Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Of the 8000 paintings in the Royal Collection, 65 of the best have been selected for the latest exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Many of these masterpieces have hung in the palace since George III (1738-1820) acquired the building in 1762. When George IV (1762-1830) came to the throne, he commissioned leading architect John Nash (1752-1835) to build a Picture Gallery, one of the state rooms in the palace, where these paintings have hung ever since. Unfortunately, they are displayed in two rows where it is difficult to see them all. Whilst the Picture Gallery is undergoing essential work, the public have the opportunity to view each of the chosen paintings at eye-level, where they can be examined and appreciated in detail.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, which look at paintings from different countries, such as the Netherlands, Flanders and Italy. Many were acquired by George IV, who had a good eye for art, but others have been in the collection since the reigns of Charles I (1600-49) and Charles II (1630-85). The paintings in the first gallery were all created in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) between 1630 and 1680. This was the heydey of the Dutch Golden Age, during which the Dutch Republic controlled much of the area now belonging to the present Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age are modest in scale and tend to depict scenes of everyday life. Artists usually worked alone in a studio, painting from memory rather than on-site or en plein air. The colours are vibrant, which is one of several identifying features of the style. With delicate, almost invisible brushstrokes, Dutch artists produced true-to-life paintings that often contained a comic element. George IV appreciated the artworks for the latter quality and purchased all but two on display for his London residence at Carlton House while he was still the Prince of Wales.

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (c1660) is one of two paintings in this section of the exhibition not purchased by George IV. Instead, his father, George III, bought it in 1762 to hang in the King’s Closet at Windsor Castle. Nicknamed The Music Lesson, it was painted by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) in the early 1660s, although the King believed it was by Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81) due to a misreading of the signature. The true identity of the artist did not come to light until 1866.

Only 34 paintings by Vermeer survive, and they are difficult to date, although some art historians estimate he produced A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman between 1662 and 1664. Vermeer paints in a grid-like manner, full of vertical and horizontal lines, which draw the eye to the back of the room where the scene takes place. A young woman stands at a virginal with her back to the viewer while her music teacher stands to the side with his right arm resting atop the instrument.

Vermeer has cropped many of the elements in the painting, suggesting the room is much larger than what is visible. In the mirror on the back wall, which reflects the lady’s face, Vermeer has also included a glimpse of an artist’s easel, suggesting he is in the same room. Yet, it is more likely that Vermeer produced the artwork in his studio.

On the lid of the virginal, an inscription reads MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], meaning “Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.” Art historians debate the meaning of this phrase, suggesting it relates to the two figures in the painting. Perhaps there is forbidden love between the two characters, breaching the teacher-student relationship. Yet, another element in the scene questions the type of love hinted at by the inscription. The framed painting hanging on the wall behind the tutor is an impression of Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirck Van Baburen (1595-1624). The scene depicts the story of the imprisoned Cimon, who was breastfed by his daughter Pero to keep him alive. Whilst this is meant to symbolise the ideal of Christian charity, it also hints at a complicated relationship.

Most likely purchased for its comedic value, The Listening Housewife by Nicolaes Maes (1634-93) entered the Royal Collection in 1811. During the 1650s, Maes produced several paintings of domestic scenes with moralising themes, of which this is one. The young housewife, identified by the keys in her hand, engages with the viewer with a direct gaze and a conspiratorial finger to her lips. This gesture draws attention to the scene at the foot of the staircase, on which the housewife is eavesdropping. Two lovers are kissing, having abandoned their chores, but will soon be caught by a man approaching with a lantern. The playful smile on the housewife’s lips indicates she is not upset by the scene, but the older man may react quite differently when he discovers the couple.

Paintings of indoor domestic scenes tended to be quite dark due to the nature of Dutch buildings. Windows let in very little light, and the wooden interiors and furnishings created many shadows. Maes’ paintings are an example of this, as are works by Gerrit Dou (1613-75), a former pupil of Rembrandt. In The Grocer’s Shop (1672), Dou contrasts the darkness of the interior with the daylight outside, coming through an arched window. This creates the illusion that the viewer is observing the scene outside the building. Yet, the window is likely an element of Dou’s imagination.

The scene in the room is typical of a general store selling eggs, dairy products, bread and meat products. The style of dress is slightly different from the early paintings by Dou, suggesting the fashions from France had begun to influence the Dutch Republic. This is also evident in the sculpted relief of children playing with a goat on the window sill, which resembles the work of French artists.

Not all paintings from the Dutch Golden Age depicted interior, everyday life scenes. Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) is an interpretation of a traditional religious scene recorded in the Gospel of St John (20:11-18). The Bible passage records the moment Mary Magdalen visits the tomb of the crucified Christ, only to find it empty. A man, who she mistakes for a gardener, asks her why she is crying, and she appeals to him for information about the missing body. This is the scene Rembrandt depicts, shortly before the moment Mary realises the gardener is her Lord, Jesus Christ.

