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

Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck @ the National Gallery

The germ of the idea came following Lucien Freud’s death in 2011 when heirs and curators had to deal with the collection of other artists’ works which Freud had accumulated over a long life. His collection prompted the question, What did he collect and why? And how, if at all, did the items in his collection influence his own practice? Which in turn gave rise to thinking about the personal collections of other eminent painters throughout history: How have painters drawn inspiration from the examples of their predecessors’ subject matter, treatment and style, which they happened to own?

Hence this exhibition selects eight famous artist-collectors and, as far as possible, not only explains why they collected, but gives us examples of works from their collections, along with their thoughts and writings on the act of collecting.

The eight artists chosen are, in reverse chronological order: Lucien Freud, Matisse, Edgar Degas, Sir Frederick Leighton, George Frederick Watts, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Thus the ten or so rooms of the show bring together, according to the National Gallery website, ‘more than eighty works spanning over five hundred years of art history, from Freud’s 2002 Self Portrait: Reflection to Bellini’s Agony in the Garden of about 1465′.

English

The first thing to notice is that only two of the list aren’t English (van Dyck becoming a sort of naturalised Englishman and Freud, though born in Berlin, taking British citizenship).

Following from this is the quick realisation, from just considering the first room, that a number of these paintings already hang in the National Gallery. A lot of these works you could see any day of the week for free. In other words, this is a canny way of displaying a lot of the NG’s collection but in a new and interesting context. On the other hand, nearly half the eighty works are on loan from elsewhere: Paris galleries for the Impressionists, from private collections and from HM Queen for some of the earlier paintings. Seen from this angle, the exhibition is a genuine opportunity to see works rarely if ever displayed in England.

In fact, the section on Lawrence goes further to make the point that Lawrence acted as advisor to several notable collectors, including Sir George Beaumont and John Julius Angerstein. Both of these men donated their collections at death to the British government, collections which formed the kernel of the National Gallery collection. So there is a side strand about the artist-collector Lawrence, who advised the aristocratic collectors, whose collections formed the basis of the collection of the gallery we’re standing in.

Chronology

In a familiar curator’s conceit the rooms and artists are arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with Freud (d.2011) and ending with van Dyck (d.1641). But, being old-fashioned or unafraid of curators’ fancies as well as knowing that I prefer older paintings, I simply began at the end – with the ‘last’ room, the van Dyck Room – and proceeded to ‘do’ the exhibition in reverse i.e. correct, chronological order.

Van Dyck (1599 – 1641)

Tate and the National Gallery have a lot of van Dyck’s because, although born in Antwerp (modern Belgium) van Dyck was invited to London by King Charles I in 1632 and stayed there until his death in 1641, making a living as a very successful portrait painter of the Royal Court and aristocracy.

The curators show how Titian’s use of stone steps allowed him to create a dynamic positioning of the bodies in The Vendramin Family, venerating a Relic of the True Cross (1550?) and this lesson was well learned by Van Dyck as can be seen by his use of stone steps for similar purpose of posing the figures in Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (1632).

A rarely seen van Dyck is on loan from the Queen’s collection, which again shows the importance of classical architecture/references in this kind of painting. Here the broken column between the two men symbolises the death of the wife of Thomas Killigrew (on the left) after just a few years of marriage. He is wearing her wedding ring on a black bracelet around his wrist and a silver cross of mourning hangs on his chest.

Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts (?), 1638 by Anthony van Dyck. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts (?) (1638) by Anthony van Dyck © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

On a more intimate scale the show compares one of van Dyck’s self portraits with Titian’s Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo (about 1510), comparing the similar positioning of body (away from the watcher) with head turned back. Note the way van Dyck is turning his back and lowering his cloak, in a way which would be flirtatious in a female nude, but in this painting the gesture a) reveals his skill at catching the play of light on the folds of black silk of his shirt and b) the great big golden chain around his neck: I am a brilliant artist and I am rich.

Self Portrait by Anthony van Dyck (about 1629) Lent Anonymously © Photo courtesy of the owner

Self Portrait by Anthony van Dyck (about 1629) Lent Anonymously © Photo courtesy of the owner

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792)

Self Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (about 1780) © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond

Self Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (about 1780) © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond

Reynolds took himself immensely seriously (as you can tell from this self-portrait, posing with a bust supposedly by Michelangelo) making himself into the most successful portraitist of his day, dedicated to studying the European masters in order to raise the standards of British painting, helping to found and acting as first president of the Royal Academy. No surprise, then, that he amassed a large collection of European Old Masters to act as models and inspiration.

What comes over strongest in this section is the widespread misattribution of paintings in the past. The painting of Leda and the Swan which Reynolds thought was by Michelangelo is not now attributed to him at all. Reynolds thought a Bellini Agony in the Garden was by Mantegna; he thought van Dyck’s portrait of George Gage was a portrait of Rubens. Wrong in each case. Apparently, after his death, when his huge collection was assessed for sale, a contemporary described it as ‘swarming’ with fakes.

