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

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

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

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

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The convex mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Videos

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman(1896)

The Classics professor Alfred Edward Housman surprised his students and colleagues when, in 1896, he published a collection of 63 short lyric poems which his publisher persuaded him to title A Shropshire Lad. Tennyson was responsible for the view that poetry should be pure and lyrical, flying far above the sordid realities of Victorian England. His acolyte Francis Palgrave produced a Golden Treasury of English Verse (1861) which selected with care only the purest of thin, high, quavering lyrical poetry from the previous 450 years of hugely varied verse and poetry.

The poems in A Shropshire Lad continue down that narrowing avenue, producing short, rhyming verse which aspires to a purity untainted by real-life diction or attitudes or events or activities, instead creating a set of bloodless variations on half a dozen stock sentimental themes: the soldier going off to war; handsome young men doomed to die young because they are different, either through suicide or fighting or being hanged for crimes of passion: in short, the narcissistic mentality of an angsty 15-year old.

All this is set in a largely fictional Shropshire of the mind, an imaginary, a Platonic Form of an English rural county which, however, has been taken over by Thomas Hardy and is populated by lads (18-21) who woo lasses who are either reluctant or die young and are carried to the churchyard where they join the other restless souls underground, at which the lads leave their depressing lives to take the Queen’s shilling and go fight in one of the Empire’s countless little wars, or stay at home to become bad ‘uns, to murder or rob and swing for it (Housman is morbidly obsessed with hanging).

The extreme purity of the vocabulary, the idealised English landscape and the teenage sentimentality of the thoughts made it a surprise bestseller. I was interested to learn from the Wikipedia article that the Boer War had an impact on its sales and influence, that “Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and young men’s early deaths struck a chord with English readers”. Of course this chord was to ring even louder during and after the vastly more terrible slaughter of the Great War, and established Housman’s thin pallid verse as a coffee-table favourite.

Poem XL

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Why, the sceptical reader is tempted to ask, can you not go there again? Oh because I can’t, I am doomed, I am a lost soul, oh can’t you see, oh growing up is sooo hard. Surely it is not only the rural setting which represents an escape from the urban life most of us lead, but the essentially adolescent sentiments of the verse which represent a Hollyoaks-style escape from the complex problems of adult life, careers, money, wives and children, which underpin its enduring appeal.

Various of the 63 lyrics have been set by various composers, most notably George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney. For my money the Butterworth settings are head and shoulders above the others; with his music these pallid lyrics achieve a depth and resonance the words alone lack made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Butterworth himself was killed in the Great War and so his songs about doomed young men have a horrible irony.

1895

1895 was a year of endings and beginnings in English literature and beyond:

Endings

The long series of gripping tales and stories spun by master teller Robert Louis Stevenson had ended when he died on the Pacific island of Upolu on December 3rd 1894. He had completed the long short story The Ebb-Tide (1894), but left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which was published posthumously, as were his 20 Fables and a final volume of verse, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in 1896.

Two major careers ended in 1895. On 14th February Oscar Wilde‘s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at St James’s Theatre, London, and was an immediate success, a triumph of wit, artifice and stagecraft. Within days the Marquess of Queensberry – outraged by Wilde’s relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas – had accused Wilde of sodomy and begun the nightmareish sequence of events which led to Wilde being put on trial and, on 25 May, being found guilty of seven counts of gross indecency with other men. He received the maximum sentence, 2 years hard labour, emerging from his ordeal a broken man, and dying just three years later he died, aged 46, in exile in Paris.

A backlash began against not only Wilde, whose name was erased from playbills and whose books went underground, but against the whole cult of beauty, the aestheticism which had been a major strand of late Victorian culture. A mood of revulsion set in against the dandyism, the metropolitan decadence of the London literati and artists. The pre-Raphaelites who had sown the seeds of the cult, and some of its leading lights, were to pass away in the next few years:

  • In 1895 William Morris published three minor works while he prepared his beautiful illustrated edition of Chaucer, the Kelmscott Chaucer, which was published the following year. But only a few months later, on October 1896, aged only 61, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, novelist, textile-maker and revolutionary died.
  • In June 1898 the pre-Raphaelite giant Sir Edward Burne-Jones who had designed the woodcuts for his friend Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, himself passed away.
  • From the younger generation, the scandalous caricaturist and illustratorAubrey Beardsley died aged only 25 in June 1898.
  • In 1895 Sir Frederick Leighton, purveyor of sumptuous paintings of the classical past, exhibited one of his enduring masterpieces, ‘Flaming June’, a symphony of colours. In January 1896 he passed away.

Flaming June (1895) by Sir Frederick Leighton

Another literary sex scandal ended a brilliant career in 1895. Thomas Hardy, aged 56, published his last novel, Jude the Obscure. It had begun magazine serialisation in December 1894 and continued through to November 1895 when it was published in book format and met with a storm of abuse for its supposed immorality. ‘Jude the Obscene’ one reviewer called it, and the bishop of Wakefield notoriously claimed to have burned his copy. The fierceness of the criticism which greeted Jude (and had also greeted his earlier masterpiece, Tess of the Durbevilles, 1891) led Hardy to abandon novel writing. The philistine English public had claimed another scalp. He never wrote another novel, though he continued to publish poetry until his death in 1928.

Imperialism 

The mood was changing, swinging away from art for art’s sake and towards the prophets of Imperialism, to Kipling and his epigones. The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic carried out by a British colonial leader, Leander Starr Jameson, and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895–96. It was meant to trigger an uprising by British expatriate workers in the Transvaal (known as Uitlanders) and so justify a British military invasion, but failed to do so. Weeks later, in January 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin published a Kiplingesque ballad, Jameson’s Ride, celebrating the entirely illegal and foolish act. Later in the year Austin was appointed Poet Laureate.

Sir Henry Newbolt followed his stirring poem Vita Lampada (‘Play up, play up and play the game!’) with the patriotic collection, Admirals All (1897) featuring the patriotic classic, Drake’s Drum. The new mood was to reach a kind of crescendo in the jingoism of the Boer War years, and then slowly recede to reveal the solid and suburban Edwardian novelists, Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy.

Beginnings

Within months of Stevenson’s death a new voice had emerged to tell stories of the South Seas, of the Far East, and to continue Stevenson’s mordant scepticism about the ‘benefits’ of Empire for native peoples, Joseph Conrad whose first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published on 29 April 1895 in the midst of the furore surrounding the Wilde trials.

And as the Aestheticism of the 18970s and 1880s came to a climax and was abruptly garrotted, a completely new strain of writing was emerging in the hands of the 28 year-old Herbert George Wells which was to thrive and prosper into the new century. The Time Machine, serialised from January to May 1895 in W.E. Henley’s magazine the New Review, then published in book form in May 1895 – ie exactly contemporary with the Wilde trials – was the first in the long and prolific career of Wells, the godfather of science fiction. He also published ‘The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents’, his first volume of (15) fantasy and science fiction stories. No decadence from Wells, though. Even if the ideas in the science fiction questioned the meaning and endurance of Western ‘civilisation’ (for example in Wells’s classic The War of The Worlds, 1898), they did so using manly chaps as heroes.

(Talking of discourses which were to dominate the 20th century, unknown to all these authors and artists, the obscure Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud was speculating that his patients’ neuroses were possibly the results of suppressed childhood sexual traumas, and also wondering whether our dreams might reveal the return of these suppressed memories but in concealed and symbolic forms. Both these insights took place in the pivotal year 1895, though he only published his first short papers on the subject the next year, and The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1899…)

Art Nouveau

On 1 January 1895 the streets of Paris were plastered by a new poster advertising the play ‘Gismonda’ by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. The poster was to crystallise many aspects of the style which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

‘Gismonda’ by Alfons Mucha

In December 1895 German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery, the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde designed the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass. These displays became so strongly associated with the style that the name of his gallery subsequently provided a commonly used term for the entire style.

Business as usual

Through all these changes and shifts in mood other Victorian writers continued their careers, with varying degrees of success:

George Meredith, 65, published The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James, 56, was booed offstage on the opening night, January 5, of his play Guy Domville at London’s St James’s Theatre. As coincidence would have it, the play was taking off after just four weeks to make way for Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s nemesis the Marquis of Queensberry had tried to gatecrash the first night in order to denounce Wilde from the audience but Wilde had the police blockade the building. Two historic first nights within a month of each other!

George Bernard Shaw, 39, helped found the London School of Economics which held its first classes in October; he began a three-year stint as drama critic for Frank Harris’s ‘Saturday Review’, and wrote a play, The Man of Destiny.

George Gissing, 38, most famous for New Grub Street, published three novels, Eve’s RansomThe Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires.

Rudyard Kipling, 29, published The Second Jungle Book.

Arthur Symons, 30, published London Nights.

The ever-prolific Henry Rider Haggard, 39, published Joan Haste, Heart of the World and a serious tome on Church and State.

In verse, WB Yeats, 30, published ‘Poems, verse and drama’, the first edition of his collected poems containing ‘The Countess Cathleen’, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, ‘The Wanderings of Usheen’ and the poetry collections ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

Politics 

Another eminent Victorian’s career came to an end when, in May 1895, William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, resigned as an MP, having resigned as Prime Minister the year before. Tennyson had died in 1892. The politician and the poet for many people embodied the Victorian period, its art and values and politics. Their passing marked a watershed in literature and the broader culture.

A New Mood

Dead or silent were Tennyson, Gladstone and Hardy, masters of long poems, long speeches, long novels. The future belonged to the shorter, pithier tales of Conrad, Wells and Kipling, Bennett and Galsworthy, the Fabians and Edwardians. The new writers, whatever their personal proclivities, were to depict a homely Home Counties version of Englishness, in abreaction both to the metropolitan decadence of Wilde’s circle and to the melodramatic jingoism of Kipling, Austen, Newbolt. Even the cosmopolitan Kipling was to catch the new mood by settling in Sussex and writing innocent children’s stories set among the rolling Downs, Puck of Pook’s Hill.

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