Similar to other artworks of the era, the painting is quite dark, particularly around the tomb. Rembrandt’s use of light in the background, which contrasts with the deep colours in the foreground, is symbolic. The darkness represents death and grief, whereas the opalescent dawn sky hints at hope and life. Jesus’ body is angled towards the background, suggesting he wishes to move on and embrace his post-resurrection role in the world.

At first glance, Two Sportsmen Outside an Inn (1651) by Paulus Potter (1625-54) may appear to be a typical everyday life scene, but George IV probably purchased it for its comedic value. Two professional hunters are being served beer from a small, remote inn. A barefoot young boy tends to one of the men’s horses while the other horse urinates on the ground. Whilst the horse’s action is natural, it is unusual for an artist to capture such a moment.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age typically depicted colourfully dressed, wealthy men and women. Poverty was rarely seen in Dutch paintings, yet Potter emphasised the impoverished state of the innkeeper, child, and drunken man sitting on a bench. Art historians liken the subject matter to a story told by Ovid about the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury, who visit the elderly peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis. There is a stark contrast between the rich and the poor, both in the style of dress and attitude. During the 17th, 18th and 19th century, some viewers may have found this contrast amusing.

The artwork in the second gallery also come from the Low Countries, but they belong to more prestigious branches of art. All the paintings are significantly larger than those in the first gallery and depict narratives, religious subjects, landscapes and commissioned portraits. Three of the best artists of the 17th century dominate the walls: Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.

Those fortunate enough to be visiting the exhibition at 12 pm or 3 pm have the pleasure of listening to a short talk about Milkmaids with cattle in a landscape, ‘The Farm at Laken’ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-18).

Peter Paul Rubens was perhaps the most accomplished and influential artist of the 17th century. He was born in Siegen, Germany but spent much of his early life in Antwerp, where he established himself as a painter. Rubens subsequently travelled all over Europe as a court artist and diplomat for Philip IV of Spain (1605-65) and Charles I of England (1600-49).

Rubens was a very versatile artist. In the exhibition are three of his landscapes, two portraits, and the Assumption of the Virgin. He was very well-known for his large scale history paintings, depicting scenes from mythology and religion. His landscapes are less known, which he painted towards the end of his life. These were produced for fun rather than for patrons and stayed in Rubens’ personal collection or within the possession of friends and family.

The Farm at Laken is one of Rubens’ earliest landscape paintings and was acquired by George IV in 1821 for 1500 guineas (just under £100,000 today) and has remained in the Royal Collection ever since. It is a panoramic landscape where the details in the foreground are very clear and viewers also have a view of the horizon on the left-hand side of the painting. Rubens’ used subtle changes in colour to differentiate between the different levels of the landscape. In the foreground, he used brown tones, which become greener in the middle ground before transforming to blue in the background. He also uses a picturesque line of trees to lead the eye from one place to another.

Rubens produced this painting during the Autumn. This is evident through the subtle use of orange in the trees to indicate the changing colours of the leaves. The fields also have an autumnal glow, but the most obvious indication of the season is the activities of the people in the foreground. It is the time of the harvest, and some farmworkers are digging up vegetables, such as the cauliflowers and onions seen in a wheelbarrow and the basket carried by a woman. The well-fed cows are being milked, which along with the produce suggests the farm has had a successful, fertile year.

Some art historians believe there are elements in the landscape that relate specifically to Rubens’ life. He painted the scene between 1617 and 1618, almost ten years after the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp. The treaty declared a truce between the Habsburg rulers of the Southern Netherlands (where modern-day Belgium is today) and Spain, and the Dutch Republic. The two sides had been at war for 41 years, the majority of Rubens’ life, but the 1609 peace treaty resulted in twelve years of peace. The abundance of this Flemish landscape may represent this time of peace. The figures and animals may also personify the allegories of Peace and Plenty. The woman carrying the basket represents Plenty, and the flock of doves in the centre represent Peace.

The title of the painting, The Farm at Laken, refers to the church in the background between the trees. Art historians believe this is an impression of the Our Lady at Laken church, demolished during the late 19th-century. The church was associated with the rulers of the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert VII (1559-1621) and Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1663), who made a pilgrimage to the site every year. So, the farm did not just thrive under the peaceful watch of its rulers, but it also had religious connotations. Religion was extremely important to people living in Flanders and the Netherlands, but Our Lady at Laken held even more value because it contained a relic associated with fertility. Many women visited the church every year in the belief it would help them conceive a child.