In a shock aside, the commentary also casually mentions that Reynolds routinely touched up paintings in his collection ‘to improve them’! That must be a risk very specifically related to falling into the hands of an artist who thinks he is qualified to ‘retouch’ a Renaissance masterpiece.

Reynolds didn’t collect many contemporaries but made an exception for his only equal, Thomas Gainsborough. A specific example shown here is the striking Girl with Pigs of 1782. Apparently, it’s a good example of the late trend of Gainsborough to paint landscapes with figures which Reynolds called his ‘fancy pictures’.

Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depict scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling. The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular. (‘Fancy picture’ on the Tate website)

So it’s the presence of the peasant girl, not the pigs, that makes it ‘fancy.

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830)

I was blown away by the big exhibition of Lawrence’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2010. Now I learn that he was a compulsive collector, amassing some 5,000 works of which 4,300 were drawings. It helped a lot that the European art market was awash with art following the disruptions of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. War > plunder. ‘Twas ever thus.

The exhibition contrasted an enormous Renaissance cartoon he owned with the composition of the three figures in his portrait of the Barings.

Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring, and Charles Wall by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1806-1807) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring, and Charles Wallby Sir Thomas Lawrence (1806-1807) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

To paraphrase the critic Richard Dorment, art historians love this triple portrait because it so cleverly incorporates references to group portraits by Titian and Reynolds. No doubt.

Going beyond the poses of the figures – which actually appeared a little clumsy to me – I was struck by the way classical pillars are included in this style of painting to add grandeur and authority – and to act as a doorway onto a distant landscape representing ‘the world’ which the rich people in the portrait are planning and controlling.

I much preferred his august and amused self-portrait, which I can’t find anywhere on Google images 😦

George Frederick Watts (1817 – 1904)

Watts is always touted as a giant of late Victorian painting but I think he’s by far the worst painter from the period. I once went on a pilgrimage to the Watts Gallery in Compton, a village near Guildford, and was desperately disappointed. His vaguely allegorical figures are mostly dark, brown and gloomy. He had a big collection and the show compares four tall slender paintings by the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot depicting four stages of the day – Morning, Noon, Evening and Night – with Watt’s own Autumn from 1903.

Autumn by George Frederic Watts (1901-1903) © Watts Gallery

Autumn by George Frederic Watts (1901-1903) © Watts Gallery

Sir Frederic Leighton (1830 – 1896)

Leighton and Watts are made to share quite a small room, which features a small self portrait by Leighton, as well as some works from his collection. In my opinion, Leighton deserves a room to himself featuring more of his work. The National Gallery has plenty as does Tate. Maybe it was too big to squeeze in.

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

Odd that the two Victorians were squeezed together in one pokey room, whereas the collection of French Impressionist Edgar Degas sprawls over two large rooms, the biggest space dedicated to one painter-collector.

Degas was notorious for his addiction to buying art. He beggared himself in a compulsive need to acquire works by his famous contemporaries, often snapping up Impressionist works as soon as they were finished. And so one room was devoted to the Impressionists in Degas’s collection, including the usual suspects such Sisley, Pissarro and Gauguin, as well as the enormous work The Execution of Emperor Maximilian by Édouard Manet (1867 to 1869) which, after it was (inexplicably) cut up into sections by Manet’s wife’s son, Degas tracked down to various Parisian art dealer’s premises and partly reassembled.

The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet (1867-8) © The National Gallery, London

The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet (1867-8) © The National Gallery, London

In the second Degas room were mainly works by the two 19th century painters he reverenced, Delacroix for his use of colour, and Ingres for line. Apparently the young Degas met the old Ingres who told him, ‘Draw lines, young man, draw lines’. A man after my own heart.

In the welter of works in these two rooms the one that stood out for me was a portrait of Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1887). I very much like the solid line drawing, the draughtsmanship and the character which is captured of this aesthete and Symbolist writer.

Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1887) © Tate, London. Photo The National Gallery, London

Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1887) © Tate, London. Photo: The National Gallery, London

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

Matisse also collected works by older masters and contemporaries. Dominating his room is the famous Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure) by Degas, which Matisse owned for 16 years or so before selling it onto the National Gallery (which is why it’s here). La Coiffure manages to be a masterpiece of both line and colour, the dark outline of the figures masterfully suggesting their corporeality and motion, but the deliberate use of shades of red and orange creating a sumptuous and dynamic image.

Away from this super-dominating image were two smaller works, which I liked. A small Gauguin, Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear (1891).

Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear by Paul Gauguin (1891) Property from a distinguished Private Collection, courtesy of Christie's. Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear by Paul Gauguin (1891) Property from a distinguished Private Collection, courtesy of Christie’s. Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

And it’s well known that Matisse and Picasso kept up a fierce rivalry throughout their lives. Thus the room contains a powerful Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar from 1942.

