Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.
Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.
Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.
From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.
During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.
Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.
After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.
Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.
Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.
During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.
Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.
Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.
In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”
With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.
During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.
Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.
Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.
On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.
Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.
Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.
Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.
In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.
Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.
According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.
There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.
Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.
According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.
Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.
There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.
In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.
An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.
Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.
Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.
On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.
The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.
There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.
Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.
The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.
Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.
In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.
The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.
In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).
In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.
Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.
Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.
When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.
Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.
According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.
Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.
In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.
In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.
Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.
Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.
Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).
In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.
These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.
The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.
Kawanabe Kyōsai may not be as famous as other Japanese artists, but the Royal Academy claims he was one of the most exciting painters from Japan in the 19th century. From 19th March until 19th June 2022, the RA exhibited a large number of Kyōsai’s works belonging to the London-based art collector Israel Goldman (b.1958). Goldman has amassed an impressive collection of over 1,000 pieces of art by Kyōsai, including prints, paintings and sketches, which reveal Kyōsai’s witty imagination and exceptional skill.
Kyōsai was born in Koga in 1831 during the Edo Period. As a child, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), who specialised in woodblock printing. Later, he studied at the Kanō school of art, where he gained the nickname “The Painting Demon”. Rather than sticking to the traditional ukiyo-e art, Kyōsai broke away after the Meiji Restoration in 1867 to focus on political caricature, for which he was arrested on three occasions.
Kyōsai demonstrated a lighter, more fluid style of art than most of his contemporary Japanese artists. The traditional painting techniques were reserved for serious subjects, such as literature and religion, whereas Kyōsai’s skill with the paintbrush was more suited to comic pictures. Kyōsai often incorporated serious themes into his work, such as politics, but always managed to introduce humour into the scene. He also adopted Western techniques, including perspective and shading.
In 1881, Kyōsai became famous in Japan after winning a prize for his painting Winter Crow on a Withered Branch at the Domestic Industrial Exposition. Three years later, another painting, Crows on a Withered Branch, won him more prizes. From then on, crows symbolised success for Kyōsai and frequently appeared in his artwork.
A collector purchased Crows on a Withered Branch for 100 yen. To put this into perspective, this was enough money to buy 400 bottles of saké, an alcoholic beverage made of fermented rice. Several of Kyōsai’s crow paintings were sent to Europe, leading to commissions from people all over the world. His crows quickly took on new meaning and symbolised Kyōsai flying across the planet and spreading his reputation.
Ever since his first sketch as a child, Kyōsai’s favourite animal to paint was a frog. The creatures had plenty of comic potential, which Kyōsai used to produce satirical pictures of society. He used frogs to represent the lives of ordinary people, whether they be street performers, postal workers or children. Frog School, painted in the early 1870s, depicts frog students interacting with a frog teacher, who points at a lotus-leaf wallchart. Around the time Kyōsai produced this artwork, a national education system was established in Japan, resulting in the opening of the first public elementary school in 1872.
Kyōsai’s work documented the changes occurring in Japan during the 1860s and 70s. Political turmoil and economic instability led to the collapse of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji government. Kyōsai depicted the events in his artwork as frog battles, monsters and semi-human characters called tengu. Under the new government, 260 years of isolation ended with the introduction of Western culture into Japan. Kyōsai’s excitement about the new era, which included modern technologies such as trains and the telegraph, is evident in his artwork.
The Meiji government introduced a policy of hiring European and American teachers and specialists to work in the new schools in Japan. Josiah Conder (1852-1920), a British architect, travelled to Japan to become a professor of architecture for the Imperial College of Engineering. Known today as the “father of Japanese modern architecture”, Conder taught many young architects and built several notable buildings, including the Rokumeikan (Banqueting House) and the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo.
Conder met Kyōsai in 1881 when he was accepted as Kyōsai’s pupil. Kyōsai gave him the name Conder Kyōei (ei meaning Britain) and taught him the art of Japanese painting. Whilst he did not excel at painting, Conder remained Kyōsai’s friend and patron. Kyōsai’s initial fame in Europe is largely thanks to Conder sending examples of art home to Britain.
An example of the Western influence on Kyōsai’s work is evident in Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top-Hat with Dancing Monster (1878). Western costumes were becoming all the rage in Japan, and Kyōsai wanted to emphasise that no matter how much people changed their appearance, they remained the same underneath. The skeleton in the painting wears a top hat and black jacket and plays the guitar, which was a relatively new instrument in Japan. Not only does the artwork poke fun at the people adopting the fads and fashions, but it also emphasises that the way people dress does not affect the transience of life. The samurai sword sticking out from behind the skeleton shows that it is impossible to completely escape native cultures.
With Western culture came Western religion, particularly Christianity. Kyōsai painted a picture called Five Holy Men to illustrate the influence the new religions had on traditional Japanese beliefs. Kyōsai included a verse written by the Confucian scholar Tachibana Kirō from the point of view of a Japanese deity, which reads: “While I protect myself, Christ seizes the moment to dance, Shakyamuni and Laozi tune in, and Confucius beats the drum in attack. The world is one great theatre.” At the time of painting, Confucianism was being challenged by modern thinking, and Buddhism was struggling to stop so-called Christian men from exploiting their country.
Despite the influx from the west, Kyōsai continued to satirise the traditions and government in Japan. During the summer, processions of decorated floats filled the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Kyōsai represented this in Cats Pulling a Catfish Float, in which the catfish with its moustache represented the government officials. The cats symbolised geishas and courtesans, who used stringed instruments made from catskin.
Kyōsai’s satirical paintings frequently got him into trouble with the government, as he recorded in his four-volume semi-autobiography Kyōsai gadan (Kyōsai’s Account of Painting). Transcribed by Uryū Masayasu and illustrated by Kyōsai, the book features an account of Kyōsai’s arrest in 1870 after being accused of painting insulting images of high-ranking people. The incident occurred at a shogakai, a commercially organised calligraphy and painting party.
Shogakai attendees paid a fee to enter the party, after which they could ask any artist to produce work for them at no extra charge. At the gatherings, painters often worked with a calligrapher, who would inscribe a poem on the edge of the artwork. The parties usually involved a lot of alcohol, which in Kyōsai’s case, made him playful and more likely to produce insulting images of the commissioners. When writing about the shogakai, Joseph Conder noted, “Under the influence of Bacchus some of his (Kyōsai) strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.”
Between 1876 and 1878, Kyōsai collaborated with 54 artists to produce a painting of a shogakai. Kyōsai painted all the figures but left blank scroll papers for other artists to fill in with their artwork or calligraphy. Collaboration was an important component of Japanese art, particularly between teachers and pupils, yet until the 19th century, this was usually a private affair. During Kyōsai’s lifetime, the creative process became public, almost like a performance. Kyōsai became known for his speedy, skilful performances, which became more dramatic the more he drank.
Several of Kyōsai’s satirical artworks contained what is classed as “toilet humour” today. Fart Battle (1881) depicts men passing wind at each other and blowing people and objects away. Whilst Kyōsai painted scenes of this nature because they amused him, the tradition dates back much further. Dating back as far as the 12th century, art historians suspect these “fart battles” illustrated Japan’s xenophobia. For centuries, Japan remained isolated from the world and did not welcome foreigners. Artists satirised the government’s wish to oust Western cultures from the country through the strength of their resources, or in this instance, their bodies.
Kyōsai also included stories in his artwork. Some depicted real events, such as wars, although fought by frogs instead of humans. Others satirised scandals, often painting the government in a negative light. A handful of Kyōsai’s artworks illustrate stories and parables, for instance the ancient Indian story about three blind men describing an elephant. Having never come across an elephant before, the men attempt to describe it by feeling a different part of the animal’s body. Each man only touches one section, such as the side or the tusk, and attempts to describe the elephant’s physical appearance. Kyōsai likened this tale to a group of Blind Connoisseurs commenting on a painting. This theme also mocks critics and judges at official art competitions and exhibitions, whose comments suggest they did not pay much attention to the art they were judging.
Kyōsai also likened art critics and judges to tengu, semi-human supernatural beings with long noses. According to Japanese folklore, tengu were the reincarnated spirits of arrogant people. They had long noses that stuck up in the air. The expression “being a tengu” is the equivalent of being conceited or “sticking your nose up in the air”. Some interpret Kyōsai’s painting Tengu Viewing Art as critics at art competitions looking disdainfully down at the paintings they are supposed to be judging. An alternative interpretation is the tengu are connoisseurs who are proud of their art collection and believe they are more culturally sophisticated than others.
After looking at Kyōsai’s work, it is evident that the majority of his paintings had more than one meaning. Ink Battle, for instance, references a traditional New Year’s party given by the Sōma samurai clan during the Meiji period. Hosts applied ink to the faces of their guests to wish them a happy and healthy year. Rather than depicting the event as a joyous occasion, Kyōsai painted two groups dressed as medieval courtiers and warriors fighting with giant paint brushes and ink. This may allude to the battles between the supporters of the Edo empire and the Meiji government during the 1860s.
Despite satirising the Western world in some of his artworks, Kyōsai embraced European cultures and had many foreign friends. As well as Conder, Kyōsai taught the Anglo-Irish journalist, Francis Brinkley (1841-1912), who wrote several books about Japan, including an English-Japanese Dictionary. Kyōsai also befriended Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938), an Australian-born British painter, who enjoyed watching Kyōsai paint. Speaking of his time in Japan, Menpes recalled, “I never saw such facility in my life … in about seven minutes he had completed a picture, superbly drawn and full of character.”
In 1888, the Japanese art critic Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) and American art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) asked Kyōsai to consider teaching at the Tokyo School of Arts. This prestigious offer indicated the school acknowledged Kyōsai as a legitimate successor of the Kanō tradition. Unfortunately, Kyōsai developed stomach cancer the same year and was unable to take up the offer.