Similar to other landscapes by Rubens, such as A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning and The Rainbow Landscape that were recently on display at the Wallace Collection in London, the painting grew during the making. The majority of Rubens’ landscapes were painted on wooden panels (ironically, the other two landscapes in the exhibition are on canvas), which allowed him to produce finer details and disguise his brushstrokes. Rubens began this painting on a much smaller panel, which he later expanded by adding extra panels to the top (13 cm), left (7 cm) and right hand (15 cm) sides. Some art historians suggest this is because he could not contain the abundance of the landscape on such as small panel (72.9 x 103.9 cm).

Christ Healing the Paralysed Man (1619) is, admittedly, not one of Anthony van Dyck‘s (1599-1641) greatest works, but he was only 20 years old. At the time, Van Dyck was a student under Rubens, and the painting was likely designed by the elder artist. Sketches of figures similar to those in this painting exist in Rubens’ hand. The religious theme is more synonymous with Italian painters of the 16th century, but many Netherlandish and Flemish artists practised by copying these styles.

Van Dyck, with Rubens’ help, depicted the scene in Matthew 9:2-8, where Jesus healed a paralysed man. Some men brought the man to Jesus, who said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Although this evoked outrage amongst the Pharisees, the man got up and walked home. The man in question is likely the poorly dressed, older looking figure on the left. He is thanking Christ for healing him – a scene not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

Art historians have identified the young man near the open doorway as the recently called James, the Apostle that became the Patron Saint of pilgrims. All the characters seem to be heading towards the door as though about to start a journey or pilgrimage. The world outside appears bright and positive, which contrasts with the darkness of the interior. The darkness symbolises the sins of the man, and the light colours his salvation.

Visitors will recognise Rembrandt’s Portrait of Agatha Bas (1611-1658) ‘Lady with a Fan’ from the promotion materials and advertisements for the exhibition. It is considered one of the most beautiful portraits in the Royal Collection. The 29-year-old woman was married to the wool merchant Nicolaas van Bambeeck (1596-1661), whose portrait hangs in the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The couple were not particularly famous, but Rembrandt knew them personally. After their marriage, the Van Bambeeck’s lived with Nicolaas’ mother, diagonally opposite Rembrandt on Sint Anthoniesbreestraat in Amsterdam.

Agatha wears a black gown over a pink silk dress. The gold flower patterns, pearls and fashionable fan reveal she was of a wealthy standing in Dutch society. Rembrandt expertly painted the white lace around her collar and sleeves, making the painting feel three-dimensional, almost as though the viewer could reach out and touch the material. Rembrandt also engages with the viewer by adding an ebony frame upon which Agatha’s hand rests, giving the illusion that she could climb through the frame into the gallery.

Lord Yarmouth (1777-1842) bought the Portrait of Agatha Bas at an auction for King George IV. Yarmouth was an art collector as well as a politician, so understood what to look for in a painting. The sitter’s beauty combined with Rembrandt’s delicate brush strokes and detail makes the portrait particularly striking. Not only is the artwork pleasing to look at, but it is also the work of one of the most well-known artists of all time.

Almost out of place next to Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck is A Kermis on St George’s Day (1649) by David Teniers the Younger (1610-90). Teniers was a versatile Flemish Baroque painter whose work greatly appealed to George IV. This painting is the most expensive work by Teniers in the Royal Collection, costing the King 1500 guineas in 1819; the same price as Rubens’ Farm at Laken.

A Kermis is a summer fair held in towns and villages in the Netherlands, often organised by the parish church. Teniers painted several Kermis scenes, but instead of capturing fairs for posterity, he filled it with examples of vices for comedic effect. In this painting, lust, wrath, drunkenness, and general boorishness are abundant throughout the crowds. They are all in high spirits, leading to careless folly. George IV was a wild partygoer, and he may have recognised himself in many of these characters.

The third and final room of the exhibition displays paintings created in Italy between 1510 and 1740. During this period, art styles changed and developed, as did the themes. Ideal female figures contrast with sober male portraits, and large landscapes depict a range of views and weathers. The choice of colour also differs from artist to artist. Some use chiaroscuro to emphasise particular sections of the painting, and others stand out with bright, attractive colours. Whilst most of the previous paintings were purchased by George IV, many of the ones from Italy entered the Royal Collection much earlier.

In 1660, the States of Holland and West Friesland presented Charles II with Pallas Athene (c.1531-8) by the Italian prodigy Parmigianino (1503-40). Also known as Francesco Mazzola, he gained the nickname Parmigianino, meaning “the little one from Parma”, due to his youth. Parmigianino began painting as a child, and by the age of 18, had already completed several commissions.

Pallas Athene was the Greek goddess of wisdom and a skilled warrior. Most artists depicted her wearing some form of armour, and Parmigianino followed suit by including a golden breastplate. The green gown covering Athene’s shoulders, combined with her long, curly hair, emphasise her femininity. Athene’s appearance, particularly her long neck, was inspired by classical statues, descriptions by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74), and Mannerist ideals of beauty.