Portrait of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso (1942) Courtesy The Elkon Gallery, New York City © Succession Picasso/DACS 2016. Photo courtesy of the owner

Portrait of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso (1942) Courtesy The Elkon Gallery, New York City © Succession Picasso/DACS 2016. Photo courtesy of the owner

Lucien Freud (1922 – 2011)

And so, feeling rather exhausted by this embarras de richesses, the visitor arrives at what the curators intend to be the first room and which contains half a dozen works owned by the émigré German painter, Lucien Freud. Pride of place is given to Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (L’Italienne) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (about 1870), which I didn’t particularly like, finding the whole effect misjudged and drab.

And, although it’s on the main poster outside and all over the Tube, the gallery doesn’t provide for press use a copy of Freud’s self-portrait from 2002, striking, with the paint over his nose and veined hands looking as if it has bubbled with smallpox.

Having supped full of these horrors I strolled back through to the ‘end’ room to cleanse my palate with the smooth and lofty images of Sir Anthony van Dyke – though they themselves are not untainted by war and destruction. They just don’t know it yet…


Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

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

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

Background

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

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

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

The rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

Related links

Other museums and galleries

Making Colour @ The National Gallery

This is one of the most purely didactic exhibitions I’ve been to. Usually, the curators tell you lots about the movement or biography of whoever’s featured, but you are essentially left to decide whether you enjoy the art by yourself.

Making Colour is more like a lecture, or a short degree course, compressed into half a dozen rooms. It is a fascinating, thorough and rather exhausting explanation of how coloured oil paints were and are made, where the raw ingredients came from in medieval and renaissance Europe, and then how discoveries by chemists throughout the 19th century introduced new shades and tones to the artist’s palette which are still in use today.

There are several strands or themes:

The growth in scientific understanding of how the human eye sees colour, how it is detected by the cones and rods in our retinas – there is a short film about perception in a cinema to one side of the gallery, which goes into colour blindness and the dramatic difference the ambient light we see a painting in has on our perception of it: thought-provoking as, for most of their history most of these paintings will have been seen either by partial daylight or candlelight – certainly not by the flat fluorescent light of modern galleries.

Theories of colour ie how colours complement each other. It was only in the late 1600s that Isaac Newton broke white light up into the spectrum, and placed the study of light and colours on a scientific basis. Various art theorists produced lists or descriptions of spectrums, often arranged into colour wheels.

Illustration from 'The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition by Moses Harris (1769 2nd edition 1776)

Illustration from ‘The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition by Moses Harris (1769 2nd edition 1776)

Complementary colours Apparently, the most influential work on colour was published by the dyer Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1839, not only containing colour wheels but systematically showing how colours opposite each other on the wheel complement or enhance each other. These ideas had a big impact on the Impressionists and post-Impressionists and the show demonstrates how with two very different paintings embodying the theory.

Renoir’s The Skiff (1875) deliberately contrasts blues of sky and river, with the vibrant orange of the boat. You can see from the colour wheel above that these colours are directly opposite each other, and this helps understand why the colours of both seem so bright and vibrant. (The other example is Van Gogh’s Crabs, see below.)

The Skiff by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875) © The National Gallery, London

The Skiff by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875) © The National Gallery, London

Chemistry Turns out to have played a vital role: during the 19th century industrial chemists in particular were researching ways of generating effective dyes etc for industrial purposes and these discoveries – often complete accidents – were quickly translated into new shades available as paints. Thus Renoir is using two new paints, cobalt blue and chrome orange, which were invented in the 19th century.

Paint availability Until the mid-1700s painters had to mix powdered pigments with either oil or egg themselves, to create the paint they were going to use. This was a fiddly business and not suited to doing outdoors where paint often dried too quickly and so almost all painting was done inside, in studios or churches etc. In the mid-1700s there was a breakthrough of sorts when ready-mixed paints became available in pig’s bladders, allowing greater outdoor painting. But it was not till the mid-1800s that ready-mixed paints became available in tin tubes which were light and easy to transport anywhere.

This technical breakthrough in paint’s portability and convenience contributed to the movement in France to paint out of doors, the movement which came to be known as Impressionism.

A room per colour

How to tackle such a massive subject? Well, the National Gallery has given a room to each of the major colours and in that room explains the history of how those colours were made, from earliest times. And each of these colour rooms has a selection from the full breadth of the National Gallery’s collection, illustrating the different shades of blue, red, green etc as actually applied by the world’s greatest painters in a wide selection of paintings from the 1400s to around 1900.

A personal selection

Rather than rewrite the entire exhibition catalogue, I’ve made a personal selection of favourite paintings, with what they tell us about the sources and uses of colours in their time.

