The Life and Designs of William Morris

With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.”
– William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (1896)

 

 

Set in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow, London, is a house dedicated to one of the most multitalented artists Britain has ever seen. Once the home of William Morris (1834-96), the William Morris Gallery offers a detailed history of the revolutionary Victorian designer, craftsman, writer and campaigner. Through nine galleries that cover most of the house, visitors are introduced to Morris’ life, career and a notable collection of textiles, furniture, ceramics, paintings, designs and personal items. With films, audio clips and interactive displays, there is something to interest people of all ages, regardless as to whether they are William Morris enthusiasts or soon-to-be fans.

william_morris_as_a_young_man

William Morris age 23, c.1853

William Morris was born on 24th March 1834, the eldest son of a rising stockbroker. When he was six, the wealthy family moved to a mansion on the verge of Epping Forest, an ancient woodland that would prove to be a great inspiration for Morris later in life.

Morris much preferred roaming the forest on his own pony than he did education. His initial schooling at Misses Arundale’s Academy for Young Gentlemen proved to be futile, barely being able to spell by the time he moved on to Marlborough College, Wiltshire, in 1848. The previous year, Morris’ father of the same name died at the age of 50, causing his surviving family to downsize despite his fortune of £60,000.

In 1848, the Morris family moved to Water House in Walthamstow, the same building that is now the William Morris Gallery. William would not have been home often due to boarding at the school in Wiltshire, however, he returned home in 1851 due to a lack of discipline at the school. From then on, his education was provided by the Reverend Frederick Barlow Guy (1826-91), who encouraged Morris’ enthusiasm about the history of the Middle Ages. The Reverend was also a member of the Oxford Society for the Study of Gothic Architecture founded by John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic who would have a significant influence on Morris.

The introductory room at the Gallery explores Morris’ childhood and education, including letters and photographs that were written and taken at the time. An interactive map allows visitors to trace Morris’ footsteps around Walthamstow to discover the houses and places he liked to visit as a child.

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William Morris (24.03.1877)

Morris’ family expected him to aspire to a clerical career, however, a chance encounter during the Oxford entrance examination altered Morris’ direction in life. In January 1853, Morris entered Exeter College at Oxford University alongside the soon-to-be painter, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), who would prove to be a lifelong friend. A piano belonging to the latter can be found in the Gallery.

Influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, Morris and Burne-Jones discovered young, controversial painters, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This encounter was the first of many sources of inspiration that prompted Morris to begin a life of art.

Morris became involved with short-lived publications, such as The Germ, a house journal of the Pre-Raphaelites. Some examples of these are on display along with early works of Morris and Burne-Jones. In 1857, Rosetti gathered together a group of friends, including Morris, to help him paint the walls of the Oxford Union with scenes from the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately, this commission was a disaster as, due to their inexperience, they failed to prepare the walls properly before painting.

Morris threw himself into painting but also extended his efforts to wood carving, stained-glass designing and poetry. He also experimented with embroidery and wall-hangings. Despite the effort he put into his work, Morris only completed one painting, La Belle Iseult, based on Arthurian legend. His model was his fiancee Jane Burden (1839-1914), who, unfortunately, lived up to her surname. The painting, depicting the unfaithful Iseult, was a hidden precursor of events to come.

 

 

On 26th April 1859, Morris married Jane in Oxford. None of his family attended, perhaps due to Jane’s working-class background. The pair eventually moved into their own home in Upton, designed and decorated by Morris himself. Due to the colour of the Gothic brickwork, the house was affectionately known as Red House. Undaunted by their neighbours’ distaste, the Morrises lived a rather medieval lifestyle, consuming fruit and vegetables from their own garden and using candles for lighting. Apparently, the style of clothing Jane and her friends preferred were also decidedly odd.

In January 1861, Morris welcomed his first daughter Jane “Jenny” Alice (1861-1935) who was followed by her sister Mary “May” (1862-1938) in March the very next year. By now, Morris had given up the idea of painting as a career and was aspiring to set up his own successful decorative arts business.

Encouraged by Rossetti, Morris launched Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company: Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals, a.k.a The Firm, in April 1861. Beginning with a sum of £100 provided by Morris’ mother, who despite her disappointment at his aborted career in the Church, was willing to contribute to this latest endeavour, The Firm opened for business, receiving commissions from numerous establishments.

An interactive table allows visitors to attempt to run Morris’ business, making decisions about prices and materials to see if they could survive in a similar market. Morris was naturally the manager of The Firm, however, many of his friends had vital roles in the establishment. Burne-Jones was in charge of stained-glass design and another Pre-Raphaelite, Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), took on the role of chairing meetings. Rossetti was a valuable source, using his wide range of social contacts to receive commissions.

 

 

True to his nature, Morris took up a new artistic venture, wallpaper. Designs, such as Trellis and Daisy were registered in 1862 and were an immediate success. Despite business doing well, Morris’ health made it impractical to commute from home to The Firm’s premises in Bloomsbury, London, so the family moved to the residential quarters above the shop; something that placed a further strain on his rapidly deteriorating relationship with his wife.

Nonetheless, The Firm’s reputation was growing, receiving prestigious commissions such as redecorating the Armoury and Tapestry Room at St James’s Palace. This, along with their involvement with the Western Refreshment Room at the South Kensington Museum – now the Green Dining Room at the V&A – attracted the attention of Queen Victoria, who invited them back to St James’s Palace to decorate the Grand Staircase in 1880. The company also sold a furnishing fabric Utrecht Velvet, which was used to decorate the interior walls of the ocean liner, Titanic. 

 

 

After Morris took complete control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co in 1874, a decade worth of exceptional creativity began. During this time, Morris produced designs for thirty-two printed fabrics, twenty-four machine-made carpets, twenty-three woven fabrics and twenty-one wallpapers. He also opened showrooms at 264 (now 449) Oxford Street, on the corner of North Audley Street, in 1877.

The Gallery has recreated Morris’ showroom, using appropriate furnishings and decorations. It provides the atmosphere of the original place and enables visitors to envisage what entering the shop as a customer would have been like at the time. A number of designs and items are on display and large sample books of various textiles and wallpapers are available to browse through.

Next door, a workshop is set out to resemble the Morris & Co workshops at Merton Abbey, where The Firm moved in 1881. Morris went to lengths to ensure his materials were the finest quality and his workers highly skilled. Pieces of machinery alongside brief videos introduce visitors to the hard work that went into producing the carpets, wallpaper and stained glass for Morris & Co. Examples of the outcomes adorn the walls, many of them featuring birds and plants, inspired by Morris’ upbringing around Epping Forest. Hands-on stations around the room encourage visitors to draw their own patterns, build a stained-glass window and experiment with some basic weaving.

 

“Ever since I can remember I was a great devourer of books.”
– William Morris

The ground floor rooms of the Gallery are devoted to Morris’ artwork and business, however, upstairs are entirely different sides to the versatile Victorian. During his years with the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris began writing poems, sometimes for publications. This was encouraged by Rossetti who is also remembered for his poems as well as his paintings. After he self-published The Life and Death of Jason in 1867, a retelling in verse of the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, Morris was predicted to secure his place amongst the chief English poets of the age. The poet Robert Browning (1812-89) declared the volume “noble, melodious and most beautiful,” and within five years, over 3000 copies were sold.

Shortly following this success was Morris’ first volume of The Earthly Paradise, a sequence of twenty-four narrative poems about Greek and Norse mythology. Morris dedicated this book to his wife, ignoring the evidence that Jane was having an affair with Rossetti. Morris later escaped to Iceland to avoid the marriage-destroying fling back home. He had previously been introduced to the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson (1833-1913), with whom he collaborated with on translations, for example, the original Icelandic Grettis Saga. Morris also translated the Aeneid into English and a loose interpretation of the Volsunga Saga. Titled Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, his last major poem, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) dubbed it “the greatest epic since Homer.”

As well as writing, Morris became interested in calligraphy and typography, which sparked the desire to tackle book-printing. In the late 1880s, Morris established the Kelmscott Press at 16 Upper Hall, which became his main preoccupation for the remainder of his life. Coming from a design background, Morris was intrigued with the union of art, literature, typography, binding and ink and determined to produce elaborate, unique page layouts that reflected his passion for all things medieval.

The Kelmscott Press printed over 50 titles, many of them written by Morris himself, but also the writers he admired, including Ruskin, Shakespeare, Rossetti, Keats and Chaucer. The gallery has many examples of the books and pages Morris designed, showing off his intricate calligraphy, exceptional illustrations and gothic patterns. The Kelmscott Chaucer was hailed at the time as the most beautiful book ever printed.

 

William Morris’ artistic and literary career was not his only focus in life. He was aware of the benefits he had gained from being born into a wealthy family and the hardships of the lower classes.

“If I had not been … well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, should have been a mere rebel against … a system of robbery and injustice … The contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured … Such a system can only be detroyed … by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons of the upper or middle classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it.”
– William Morris

Unsupported by his peers, Morris became a Socialist during his 50s, committing himself to public lectures, despite not being much of a speaker. Looking back at his beloved medieval period, Morris wished to bring old ethical values back into practice, for example, co-operation, dignity and honesty. As a member of the Democratic Federation (DF), he took part in marches, sold the group newspaper Justice on street corners and published his own book for the cause: Chants for Socialists.

Later, when the DF was renamed the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Morris was invited to take the place of president, however, he turned down the offer. Yet, in 1885, Morris became the leader of the Socialist League in Hammersmith, which had broken away from the original SDF. The Socialist League quickly gained hundreds of members and famous names were attracted by Morris’ lectures, including Oscar Wilde (1845-1900) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

In 1886, the Socialist League began producing a weekly publication, Commonweal, however, it failed to make a profit. In an attempt to raise funds for the magazine, Morris wrote his only play, The Tables Turned; or Nupkins Awakened, giving himself the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The play was performed ten times, however, Morris did not think the audience understood the Socialist message he was trying to get across.