In contrast to the beautiful Athene is Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-1652) Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), purchased by Charles I. Unlike the bright colours in Parmigianino’s work, Gentileschi used dark, earthy tones, showing the viewer an alternative interpretation of beauty. According to Iconologia by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1555-1622), Painting is personified as “a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought”. Gentileschi captured the essence of this description, but as a woman, she did not intend to present herself (for it is also a self-portrait) as a man’s ideal beautiful woman.

Artemisia Gentileschi came to London at the request of Charles I, suggesting he respected her as a painter despite her gender. Successful female painters were unheard of during the 17th century, but Gentileschi was very much in demand. Naturally, collectors were attracted by her unusual status as a female artist, but she also had outstanding artistic abilities.

Titian’s (1488-1576) portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) is an example of the sober-style paintings of men from the 16th and 17th century, a stark contrast from those depicting women. Painted early in his career (c.1514-18), Titian used a restricted colour range, making the sitter look like a sensible, respected member of society.

Jacopo Sannazaro was an Italian poet best known for his humanist classic Arcadia, a poem that influenced the likes of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608-74). Sannazaro claimed to come from a noble family, and this portrait reflects that. He sits with an air of importance, demanding respect from his viewers. In his right hand, he holds a book with one finger marking his place. Some art historians suggest it is a Bible, thus emphasising Sannazaro’s piety. 

Claude Lorrain’s (1604-82) Harbour Scene at Sunset (1643) is one of several landscapes in the latter part of the exhibition. It was first recorded at Buckingham Palace in 1785 but may have been purchased earlier by Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-57), the father of George III. The scene depicts the harbour at the Arco degli Argentari in Rome at sunset. The low sun creates a path of sunlight across the sea, providing enough light for the workers to unload goods from the ships.

The ancient Roman arch, yellow sky, and the “wine-dark sea” create an idyllic landscape, suggesting peacefulness, warmth and harmony. Yet, “Arco degli Argentari” means Arch of the Money-Changers and was located in a squalid corner of Rome. Lorrain used artistic licence to create an idealised version of the harbour. He did not aim to capture an accurate scene; instead, he worked to his strengths: his command of perspective and use of colour and tone.

In 1762, George III acquired The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day by Canaletto (1697-1768), which is a complete contrast to the landscape by Lorrain. Canaletto’s precise drawing and painting style create a perfect depiction of the Bucintoro, the state barge of the doge of Venice, returning to the city on Ascension Day. The annual ceremony celebrated the Sposalizio del Mar (the Wedding of the Sea), which symbolised Venice’s reliance on the sea. Several boats accompanied the Bucintoro, as seen in Canaletto’s painting.

Canaletto’s skill at architectural drawing is evident in his paintings because the buildings are precise and finely detailed. From a distance, the artwork looks like a photograph, but up close, the individual brush strokes are visible. He used the same technique for the ripples on the water and the boats. Although the canvas is fairly large (76.8 x 125.4 cm), the details are minute, suggesting Canaletto used a very fine paintbrush to painstakingly draw each line and flourish.

On display are four more paintings by Canaletto, which George III acquired in the same year. On a grander scale, these depict views of Venice away from the water’s edge. As a result, they lack the fine details seen in the water in The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, but they are still impressive pieces of art. It is easy to see why the King liked Canaletto’s work, and visitors spend longer looking at the details in the landscape than they do in some of the other paintings in the gallery. In total, the Royal Academy owns over 238 paintings and drawings by Canaletto, making it one of the largest and most important art collections in the world.

Whilst the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace evolved from an opportune moment – the Picture Gallery undergoing essential work – the curators have thought carefully about what paintings to display and where. Rather than placing them in chronological order, they are divided into three groups, which helps visitors compare artworks of similar styles. The exhibition provides details about each painting and encourages visitors to question what makes them so important that Britain’s previous kings wanted them in their collection. There is no right or wrong answer. The appreciation of art is a subjective topic, and what appeals to one person may not to another. The aim of the exhibition is not to educate but to provide visitors with the opportunity to think and reflect.

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace is on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until Sunday 13th February 2022. Tickets cost £16.00 per adult but discounted tickets are available for over 60s, children and students. Get your ticket stamped, and you can return as many times as you wish throughout the year. 


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3 thoughts on “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

  1. Magnum opus. Hazel, what a masterpiece, pure joy to read. You have researched well and provide information not easily found. Your writing will enhance any visit to the exhibition abs it’s been my total pleasure to read this well informed and entertaining blog. Thank you for sharing your talents.

  2. What a wonderfully comprehensive blog on this exhibition giving both an informative and an interesting appreciation of the background of these magnificent paintings.

  3. For those of us unable to visit this exhibition this has got to be the next best thing. So much detail and information – it makes you feel as though you were there. Well done Hazel for this wonderful exposition – another great blog.

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