Despite treatment from the German physician Erwin Bälz (1849-1913), Kyōsai passed away on 24th April 1889 at the age of 59. He died at home with Josiah Conder holding his hand. Little is known about his private life, but it is believed he was also surrounded by family and friends. Eighty-eight years after his death, Kyōsai’s granddaughter, Dr Kawanabe Kusumi, opened the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum in Saitama, Tokyo, in 1977.
Kyōsai’s reputation quickly dwindled following his death. His artwork did not conform to traditional Japanese standards, nor was it westernised enough to appeal to art collectors in Europe and America. Kyōsai’s drinking habits and prison sentences also diminished his status now that he was no longer around to defend himself. Thanks to Israel Goldman, Kyōsai’s work is gaining recognition and popularity. Contemporary generations look at the paintings from a new perspective and appear amused rather than shocked at their satirical nature. Kyōsai’s style of art also appeals to manga and tattoo artists, who incorporate Japanese and Asian aspects into their designs.
Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection takes place in The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts until 19th June 2022. Tickets are £15 but concessions are available.
After delaying its opening due to Covid-19, the National Gallery in London finally opened its doors to The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphaelon 9th April 2022. Originally intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, the exhibition is the first outside of Italy to encompass the entire length of Raphael’s artistic career. Whilst Raphael’s life was short, he was a prolific painter, producing as much work as other painters who lived twice as long. Working across a wide range of media, Raphael produced oil and fresco paintings and designed prints, tapestries, mosaics and sculptures. The extensive exhibition, with loans from the Louvre, Uffizi and Vatican, proves that whilst Raphael passed away at the age of 37, his legacy is immortal.
Although known mononymously as Raphael, the artist’s birth name was Raffaello Santi or Sanzio. He was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi (1440-94), the court painter of the Duke of Urbino, and Màgia di Battista Ciarla. Unfortunately, Raphael’s mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father followed three years later. For the remainder of Raphael’s childhood, his paternal uncle, a priest called Bartolomeo, served as his formal guardian.
Raphael showed a talent for drawing at a young age and continued his father’s workshop following his death in 1494. Some sources claim Raphael received training from Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), but others maintain Raphael only worked as Perugino’s assistant, from whom he picked up similar artistic traits.
Raphael had a talent for seamlessly combining observation and imagination, which attracted several religious establishments in the Umbrian cities of Città di Castello and Perugia. His first documented commission was for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in 1500, after which Raphael worked in numerous churches. In 1503, he painted the Mond Crucifixion, an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico. The main panel depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus against a luminous Umbrian sky. Two angels hover in the sky, collecting Christ’s blood in chalices, while on the ground kneel Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome. The church had a chapel dedicated to the saint, which is likely why he was included in this composition. Also depicted in the painting are John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who stand slightly behind the kneelers.
From 1504 to 1508, Raphael spent a lot of time in Florence. A letter from the mother of the Duke of Urbino, for whom Raphael’s father once worked, suggests he travelled to the city in search of patrons and customers. The letter reads, “The bearer of this will be found to be Raphael, painter of Urbino, who, being greatly gifted in his profession has determined to spend some time in Florence to study. And because his father was most worthy and I was very attached to him, and the son is a sensible and well-mannered young man, on both accounts, I bear him great love…”
On arrival in Florence, Raphael’s style of art was very much like Perugino’s, but he soon started adopting the manners of other artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Donatello (1386-1466). (Incidentally, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello are the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) One of Raphael’s drawings, potentially a study for a painting that is either lost or never produced, looks remarkably similar to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Raphael’s painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria also bears similarities to Da Vinci’s work.
With her arm resting on the wheel upon which she was tortured, Saint Catherine’s slightly corkscrewed body is an echo of Da Vinci’s lost painting Leda and the Swan. Unlike Leda, Catherine is fully clothed and looks up to the sky in ecstasy. The religious nature of the scene is still reminiscent of Perugino’s work, but the inclusion of other influences shows Raphael was experimenting and developing as an artist.
Raphael’s painting of The Madonna of the Pinks also pays homage to Da Vinci. With similarities to the Benois Madonna, a youthful Virgin Mary sits playing with the Christ child, handing him carnations (pinks). Carnations belong to the dianthus genus, Greek for “flower of God”. In art, these flowers are symbolic of Christ’s Passion, from His entry into Jerusalem to His death and resurrection. Due to the similarities with other artists, scholars only officially identified The Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael in 1991.
During his years in Florence until his first year in Rome in 1508, Raphael painted many Madonnas (depictions of the Virgin and Child). Several were commissioned as large-scale altarpieces for churches, although some were designed for private prayer and devotion. As well as showing great attention to detail, Raphael filled his religious paintings with symbolism and dynamism, which emphasised the importance of the characters.
The Tempi Madonna, so named because Raphael painted it for the Tempi family, depicts Mary’s maternal love for her child. Unlike other Madonnas, which usually hint at Christ’s future through his dramatic poses and behaviour, this painting is more natural. Raphael reveals the emotion, tenderness and absorption of a mother, who holds her son close with her cheek pressed against his. Yet, the baby, Christ, stares into the distance as though contemplating his destiny. Raphael may have taken inspiration for the emotionally charged scene from sculptural reliefs made by Donatello.
A more typical pose of the Christ child is the scene in Raphael’s Alba Madonna, which belonged to the Dukes of Alba in Spain until 1836. As well as Jesus and Mary, the infant John the Baptist joins the scene, holding purple anemones, symbolising Christ’s fate. Other flowers in the painting hold significant meaning, including cyclamen for love and sorrow, and violets for humility. Some scholars surmise the tondo-style artwork was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he immediately gained two new patrons, Pope Julius II (1443-1513) and the Pope’s principal financial backer, Agostino Chigi (1466-1520). The Sienese banker was allegedly the richest man in Italy and required Raphael to produce frescoes for his villa in the Via della Lungara, now a museum called Villa Farnesina. Chigi also commissioned Raphael to design chapels in two churches, Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo.
While working for Chigi, Raphael also completed many works for Julius II, starting with a fresco in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. The Stanza della segnatura (Room of the Signatura), or Stanze for short, and other rooms in the palace are frequently referred to as the “Raphael Rooms” because of the numerous paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings. The majority of the paintings depict religious scenes, such as Cardinal and Theological Virtues, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Deliverance of Saint Peter and The Vision of the Cross. Other scenes captured legendary events, including The Coronation of Charlemagne and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
One of the most famous of Raphael’s paintings for the Stanze is The School of Athens, painted between 1509 and 1511. The masterpiece reflects the growing interest in Ancient Greek Philosophy in Rome at the time. Several of the figures in the scene have been identified by art historians, including a self-portrait of Raphael posing as Apelles of Kos, a 4th century BC painter.
In the centre of The School of Athens, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are seen in conversation. Plato points his hand towards the sky, signalling his idealism and abstract thinking, while Aristotle gestures at the ground, referencing his study of the natural world and human behaviour. In his other hand, Plato holds a copy of Timaeus, a dialogue that responds to the opinions of other scholars. Similarly, Aristotle holds a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics, which had a profound influence on Europeans during the Middle Ages. Around Plato and Aristotle, other philosophers are engaged in debates about their ideas and theories.
In the centre foreground of The School of Athens sits a man resting his head upon his hand while writing on a sheet of paper. This is possibly a representation of the philosopher Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Some believe Raphael modelled the figure on Michaelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the time. Similarly, Plato may be modelled on Da Vinci. Heraclitus, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher”, was prone to depression, which explains his physical demeanour and isolation from the other figures in the painting. Heraclitus believed the world was made of fire and stressed the importance of the unity of opposites and harmony.
Although much of Raphael’s time was spent working on the frescos in the Vatican Palace, he still found time to complete other paintings, such as a portrait of the elderly Julius II. Seated in a chair rather than on a papal throne, the Pope looks frail and humble; a stark contrast to his powerful and influential position. Julius was responsible for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica and the establishment of the Swiss Guards. When Julius died in 1513, less than two years after the completion of the portrait, he was replaced by Leon X (1475-1521), who continued to oversee Raphael’s progress in the Stanze and Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.
As Raphael grew in popularity, he started training other artists and employed them as assistants in his workshop. One of his assistants was Giulio Romano (1492-1546), a young artist from Rome who helped Raphael complete the paintings in the Stanze. By teaching his students to replicate his style, Raphael doled out sections of artworks to his assistants to complete, thus saving time and energy.
In some cases, Raphael only provided the drawing, for which his students provided the paint. One example is The Vision of Ezekiel (1516-17), which while designed by Raphael, was executed by Romano. The painting depicts a scene in the Old Testament involving the prophet Ezekiel, who rarely appeared in Italian Renaissance art. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet described an encounter with God and four living creatures. According to the Christian priest Jerome (347–420), the creatures symbolised the authors of the New Testament gospels. Matthew is the man or angel because his book begins with the genealogy of Jesus, whilst Luke is the Ox because his book starts with temple sacrifice. Mark is represented by the lion, “roaring in the desert with prophetic power”, and John is the eagle, “flying heavenwards like the divine Word”. Alternative interpretations of this tetramorph (a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements) include Babylonian symbols of the zodiac: Taurus (ox), Leo (lion), Scorpio (eagle), and Aquarius (man); and the four elements of Western astrology: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.
With his assistants working on paintings, Raphael was able to prove his versatility with other mediums. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Raphael designed prints, which were subsequently engraved by the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480-c.1534). An example of Raphael’s print compositions is The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1510), which not only shows Raphael’s mastery of the classical male nude but also reveals his talent for depicting movement and violent action. The scene comes from the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18), in which King Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and orders the execution of all children under the age of two. Etching allows the artist to include expressive lines and shading, which often gets lost in coloured paintings. Every detail of the violent soldiers’ actions is carefully recorded, as is the despair and horror on the faces of the mothers.
Alongside prints, Raphael designed mosaics, sculptures, metalwork and decorative art, such as vases. Several drawings and plans for these objects still exist, as do many letters and notes proving that Raphael also had an interest in archaeology. Raphael wrote to Pope Leo X, begging him to prevent the destruction of archaeological interests, such as Roman ruins. He provided the Pope with a survey of all the buildings in Rome that he believed should be preserved for the future, along with detailed drawings. Plans to tear down ancient structures, presumably to build new houses, horrified Raphael and many of his contemporaries. It is thanks to them the world is still in possession of many historically important places.
Some historical buildings appear in Raphael’s work, as do reimagined structures from Classical Greece, such as in the tapestry Saint Paul Preaching at Athens. Between 1514 and 1515, Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a series of tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Each design depicted a scene from the Acts of the Apostles, which included the life of the first pope, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. Saint Paul Preaching at Athens reimagines the biblical city and the Areopagus, upon which Paul preached to the judicial council of Athens about God and Jesus. Standing behind Paul in a red cap is a depiction of Leo X.
With so many commissions, Raphael rarely had time to produce portraits, which may be why he included his patrons and himself in some of his large scenes. Towards the end of his short career, while his assistants completed other work, Raphael found a moment to paint a handful of portraits, including a self-portrait with Giulio Romano. Sometimes known as Self-Portrait with a Friend or Raphael and His Fencing Master due to the presence of a sword hilt, the identity of the younger man remained unknown for many years. Today, most art historians agree that it is probably Romano. The hierarchical design of the double portrait, in which Raphael stands behind Romano with his hand on his shoulder, suggests Raphael is the teacher, whilst Romano, who looks over his shoulder for reassurance, is the student. The way Raphael painted the clothing of both himself and Romano makes it look as though the right arm belongs to both of them, hinting that as the master, Raphael aids or manipulates his student.
On promotional material for the Raphael exhibition, the National Gallery used Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1491-1557), a banker and friend of Raphael. The painting echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s Venetian style of posing the sitter as if interrupted by the viewer, at whom he turns to gaze. Altoviti’s father was the papal Master of the Mint, and his mother was the niece of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-92), which made Altoviti a man of wealth and influence. He was also known for his good looks. Altoviti was in charge of collecting taxes to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. He also liaised with the likes of Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and the Medici family.
The final painting in the exhibition was a portrait of a woman known as La fornarina or The Baker’s Daughter. The suggestive semi-nude portrait has led many to believe she was Raphael’s lover. Traditionally, the sitter is identified as Margherita Luti, who refused to marry Raphael despite his obvious devotion. Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) claimed Luti was Raphael’s muse and model. He also wrote that Raphael was a “very amorous man and affectionate towards the ladies”.
There are numerous interpretations of La fornarina, with some claiming she represents idealistic beauty and others claiming she was a malevolent goddess. On the one hand, many believe Luti was Raphael’s lover, but another theory is she was a sex worker. An in-depth analysis of the portrait has led some art historians to diagnose Luti with breast cancer. The right breast appears fully formed and proportional, but the left upon which her hand rests is large and deformed. Her left arm also seems swollen, suggesting an enlarged lymph node in her armpit. Since Margarita Luti’s dates of birth and death are unknown, it is impossible to tell whether she died from breast cancer.
On Good Friday, 6th April 1520, Raphael passed away after developing a sudden fever. Vasari poetically recorded that his death was the result of an overindulgence in “amorous pleasures” with Luti, but other sources claim Raphael was engaged to Maria, the daughter of his patron Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi (1470-1520). Raphael’s illness lasted approximately 15 days, during which time he realised he would die and received last rites, confessed his sins and put his affairs in order. As per his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, where his fiancée was also buried some years later.
Due to his fame and importance in the art world, Raphael received a grand funeral, attended by large crowds. Four cardinals carried Raphael’s body, and the pope kissed his hand before they lowered him into a marble sarcophagus inscribed with a quote from the poet Pietro Bembo (1470-1547): “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”
Following his death, Raphael became the prototype for high art across Europe. Due to his versatility, Raphael influenced many areas of art and remains one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. Raphael produced as much work in his 37 years of life as those who lived twice his age. He was a prodigy of the likes that has not been seen since. Today, artists have barely established themselves by the age of 37, let alone produced even half the number of paintings. The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael demonstrates Raphael’s importance in the art world and proves that his work will last for time immemorial.
Amongst the many paintings at the Wallace Collection in London hangs a portrait titled The Laughing Cavalier. Whilst the man is unnamed, an inscription in the corner reads “aetatis suae 26, anno 1624,” which reveals the sitter was 26 at the time of painting in the year 1624. Despite its title, the sitter probably had no connection with the militia but was instead a wealthy civilian. He is also not laughing, but smiling. Some art historians suggest the sitter is the Dutch cloth merchant Tieleman Roosterman (1598-1673), who the artist painted in 1634 at the age of 36. Yet, who is the artist? It is, to quote the Wallace Collection, the “highly gifted portraitist, Frans Hals.”
Frans Hals the Elder was a 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painter known for his many portraits. Born in 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp, the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), Hals was the son of a cloth merchant who fled to Haarlem in the new Dutch Republic (the Netherlands) during the Fall of Antwerp between 1584 and 1585. While growing up in Haarlem, Hals received Mannerist artistic instruction under the Flemish émigré, Karel van Mander (1548-1606).
Few records about Hals exist until 1610 when he joined the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke. The guild was formed in 1590 by professional painters, many of whom had fled from Antwerp, as a means of protecting the art market. In the year Hals joined, he had started working as an art restorer for the town council. When the Protestant Dutch Republic was formed in 1588, the Haarlem council confiscated all the Catholic artwork. They later decided some of the paintings were suitable for display in the town hall but many needed restoration.
Also, in 1610, Hals married a Catholic woman called Anneke Harmensdochter (1590-1615). Catholics could not marry in churches in the Dutch Republic, so the wedding took place in the city hall. Sadly, Anneke passed away following the death of their third child in 1615. Of the three, only Harmen (1611-1669) reached adulthood and followed his father’s footsteps to become a painter.
In 1611, Hals produced a portrait of the Catholic pastor Jacobus Zaffius (1534-1618). This is Hals’ earliest known portrait, but his breakthrough into the art world occurred the year after his wife’s death when he painted The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616. Hals served with the St George Militia between 1612 and 1615, so knew some of the men in the group portrait. Civilians were only allowed to serve for three years, which is why Hals was no longer serving at the time of painting. Due to the importance of the officers, the names of all the men are on record today. Holding the flag in the background is Jacob Cornelisz Schout (1600-27). Whilst little is known about Schout, only unmarried men could carry the flag, indicating he was a bachelor in 1616. Seated in the centre is Nicolaes Woutersz van der Meer (1575-1666), the future mayor of Haarlem, whose wife Hals painted in 1631.
In 1617, Hals married Lysbeth Reyniers in the small village of Spaarndam. They could not marry in Haarlem because Lysbeth was already eight months pregnant. A month after the wedding, they welcomed the first of their eight children. As well as his son Harmen from his first marriage, four of these children became painters: Frans Hals the Younger (1618-69), Jan Hals (1620-54), Reynier Hals (1627-72) and Nicolaes Hals (1628-86).
Following Hals success with The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, he received several commissions for portraits, for example, Willem van Heythuyzen (c1590-1650), a cloth merchant and almshouse owner. Hals painted Heythuyzen at least twice, once in 1625 and again in 1634. The earlier of the two features the merchant leaning on a sword and wearing the typical rich clothing and broad-brimmed hat of the day. The painting inspired several artists, including Judith Leyster (1609-60), who copied the pose for her Standing Cavalier (1630). In 1897, the British politician Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon (1857-1941), dressed up as Heythuyzen for a costume ball.
Another portrait commission came from Pieter van den Broecke (1585-1640) of the Dutch East India Company. Similar to Hals, Broecke was born in Antwerp but fled to the Dutch Republic after the Fall of Antwerp to the Spanish. During his career, Broecke visited Yemen, where he became one of the first Dutchmen to drink “something hot and black, a coffee.” When he retired, Broecke received a gold chain, which he wears in the portrait by Hals painted in 1633. Broecke spent his remaining years in the Indonesian Banda Islands, where his descendants live today.
Some of the portraits Hals produced were marriage pendants. Man and wife were painted on separate canvases that usually hung side-by-side in the family home. Traditionally, men stood angled towards their left whilst women turned towards their right.
Hals painted marriage pendants of Catharina Both van der Eem and her husband, Paulus van Beresteyn (1582-1666), in 1620. Beresteyn was a twice-widowed lawyer in Haarlem who married his third wife in 1619. Beresteyn and Catharina had six children, including Emerantia and Claes (1627-84), who appeared in paintings by Pieter Soutman (1593-1657) during the 1630s.
The portrait of Catharina is angled three-quarters to the left (her right), which gave the impression she turned towards her husband on the adjacent canvas. Catharina wears a wedding ring on her right forefinger, a lace ruff and wrist collars with gold bracelets. The fashion was typical of the 16th and 17th centuries, although the style of dress originated in Spain. The portrait of her husband featured similar lace material and black clothing.
Unconventionally, Hals broke away from marriage pendants to include both husband and wife on the same canvas. The Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (1622) depicts the happy couple relaxing in a garden, which also went against the conventional style of 17th-century Dutch portraits. The clothing does not differ from the fashion of the day and the couple look over dressed in the setting to the contemporary eye.
Isaac Abrahamszoon Massa (1586-1643) sat for Hals several times for portraits, but only once with his wife, who he married in 1622. Massa was a Dutch grain trader, traveller and envoy to Russia who created some of the earliest maps of Eastern Europe and Siberia. The Isaac Massa Foundation established in his honour continues to stimulate scientific and cultural contacts between the Russian Federation and the Netherlands.
As well as commissioned portraits, Hals experimented with character portraits that captured expressions of merriment. The Lute Player (1623), for example, depicts a smiling jester playing the lute. He is smiling naturally and looking up to his right as though engaging with another musician or singer out of view.
Portraits of lute players was a new theme at the time, introduced to the Dutch Republic by Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624) in 1622. As well as the first Dutch artist to paint musicians, Baburen also painted card players, thus inspiring painters to move away from generic portraits and genre themes. As well as The Lute Player, Hals produced The Gypsy Girl (1628) and The Laughing Fisherboy (1628), both depicting relaxed, smiling individuals. Some art historians list the Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen amongst Hals more expressive artworks, although the latter was likely staged.
In 1627 , Hals was invited back to produce another banquet portrait of the St George Militia Company. Since civilian officers only served for three years, those featuring in The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1627 did not appear in the earlier painting of 1611. The men in this version are celebrating the end of their tenure.
The man in the centre of the banquet portrait is Captain Michiel de Wael (1596-1659), who Hals painted separately in 1625. As well as his career with the St George Militia Company, Wael was a brewer and the grandson of one of the first Calvinists in Haarlem. Seated at the head of the table is Colonel Aart Jansz Druyvesteyn (1577-1627), a promising landscape painter and future mayor of Haarlem. One of the flag bearers, Boudewijn van Offenberg (1590-1633), had just resigned so that he could marry Beatrix de Laignier. As mentioned earlier, only bachelors could serve as flag bearers. On the far right is another flag bearer, Jacob Cornelisz Schout, who did appear in Hals previous painting from 1611. Unlike the officers, flag bearers and men of significant rank could serve for more than three years.
As well as the St George Militia, Hals painted The Officers of the St Adrian Militia Company in 1633. He first painted the company in 1627, seated around a table in a hall, but his second painting shows the men outside in the courtyard. The officers wear similar clothing to the St George Militia, with colours that resemble the oranje-blanje-bleu flag of the Dutch Revolution.
Whilst all the men in the portrait are named, only a couple earned enough fame to warrant a Wikipedia entry in the 21st century. Andries van Hoorn (1600-60), who stands on the right with the bow of the orange sash protruding from his back, later became the Mayor of Haarlem. He was captain at the time of painting but gained the rank of colonel before his time with the St Adrian Militia was up. Sitting with a book behind Van Hoorn is Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (1580-1657), a Dutch painter who received tuition from the same tutor as Hals. Pot painted a banquet portrait of the St Adrian Militia in 1633 before becoming an officer. Before then, Pot spent some time in London, where King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria commissioned him to paint their portraits in 1632.
In 1639, Hals returned to the St George Militia to paint another portrait of the officers. Rather than depicting them at a banquet, the men are standing in a line across the 4 meters wide canvas. Ensign Dirck Dicx carries the blue flag on the right, and Captain Michiel de Wael stands out by wearing a different colour coat to the other officers. Hals went one step further to make this painting different from the others by including past Militia officers in the background, including himself and Hendrik Gerritsz Pot. Whilst Hals served with the Militia, he never earned a rank, yet the company admired him as an important local artist.
In 1644, Hals became chairman of the Guild of St Luke, a privileged position that signified Hals’ reputation amongst other artists. Unfortunately, his prestige did not make him immune to money troubles. Unlike other painters, Hals did not adapt his technique to suit the fashions and preferences in the Dutch Republic. Instead, his artwork became less lively, focusing more on the stature and dignity of the people portrayed. As time went on, Hals work became darker until he was almost only using monochrome shades. Some art historians suggest this was because coloured paint was expensive, and Hals lost customers to more modern artists. Several times, Hals’ creditors took him to court. In 1652, he was forced to sell his belongings to settle a debt with a baker, leaving him destitute. Fortunately, the government started paying him an annuity of 200 florins in 1664.
Despite his money issues, Hals continued to paint, including a portrait of the board of trustees at the Oude Mannenhuis in Haarlem in 1664. In the same year, Hals painted The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse. The Old Men’s Almshouse, or Oude Mannenhuis, was a home for poor men over the age of sixty. It is likened to an early example of retirement home, providing the men with regular meals and somewhere clean and safe to sleep. The painting is an example of Hals’ later dark, loose style. Although fashions had changed by the 1660s, Hals painted the women in typical clothing from the 1640s.
Frans Hals passed away in Haarlem on 26th August 1666. He was buried in the Grote Kerk, a Reformed Protestant church. Despite his pension and the high esteem in which the city held him, his widow was forced to apply for financial aid and was admitted to the local almshouse. When Hals died, four of his sons were still alive and working as artists, although none of them achieved the status of their father.
Throughout his career, Hals inspired many Dutch artists and took on several students. Rather than teach his pupils how to paint like him, Hals let them develop their own styles and techniques. Today, historians are uncertain how many students Hals had because they cannot use the paintings as a way of identifying Hals as the teacher because the styles are so dissimilar.
Hals’ reputation waned after his death, but he reemerged in the 19th century when impressionist and realist painters studied his technique. Claude Monet (1840-1926), Édouard Manet (1832-83), Gustave Courbet (1819-77), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) all list Hals as one of their greatest influences. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote, “What a joy it is to see a Frans Hals, how different it is from the paintings – so many of them – where everything is carefully smoothed out in the same manner.”
In the 21st century, Hals’ paintings are found in cities all over the world, including Antwerp, London, Toronto and New York. Several works belong to Haarlem town council and hang in the Frans Hals Museum, established in 1862. The museum is located on the site of the Oude Mannenhuis, where Hals painted The Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse in 1664, which hangs in the museum. As well as paintings by Hals, the museum displays artwork by other Dutch artists, including Judith Leyster, Karel van Mander, Hals’ brother Dirck Hals (1591-1656), and Jan Steen (1625-79).
In 1968, the Nederlandsche Bank issued a tien gulden (ten guilders) banknote featuring a portrait of Frans Hals. He remained on the note until 1997 when the bank commissioned new designs. After the Millennium, guilders were replaced by euros. Hals was also honoured by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), who named a 93-kilometre crater on Mercury ‘Hals’.
Until January 2022, the Wallace Collection is hosting the exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. Whilst it reveals little about the artist, the portraits perfectly demonstrate the subtle changes in Hals’ technique throughout his career. Tickets are available from the Wallace Collection website.
Until 22nd March 2022, Tate Britain is exploring the work of William Hogarth and his European contemporaries during the changing times of the 18th century. Hogarth frequently crops up in the history of British art, and a recent exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum focused on Hogarth’s narrative series, including A Rake’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode, Four Times of Day and The Happy Marriage. (See my blog about this exhibition) Whilst Tate Britain included these paintings in the extensive display, they also introduced many of Hogarth’s lesser-known paintings.
Recognised for his satirical, scandalous images of London life, William Hogarth (1679-1764) often attempted to show humour in his paintings. The scenes depict the everyday experiences of the audience in 18th-century society. The social changes ultimately led to today’s moral standards, yet many of the themes Hogarth and his contemporaries painted are now considered racist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes.
In 1750, Hogarth painted The March of the Guards to Finchley for George II (1683-1760), but the king felt insulted at the supposed mockery of his best troops. The painting depicts a fictional scene in Tottenham Court Road as the soldiers march to Finchley to defend London from the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The uprisings, which began in the late 17th century, aimed to return the Stuart Dynasty to the throne of England after the deposition of James II (1633-1701) during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Rather than producing a respectful image of the march, Hogarth exaggerated their lack of training and discipline.
Hogarth also satirised the public and their interaction with the troops. A milkmaid is caught in a passionate embrace with one soldier while another woman tries to attract the attention of a drummer. One man urinates against a wall, and nearby a soldier collapses in a drunken stupor. Some troops rob the civilians, whose attention is on an impromptu boxing match between two soldiers.
As well as mocking the English army, Hogarth poked fun at the French soldiers in The Gates of Calais or O, the Roast Beef of Old England (1748). Hogarth painted this scene after returning from Calais, where he had served as an English spy. In the centre, a man carries a joint of British beef to the Lion d’Argent inn, while a group of malnourished French soldiers and a fat friar eye it hungrily. The state of the French troops suggests they fared badly during the war and the large friar indicates the Church focused inwardly rather than helping those in need.
As well as city life, Hogarth painted scenes inside homes and buildings, including a self-portrait showing him at work. The Artist Painting the Comic Muse (1757) depicts Hogarth painting the Muse of Comedy on a canvas. Critics suggest the painting represents Hogarth’s motto “my picture was my stage and men and women my actors.” X-ray analysis reveals Hogarth originally included a small dog relieving himself on a pile of old master paintings, indicating Hogarth thought his work better than his predecessors.
The self-portrait, whilst sparse in terms of decoration, provides an insight into the style of furniture during the 18th century. Hogarth sits on an upholstered chair from the American colonies. Its cabriole legs and vase-shaped splats make the chair appear more suited to a dining room or living room than an artist’s studio. Hogarth’s decision to include the furniture may indicate he made a good living and did not face poverty like many other artists.
In contrast to the suggestion of wealth in Hogarth’s self-portrait is his fictional painting of The Distressed Poet (1736). Whilst the redware teapot on the mantlepiece suggests the family once experienced money, the dishevelled attic room, full of mismatched furniture, indicates a fall in status. Whilst the poet scratches his head in search of inspiration, a milkmaid demands money from his wife for her services, which the couple cannot afford to pay. Meanwhile, a dog steals the last of the family’s food from a plate near the doorway.
Art historians suggest Hogarth took inspiration from Alexander Pope’s (1688-1744) series of narrative poems called The Dunciad (1728-43). The satirical work celebrates the goddess Dulness, and her mission is to convert the world to stupidity. Pope mocks the downfall of several people and societies, including the Hanoverian Whigs and George II. “Still Dunce the second rules like Dunce the first.” Underneath the daring mockery, the poem contains a moral warning that those experiencing wealth and power are not immune to failure.
During the 1760s, London was the most populous city in Europe, with approximately 740,000 inhabitants. As a centre of global trade, it attracted people from all over the country, continent and further abroad. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the city’s wealth came from the slave trade and society’s attitudes towards other ethnicities resulted in the unfair treatment of hundreds of thousands of people. Paris, with a population of 600,000, was poorer than London but had the same attitudes towards other cultures, often appropriating their fashions but refusing to treat people fairly.
Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair, originally titled Humours of the Fair, illustrates a fair held in Southwark, London, 1732. The busy scene shows a tradeswoman selling crockery underneath a stage that is starting to collapse. Oblivious to the imminent destruction, she is playing dice while acrobats perform balancing acts on tightropes between buildings and costumed actors mingle with the crowd. Fairs such as these were popular in Hogarth’s time, particularly amongst the lower classes of society. They provided an opportunity for traders to sell their wares and the poor to experience theatre and musical performances without paying extortionate fees.
The painting of Southwark Fair is not geographically accurate but captures the typical amusements and crowds associated with the fair that ran in London since King Edward IV (1442-83) made it official in 1462. For two weeks, the fair featured rope fliers; physical marvels, such as Maximilian Müller, the eight-foot German giant; and magicians, such as Isaac Fawkes (1675-1732). Hogarth’s painting also includes James Figg (1684-1734), a notable boxer and fencer.
The people at the fair are predominantly white, except for a black boy dressed in red and playing the trumpet in the foreground. The boy probably belongs to the drummer woman because it is unlikely he lived freely with his parents. Whilst there is nothing unusual in this considering the social norms of the time, Hogarth mocks the child by painting a dog dressed as a gentleman and walking on its hind legs behind the trumpet player. This racist juxtaposition suggests owners treated their black slaves like dogs or even gave more care and attention to their animals. Since Hogarth frequently mocked people in his artwork, he may not necessarily condone their behaviour. Instead, he pointed out the immoral behaviour of society, leaving it up to the viewer to find it either funny or shocking.
The Age of Enlightenment occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries, benefitting only white upper and middle-class men who endeavoured to learn more about the world. European superiority deepened as a result, with men believing that because they knew more, they were better than people of other nationalities. The Hervey Conversation Piece (1738-40) demonstrates the calibre of men involved in enlightening activities.
John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey of Ickworth (1696-1743), an English courtier and political writer, stands in the centre of the painting gesturing to an architectural plan held up by Henry Fox (1705-74), 1st Baron Holland and Surveyor-General of the King’s Works. It is not certain what the plans show, but Fox later built the original Kingsgate Castle near Broadstairs, Kent, in 1760. His brother, Stephen Fox (1704-76), who lived with Hervey, potentially as a lover, sits at a table behind which a clergyman peers through a telescope. The clergyman, perhaps Reverend Dr Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), stands precariously on a chair that Stephen’s walking stick is causing to topple over. This symbolises the tensions between science and the Church and their arguments about the truth.
On the right, Hervey’s colleague Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-58), wears a red jacket and glances at the plans indicated by Hervey. Spencer is an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-97). The other man is Whig politician Thomas Winnington (1696-1746), who sat in the House of Commons from 1726 to 1746. All six men had some influence in society, although Reverend Middleton often caused controversy and disputes.
Not all paintings of intellectual men depicted them in a favourable light. In Charity in the Cellar, Hogarth shows a group of men drinking from wine bottles in a dimly lit cellar. Their behaviour indicates they have drunk too much alcohol. Several empty bottles litter the floor, proving that upper and middle-class men are by no means saints. The painting may also allude to tax evasion because many wine merchants imported the drink to France via Italy to avoid paying excise tax. The statue of Charity, one of the Christian virtues, watches on as the men partake in activities that are far from charitable.
Alcohol has ruined many a man’s (and woman’s) life throughout history. To deter her husband from drinking, Susan Schutz commissioned Hogarth to paint a portrait of her husband, Francis Matthew Schutz, in bed following a heavy night’s drinking. The hungover man leans over the side of the bed, where he vomits into a chamberpot. As well as trying to curb his drinking habits, Susan may have intended the painting as a form of punishment. Records reveal Schutz had extramarital affairs and later stood trial for committing adultery with his brother’s wife.
During the second half of the 18th century, attitudes towards portrait paintings changed. Instead of rigid, stiff poses, sitters relaxed and artists captured individuals in informal settings. Hogarth’s portrait of The Cholmondeley Family (1732) is an example of the freedom this new method offered sitters. Commissioned by George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas (1724-64), as a memorial to his wife, Mary, who passed away from tuberculosis, the painting shows the couple sitting with their youngest child whilst the other children run around and climb on the furniture. The juxtaposition of the posing adults with the playfulness and innocence of the children reflects two different moods. Cholmondeley, who looks over at his wife, mourns her loss, but the children’s happiness shows that, despite losing their mother, they will survive and thrive under their father’s protection.
Ambitious high society portraits were also all the rage in Britain during the 18th century. Between 1732 and 1735, Hogarth painted The Conduitt Piece, which depicts a group of aristocratic children performing John Dryden’s (1631-1700) play The Indian Emperor, or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. The play tells the tale of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547).
The painting is set in the home of John Conduitt (1688-1737), who took over from Sir Isaac Newton as Master of the Mint in 1727. Due to Conduitt’s prestigious position, he knew many people in parliament and the Royal Family. Some of the younger royals are depicted in the audience.
Although informal portraits grew in popularity, traditional ones did not go out of fashion. Mary Edwards of Kensington (1704-43), one of the richest women in England, commissioned Hogarth to paint her portrait to assert her independence. Edwards allegedly married but later denied any evidence of the ceremony. The painting reflects both Edwards’ financial status and her headstrong personality. Traditionally, only men portrayed these characteristics in portraits. Rather than a lap dog, Edwards’ hand rests on the head of a large hunting hound. In the background, a figurine of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) indicates that women can exert the same amount of power as men. Emphasising this further is a paper on the desk containing the proclamation of individual rights from Joseph Addison’s (1672-1719) play Cato (1712).
Most portrait painters from the 18th century would feel uncomfortable breaking with conformity to paint Mary Edwards in such a manner. Yet, Edwards and Hogarth were good friends, and she often purchased his work. Typically, only men were art patrons, but Edwards did not let this stop her from commissioning artworks, such as Southwark Fair.
Hogarth often painted portraits of people he knew, for instance, his sisters. He also produced an informal study of Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants. It is unlikely Hogarth displayed the painting in public, and Tate believes it may have hung in Hogarth’s studio. When visitors or potential sitters entered the studio, they could compare the portraits with the real people and assess Hogarth’s skill. The servants include a young boy, adult women and an older man, proving Hogarth could paint all age groups. Whilst paintings of servants were rare in the 18th century, depicting them in this manner is unique to Hogarth.
One of the final paintings in the exhibition is David Garrick and his wife Eva Marie Veigel (1757-64). Whilst it does not satirise the couple as Hogarth’s earlier works mocked Georgian society, David Garrick (1717-79) disliked the outcome and refused to take it. Garrick was an actor and playwright best known for his role as the king in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Hogarth depicted Garrick with a quill in one hand, as though contemplating what to write on the paper on the table before him. The intentions of his wife, Eva Marie Veigel (1724-1822), are less obvious, as she leans over as though to pluck the quill from Garrick’s hand.
Some suggest Veigel was Garrick’s muse and, rather than plucking the pen from his hand, Veigel is guiding his creativity. Others surmise Veigel was a prankster, preventing Garrick from working. Either way, Garrick disliked the painting. Evidence suggests Garrick and Veigel’s marriage was a happy one, albeit childless, so it is unlikely that Veigel deliberately prevented Garrick from writing. Veigel, nicknamed Violetti by Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80), was a dancer and understood the importance of her husband’s work. Veigel often performed in the royal courts of Europe, and many thought Veigel’s choice of husband beneath her. Perhaps Garrick did not want people to assume his success on and off the stage was due to his wife.
Looking at Hogarth’s work from the beginning to the end of his career provides a different impression than focusing on his popular paintings. The artworks demonstrate the changing ideas of society during the 18th century, particularly concerning race, class and gender. Whilst equality acts were still something in the distant future, changes in attitude were starting to get the ball rolling. Behind Hogarth’s satirical scenes is a documented history of English society that provide just as much insight, if not more, than written descriptions.
Hogarth and Europeis open to the public at Tate Britain, London, until 20th March 2022. Tickets cost £18 but Tate members can visit for free. Advanced booking is recommended.
Until 13th February 2022, The Royal Academy of Arts is looking back at the work of one of their graduates, John Constable. Rather than look at all of his paintings, the Academy has chosen examples from the final twelve years of Constable’s life, illustrating his more radical and expressive side. Between 1825 and his death, Constable experimented with plein air painting, dramatic weather phenomena, enthusiastic brush strokes, and the possibilities of printmaking. Despite his connection with the Academy, the RA has never staged a major retrospective of Constable’s work until now.
John Constable was born at East Bergholt House in Suffolk on 11th June 1776 to Golding (1739-1816) and Ann (Watts) Constable (1748-1815). His older brother was intellectually disabled, so Constable’s parents expected John to work in the family corn business. Instead, Constable’s younger brother Abram took over the running of the mills, allowing Constable to wander the Suffolk and Essex countryside making amateur sketches. Constable later said the scenes “made me a painter, and I am grateful.”
After persuading his father to let him pursue a career as an artist, Constable entered the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer in 1799. After a year of studying the Old Masters and attending drawing classes, Constable officially became a Student at the Schools. After graduating, he turned down the position of drawing master at Sandhurst because he wanted to focus on producing art rather than teaching. Instead, Constable concentrated on his first submission to the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition of 1802 (now known as the Summer Exhibition).
In 1816, Constable married Maria Bicknell (1788-1828) at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Maria’s father, a solicitor to King George IV (1762-1830) and the Admiralty expressed his concern that Constable had no money to his name. Yet, before the marriage went ahead, both of Constable’s parents died, leaving him one-fifth of the family business.
Maria’s poor health was a persistent worry for Constable, but he continued with his painting and participated annually in the Royal Academy’s exhibitions. In 1819, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and exhibited his first “six-footer”. The term refers to six monumental landscapes depicting the River Stour, each painted on a six-foot canvas. Fellow painter Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859) predicted the first of the six, The White Horse, would be “on many accounts the most important picture Constable ever painted.”
Every year, people admired, talked about, and eventually purchased one of the “six-footers”, including The Hay Wain (1821), which now resides at the National Gallery and remains one of Constable’s most famous paintings. The success continued until 1826 when Constable exhibited his final “six-footer”, The Leaping Horse. It was the only artwork in the series that failed to sell during Constable’s lifetime.
The RA displayed The Leaping Horse next to a full-size sketch that Constable made in situ. Several small drawings also show the artist’s experimentation with elements of the landscape. In the sketch, a small tree stands in front of the horse and rider, but in the final painting, the tree is at the rear. The horse, which leaps over one of the barriers erected along the river path, was walking in Constable’s preparatory work. There is a visible mark where Constable removed one of the trees in the background. He did this after failing to sell the painting at the 1825 Annual Exhibition.
After failing to sell The Leaping Horse, Constable directed his attention away from the River Stour towards lanes, dells and panoramic vistas. Whilst no longer painting canals, Constable did not avoid water scenes. This is evident in his 1826 Annual Exhibition piece, The Cornfield. Constable preferred the name The Drinking Boy to describe this painting, which shows a young shepherd boy quenching his thirst in a pool of water. The boy’s dog waits patiently for his master while the sheep carry on up the path.
The lane depicted in The Cornfield is Fen Lane, which leads from Constable’s childhood home in East Bergholt towards Dedham in Essex. Constable frequently ran along the pathway on his way to and from school, passing through cornfields along the way. Constable grew up surrounded by similar scenes, which explains his preference for these idyllic landscapes and picturesque views.
When Constable’s wife started displaying symptoms of tuberculosis, he purchased lodgings in Brighton where he thought the sea air would help Maria’s condition. The family spent their summers in Brighton between 1824 and 1828, during which time Constable frequently studied and painted the sand, sea and sky. One painting from this period, Chain Pier, Brighton, was exhibited at the 1827 Annual Exhibition.
Erected in 1823, the Royal Suspension Chain Pier was the first major pier in Brighton. It was designed by Captain Samuel Brown of Netherbyres (1776-1852), intending to start boat trips to Dieppe in France. It is fortunate that Constable and other artists captured the pier on canvas because a storm demolished it in 1896.
When not in Brighton, the Constable family lived in Hampstead, London, from where Constable frequently returned to familiar places of his childhood. One such place was Dedham Vale, which Constable painted for the 1828 Annual Exhibition. Constable depicted the view from Gun Hill in Suffolk, which reveals Dedham church in the far distance. Many believe Constable based Dedham Vale on a painting by Claude Lorrain (1600-82) called Hagar and the Angel. The art collector George Beaumont showed Constable the painting before he joined the Royal Academy Schools. Since Beaumont (1753-1827) died a year before Constable painted Dedham Vale, its similarities to Lorrain’s work suggests it is a tribute to the late collector.
The success of Dedham Vale earned Constable the position of a full Royal Academician in 1829, something for which he had yearned for a decade. Unfortunately, Maria passed away in 1828 and did not get to see her husband achieve his goal. Greatly affected by her death, Constable chose to wear black for the rest of his life. In a letter to his brother, he wrote, “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me.” As well as continuing with his artwork, Constable needed to care and provide for his seven children: John Charles, Maria Louisa, Charles Golding, Isabel, Emma, Alfred, and Lionel.
The turmoil and distress of Constable’s mind following his wife’s death are evident in his paintings from this period. For the 1829 Annual Exhibition, Constable painted Hadleigh Castle, a ruined fortification in Essex, overlooking the Thames Estuary. He first visited the castle in 1814, where he produced several sketches. From these drawings, he produced a six-foot oil painting of the castle, with stormy clouds in the background. Constable often studied and painted clouds in the early years of his marriage, but they were usually white and fluffy. The clouds in Hadleigh Castle are dark and foreboding, suggesting life without Maria was dark and gloomy.
Constable often referred back to his old sketches when preparing large paintings for the Annual Exhibitions. In 1817, Constable witnessed the opening of Waterloo Bridge in London, commemorating the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Over the following years, Constable produced many drawings and oil sketches of the bridge and the festivities on opening day.
For the 1832 Annual Exhibition, Constable produced a large oil painting showing the Prince Regent (George IV) boarding the Royal barge at Whitehall stairs, with Waterloo Bridge in the background. As a royalist, Constable wanted to capture the event and the Royal family’s involvement for posterity. In the sky, grey clouds form, either indicating the weather on the day of the event or reflecting Constable’s mental state following the death of his wife.
Many of Constable’s paintings contain bold touches of red to highlight figures or lead the viewer’s eye to the main focus of the artwork. It is unlikely that everyone Constable depicted in his landscapes wore red, but it helped bring the picture to life. When displaying paintings for the Annual Exhibition, some artists added final touches to their canvases. On the wall next to The Opening of Waterloo Bridge hung J.M.W Turner’s (1775-1851) seascape Helvoetsluys. When Turner noticed the red highlights in Constable’s painting, he added a blob of red paint in the centre of his work to draw everyone’s attention away from the neighbouring artwork.
During the early 1830s, Constable began teaching life drawing at the Royal Academy Schools. He also started experimenting with other media, such as watercolour and printmaking. Whilst the majority of Constable’s submissions to the Annual Exhibitions were oil paintings, he occasionally submitted watercolours. Constable discovered printmaking, particularly mezzotints, a powerful way of expressing light and shade. Using his wife’s inheritance money, Constable collaborated with David Lucas, a British mezzotinter, to create 40 prints of his landscapes. Trial and error meant several versions of each design were printed before settling on the final 40 to publish in a folio. Unfortunately, the project was not a financial success, and Constable never saw the money he spent again.
In 1834, illness prevented Constable from working on an oil painting for the Annual Exhibition, so the only piece he submitted was a watercolour called Old Sarum. The scene is based on Constable’s sketches of Old Sarum, a ruined and deserted site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury in Wiltshire. The old settlement is visible on a mound in the distance while grey clouds billow overhead. Constable added a strip of paper on the righthand side to include the hint of a rainbow. Old Sarum is one of the 40 landscapes Constable used in his English Landscape series of mezzotints.
Between 1833 and 1836, Constable delivered a series of lectures about the history of landscape painting. He wished to raise the status of landscapes, which were once considered superior to other art forms but no longer popular. Throughout his career, Constable painted scenes that interested him rather than what other artists and buyers preferred. Whilst this hindered his attempts to become a Royal Academician for many years, it has earned Constable recognition for revolutionising the genre of landscape painting. Since many of his paintings depict the area he lived and grew up in, Suffolk is now known as “Constable Country”.
For the 1835 Annual Exhibition, Constable briefly returned to his earlier style of painting. The Valley Farm, also known as Willy Lott’s House after the landowner, depicts a scene on the River Stour, not far from Constable’s childhood home. It is based on two of his previous paintings of the area, The Ferry (1814) and Willy Lot’s House from the Stour (1816-18). Constable reworked the landscape to make it more expressive than earlier versions and modified the house so that it appeared grander. Whilst Constable felt pleased with the result, critics disapproved of the artist’s adjustments and accused Constable of ruining the natural landscape. Nonetheless, Constable had a buyer before the opening of the Exhibition. The self-made businessman Robert Vernon (1774-1849) paid Constable £300, the largest sum Constable had received for a painting.
Despite returning to some of his earlier themes, Constable continued experimenting with watercolour, as seen in his painting of Stonehenge. The painting, which featured in the Royal Academy’s final Annual Exhibition at New Somerset House in 1836, combined a dramatic sky with a well-known British landmark. Since painting Hadleigh Castle and Old Sarum, Constable’s fascination with ruins grew. These decaying man-made structures succumbing to the elemental power of nature, metaphorically express Constable’s emotions following his wife’s deaths along with two close friends, Archdeacon John Fisher (1788-1832) and John Dunthorne (1798-1832).
Alongside Stonehenge, Constable displayed Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Due to poor health, this was the only oil painting Constable completed for the exhibition. It depicts the memorial to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the first President of the Royal Academy, that Sir George Beaumont built in the grounds of his home at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire. Beaumont planned to erect several monuments to friends and people he admired but died before the project could get underway. In some ways, Constable’s painting is also in memory of Beaumont, who helped him become a professional artist.
Constable visited Coleorton in 1823, where he made pencil drawings of the monument. He only started working on the oil painting ten years later and just finished it in time for the 1836 Annual Exhibition. As well as the cenotaph, Constable included two busts in tribute to the Old Masters, Michelangelo and Raphael. In one of his last lectures, Constable praised Raphael’s artwork. He also called the Royal Academy the “cradle of British art” and received cheers from attending students.
In the early hours of 1st April 1837, Constable died from heart failure at the age of 60. He was buried beside his wife in the family tomb in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church. His children inherited all their father’s remaining sketches and unsold paintings, which they kept for the rest of their lives. The only artwork they relinquished was Arundel Mill and Castle, which Constable was working on at the time of his death. He had intended to submit it to the Royal Academy’s first Annual Exhibition in Trafalgar Square. Since it looked almost finished, Arundel Mill and Castle was displayed as Constable intended.
In 1888, Constable’s last surviving child, Isabel (1823-1888), gave the remains of her fathers work (95 oil paintings, 297 drawings and watercolours and three sketchbooks) to the South Kensington Museum (V&A). Since then, the artworks have been sold and distributed between several art galleries. The Late Constable exhibition marks the first time the Royal Academy has staged a major retrospective of Constable’s work, bringing together twelve years worth of paintings, drawings and prints. Not only does the exhibition demonstrate Constable’s artistic abilities, but it also reveals how grief and emotions play a part in creative output. Whilst the death of Constable’s wife was tragic, it changed the way Constable tackled his paintings, allowing his audience to see a more versatile side of the artist.
Constable painted the scenes he wanted to paint. The landscapes held meaning for Constable, and he did not concern himself with attempting to please the audience by conforming to modern tastes. Late Constable tells a story about an artist struggling with grief whilst striving to achieve the same accolades as his peers. The Royal Academy is finally giving Constable the recognition he deserved during his career through this retrospective exhibition.
Late Constable is open until 13th February 2022 in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts. Tickets cost £19, but Friends of the RA may visit for free. All visitors must book tickets in advance.
Unlike other comics that focus on superheroes protecting the law, The Beano is about the joy of breaking them. As the longest-running weekly comic, The Beano has entertained children for over 80 years with characters who refuse to obey the laws. This is the inspiration for the current exhibition at Somerset House in London, curated by artist Andy Holden (b.1982). Holden works by the philosophy that “You cannot make art if you stick to the rules.” He did not want to create an art exhibition; instead, he wanted visitors to walk directly into TheBeano world and experience life as a comic book character. By bending the rules (and waiting for other rules to lift, e.g. COVID-19 regulations), Holden created a spectacular exhibition that takes people on a journey from 1938 until the present day.
Many characters have come and gone throughout The Beano’s production, most notably Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger. The majority of characters are human, but the first edition, published on 30th July 1938, introduced Big Eggo, the ostrich. The big bird was the first character to appear on the front page of the comic and remained there until 1948. Each strip began with the words “Somebody’s taken my egg again!” followed by Big Eggo’s comical attempt to retrieve it.
The Beano, published by DC Thomson, aimed to replicate American weekly comic strips on a larger scale. They also wanted to appeal to children, so asked themselves, “What would a child find funny?” After much discussion, the publishers and illustrators agreed that children did not like being told what to do, which sparked several ideas for rule-breaking characters. The first edition of The Beano sold 443,000 copies, forecasting the comic’s success for the future.
The name “Beano” is a short form of “bean-feast”. During the 19th century, a bean-feast was usually part of a celebratory meal, often held during the summer. It derived from the Twelfth Night feast celebrated in January, during which an object or “bean” was hidden within a cake for one lucky participant, who earned the title “Bean King”. Whilst The Beano stories did not revolve around food, the final panels often depicted the characters tucking into a meal: usually a pile of mashed potato with sausages poking out. In some ways, food was the ultimate reward at the end of a day of breaking rules, particularly when the characters got away with it.
Readers of The Beano in the 1940s and early 50s related to the characters’ love of food. In the aftermath of the Second World War, certain foods were difficult to obtain, and families were only entitled to a small portion of their favourite items. Bacon, butter, sugar, jam and sweets were rationed, so having any of these items was a real treat.
One of the most memorable Beano characters is Dennis the Menace, who first appeared in the 452nd issue on 17th March 1951. The eternal 10-year-old has caused havoc and broken rules for over 70 years, often with the help of a slingshot and faithful pet dog. Gnasher, the Abyssinian wire-haired ‘tripehound’, joined Dennis in 1961 and has not left his side since.
Cartoonist David “Davey” Law (1908-1971) created Dennis the Menance and gave him his iconic red-and-black-striped jumper, large shoes, and impish grin. George Moonie (1914-2002), the editor at the time, suggested the name after hearing the British music hall song I’m Dennis the Menace from Venice sung by Eddie Pola (1907-95).
Dennis is the archetypal badly-behaved schoolboy and often finds himself in trouble with his parents. The bully often goes out of his way to tease “softies” (well-behaved boys), especially his next-door neighbour, Walter. The Beano does not condone bad behaviour and often shows Dennis’ punishments for picking on other boys. On occasion, Walter gets the last laugh when Dennis’ plans backfire.
Contrasting with Dennis’ deliberately awful behaviour, Roger “the Dodger” Dawson does not intend to cause trouble. Instead, Roger goes out of his way to avoid responsibilities, punishments and rules. By dodging all the things he does not want to do, Roger often creates much more work for himself.
Roger the Dodger, first drawn by Ken Reid (1919-87), appeared in 1953 and has featured in most of The Beano issues ever since. Over time, his appearance has altered to suit contemporary styles, but Roger remains recognisable from his red-and-black chequered jumper. Roger remains the second-longest-running character in The Beano, behind Dennis the Menace.
Following Roger the Dodger’s success, The Beano introduced a character to appeal to female readers. Minnie the Minx burst onto the scene in December 1953 with illustrations by Leo Baxendale (1930-2007). Minnie showed girls that they could stand up for themselves and take no notice of silly boys. With her flaming red hair and red and black jersey, Minnie is the perfect rival for Dennis the Menace and even stole his much-loved slingshot.
Minnie is a typical tomboy who hates being told what to do. In her first appearance, The Beano described Minnie as “wild as wild can be”, and she has lived up to this ever since. Her mother’s attempt to get Minnie to explore her creative side quickly backfired when Minnie misunderstood the purpose of a “scrapbook”. Minnie certainly got into a lot of scraps, beating her classmates up with the book instead of using it for its intended purpose.
As well as Minnie the Minx, Leo Baxendale created The Bash Street Kids, who first appeared in Issue 604 in February 1954. The nine children attend Class 2B of Beanotown’s local school, although they would rather be doing anything but classwork. Baxendale wanted to create “a surreal school, unlike any school that existed in real life” and achieved this by including dangerous antics that no child would ever pull off in reality.
When Baxendale left The Beano in 1962, David Sutherland (b.1933) took over, incorporating Baxendale’s style into contemporary settings throughout his long career. Each Bash Street Kid has a name and unique characteristics, such as the leader of the gang, Daniel “Danny” Deathshead Morgan, who always wears a skull and crossbones jumper and a floppy red school cap. When the comic strip characters overlap, Danny emphasises his dislike of Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger and Minnie the Minx.
The least mischievous of The Bash Street Kids is ‘Erbert, full name Herbert Henry Hoover. Resembling a human mole, ‘Erbert wears thick-rimmed glasses and is often teased by the other students. Any mischief involving ‘Erbert is usually accidental and caused by his inability to see. Freddy is also teased for his appearance and his love of eating. The obese character went by the name Fatty until May 2021, when it changed to Freddy to stop children from using the name as an insult for overweight classmates.
The nicest member of The Bash Street Kids is a tall, gangly boy with protruding ears, two buck teeth and a wide nose called Percival Proudfoot Plugsley. Known as Plug, the boy is sympathetic towards the others when they are unfairly treated. Despite his exaggerated facial features, Plug thinks he is the most handsome boy in Beanotown. Similarly, James Jasper Cameron, nicknamed Spotty, is proud of the 976 black spots covering his face and is not embarrassed by his appearance.
Kate “Toots” Pye is the only female member of the original gang. She and her twin brother, Sydney, both wear blue and black striped jumpers and have dark hair. Unlike the others, Toots is nice to Minnie the Minx and has a crush on Dennis. In 2021, two other girls were introduced to the class, Harsha Chandra and Mandira “Mandi” Sharma. The latter often advocates for mental health charities, but Harsha is more of a prankster.
The quietest and smallest member of the gang is Wilfrid John Wimble, who resembles a tortoise in his high-necked green jumper. Wilfrid suffers from social anxiety and often hangs around with those who can speak on his behalf, such as ‘Erbert and Spotty. The last of the original members is Aristotle John Smiffy, who is usually known by his surname. Whilst Smiffy is sometimes kind and intuitive, he is not very bright. He often cannot remember what the colour of the sky is and, instead of answering “Present, Sir” during roll call, he says, “Gift, Miss.”
The Bash Street School is located in Beanotown, a settlement located on the side of Mount Beano. Everyone in The Beano lives in Beanotown, next to Nuttytown and just along from Cactusville. The town is “ten minutes away from every town… on a very fast skateboard!” Maps of Beanotown over the years have not been consistent, with houses moving locations and shapes to suit the storylines.
The buildings in Beanotown tend to have similar physical characteristics to their inhabitants. Dennis, for instance, either lives in a red and black striped house or a thatched building that resembles his hair, depending on what map is used. Regardless of the shape, size and number of houses on the map, there is always a castle at one end of the town.