The events of 13th November 1887, also known as “Bloody Sunday”, were a crucial part of Morris’ Socialist vocation. Morris led a large group to a protest meeting at Trafalgar Square, however, violent police involvement caused the death of two protestors and left hundreds injured.

Despite his involvement with politics, Morris did not give up on his other interests, continuing to run Morris & Co whilst writing poetry and translating popular works. He also combined his love of gothic design with his political tendencies, setting up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877, a company that is still in existence today, to try to prevent damages to the original architecture of old buildings. Morris believed the Victorian restoration of these buildings was doing more harm than good and feared historical evidence of the foregoing centuries being destroyed completely.

 

Being such a talented and varied man, William Morris has left a huge legacy behind him. The final rooms at the Gallery explore the ways Morris has left his mark on the art and literature world. One room devotes itself to the work of Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery who was briefly apprenticed to William Morris. The other room takes a look at the resulting Arts and Crafts movement, inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin (1812-52), writer John Ruskin, and, of course, designer William Morris.

The Arts and Crafts movement flourished between the 1880s until the beginning of the First World War. Young artists, designers and craftsman were inspired by Morris’ ideas and continued to protest against the effects of industrialisation, just as he did during his time with the SDF and Socialist League. Unlike other art movements, Arts and Crafts was based more upon ideas than visual style, particularly ideas about Socialism, education and the environment.

Examples of work by these young artists can be seen in the eighth room of the Gallery, such as stained glass by Christopher Whall (1849–1924) and a carved plaque of Morris by George Jack (1855-1931) in tribute of the late artist.

May Morris, Morris’ youngest daughter was also an inventive designer. She learnt embroidery at a young age and by 1885, when she was only 21, she was elected head of the embroidery department at Morris & Co. Her passion for sewing helped to reconstruct embroidery from a female pastime to a serious form of art. The Gallery displays a fine silk embroidery by May titled Maids of Honour. Delicately made, this work of art was not produced for sale and remained in May’s private collection for the rest of her life.

“The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts.”
– Walter Crane (1845-1915)

Due to the sheer amount of information available, the William Morris Gallery is a place to be visited numerous times. Its free entry makes it a desirable place to revisit and its location in Lloyd Park only adds to its popularity. Activities for children are available throughout the Gallery, including brass rubbing, activity sheets and the opportunity to dress up.

The tea room or The Larder, situated in an orangery at the back of the house, provides breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea during the Gallery opening times. Throughout the year, specific exhibitions are also held in the building, the current one being The Enchanted Gardenfeaturing artists such as Claude Monet, Lucian Pissarro, Edward Burne-Jones and Beatrix Potter. This runs alongside a solo exhibition of fine artist Rob Ryan.

William Morris, as his obituary states, “was not only a genius, he was a man.” By encompassing his entire life rather than his outcomes and legacies, the William Morris Gallery succeeds in keeping the memory of the human being behind the name fresh and alive. He is definitely a person worth knowing about.

wmg_logo22Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm. Free entry.

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Mantegna versus Bellini

A tale of two artists: family and rivalry is the theme for the National Gallery’s current exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in collaboration with the British Museum. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are two of the greatest Italian painters of the Renaissance. Whilst it may appear the younger Bellini began his career by copying Mantegna, the already established artist, his work developed into groundbreaking paintings of which no one had seen the like before. With temporary loans of dozens of rarely seen artworks, the exhibition, Mantegna and Bellini, provides the opportunity to study the similarities and differences between two artists who shaped Italian art.

 

 

It started with a book. On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with a glass display case containing the London Drawing Book of Jacopo Bellini. Although this does not contain the works of the two artists in question, it is a key object that links their stylistic development together.

Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-70) was one of the founders of the Renaissance style of painting in Venice and northern Italy. His sons, Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni (c.1430-1516) learnt the art of painting and drawing under his tutelage, however, it was not until Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) joined the family, that the younger son, Giovanni, began to make his name known.

Mantegna was born in Padua and adopted by the artist Francesco Squarcione (c.1395 -c.1468) in whose studio he also worked. Unfortunately, the young artist believed Squarcione was exploiting his pupils and took him to court so that he could become an independent painter. As a result, Mantegna was free to go where he wished, marrying into the Bellini family in 1453.

After his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini (d.1460), Mantegna was able to study the drawings of Jacopo Bellini. As can be seen in the illustrations, Jacopo was interested in architecture and perspective, which inevitably rubbed off on his son-in-law and then his son.

Whilst Mantegna had already experienced life as an artist, having to work hard to make a living, Giovanni Bellini had grown up in an extremely wealthy family of Venetian painters and had not endured the same fate, nor yet developed his own style and place amongst Italian artists. Looking to his brother-in-law for inspiration, Bellini appropriated many of the established and highly inventive artist’s ideas, gradually forging a name for himself.

 

 

The first and most obvious example of Mantegna’s influence on Bellini is their similar versions of The Presentation at the Temple. These show the moment Mary and Joseph present their child, Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Here, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:22–40, they meet prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna. Both paintings show the Virgin Mary tenderly holding the tightly swaddled Christ Child while Simeon comes forward to take him. In the background between these main figures, Joseph watches the proceedings.

In Mantegna’s version, which was painted shortly after his marriage, there are two figures stood either side of the painting. These are thought to be portraits of the artist himself and his wife, Nicolosia. The composition is rather claustrophobic, the framing being just enough room to hold the upper bodies of Mary and Simeon with their halos.

Bellini’s version, however, is observed from further away, allowing room for an extra character on either side. It has not been officially determined who these people represent. To produce this piece, Bellini traced Mantegna’s original, which had been completed over ten years beforehand, keeping the poses, facial expressions and types of clothing almost exactly the same. The changes appear in the colours of the fabrics, the brightness of the scene and the lack of halos upon the Holy Family’s heads.

To some, the paintings are so similar that Bellini’s version appears to be blatant plagiarism. On the other hand, there is enough difference to make it his own. It is as though Bellini is trying to say to Mantegna, “Look what I can do,” or perhaps even, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”

 

The Presentation at the Temple is just one of many examples the National Gallery uses to emphasise Mantegna’s influence on Bellini. Another is The Agony in the Gardenwhich Mantegna first produced at the end of the 1450s, inspiring Bellini to produce his own version at the beginning of the following decade. The paintings refer to chapter 14, verses 32-43 in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples, Peter, James the Great and John the evangelist sleep.

It is thought that Mantegna was initially inspired by a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. This Bible passage was an unusual choice to represent at this time since many Biblical paintings came in sets, representing the birth, life and resurrection of Christ; The Agony in the Garden was the first stand-alone religious painting in western art.

Mantegna’s rocky terrain and sharp colours give the painting a harsh atmosphere and a portent of the events to come emphasised further by a dead tree and vulture on the right. A host of angels stand above on a cloud clutching Instruments of the Passion, another omen of Christ’s impending death. In the background is the city of Jerusalem from which a troop of soldiers follow Judas’ lead to arrest Jesus.

Although Bellini took inspiration from Mantegna, on this occasion his outcome is not a copy of his brother-in-law’s. The events depicted remain the same, however, Bellini has introduced his own interpretation. Bellini chose to include only one ghostly angel standing aloft on a wispy cloud carrying a cup and plate as symbols of the approaching sacrifice. The colours and the way Bellini portrays light in his composition gives the painting a more tender feel. Unlike Mantegna’s version, it suggests hope, a hint of the resurrection, a sign of prayers being answered.

 

 

Up until the 15th century, Biblical paintings showed the characters, Jesus, the Holy family and so forth as beautiful, angel-like beings. They were figures that personified the love of God and served as examples of the ideal human being. During Mantegna and Bellini’s careers, these notions began to change. Although traditional scenes of the nativity and the Madonna remained popular, artists began to change the way they portrayed the death of Christ. Instead of a peaceful, serene outcome, Mantegna and Bellini focused on painting the torture of Christ, revealing through him the sorrows of man.

 

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised …
– Isaiah 53:3

The National Gallery provides more examples of Bellini’s depiction of the “despised and rejected” Christ, however, both artists were keen to express the lifeless body and the grief on the faces of his mother and disciples.

 

Whilst Bellini was intensely impacted by Mantegna’s art and style, Bellini’s evocative landscapes and application of colour equally inspired Mantegna. As their careers developed, the landscape became an integral part of their paintings. Rather than spend all their energy painting the foreground and characters, the brothers-in-law paid equal attention to the backgrounds of their compositions.

Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, for example, could simply have been portrayed in a room with bare walls. Instead, the artist has included a huge open window overlooking the city of Mantua, where he was currently residing. Likewise, Bellini in Madonna of the Meadow did not solely focus on the tenderness of the mother and child. In the background is a landscape complete with the buildings of a distant city. The inclusion of these structures maintains the original teachings of Jacopo Bellini who enjoyed sketching architectural drawings.

One of Bellini’s greatest examples of a landscape is Assassination of St Peter Martyr. This tells the story of Saint Peter, a Dominican friar, who was ambushed by assassins on the road to Milan. Saint Peter received a head wound and was repeatedly stabbed to death. This incident takes place in the lower left of the painting, leaving a huge amount of canvas that Bellini fills with an expressive landscape.

The death of St Peter takes place in a wooded area outside of a city; the buildings can be seen through the trees. Oblivious to the saint’s demise, woodcutters are chopping down branches for firewood, an intended allusion to the way in which the saint was killed.

The most impressive landscape the gallery displays by Mantegna is Triumphs of the Virtues. Unlike the first few rooms in the exhibition which show religions paintings, this is a mythological image that reveals Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, expelling the vices from the Garden of Virtue. Some of the other characters are identified as Diana, the goddess of chastity, escaping from a centaur who, in this case, is a symbol of lust and desire. In the sky, the three primary moral virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, watch over the proceedings.