Purple This medieval painting is used to demonstrate a few aspects of colour. 1. It was part of an altar piece on public display in a church, therefore the brightness of the colours helps bring out the clarity of the composition, making the image easier to read (almost like a cartoon). 2. The image uses purple, usually associated with royalty, for the executioner’s dress. At this early period purple was made by mixing ultramarine with red ‘lakes’ and white.

The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) about 1409 by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina © The National Gallery, London

The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) about 1409 by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina © The National Gallery, London

Blue This is a stunning use of the main source of blue in the early Modern period, ultramarine. As the name indicates this was sourced from lapis lazuli rock mined in what is now Afghanistan and brought to Europe along trade routes. By the time it reached Europe this material was more expensive than gold, and is therefore an indication of the wealth of the sponsor of the painting. Its value led to its association with the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven.

But these raw pigments could only be converted into paint by mixing with a medium of which there were two common ones:

  • mixing pigment with egg creates tempera which gives a flat matt affect
  • mixing pigment with oil produces varieties of glaze

The stunning blue of this painting is testament to Sassoferrato’s mastery of the techniques of mixing as much as to his eye and ability at composition.

History of blue Early painters who couldn’t afford ultramarine used Azurite, cheaper but with a greenish hue, or smalt, a blue glass pigment, more affordable but unstable. In the early 18th century Prussian blue was discovered and could be manufactured in bulk, but ultramarine remained the gold standard of blues. In the early 1800s a method was developed for creating a synthetic cobalt blue, and then an artificial version of ultramarine was developed: French ultramarine is still used to this day.

The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50) by Sassoferrato © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50) by Sassoferrato © The National Gallery, London

Yellow Yellow was sourced either from earth ochres or or from compounds of lead tin and antimony. In this Gainsborough from 1756 the dress of the painter’s daughter on the right is done with a shade called Naples yellow, mixed with lead white to create the lighter areas. The panel tells us Gainsborough mixed it well and it has lasted, but Naples yellow contained impurities that, over time, can turn orange or even pink.

The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (about 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough © The National Gallery, London

The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (about 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough © The National Gallery, London

The show includes the paintbox of JMW Turner, found in his studio after his death in 1851. It is a fascinating insight into the actual practical tools of the painter’s trade, showing the pigment bottles and the oils he used to mix them with. Incredible to believe Turner created his marvellous, transcendent works with such a small range of pigments available to him.

Paintobx belonging to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) © Tate, London

Paintobx belonging to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) © Tate, London

Green Green was sourced from verdigris, a kind of clay, or from green earth, a tarnishing of copper. It is fascinating to learn that Renaissance painters often used green earth in  particular as the underlay for skin, but the whites and pinks painted on top sometimes fade to reveal the underlay and this is why the faces of many renaissance paintings have a greenish tinge. Later artists were able to take advantage of the inventions of emerald green and viridian.

This stunning painting by Van Gogh of two crabs is used to show a) the vibrant greens and ready-made oil paints available to a late Victorian artist and b) the artist’s application of colour theory. As well as the depiction of its subject, it is a study in complementary colours, for the vivid greens of the background lie opposite the reddy oranges on the colour wheel.

It is striking to see how the same colour theory has been applied with radically different results by Renoir (1875) and van Gogh (1889). Figurative though the image is, it’s clear that for van Gogh experimenting with colour has become the prime focus. He is quoted as saying, ‘a painter had better start from the colours on his palette rather than the colours of Nature’, and that sounds.

Two Crabs (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Private Collection

Two Crabs (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Private Collection

Right at the end of the 19th century Dégas was experimenting with colour as this fantasia in red demonstrates. It uses bright red vermilion for the dress and curtain, along with red lead and orange-red, with Venetian reds for the background and the brusher’s blouse made from red ‘lakes’ mixed with white.

The painting can be analysed in terms of colour theory, in terms of the way the actual available paints have been mixed by the artist. Also biographically, as towards the end of his life Dégas was losing  his sight before going completely blind, and the intensity of the reds is possible over-compensation for his failing sight. And psychologically, for the contrast between the theoretically relaxing atmosphere of a woman having her hair combed, contrasting with the emotional impact the image actually makes on the spectator, of the scene being somehow intense and highly charged.

Combing the Hair (1896) by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas © The National Gallery, London

Combing the Hair (1896) by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas © The National Gallery, London

Conclusion

Most people, me included, stroll round a gallery or exhibition deciding whether I like something on the basis of its subject matter, or on its immediate visual impact, its form and design.

The take-home message from this thorough and fascinating exhibition is that there is a huge extra dimension to art appreciation, a whole realm of appreciation based on a real understanding of the physical components of a painting; of the actual paints, the colours and pigments – and the theory of colours – which were available to the artist, which makes the attempt to understand their achievements a lot more complicated and demanding.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: