to think this was utterly the wrong approach. None of the sitters has any expression at all, certainly none of them are smiling or indicating any emotion. In fact most of the mature portraits almost deliberately reject emotional interpretation.

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

For me the exhibition was quite clearly the story of one man’s struggle with his art and technique. From these half dozen rooms and fifty or so portraits Cézanne comes across as a difficult, angry man, fighting with his medium, permanently dissatisfied, taking ridiculously long periods to struggle with works which he often abandoned and sometimes destroyed, like his portrait of Alfred Hauge, stitched back together and on display here.

He is off in his own world, day by day carrying on an endless battle to make the medium of oil painting fulfil his vision. Cézanne never painted portraits as commissions; he only painted who he wanted to. It struck me as being an immensely private world. If, from time to time, some of the works fit in with what the wider world thinks of as ‘beautiful’ or ‘artistic’ or ‘wonderful’, well, so be it; but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care for traditional ideas of ‘beauty’ or ‘painting’, he doesn’t care what his family thinks or his wife thinks, he is off in his own world, following his own, often very difficult, path.

Self-Portrait by Paul Cézanne (1880-1) © The National Gallery, London

Self-Portrait (1880-1) by Paul Cézanne © The National Gallery, London

Take the 10 portraits of his wife, Hortense. If you like lots of biography to explain your art, then it’s interesting to learn that he’d had a relationship with her for 17 years before he finally married her; and that he only married her after another love affair he’d been having ended traumatically. So she does seem to have been a sort of second best.

None of that helps when you confront the actual paintings. In portrait after portrait she has the face of an emotionless mannekin and the body of a doll. In my opinion this isn’t a depiction of someone he either loves or doesn’t love, who is in either a good or a bad mood (the kind of psychological and emotional tripe the commentary speculates about). It is a purely technical challenge, a struggle with oil paint and technique.

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The exhibition’s curator, John Elderfield, says: ‘Many of his painted likenesses of friends and family members offer little information in the way of his sitters’ individual personas, stature, or psychology.’ Exactly. My friend was scandalised by the apparently ‘heartless’ way Cézanne painted his wife: where is the love and affection and respect and blah blah? To me, completely the wrong way of thinking about Cézanne’s work.

My notion of ‘the struggle’ also explains why he did so many series – 10 of Uncle Dominique, 17 of Hortense, 26 self-portraits, repeated portraits of his gardener, and so on. And also explains why he destroyed his own canvases in frustration. It was an unending struggle. It was war.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s technique

So what was his technique, what was the battle all about?

From the start he made no attempt to paint in the smooth aesthetic style of the French Academy and Salon, in a style which concealed brushstrokes in order to create a flat surface designed to give the illusion of life. The exact opposite. He and his pal Zola were going to remodel French culture, to force people to see the crude realities of life, Zola in blunt realistic sentences, Cézanne in harsh, unflattering brushstrokes. The first room shows young Cézanne in the 1860s sculpting oil onto canvas with his palette knife like a brickie lays on mortar. Thick, shaped roughly and confidently, in highly visible strokes half an inch wide.

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 - 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 – 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

He himself described this as his manière couillarde (where couilles means ‘testicles’) which could be translated as his ‘ballsy manner’.

He remains true to this founding approach all his life but develops and explores it. Through the 1870s two things happen: the paint gets a lot thinner, and he explores a technique of building up patches of the same colour using repeated one- or two-inch long strokes. These strokes come in parallel blocks or sets of strokes, running across face or background like patches of the palette, built up systematically.

It is the use of these blocks of strokes in the same colour which give all Cézanne’s work such a distinctive feel. Arguably the technique works best with landscapes, witness the scores of versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire which he did over decades. Here in the portraits this technique of diagonal strokes gives the works a sense of monumentality – the eerie feeling that something bigger and more important is being conveyed.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Another way of trying to define this visual effect is in terms of geometry – luckily Cézanne himself gives us a handy quote, when he wrote to Émile Bernhard giving advice about painting and included the phrase ‘Deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’. The cyclinder, the sphere and the cone. Quite obviously, then, Cézanne was himself aware of the way his eye sought out the geometry buried in the flesh (or landscape or still life or whatever).

But even without knowledge of this quote it would be easy to see the way the technique of chunks or blocks of very visibly modelled colour can be seen as almost geometric shapes – to my eye they look like rectangular slabs, crafted and placed at angles to each other. It is a highly analytical way of seeing and painting, not at all concerned with sensuous surfaces as per the long tradition of Salon art. Its unfinishedness bespeaks its experimental nature.

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

From the 1870s onwards he uses much thinner applications of paint, allowing much more of the canvas to show through, all over, as the paint rasps and runs out, and the brushstroke doesn’t completely cover the space. This draws attention to the painting as a painting, as a construct of paint on a canvas, and away from a naturalistic depiction of ‘reality’.

In other pictures you can see something else quite radical going on, which is his subtle mixing up of perspective: a table or chair or arm or wall or other elements will be subtly at odds with the perspective of the central figure. It is another way of being more interested in the geometry than the strictly realistic appearance of the subject.

Director of the NPG, Nicholas Cullinan, talks about Cézanne’s mission to get at ‘the underlying structure of things by means of mass, line and shimmering colour’, which I think is correct, apart from the shimmering colour. Monet shimmers, I don’t think Cézanne shimmers.

Towards the art of the future

By now you can see how these are the elements which endeared Cézanne to the next generation of artists:

  • painting as painting rather than window on the world
  • deploying paint in blocks or cubes to build up a sense of space, to bring out the inner geometry of a figure
  • indifference as to whether the paint covers the canvas or not, in fact developing an aesthetic of leaving many bits of the canvas untouched
  • faces as a mask, like the blank masks of African art Picasso and Matisse were fascinated by, expressionless

And so you can see why both Picasso (b.1881) and Matisse (b.1869) are credited with the quote that Cézanne ‘was the father to us all’, paving the way for the completely new ways of seeing developed by the Cubists, the Fauvists and successive generations of avant-garde artists. Doesn’t this mask-like depiction of his son anticipate Picasso’s mask faces of a generation years later?

The Artist's Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Franck Raux

The Artist’s Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux

In 1895 Cézanne had a successful one-man show which finally gave him success and entry into artistic Paris. The exhibition shows some of the more formal portraits he attempted of Paris’s intellectual class, critics and writers set against thronged bookshelves. But he wasn’t happy and the preceding works in the show help you understand why: these were clever people who expected a measure of human character in their portraits, whereas Cézanne was much more at home with simple and above all psychologically blank subjects.

This – along with any lingering radical sentiment from the Zola years – goes to explain why he abandoned Paris altogether, retiring to his estate near his birthplace of Aix-en-Provence, and painting the unpretentious local workers, peasants, blokes in cafés smoking pipes or playing cards, old ladies. Here he was under no pressure to conform to artist as psychologist and instead could indulge his interest in form to the full.

With the paradoxical result that these images of relative strangers end up being somehow more successful, somehow more complete because he can relax into his technique, and so manage to convey more through their purely artistic coherence, than any of the portraits of his wife ever did.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Art in the flesh

This reproduction makes Man with a pipe look a lot more smooth and finished than it is in the flesh. The reason for going to art galleries rather than looking at paintings on a computer screen is to see up close the craft and artistry of the painter. In the flesh, the diagonal strokes of brown and grey (and green and white) which make up this painting are genuinely thrilling. But what you can’t see at all from the reproduction is the amazing way the wavy black line of the shirt is so confidently drawn, or the way the lighter brown patches around it are in fact the bare canvas untouched by paint, or the half-slapdash way he’s dabbed in the black of the buttons. It really is thrilling to see the confidence and exuberance with which it’s painted. I stood and stared at just this line for minutes, marvelling.

A lot of the portraits in this exhibition are plain ugly or plain bad, and the overall effect of the show is, I found, quite repelling. But in the handful or so of portraits which really come off, the combination of sombre subject and highly stylised brushwork, seen really close up and in the flesh, is electric.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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