As well as expertly telling the mythological tale, Mantegna painted a magical landscape full of luscious green meadows and mountains. In the foreground, arches are made up of foliage and, in keeping with the whimsical story, the tree nearest Minerva is shown with a human head.

 

Despite the familial connection and the clear influence they had on each other, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini only worked in close proximity briefly before Mantegna took up the post of court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Although the artistic style of work is close enough to be mistaken for the other, the direction they went with themes and purposes gave them individuality within the art world.

Mantegna had a great interest in antiquity and attempted to recreate ancient Rome in some of his paintings. Three of nine large canvases covered the walls in the final room of the exhibition of the Triumphs of Caesar, which shows the arrival of Julius Caesar in Rome. These are thought to have been commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519), the 4th Marquis of Mantua, although, they were later acquired by Charles I in 1629 and now remain in the Royal Collection.

Another example of Mantegna’s interest in antiquity can be seen in The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome commisioned by Francesco Cornaro (1478-1543), a Venetian nobleman, in 1505. Rather than painting a life-like illustration of the scene, Mantegna painted a sculptural relief. Although the background is coloured a red marble or wood, the stone figures are completely monochrome. This goes to show Mantegna’s skill with the paintbrush; producing a black and white painting is only half the challenge, making figures look like stone is a true success.

 

Unlike Mantegna, Bellini remained in Venice his whole life, often completing commisions in many Venetian and religious buildings. Despite being away from his brother-in-law, they remained in contact and had similar interests. Bellini was also interested in antiquity, finishing commissions Mantegna left incomplete after his death. At this time, however, the term antiquity also referred to events written in the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah.

The Drunkenness of Noah was completed about a year before Bellini’s death and shows the daring and revolutionary ideas of the artist. Traditionally, Biblical paintings reveal positive stories and messages, however, this painting based on Genesis 9:20–23 reveals Noah’s vices rather than his virtuosity. Noah is lying naked on the floor in drunken slumber whilst his sons, Shem and Japheth, attempt to cover him with a red cloth. His third son, Ham, however, laughs at the sight of his father.

Bellini also received commissions for portraits, however, he much prefered to paint portraits of characters rather than real people. The most beautiful of these is Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene which, unlike his other paintings with expressive landscapes, has a black background; the characters are lit from a light source outside of the frame.

Although not overly elaborate or detailed, Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene attracts attention with its chiaroscuro effect and the glossy finish to the painting – an element that is lost looking at the image online or on paper. Mantegna’s medium of choice was egg tempera, which Bellini initially used before developing a preference for oil paints. Oils allowed for deeper colour and contrast in shading.

There is no doubt that Mantegna and Bellini were two of the greatest painters in Italy during the 15th century, however, for an exhibition expressly about the pair, very little is alluded to about their lives, personalities or whether the brothers-in-law got on well together. This exhibition does not let Mantegna and Bellini’s personalities come through. It eliminates them in preference for detailed comparisons about how they painted and drew the same subjects, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Presentation at the Temple.

Of course, it is interesting to see the similarities and difference between the two artists, but on leaving the exhibition, visitors remain none the wiser about who the two painters really were. Did they have happy lives and happy marriages? Do their paintings reflect their personalities? Did Mantegna mind Bellini copying his work? Were they rivals or is this a label art historians have assumed? So many questions …

Despite these misgivings, it is incredible to see all these paintings in one place, especially as many belong to private collections and are rarely lent out to other organisations. It is interesting to see the famous paintings as well as the lesser known and to be able to witness the growth from early career to pioneers of the Renaissance. Although Mantegna and Bellini’s lives are not much revealed, the history, development and changes in paintings from the 15th century is fascinating.

Mantegna and Bellini is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 27th January 2019. Tickets are between £12-16 and can be booked online or bought on the day. 

 

Art in the Aftermath

On 11th November 1918, fighting on land, sea and air in World War I between the Allies and their opponent, Germany, finally came to an end. One hundred years later, television, magazines and museums throughout Britain are paying tribute to the events of the Great War with reflective thoughts, facts and stories, revealing truths and experiences of those who fought or were affected by the conflict. Tate Britain jumped on the bandwagon with a major exhibition throughout the summer: Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. Bringing together over 150 artworks from 1916 – 1932 by British, French and German artists, the exhibition explored the artistic responses to the physical and psychological scars left by the war. With over 10 million soldiers dead and 20 million wounded, the fighting may have ceased but the after effects of the devastation continued to plague the hearts and minds of those left behind to pick up the pieces.

 

 

 

The exhibition, which closed on 23rd September 2018, began with a selection of paintings produced by artists who had either fought or witnessed the battle first hand. Since the majority of civilians had not seen the fighting in the trenches, they were sheltered from the brutality of the experience. Artists struggled to express the horrors of war, the battlefields and the loss of human life; instead, they painted the scene after the guns had fallen silent, indicating the violence by revealing the destruction of the landscape.

Paul Nash (1889-1946) used his surrealist style to produce a ruined field full of shell craters and broken trees. Although no human remains can be seen, it is easy to imagine the significant death toll caused by heavy artillery and automatic weapons. Other artists included abandoned helmets as a piercing symbol of the death of a soldier. An example of British, French and German helmets, which had originally been collected as war souvenirs, was displayed in a glass case in the first room of the exhibition. The rusted state of the British and German helmet was a strong reminder of the damp, inhospitable environment soldiers were subjected to.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946), one of the greatest British war artists, included a couple of corpses in his painting Paths of Glory (1917). Lying face down in the mud surrounded by barbed wire, the soldiers are stripped of their dignity and identity, becoming a small percentage of the war losses. When the painting was first displayed in London, the Department of Information threatened to censor it, however, Nevinson got there first, pasting pieces of brown paper over the dead bodies with the word “censored” written over the top. Rather than protecting the viewers from the truth as the Department had wished, Nevinson caused people to demand to know the realities of the war.

William Orpen (1878-1931) was another artist who was determined to reveal the traumas of war. Drawing on his own experiences, Orpen produced Blown Up (1917), a painting of a soldier he had witnessed wandering around in a corpse-ridden landscape.

“Practically every shred of uniform had been torn from his body … [he] was wandering crazed and naked, still clinging to his rifle.”

It was impossible for soldiers to forget the sights they had seen and Orpen was particularly outraged that the people who had “gone through Hell” were quickly being forgotten by the people in charge. Soldiers were expected to return to their daily lives as though the war had never happened. Mental illness was not an accepted concept at the time and illnesses such as PTSD were not mentioned. Instead, the dazed, emotionally broken man depicted by Orpen was deemed to be “shell-shocked”, a term coined during the war by Charles Meyers (1873-1946), a physician, who believed the behaviour of these men was a result of shockwaves caused from a nearby exploding bomb, severing men’s nerves.

 

 

Of course, the Great War itself was remembered, and continues to be, by the countries involved. Britain and France quickly erected memorials to the people who lost their lives and Germany eventually followed suit in 1931. In Hyde Park Corner, London, stands a stone monument dedicated to the First World War casualties of the Royal Artillery. Included in this statue are four bronze figures of artillerymen designed by Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934), one of which featured in the Tate exhibition.

In Britain, the Tomb of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, which contains the remains of an unidentified British soldier killed during the First World War, is still respected at memorial services today. Similarly, in France, a French unknown soldier is buried at the Arc de Triomphe. The coffins were marched through the capitals on 11th November 1920, as shown by Frank Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) in his painting The Passing of an Unknown Warrior. Salisbury captured the procession as it passed Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall where hundreds of people had gathered to pay their respects. The highly recognisable George V walks alone behind the gun carriage carrying the coffin, playing the role of Chief Mourner.

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Original version

Salisbury’s painting was not the only one at the exhibition to feature the coffin of the unknown soldier. William Orpen painted a tribute to the soldier, placing the coffin in the Hall of Peace at the Palace of Versailles, however, the story behind the artwork gives it an entirely different meaning. As the Tate pointed out, the original painting once featured two putti hovering above the flag-clad coffin, whilst two emaciated soldiers stood to either side. Five years after it had been produced, Orpen painted over the putti and soldiers, leaving the lone coffin in the middle.

What the Tate failed to mention was the painting, To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-8) was never the original intention of the artist or the commissioners. Orpen was commissioned to paint the politicians, generals and admirals who had “won the war” in a group portrait within the walls of the Hall of Peace. Whilst Orpen worked diligently on this for nine months, his experience of the realities of the battlefield prevented him from continuing until completion. With those that had “given up their all” forgotten about by these “frocks” who had very little to do with the physical warfare, Orpen rebelled by removing the statesmen from the painting and replacing them with the coffin of an unknown soldier. He aimed to express the fate of millions of soldiers to the public back home and the war-induced trauma the survivors were suffering.

“… it must have been the experience of many men, when the war was over and they came back with minds seared with the things they has seen, to find a civilian public weary and indifferent, and positively unwilling to listen.”
– Herbert Read (1893-1968)

 

 

Although some photographs were produced during the war years, the medium was an expensive way of documenting the travesties, therefore, it was left to the artists to show the true events and after-effects. Nevertheless, a painting of a war-strewn landscape does not express the emotional, mental and physical effects upon the combatants. Soon after the war, art movements such as Dada and Surrealism became a way of communicating the damage inflicted upon bodies and minds. Warped images of half flesh, half machine figures were frequently used to represent the use of prosthetic limbs by war veterans.

The French painter Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), whilst not associated with Dadaism and Surrealism, produced a painting of robot-like soldiers sitting in a trench. The individuals look as though they are made of steel, thus dehumanising the act of war. The German painter Otto Dix (1891-1969), on the other hand, chose a cartoon-style to express his experience of war, for instance, the violent-looking, gasmask-wearing stormtroopers in his print series, The War (1924).

Dix also tried to draw attention to the way post-war German society mistreated disabled veterans as well as exposing the lives of ex-soldiers and their female relatives. In a caricature entitled Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran. Two Victims of Capitalism (1923) Dix aimed to make society aware of the men who were refused work on account of their facial disfigurement and the women who had no choice but to go into prostitution due to economic necessity.

 

 

As well as exploring the catastrophic impact of the war, many artists’ styles and genres began to radically change in the following years. Before 1914, many avant-garde movements were developing, changing the way art was perceived and executed in the western world, however, the war years brought these artistic advancements to a lull. With the world suffering physical and psychological damages, the heart temporarily went out of modern art and many returned to realism and traditional genres.

This revival has been given the art term Retour à l’ordre or Return to Order, which is thought to stem from Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) book of essays Le rappel a l’ordre, published in 1926. Although the style may be reminiscent of old approaches, the subject matter alluded to the current economic and political climate. Dorothy Brett (1883-1977), for example, portrayed a group of pregnant war widows dressed in black supporting each other through such a distressing time. War Widows (1916) emphasises the death toll of the war and the number of women left without husbands and children who will never meet their fathers.

Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955) also alluded to the effects war had on women. In his portrait Jenny (1923), Schlichter gave great attention to the sitter’s facial expression, exposing the inner turmoil of her mind. Jenny appears to be deep in thought, distant and detached from the world. The war did not only affect the men who fought but also the women who lost husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. Another artist, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), produced a narrative print portfolio that focused on the war from the perspective of mothers and children. It was one of the strongest and most powerful anti-war statements made at the time.

Other artists subliminally referenced the war by returning to classical themes, such as religion, combining them with modern settings. Winifred Knights (1899–1947), for instance, combined the Biblical story of the flood in the book of Genesis with frenzied figures wearing typical clothing of the 1910s fleeing from the rising waters. The Deluge (1920) was displayed at the Royal Academy in February 1921 and received positive feedback from critics. “The ark suggests the modern concrete buildings, and the figures are those of present-day men and women. Critics declare the painter a genius.” (The Daily Graphic, 8 February 1921)

The most surprising artist to feature in the Return to Order section of the Tate Britain exhibition was Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Known for cubism, surrealism, expressionism, post-impressionism and more, it is easy to forget that Picasso was also an exceptionally good realist painter. Although he quickly returned to his iconic modern style, for a short time after the war, Picasso entertained ideas of classical and Biblical art. In Family by the Seaside (1922), Picasso paints what appears to be a family of three relaxing on the beach, however, a closer inspection reveals the unnerving nudity of the father and child. The similarities between this painting and the Pietà are evident in the position of the father lying unmoving on the ground whilst the mother and child watch over him.

 

 

Although war art is typically focused upon the actual combat and after effects, artists began to think about the future of a post-war society. In Britain, France and Germany, social and political unrest was plaguing the cities, particularly in the latter in which the percentage of unemployed skyrocketed. In the 1920s, Germany saw the rise of a new art movement, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which encompassed the artists who rejected the pre-war expressionist movement. Between 1925 until the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933, German painting began to characterise the attitude of public life.

Otto Griebel (1895-1972) painted Die International (The International) in 1929 to express the working class’ antagonism against Capitalism. Griebel paints an unending crowd of workers marching together whilst singing the Communist anthem. The individuals are dressed in all manner of work clothes but despite their different positions, they are determined to support each other.

Otto Dix also focused on the working class with his portrait of a street urchin in Working-Class Boy (1920). The young German boy would not look out of place in a Charles Dicken’s (1812-1870) novel such as Oliver Twist (1838) and other stories set in 1800 cities. This suggests that a century on, nothing has been achieved in helping the poor or that the war has reverted the world back to a previous era.

Disabled veterans who fought for their country were often ignored rather than receiving the thanks and praise they deserved. In George Grosz’s (1893-1959) recognisable Grey Day (1921), the cover image of the Aftermath exhibition, a social worker deliberately turns away from a struggling veteran. The public was led to believe everyone was treated equally, whereas, in reality, society had been split into social types similar to the old class system. Grosz and other members of Neue Sachlichkeit aimed to unveil the inequalities through their artwork.

“…I considered any art pointless if it did not put itself at the disposal of political struggle….my art was to be a gun and a sword.”
-George Grosz

There were, of course, positive changes in society after the war. As most people will by now be aware, this year is also the hundredth anniversary of British women receiving the right to vote. It was a time when women were finally getting greater freedom and independence, particularly in the workforce. Cities and economies were adapting in order to fit women into their entitled positions. Europe was also looking to America and following their example of technical progress and modernity.

Some artists produced paintings of ambitious modern cities, full of hope and recovery from war. Nevinson, on the other hand, began to feel disheartened. Bearing in mind the prospect of a Second World War was not yet on the cards, Nevinson was already having doubts about the rapid changes occurring both sides of the ocean. The Soul of the Soulless City (1920) was originally meant to show the modern architecture of New York City with an imagined elevated railway; whilst the picture has not been altered, the meaning changed after a critic described it as “hard, metallic, unhuman”. What initially looked like a city of hope became a city in which buildings and technology replace human life.

As Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One proved, the First World War left lasting effects upon citizens regardless as to whether they experienced warfare first hand. One hundred years on, it is not only important to remember the people who fought but also the people left emotionally scarred by the conflict. The artworks shown at the Tate Britain exhibition show how complex the aftermath of the war was; just because the fighting had stopped did not mean life could return to its former state.

It was refreshing to see a handful of female artists who, until more recent years, were often omitted from art history. Their contribution helped to show another side to war that, again, is often forgotten about. The year 1918 has been recorded as a celebratory time for women, which, unfortunately, overshadows the emotional pain of war that they, their children and the soldiers were subjected to.

Tate Britain did an excellent job curating the Aftermath exhibition. Rather than acting as a First World War centenary memorial, it revealed the harsh truths about the impact of war, which, after all, was the original intention of the majority of the exhibits. Although the doors closed a month ago, Aftermath has opened visitors’ eyes and minds to the physical and psychological scars left by WWI. It also reveals the power a work of art can contain, speaking volumes at a time when the public had no voice of its own. Most importantly, it has changed the way the Great War is remembered and has given everyone something to think about.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall

“I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had a chance to talk to him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun for so long.”
– Michael Jackson, 1993

Coinciding with what would have been his 60th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery presents their exhibition of the year, Michael Jackson: On the Wall. With number one hits from age 11, Jackson is known not just for his music but his choreography, dancing ability, fashion and humanitarian efforts, too. Despite his death in 2009, Jackson continues to be a major influence on contemporary art.

Before anyone gets excited about a Michael Jackson exhibition, it needs to be noted that this is not a biographical display of the life of the “King of Pop”, nor are there any memorabilia or personal artefacts. On the Wall is about artwork and Jackson’s influence on 48 different artists from different generations and areas of the world.

 

 

On entering the exhibition, a gallant prince on horseback almost jumps off the wall taking the attention away from Keith Haring’s (1958-90) untitled abstract portrait of Michael Jackson hanging on the left of the entrance. On closer inspection, the figure turns out to be Jackson, imitating the Spanish king in Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) The Restoration of Philip II on Horseback (c1630). The artist, Kehinde Wiley (b1977), is known for his paintings of African-Americans, which attracted Jackson’s attention in the early 2000s. Becoming his final commissioned portrait, Jackson asked Wiley to paint him in the typical style of European art history in order to challenge the stereotypes surrounding black people in the United States. This was an issue, as the exhibition highlights, which Jackson felt strongly about.

Although it is almost a decade since Michael Jackson’s death on 25th June 2009, artists are still enamoured with his compassion for those treated unfairly and the way [he] makes [them] feel. The year after his death, the diverse artist Lyle Ashton Harris (b1965) produced Black Ebony II (2010), which hangs close by the regal portrait of the “King of Pop”. “I remained intrigued by the vulnerability, the genius that was Michael Jackson and how his global presence still haunts the contemporary phantom scene.”

 

Some of the works have been purposely created by artists for this exhibition, for example, Graham Dolphin’s (b.1972) walls of record sleeves. Dolphin is well-known for his text art in which he hand writes minuscule words on top of pre-existing materials. In this instance, he has collaged together multiple sleeve issues of Michael Jackson’s albums Thriller and Off the Wall – of which the exhibition’s title is a parody. These are part of an ongoing series of work in which the artist explores the themes of fandom and idolatry. Across the sleeves, Dolphin has painstakingly written the complete lyrics of Jackson’s songbook.

After an introduction to a few examples of artwork inspired by Michael Jackson, the exhibition begins to follow Jackson’s timeline from his emergence into the world of fame through to his final years. Although the focus is mostly on the art, details about the singer are included in written descriptions, which help to explain the purpose and intention of each artist.

Michael Jackson was born on 29th August 1958 in Gary, Indiana, the eighth child of a working-class African-American family. His father, Joseph Walter Jackson (1928-2018), formed a band with his eldest sons, Jackie (b1951), Tito (b1953) and Jermaine (b1954), which Michael and another brother, Marlon (b1957) joined in 1964 as backing musicians on congas and tambourines. Michael was only 6 years old when he joined what would become known as the Jackson 5. The next year he was promoted to lead singer, a position he shared with Jermaine. By the tender age of 11, Michael and his brothers were already at the top of the charts with singles such as ABC and I’ll Be There.

 

During the 1970s, Michael Jackson grew from a child performer to a teen idol. Breaking away from his brothers as a solo artist, becoming the first black musician to receive worldwide fame. With studio albums and singles being released at great speed, Jackson was quickly becoming one of the most idolised musicians, winning award after award with barely a break in between, after all, you don’t stop ’til you get enough.

The National Portrait Gallery displays a handful of drawings the British painter Dawn Mellor (b1970) drew during her teenage years. These are what today’s youth call “fanart”, in which they copy pictures of their favourite stars or create imaginary scenarios derived from works in which the celebrity has been involved. Mellor also doodled portraits of the athlete Carl Lewis (b1961) and comedian Richard Pryor (1940-2005) who, like Jackson, were transcending barriers that usually limited African Americans.

Michael Jackson’s face became an iconic image after Andy Warhol (1928-87) created a series of silkscreen prints in 1984 to accompany an article in Time Magazine titled “Why He’s A Thriller”. Warhol was an avid Jackson fan and collected many of his records; commodities, such as look-a-like dolls; and newspaper clippings about the star.

As well as his physical appearance, fashion preferences and song lyrics, Jackson was also known for being a dancing machine. Some of these moves are difficult to replicate, although, many have now conquered the “moonwalk”. A more challenging dance move introduced by Jackson is “the freeze” in which he balanced on the very tip of his toes. Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom (b1984), who recently graduated from the Royal Acadamy Schools, produced a tribute to the “King of Pop” by replicating the famous “freeze” with latex balloons, ribbons and penny loafer shoes. A version of this sculpture is situated in the centre of one of the rooms in the exhibition, the shoes standing on their toes, held up by the balloons. Not only does this sculpture honour the late singer, it has metaphorical connotations too.

“… the replacement of the balloons as they individually deflate plays on the continuous work and effort in upholding an admired public image.”
– Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom

 

Living in the limelight has its positive and negative aspects. Being one of the most famous black men in the world, Michael Jackson was in a position to be to heard and listened to by millions of people. He advocated for equal rights, insisting that it did not matter if you were black or whiteJackson visited sick children around the world, giving them gifts and a moment to remember on Michael’s Heal The World Campaign in the 1990s. He turned his 3000-acre estate, Neverland Valley, into an amusement park with two zoos containing animals such as llamas, tigers, giraffes and elephants, and invited disadvantaged children to enjoy themselves.

Faith Ringgold (b1930), known for her narrative quilts, has been an activist in various feminist and anti-racism groups since the 1970s. One of her “story quilts”, which features in this exhibition, contains a figure of Michael Jackson in its centre. Her aim was to denounce racism and discrimination through her artwork.

“Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be.”
– They Don’t Care About Us, Michael Jackson

Jackson wrote songs such as They Don’t Care About Us and Earth Song as a means of getting the message across about the inequalities in the world. Some people loved him for this, however, others began to despise him. This, unfortunately, kept Jackson under critical scrutiny, which anyone would find difficult to bear.

Michael Jackson could be recognised everywhere he went, his face was easy to remember. His features were so unique that he could be identified by his eyes only, as emphasised in Mark Ryden’s (1963) cover work for the album Dangerous (1991). Jackson’s eyes can be seen peeking through a mask-like shape at the top of the composition. Ryden was inspired by various pre-existing ideas including The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and the photograph Cecil Beaton (1904-80) took of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation.

Ryden’s purpose for including so many elements in his composition, for instance, a fairground ride and a host of dressed-up animals, was to convey a cluttered mind. From talking to Jackson, Ryden determined that the singer’s mind was a jumble of memories or a fun house, the latter also being an allusion to Neverland Valley. This also suggests Jackson’s frustration and loss of childhood due to becoming famous at such a young age. Instead of running around with other six and seven-year-olds, he was already having to keep up his demeanour for his adoring fans.

As befalls many a celebrity, Michael Jackson began having issues with his physical appearance, particularly his nose. His dissatisfaction also stemmed from his childhood and the way he was treated by his father. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson admitted to “his tendency to remain hyper-compliant” in order to avoid a tirade or abuse. Allegedly, Joseph Jackson would whip his son and tell him that he had a fat nose. This, ultimately, led to several nose jobs that drastically altered Michael Jackson’s appearance. A thinner nose noticeably altered the overall shape of Jackson’s face, as shown in a posthumous painting by a French street artist, alias Mr Brainwash (1966).

 

Unfortunately, the National Portrait Gallery almost glosses over Michael Jackson’s final years, particularly his deteriorating appearance. Whether or not people believe the claim that he had only had a couple of nose jobs, it is clear that Jackson no longer looked like the young African American boy he was back in the day. The Gallery also fails to comment on the skin disease with which Jackson supposedly suffered. Vitiligo is a disease in which the melanocytes or pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas, thus causing the skin to appear white. This can affect people of all skin colours, however, the darker the skin, the more noticeable it becomes. It is unlikely to cause the entire skin to become white, which is why many people did not accept Jackson’s claims.

Maggi Hambling’s (b1945) portrait of Michael Jackson is one of the very few visual references to his change in skin tone. The pop star was reportedly diagnosed with vitiligo in 1984, however, there were also rumours he had been skin bleaching. Jackson’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, also states that he suffered from lupus, which made his skin extremely sensitive to light. Despite these statements, many people refused to believe that Jackson was ill, however, vitiligo was diagnosed in his autopsy report.

With all the negative press, it is no wonder Michael Jackson began to hate the sight of the man in the mirror, however, he still had many loyal fans throughout the world. In 2017, Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming (1960) painted a portrait in memory of Michael Jackson. It is interesting to discover how wide a fanbase Jackson had, reaching as far as Asia where the Western world has less of an impact.

 

Some fans revered Michael Jackson to the point that he became more than human in their eyes. One fan was the American commercial photographer David LaChapelle (b1963) who believed Jackson’s life reached almost Biblical proportions. This is a controversial subject that many may not agree with or even be offended by, however, LaChappelle saw many similarities between Jackson and Jesus Christ.

The photographer believes “we persecuted him”, listening to malicious gossip and rumours. Whilst Jackson was trying to do good, helping disadvantaged children and improving opportunities for African Americans, the world painted him as bad or even a smooth criminal, accusing him of child abuse, vanity and so forth.

LaChappelle created a series of manipulated photographs in homage to Michael Jackson, positioning him in in front of different backgrounds, adding wings and other figures to make him look like an angel that had defeated the devil or a man who had been crucified.

Although these ideas are rather extreme, they emphasise the serious allegations inflicted upon Jackson compared with the way LaChappelle wishes the musician could be remembered. As Jackson once said, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” LaChappelle is trying to preserve Michael Jackson’s dignity for his fans and his family.

At Michael Jackson’s memorial service, the Reverend Al Sharpton (b1954) also tried to preserve Jackson’s memory. He wanted Jackson’s children, Michael Joseph Jr (b1997), Paris-Michael (b1998), and Prince Michael II “Blanket” (b2002), to know that “there was nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

 

Other artworks in Michael Jackson: On the Wall included videos, music clips, sculpture and painting. A particularly amusing exhibit was Michael Lee Bush’s “dinner jacket”, which was purposely made to look similar to clothing Jackson often wore. Bush was Jackson’s costume designer for 26 years, but when he was asked to replicate Jackson’s dinner jacket, he played with the word “dinner” by adding lots of cutlery over the chest and back.

The exhibition culminated in Candice Breitz’s (b1978) video installation of a number of German-speaking Michael Jackson fans singing Thriller a capella. The purpose of this project is not entirely clear and is quite frankly a disappointing end to the overall exhibition. Michael Jackson: On the Wall started off promising but lost strength towards the end. It almost felt as though the curator was struggling to fill the final rooms.

Nonetheless, On the Wall is primarily an art exhibition and, therefore, achieves what it set out to do: reveal how Michael Jackson influenced art. Jackson fans, however, may be disappointed with the lack of information about his life as his career grew and the disregard for his final struggles.

 

Viewing a life through works of art is an interesting idea but a more appropriate approach for a singer would be to hear their life through music. Since 2009, fans have had the opportunity to learn a little about Michael Jackson by listening to his music at the Lyric Theatre on Shafestbury Avenue in a 2-hour plus production of Thriller Live. Named after Jackson’s best selling album of all time, the show is currently the 15th longest running show in the West End as well as the longest running at the Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1888.

The non-stop hit songs include titles by the Jackson 5, such as Rockin’ Robin and Blame it on the Boogie, as well as all of the Michael Jackson favourites from all decades of his career. Dancers and singers perform the songs dressed to look like Michael Jackson and his backing group whilst the audience cheers and joins in, encouraged to stand up by the lead vocalist.

Although too loud for some people, Thriller Live is perfect for Michael Jackson fans, especially those who never got a chance to see him live in concert. The vocals and dance moves mimic the “King of Pop”, providing a perfect example of what Jackson usually provided for his audience.

Whilst Thriller Live is targetted at Michael Jackson fans, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is supposed to attract anyone interested in art, however, it has a greater appeal for those who loved his music. To fully appreciate both the exhibition and the stage production, the audience needs to be familiar with the “King of Pop”, his music history, and the causes he felt strongly about.

The National Portrait Gallery will be hosting Michael Jackson: On the Wall until 21st October 2018. Tickets range from £15.50 to £22 and advanced booking is advised for those who are not members of the gallery. Tickets for Thriller Live start at £32 and can be purchased online.

Note: phrases in bold allude to song titles 

The Great Spectacle

250 Years of the Summer Exhibition

“There shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings. Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all artists of distinguished merit”

Simultaneously seen as a “monster”, a “farrago”, a “delight” and a “triumph”, the Royal Academy is celebrating its 250th Summer Exhibition since 1769, a few months after the Academy was founded with permission of King George III on 10th December 1768. Considered to be the most democratic art exhibition in the world, the RA has gone to town with the anniversary celebration, decorating the nearby streets with flags designed by some of the Academicians: Grayson Perry, this year’s curator, Cornelia Parker, Rose Wylie and Joe Tilson.

 

 

The Summer Exhibition contains a mish-mash of artwork of all genres produced by artists working today. Although it is impossible to give it a theme – Grayson Perry has titled it Art Made Now – it is safe to say that the exhibits fall into the “contemporary” or “modern” category. Many people turn their noses up, unable to appreciate what they see because they “don’t understand it”. Nonetheless, the RA attracts thousands of visitors every summer who walk around saying things such as “that is clever” or “I like that one”, although, whether they are being serious is another matter.

“You go into the Summer Show and it’s a huge tumble-dryer of art swirling around you.”
– Grayson Perry RA

The RA Summer Exhibition was not always as varied as it is today; at the beginning, the “contemporary art” displayed is now considered traditional or masterpieces. Running concurrently with the Show is another major exhibition The Great Spectacle, which explores the history of the Summer Exhibition, or Annual Exhibition as it was originally called. The first exhibition in 1769 contained works from the founding members, including Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Benjamin West (1738-1820) and RA President Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Only running for a month, the show attracted approximately 14,000 visitors, a phenomenal amount for a new enterprise in the 18th-century.

Typical of the Georgian era, the first few exhibitions showed examples of portraiture and histories presented in the standard style that was taught in art schools, influenced by the Renaissance. The curators of The Great Spectacle have selected the works that they believe have had the strongest impact on the Annual/Summer Exhibition over the years, to provide visitors with a “chronological walk” through the changing themes and conventions in both art and British society.

 

 

The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds was known for his full-length portraits. Although portraiture was common during the 18th and preceding centuries, Reynolds stood out for his striking poses and literary motives. For him, painting likenesses of his sitters was not just about vanity. For example, in Maria Marow Gideon and Her Brother, William, whilst Maria sits with her head turned towards the viewer, her brother strikes a nonchalant pose, his attention solely focused on his sister. In Reynold’s portrait of Joanna Leigh (1776), he shows her inscribing the name of her husband into the tree in front of her, referencing a scene from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), one of two women to be included amongst the Founding Members, the only female members to be elected until the 20th-century, also excelled at portrait painting. However, the example of her work shown in The Great Spectacle is a grand history painting titled Hector Taking Leave of Andromache (1768), which depicts a scene from Homer’s Iliad. Hector is saying goodbye to his wife and baby son, Astyanax, completely unaware that this will be his final farewell – Hector is heading off to war and will not live to see the end.

 

 

The beginning on the 19th-century saw noticeable changes in the style of artwork exhibited. In 1790, the fifteen-year-old Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) exhibited in the Annual Exhibition for the first time. Rather than painting portraits or histories, Turner preferred seascapes, often blurring the colours of the land, sea and sky. He also introduced watercolour as a respectable medium, which had previously been considered unprofessional. He received mixed reviews and critics remarked upon the small scale of his canvases that were dwarfed by the much larger paintings of the other Members. Instead of causing his work to be overlooked, the diminutive size caught people’s attention, allowing visitors to study and comment on the details: “the sun is positively shining.”

The appeal of landscape painting was a result of the many wars in which Britain was involved. The breath-taking scenes, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, were symbols and reminders of what the soldiers were fighting for. Unfortunately, the increase in landscape painters created tension amongst members of the RA, particularly between Turner and John Constable (1776-1837). The two artists were always in competition with each other to produce the most noteworthy painting.

 

 

Another artistic development of the early 19th-century was the arrival of “genre painting”. These revealed scenes of everyday life including those of common people, not only the upper and middle classes seen in earlier works. The walls of the Academy were soon full of dirty urchins, lowly family homes and bustling marketplaces, topics that were previously taboo amongst the well-dressed exhibition-goers. One example is the Scottish painter David Wilkie’s (1785-1841) Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, showing a slightly inebriated crowd celebrating the decisive coalition victory of the Battle of Waterloo (1815). William Powell Frith (1819-1909) also produced a number of genre paintings. His depiction of the crowds at a private view of the Annual Exhibition is positioned at the beginning of The Great Spectacle, later, his painting Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) reveals a whole host of people of different status.

 

tumblr_m4827tfy0b1qggdq1In 1840, the Royal Academy Schools admitted its youngest ever student, the eleven-year-old John Everett Millais (1829-96). Less than a decade later, his genre painting Isabella (1848-9) was displayed at the Annual Exhibition, revealing the skill and tuition he had received by the RA teachers. This painting, however, is rather significant in the timeline of the history of art due to one small segment. On the bench that Isabella is sitting on are the initials PRB. At the time, critics did not know what this stood for, yet it would soon become clear. In 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded, a group of artists who rejected the teachings of the Royal Academy believing the classical poses and compositions students were encouraged to produce were a corrupting influence. The group particularly despised Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they nicknamed “Sir Sloshua”. Ironically, Millais was elected as President of the RA in 1896, however, died of throat cancer later that year.

Being part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did not prevent artists from submitting works to the Annual Exhibition. Millais’ two paintings My First Sermon and My Second Sermon were both included, which expressed two opposing attitudes about going to church. In both paintings, the little girl, Millais’ daughter Effie, is dressed in her Sunday best, seated on a pew in a church. In the first scene, Effie is fully focused and engaged with the sermon, whereas, in the second, she has fallen asleep. Previous artists would never have dared to tackle such controversial themes.

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The Roll Call – Elizabeth Butler, 1874

From the PRB onwards, artists became radically honest in their artwork. Rather than paint beautiful images or portraits that people wanted to see, they began painting what could actually be seen, the truth. None is more poignant than Elizabeth Butler’s (née Thompson, 1846-1933) The Roll Call showing the surviving soldiers from the Grenadier Guards during the Crimean War. Instead of smartly dressed, respectable heroes, the artist revealed the horrors of war through their collapsed, exhausted states. The Roll Call, the first of its kind, needed to be guarded by a policeman due to its popularity amongst exhibition-goers. Later, Queen Victoria insisted on purchasing the painting and it still remains part of the Royal Collection today.

It was unfortunate that there were no policemen around on 4th May 1914 to protect John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) painting of the writer Henry James (1843-1916) from being attacked with a meat cleaver. The Suffragette Mary Wood smuggled the weapon into the Summer Exhibition and slashed the painting with a cry of “votes for women”, in protest of art by men being more highly valued than those by women.

The year 1914 sparked the beginnings of turbulent times for the RA. Although the Summer Exhibitions continued through the First World War, there was a significant drop in visitors, resulting in a financial struggle for the Academy. To make matters worse, the Academy was hit by a bomb in 1917, completely destroying Gallery IX. When the war ended, the first ever poster advertising the Summer Exhibition was produced in the hopes of enticing visitors back to the gallery – it worked. Examples of posters from the past century are included in The Great Spectacle.

 

The end of the First World War also resulted in the right for women (aged 30 and over) to vote. Although women had been involved with the RA, two of whom were founding members, they had mostly been shunned from the Academy. In 1922, the RA elected its first female Associate Member, Annie Swynnerton (1844–1933), but it was not until 1936 when it named the first woman to be a full Member since Kauffman and Moser in 1768. Laura Knight (1877-1970) was honoured with this position and her painting Lamorna Birch and his Daughters received mixed reviews from critics.

After the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was elected Honorary Academician Extraordinary. To date, Churchill is the only person to ever hold this title. Unbeknownst to some, Churchill had submitted a couple of paintings to the Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym David Winter.

 

The final rooms of The Great Spectacle resemble what parts of the Summer Exhibition looks like today. Post-WWII, the Academy accepted works from a number of the new art movements that were cropping up throughout the world. Peter Blake’s (b1932) Toy Shop was the first example of Pop Art in the Exhibition, which caused many people to begin questioning what “art” meant. Also, the year 1956 introduced the first non-painter President, Charles Wheeler (1892-1974). Although a previous President, Lord Leighton (1830-96), had produced sculptures, he was primarily a painter; Wheeler, on the other hand, was solely a sculptor.

By the 1990s, the Royal Academy was seeing more contemporary art than ever before. In 1997, Tracey Emin’s (b1963) re-upholstered chair There’s a lot of money in chairs was exhibited at the Summer Exhibition, a complete contrast to the types of art shown at the original shows. Tracey Emin later became a Royal Academician as well as a number of other contemporary artists.

The final artwork in The Great Spectacle is Cornelia Parker’s (b1956) Stolen Thunder III, which certainly challenges the meaning of “art”. Since 1865, red dots have been used to indicate that an artwork has been sold; Parker photographed an example containing numerous red dots, digitally removed the artwork from the frame, and submitted the resulting photograph to the Exhibition. She then photographed her own image, complete with new red dots, and submitted that the following year. Every year since, she has presented a similar outcome; one can be seen in the current Summer Exhibition.

As Academicians, Emin, Parker and other artists, such as David Hockney (b1937), can forego the selection process and exhibit their work in the Summer Exhibition. Hockney has several wall-sized paintings on display this year, which are detectable by his very unique style.

 

If Sir Joshua Reynolds could see the Royal Academy now, would he be pleased? Probably not. No longer are the traditional art styles of 18th and 19th centuries submitted to the Academy. Instead of fighting to produce the best work, artists are determined to create something unique in order to stand out amongst the thousands of others. Often, it is not what an artwork looks like, it is the artist’s intention and purpose that earns it a place in the Summer Exhibition. Nonetheless, as the current President Christopher Le Brun (b1951) points out, the RA was originally established to “promote the arts of design”, therefore, since everyone today has a different perception about what makes art “art”, it is only right that a mishmash of submissions makes it to the final show.

This year’s exhibition, the extra special 250th, is the largest thus far, spreading out over several galleries. It is also one of the brightest, colourful exhibitions the RA has ever produced. Often, art exhibitions are situated in dimly lit rooms so as not to damage the artworks, however, the Summer Exhibition is so light and spacious that it could almost be outside in daylight.

Although many people turn their noses up at “modern art”, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition receives more visitors than ever before, the record being more than 230,000. Since it is the Summer Exhibition’s anniversary, it is anticipated that this year will surpass the current record of attendees, setting a precedent for the next 250 years.

Both The Great Spectacle and the Summer Exhibition are open to the public until 19th August 2018. The former costs £14 (£16 with donation) per person and the Summer Exhibition costs £16 (or £18) plus an additional £3 for a catalogue of artwork. 

Handel & Hendrix in London

Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London and changed music.

There could not be a more musically contrasting pair than George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, yet, there is so much that ties the two together. Situated in Mayfair, London are the former homes of these two world famous musicians. Now a museum, numbers 25 and 23 Brook Street were once inhabited by people who brought new tastes in music to the British capital. Handel & Hendrix in London (previously Handel House Museum) contains a set of restored rooms in both buildings that reveal the contrasting ways in which both Handel and Hendrix lived.

275px-london_003_hendrix_and_handel_housesThe museum was opened in 2001 by the Handel House Trust after the careful restoration of the rooms in 25 Brook Street to their original Georgian decor. A room in the house next door was used as an exhibition space, however, in 2016, the museum took the plunge and expanded to incorporate the reconstructed upper floors of 23 Brook Street, Jimi Hendrix’s home. Despite being an unlikely pairing, the museum has been a great success with thousands of fans and visitors attending every year.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) moved into 25 Brook Street shortly after it was built in 1723 at the age of 38. Born in Germany, he had already been living in London for thirteen years, however, this was the first home he could call his own, although, he only leased it because foreigners could not buy property at that time. (For more information about Handel’s life, click here.) For Handel, his new home was in a perfect location due to its closeness to the theatres where his musical works were being performed. It was also close to the newly built church, St George’s Hanover Square, which Handel regularly attended after it opened the following year.

Entering the Georgian house from the rear, visitors come across the ticket desk in what would have once been the basement of the house. This area has not been reconstructed for the museum but would have once held the kitchen. The ground floor, now owned by the luxury leather goods shop, Aspinal of London, was where Handel once sold copies of his music and tickets for his concerts. The very top of the house contained a garret in which the servants had their quarters, leaving the floors in between for Handel’s personal use.

 

The museum has expanded the buildings in order to create exhibition space, so the first room visitors see that actually belonged to Handel was his Composition Room on the first floor. Within these walls, as the name of the room implies, is where Handel composed his music. He spent an astonishing amount of time in here, rapidly writing an entire opera in 40 days, then promptly starting on another one. His quickest creation, which no doubt was composed in this room, was Messiah, one of the most inspiring oratorios in the world. Within a mere 24 days, Handel had composed the music that made up this phenomenal composition, culminating in 53 pieces of music that last approximately two hours and 40 minutes.

The room next door at the front of the house was Handel’s Music Room. Containing a harpsichord, this was naturally where Handel rehearsed his compositions with various musicians and singers. It was officially a dining room, so may also have contained a table where he would entertain his friends and patrons over various culinary delights. He would also hold small performances of his new music before they opened to the public at the theatres nearby.

 

On the second floor are the two most private rooms in the building. One was Handel’s Dressing Room, which, when the house was built, was intended as a second bedroom. Having no family of his own, Handel was able to use this room to store his clothing and powdered wigs. His manservant, Peter le Blond, would have helped Handel dress in the typical Georgian fashions, a combination of a shirt, cravat, waistcoat, tailcoat and breeches.

Finally, the front room on the second floor reveals where Handel would have slept. This was both used as his bedroom and bathroom since Georgian houses did not contain indoor plumbing. A jug of water and a basin would have sat on a dresser from which to wash in and a stool designed to contain a chamber pot was also close at hand.

It is presumed this room was where Handel died on 14th April 1759, however, the bed is a reproduction of a typical 1720s four-poster bed. The length of the bed is noticeably shorter than those of today. This is because it was recommended that people slept sitting up in order to aid digestion. Being a big lover of food, it is likely Handel slept upright on doctor’s orders. The other furniture in this room, for instance, the dressing table and mirror, whilst not Handel’s, are genuine objects from the 1700s.

The third floor of Handel’s house has been converted into an exhibition space for his musical neighbour, Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). With a brief history of the rock guitarist and an insight into his life in London, the exhibition prepares visitors to step from the Georgian building into a completely different world.

Only two rooms of 23 Brook Street have been reconstructed for the museum: the bedroom and the Record Room (originally a storeroom). In July 1968 when Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved in, the house had been split into several apartments. Hendrix’s began on the third floor and contained a bathroom on the level above. Whilst small, this was the first place Hendrix could call his own, similarly to Handel 200 years earlier.

Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942 where he discovered his talent for music, picking up the guitar at age 15. After a brief stint as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, the talented guitarist, now known as Jimi, began touring as a backing band with various performers, including the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. It was not until he moved to England that he really made a name for himself. With Chas Chandler, the bassist of the Animals as his manager, Jimi quickly earned himself three UK top hits: Hey JoePurple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary.

Hendrix liked to entertain his friends in his personal flat, also using it as a base to give interviews and pose for photo shoots. It is many of these photographs that helped the museum curators recreate the colourful bedroom Hendrix spent most of his time in. Many of the original furnishings had been removed when Hendrix and Etchingham split up in 1969, the rest being removed after Hendrix’s death in 1970 from asphyxia as a result of drug consumption. Fortunately, the photographs and Etchingham’s memories were sufficient enough to reconstruct his 1960s-style home.

The majority of the items in Hendrix’s bedroom are replicas recreated using the photographs and knowledge of the typical styles of the 1960s. This may come as a disappointment to some fans, however, there is an oval mirror on the wall, which did belong to Hendrix and hangs in the exact same place where he would stare into it often. Although it may not look like much, this was one of Hendrix’s favourite possessions. The only reason it has survived is that Etchingham stole it after their break up.

The photoshoots revealed that Hendrix was fond of batik wall hangings and Persian rugs. It is said that he owned more than he had space for, therefore, frequently swapped them around. The museum displays three examples of the type of rugs he was passionate about on the bedroom floor and a silk hanging, replicating the one Hendrix owned, hangs on the wall above the bed.

Photographs of Hendrix’s vibrant bedspread were taken to the textile specialist Wallace Sewell (founded in 1992) who painstakingly wove an identical spread specifically for the museum. The Dog Bear that sits on a chair to one side of the room was recreated by Judy Roose, a volunteer at the museum, however, the original was made and given to Hendrix by a fan.

mainThe furniture, including Hendrix’s iconic chair, are all typical of the 1960s and match those that featured in various photo shoots. Visitors are welcome to sit in the chair and strike one of Hendrix’s many poses.

To make the room feel more authentic, as though Jimi Hendrix has just left and will return soon, a model of his guitar lies on the bed and a photocopy of handwritten lyrics rest on the bedside table.

The back bedroom, which Hendrix used as a storeroom, has not been restored with its 1960s decor. This is most probably due to the lack of photographs and the fact that everything in it was in storage, therefore, not much to look at. Instead, this room has been retitled the Record Room, displaying a number of LP sleeves that Hendrix once owned. Although he was famous for Rock and Roll, Hendrix listened to a wide range of genres. He owned over 100 titles and was particularly inspired by electric blues.

Many of the records in Hendrix’s collection were purchased at the One Stop Record Shop in South Molton Street, of which he was a frequent customer. Most interestingly, amongst his set were a number of classical pieces, including Water Music and two versions of Messiah, thus linking him to the former occupant of the house next door.

When not in use, Hendrix kept his guitars in the storeroom. On display is Hendrix’s second-hand Epiphone FT79, which he bought in New York for $25. He brought it with him to the UK and used it to compose new songs and arrangements. Hendrix always used this guitar first, perfecting the notes, before transferring to an electric guitar.

In comparison to Hendrix’s lavishly decorated bedroom, Handel’s house comes across as bland and unexciting. Since Handel assembled a large collection of art throughout his life, the walls of his house were most likely a monotonous grey, allowing the paintings to stand out for themselves. Handel’s House is almost as much an art gallery as it is a museum, with several paintings and etchings of Handel, his contemporaries and other connections to his life. These would not have been owned by Handel but they look at home here in the house of “the most excellent Musician any Age ever produced.”

Hanging on the wall in the Composition Room is a large portrait of Handel painted by Thomas Hudson (1701-79). Whilst the painting is a splendid work of art, it is the ornate frame that entices the viewer. This sumptuous frame features sculpted bulrushes, a plant associated with the Biblical prophet Moses who’s mother used bulrushes to hide him from the Egyptian Pharoah. The significance of this frame is to highlight Handel’s involvement with the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children, of which he was elected as governor. He also donated Messiah to the hospital to use for benefit concerts, bequeathing it to them in his will so that the concerts could continue annually after his death, which they did until 1775.

A couple more portraits of Handel can be found throughout the house including a copy of the composer in informal attire by Philip Mercier (1689-1760). Here, Handel poses next to a harpsichord, pen in hand with the latest music he is composing in front of him. The original painting can be seen at Handel House in Halle, Germany.

Other depictions include a bust showing Handel as a middle-aged, balding man, which was once owned by King George III who boasted that Handel was his favourite composer; and a caricature, The Charming Brute (1754), depicting Handel as a pig playing the organ whilst surrounded by food. It is believed that Handel was a gluttonous man who liked to eat an abundance of rich and expensive delicacies, which was evidenced by his protruding stomach.

water_3Several well-known faces from the 18th century are also hanging on the walls of Handel’s house including Louis-François Roubiliac (1695-1762) who sculpted a statue of Handel that can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Thomas Arne (1710-78), the composer of Rule Britannia. Other images show the buildings of Georgian London that Handel frequented and a watercolour drawing of 25 Brook Street by John Buckler (1770-1851) records what Handel’s house looked like in 1839 before the top floor was transformed from a garret into a full-height attic.

Since the two musicians are so contrasting in style and personality, it is difficult to compare the two sides of the museum. Whilst Hendrix’s flat is more aesthetically involved, the history on Handel’s side is much more impressive. It is likely that visitors come with the intent of seeing the home of one past inhabitant but enjoy discovering the other as well.

Often, musicians and singers can be found in the Music Room rehearsing for various performances. Visitors are welcome to sit and listen to them if they wish. At other times, the museum puts on concerts for which tickets can be bought in advance.

Handel and Hendrix in London is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am until 6pm. For £10 (£5 for children), visitors have access to both Handel’s house and Hendrix’s flat. With a lift to each floor, the building is fully accessible for disabled visitors. For more details, see https://handelhendrix.org

 

The Rembrandt House

“Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God.”
Rembrandt
— As quoted in Rembrandt Drawings (1975) by Paul Némo

The Netherlands has provided the world with a large number of great artists but one stands out above all the rest: Rembrandt (1606-69). Generally considered one of the preeminent artists to date, Rembrandt is also the most important figure in Dutch art history. Not only was he an exceptional painter, he was also a draughtsman, collector and teacher. He excelled after his move to Amsterdam, the city rich in opportunity for artists at the time. In order to celebrate this famous Dutchman, the house he once owned has been restored to its 17th-century appearance and opened as a museum. The Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis to the locals) gives visitors a complete Rembrandt experience with furniture, art and objects from that time.

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Self-Portrait, Open-Mouthed, 1630

Rembrandt moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat (now Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 but his artistic vocation had already begun long before. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on 15th July 1606 in Leiden, a city in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He came from a large, well-off family, being the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. Although his parents had no creative background, it is thought that Rembrandt’s mother’s deep Roman Catholic faith influenced many of his religious works.

Remaining in Leiden throughout his schooling, Rembrandt eventually became an apprentice to the local painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571-1638). Van Swanenburg was known for his religious paintings, which may also have influenced the young Rembrandt. He remained here for three years before travelling to Amsterdam where he became apprenticed to the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). However, Rembrandt did not stay here for long; six months later, he had returned to his hometown to set up as an independent artist.

Whilst Rembrandt was working in Leiden, he took on his first pupil, Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and began to receive important commissions from the court of The Hague. Life for Rembrandt was going well, however, in 1630 his father died and, without his support, Rembrandt’s financial worries began. Fortunately, he was able to borrow one thousand guilders from the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587-1661) and moved to Amsterdam to reside as his lodger.

Through Uylenburgh, Rembrandt met his future wife, Saskia Uylenburgh (1612-42), who he married in 1634. For the remainder of the decade, Rembrandt continued to teach and paint successfully, culminating in the commission to paint The Night Watch, now found in the Rijksmuseum, in 1639. In the same year, after taking out a considerably large mortgage, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat.

 

Although Rembrandt continued to receive commissions and was well-known in the art community, his family life was suffering due to circumstances outside of his control.  Of Rembrandt and Saskia’s four children, only the youngest, Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. The following year, Saskia also died. Over the next decade, Rembrandt had relationships with two women, Geertje Dircx (1610-56), Titus’ nanny, and Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-63), his housekeeper. The latter gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Cornelia, in 1654.

Throughout his career as an artist, Rembrandt also collected a huge quantity of objects and artefacts, which can be seen in a couple of rooms in the museum. He also owned a large art collection, which would not have helped his growing debts. Finally, in 1658, Rembrandt’s property was sold at auction after he was declared bankrupt.

Nonetheless, Rembrandt continued to paint and deal in art, for which he enlisted the help of both Hendrickje and Titus. Sadly, they both died before him, Hendrickje in 1663, and his son in 1668. Rembrandt followed them the following year, shortly after welcoming his only grandchild, Titia.

The life of Rembrandt van Rijn is narrated via an audio guide as visitors make their way around the rooms of the Rembrandt House Museum. The museum also owns the building next door, which contains a small art gallery on the upper floors and the entrance to the museum on the lower. The tour begins in the basement with the keucken (kitchen), which, as with all the other rooms, has been refurbished to look as it would have during Rembrandt’s residence. The furniture and 17th-century objects have been sourced or reconstructed based on a list written by the Insolvency Office.

 

The kitchen was where everyone in the household cooked and ate. Unlike upper-class families, there were no separate dining areas for the family and staff. Not only that, the maid would have slept in the box bed in the corner. These types of beds were common in the Netherlands, they could be shut-up during the day, making additional bedrooms unnecessary. They were also particularly small because the Dutch would never lie completely flat to sleep. Lying down was associated with death, therefore, people slept in a half-upright position.

 

The tour continues up a twisted staircase to the ground floor and into the voorhuys (entrance hall). This is the room people would have seen on first entering the house. It is spacious and well lit and has a good view through the windows onto the street. Today, the entrance hall contains many paintings by “Pre-Rembrandts” and his contemporaries, including his teacher, Pieter Lastman. A tiny room at the back of the hall contained Rembrandt’s study where he kept all his important papers. Whilst it is too small for visitors to go in, it is possible to peer through the door to see how it may once have looked.

To the left of the entrance hall is the sijdelcaemer (anteroom) where Rembrandt held his art dealing business. Similarly to the previous room, the walls are full of paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries and pupils. Another box bed can be found here where a family member may have slept. The most interesting aspect, however, is the mantlepiece above the fireplace. Whilst the floor and pillars are made of marble, the mantlepiece is not, but without an audioguide, no one would know. It is actually marbled wood, a very fashionable feature during the 17th-century. This was a lot cheaper than real marble, but not many would be able to tell the difference.

On the same floor but at the back of the house was Rembrandt’s living room or sael (salon). The artist would also have slept here in the box bed by the door. The high ceiling allows room for numerous paintings to be hung, mostly by Rembrandt’s most successful pupils.

 

Up another flight of stairs is Rembrandt’s groote schilder caemer (large studio) where he painted many of his masterpieces. This north facing room receives a lot of daylight, which would have been perfect for an artist working throughout the day. Being a large room, it would have been possible to set up scenes with models and props from which to paint. If need be, the light could be adjusted by closing the shutters of some of the windows.

During the day, the museum demonstrates the 17th-century method of paint-making in this studio. Visitors are amazed that artists had to create their own paints, whereas, today, we only need to squeeze it out of a tube. Various pigments were ground together with linseed oil to create the correct consistency of paint. Artists were limited to what colours they could make because the range of pigment was rather small. Lead, for example, was used to create white, and insects’ blood and plants could create different shades of red and yellow. A demonstration of another art technique Rembrandt frequently used: the printing press, can be observed on the floor below.

In the attic is a cleyne schilder caemer (small studio) which would have been used by Rembrandt’s pupils. It is separated into five cubicles so that each artist could work undisturbed. Often, his pupils would produce copies of his own work, for example, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, of which a version by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) can be seen on the ground floor.

 

Opposite the large studio is a room titled kunstcaemer (cabinet) in which Rembrandt stored his exceptional collection of art and rare objects. It is easy to see how easily Rembrandt went bankrupt from the purchase of these extraordinary items. He collected everything from plaster casts of classical statues to beautiful butterflies and shells. Since he often painted stories from the Bible, classical mythology or history, Rembrandt would regularly use these objects as references to draw from – there was a method to his collecting madness.

 

It is a shame that there are not many paintings by Rembrandt in the museum. Being one of the world’s greatest artists, galleries are quick to purchase his work when they become available. Fortunately, the museum owns 250 of Rembrandts 290 etchings. Although they cannot all be displayed at once due to their fragility, a selection can always be found in the recently added print room. These highlight Rembrandt’s exceptional artistic quality and draughtsmanship.

 

I have seen various of his printed works which have reached this country; they are very finely executed, sensitively and skilfully etched. And I regard him unequivocally as a great virtuoso.”
Don Antonio Ruffo (1660)

Rembrandt’s etchings are equally as impressive as his paintings. He began learning the printing technique in 1625 when he was working as an independent artist in Leiden. Rembrandt’s etchings were produced by making spontaneous, sketch-like lines onto metal plates that would be covered in ink and placed in a printing press to transfer the image on to paper. (As mentioned, a demonstration of this is available during the tour.) The deepness of the lines would determine how dark the image would appear, therefore, Rembrandt was able to produce several tones to create dramatic lighting within his compositions.

An etching plate could be used to print several impressions, which made them very popular with collectors. Whereas only one version of a painting would exist, numerous copies of the same etching could be owned by different people. They were also a lot cheaper to purchase.

Unlike his paintings that mostly focused on popular stories from religious or historical contexts, Rembrandt’s etchings covered a much broader range of themes. Initially, Rembrandt practised etching by drawing his face making different expressions. He continued to use himself as a model throughout his career. He also studied the heads and faces of people on the street, resulting in a number of interesting characters.

Rembrandt would go for walks around Amsterdam with his sketchbook and come home to copy his sketches onto etching plates. As well as people, Rembrandt studied and drew landscapes. Nonetheless, there are also a few etchings of the typical classical and Biblical stories.

“Rembrandt’s extraordinary manner of etching which is characterised by the free and irregular use of line, without delineation of outlines, and which results in a deep, powerful chiaroscuro of painterly quality.”
Filippo Baldinucci, 1686

Since it was opened to the public as a gallery on 10th June 1911 in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the Rembrandt House Museum has undergone many changes. Initially, the house was used as an art gallery to display Rembrandt’s etchings. It was not until 1998, when the building next door became available, that the opportunity to restore Rembrandt’s house to its original appearance became available. Historians and curators have done a phenomenal job to present a realistic as possible 17th-century home in which the greatest Dutch painter lived and worked. Everything has been completed with painstaking accuracy to provide a true insight into the artist’s life.

The Rembrandt House Museum is continually being updated as funds become available in order to provide the best possible experience. The latest updates took place earlier this year, including the print room and Rembrandt’s study.

With helpful staff and audio guides available in several languages, the Rembrandt House Museum is a wonderful place to visit. It is educational in a variety of ways, from the background of the artist to the methods painters used in the 17th-century. It is also a great way of discovering what the inside of the tall Dutch houses once looked like, imagining how a family would cope in the narrow building.

The Rembrandt House Museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm and costs €13 for adults and €4 for children. The audio guide is included in the entrance fee. Guidebooks are also available for purchase in a number of languages. Photography is allowed throughout the museum unless a sign requests otherwise (no flash), however, be prepared to leave large bags in the lockers provided.

“Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”
Rembrandt