Lord Marmaduke Bunkerton, more commonly known as Lord Snooty, is the young inhabitant of Bunkerton Castle. The Eton-educated schoolboy, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins (1907-69), appeared in the first issue of The Beano in 1938. Lord Snooty had a regular slot in the comic until 1991, after which he appeared more sporadically. Despite his upbringing, Snooty is jealous of the freedom of working-class children, whereas they envy his enormous castle.
Lord Snooty often snuck out of the castle to play with the local children. His suit, waistcoat and bow tie made him stand out from the crowd, and Snooty regularly became the butt of jokes. Occasionally, Snooty invited his friends to his castle. Whilst he felt at home, his friends quickly decided the life of a Lord was not for them.
Unlike the other main characters in The Beano, Lord Snooty does not have parents. Instead, he is looked after by his guardian, Aunt Matilda, and relies on servants to keep the castle tidy. The other children are expected to complete household chores, which frequently results in a battle between parent and child. Characters, such as Roger the Dodger, attempt to “dodge” these chores or make them easier and quicker to achieve. Unfortunately, these schemes usually backfire, either at the child or adult’s expense.
One regular comic strip focuses on keeping the head clean and functioning, rather than the house. Known as The Numbskulls, they first appeared in The Beezer and The Dandy magazines before joining The Beano in 1993. The strip takes place inside Edd’s head, which is controlled by several small creatures called Numbskulls.
Five Numbskulls live in Edd’s head (and allegedly everyone’s heads) that control the brain and four of the basic human senses. Brainy is the leader of the Numbskulls, and as his name suggests, works in the Brain Department. Blinky works in the Eye Department, Radar controls the ears and hearing, Snitch works in the nose, and Cruncher controls the mouth and tongue. The Numbskulls have to work quickly to react to Edd’s movements and surroundings, but frequent misunderstandings result in some hilarious consequences.
Although The Numbskulls suggest people are not completely in control of their thoughts and actions, The Beano encourages readers to embrace their differences and discover their true identity and self. In recent years, The Beano introduced characters with special abilities or disabilities to emphasise it is okay not to be perfect at everything but to focus on specific skills and interests.
One of the most recent characters to join The Beano is Rubidium “Rubi” von Screwtop, who relies on a wheelchair. Her disability is never discussed or focused on in the comic strips, instead, the other children are in awe of her intelligence and technical genius. Her father, Professor von Screwtop, runs Beanotown’s Top Secret Research Centre, and Rubi follows in his footsteps by researching on her tablet.
Some characters have particular interests, such as Ball Boy, who plays football for Beanotown United Juniors at Cold Trafford. Similarly, Billy Whizz loves to run and is allegedly faster than Usain Bolt. He claims he is too fast to enter the Olympics, and the soles of his trainers are made from Formula 1 tyres. Yet, having an interest does not require anyone to be an expert. Take, for instance, Les Presley Pretend, who likes to dress up and pretend to be whatever or whoever he wants. In one strip, Les may dress up as a martian, and in the next, he is a bumblebee. He has even dressed up as his mother. Whilst this is amusing, Les is showing readers they can become whoever or whatever they want.
The exhibition, Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules, looks at The Beano through the eyes of an artist. As well as introducing all the characters, there are examples of original drawings and strips that reveal how each character developed. The exhibition is also about breaking the rules, which many characters do regularly. Even the artists and illustrators break the rules, occasionally engaging with the storylines and talking to characters through speech bubbles.
The curator has collaborated with many artists to create a modern art exhibition alongside displays of The Beano drawings and paraphernalia. Some are old works that were inspired by The Beano and others were commissioned for the exhibition. All artworks are by artists who “break the rules” to create their contemporary pieces, including Phyllida Barlow, Martin Creed, Ryan Gander and Philippe Parreno.
Ironically, an art exhibition is something none of The Beano children would find interesting, except perhaps for Lord Snooty. With that in mind, Andy Holden curated the exhibition to cater for the mischievous characters. Comic strips around the exhibition show the characters enjoying their visit to Somerset House, and anything they find slightly “boring” is labelled “Warning!!! Things your parents might like”.
Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules is suitable for The Beano fans as well as people who are unfamiliar with the comic. Those who know and love the characters will enjoy a trip down memory lane, and other people will experience the joy of discovering the mischievous characters and stories. Ultimately, this exhibition will prove there is no age limit on the art of breaking the rules.
The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City is one of the most visited chapels in the world due to its impressive fresco paintings by the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564). In 1505 Pope Julius II (1443-1513) asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, which at 68ft high was a daunting task. Initially, Michelangelo refused. He wanted to be known as a sculptor rather than a painter but eventually agreed to the job in 1508. For four years, Michelangelo stood on high platforms, painting the ceiling above his head with Biblical scenes and characters. After completion, Michelangelo happily returned to his sculptures, only returning to the chapel to paint a fresco above the altar in 1536.
For a limited time, people in London can see a life-sized, close-up of Michelangelo’s paintings. Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel will know that it is impossible to study the ceiling in detail because of the height of the building. This unique exhibition brings copies of the paintings down to ground level, where visitors can appreciate them for their unique features and grandeur. Located at the Cannon Factory near Tottenham Hale, London, the COVID-safe experience provides a never-before-seen perspective of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpieces.
The central section of the ceiling is made up of nine paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Whilst they are not in chronological order, the paintings are grouped into three themes: Creation, Downfall, and Fate of Humanity. The exhibition positioned the paintings in the order they appear when entering the chapel, meaning the Book of Genesis appears to read backwards. Some historians suggest Michelangelo chose to paint them in this order to symbolise a return to a state of grace as people approach the altar.
The first three ceiling panels closest to the entrance of the chapel (and exhibition) tell the story of Noah, from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis. Noah was the 10th and final patriarch of the Bible before the Great Flood. God wanted to return the Earth to “its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.” All except Noah and his family were corrupt and violent, so God instructed Noah to build an Ark to save themselves and two of every animal from the oncoming deluge.
The scene nearest the door depicts Noah after the flood. According to Genesis 9, Noah grew drunk on the wine produced from the newly cultivated vines. As a result, he passed out and exposed his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, discreetly covered their father with a cloak to protect his modesty. Ham, the third son, mocked his father instead. When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham, saying that Ham’s descendants would serve Shem and Japheth’s descendants forever. Some Christian theologians interpret Ham’s mockery of Noah as a projection of the mockery of Jesus in the New Testament.
The second panel concerning Noah depicts the Great Flood, which is the largest punishment God inflicted on man. After instructing Noah to build an Ark, God sent 40 days of rain to flood the earth, destroying all life in the process. Michelangelo’s painting illustrates the onset of the flood. Noah’s ark is floating away in the background, where a single white dove sits in one of the hatches. Noah later sent out the dove to search for land, and it returned holding an olive branch. Since then, the dove has symbolised peace and hope. While Noah and his family sail away, the people in the foreground frantically search in vain for shelter as the flood levels rise.
The third scene comes chronologically after the flood but before the drunkenness of Noah. When Noah and his family eventually found land, the first thing Noah did was build an altar and sacrifice some of the animals to the Lord. Seeing this, God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Christian Theologians suggest all three panels forecast events of the New Testament – the mockery of Christ (Noah’s drunkenness), baptism (Great Flood), and Christ’s death on the cross (Noah’s sacrifice).
The second group of paintings tell the story of Adam and Eve, from their creation until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When approaching the middle of the chapel from the entrance, the first panel is the last chronologically and combines two scenes: the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise. On the left-hand side, Eve reaches up to take the fruit of knowledge from the serpent. When God created the first man and woman, He told them they could eat the fruit of any trees, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By accepting the fruit from the serpent, depicted as Lilith, Eve is going against God’s will. According to Genesis 3, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, but in Michelangelo’s depiction, Adam reached out to take the fruit from the tree. Most Western Christian artists use an apple tree to symbolise the forbidden fruit, but Michelangelo chose a fig tree instead.
On the right-hand side, the archangel Michael expels Adam and Eve from Eden. His sword represents the flaming sword that prevented the couple from returning to the garden. Michael is not mentioned in the account in Genesis, but Michelangelo included the angel to emphasise the man and woman were banished from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were forced to fend for themselves and eventually die in the wilderness.
In the centre of the chapel ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Eve. Due to its position, the composition is smaller than the rest of the scenes from Genesis. Using inspiration from paintings by other Italian artists, Michelangelo portrayed Adam in a deep sleep, whilst Eve stands up and reaches towards her God and creator, who Michelangelo represents as an elderly man. According to Genesis 2:21-22, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”
The third scene in the Adam and Eve story is perhaps the most famous painting in the Sistine chapel and art history. Once again, God is depicted as an elderly man, who reaches out to touch Adam to impart the spark of life. Surrounding God are twelve figures about whose identities are often argued. The woman under God’s left arm is generally accepted as Eve due to her resemblance to Eve in Michelangelo’s other paintings and her gaze toward Adam.
Christian theologians have analysed The Creation of Adam in great depth. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy. When discussing the painting in a medical journal, someone pointed out that the proportions of Adam’s torso were slightly off to encompass an extra rib – the rib God later used to create Eve. Others suggest the red cloak surrounding God represents the human womb and the twelve figures, the future human race. Another medical hypothesis concerns the shape of God’s head in comparison to Adam’s smoother brow. The shape of the head Michelangelo gave God is more anatomically accurate to house a brain. This means Adam, who had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge, did not have a fully formed brain.
The last three scenes before reaching the altar come from the first chapter of Genesis, during which God created the world in six days. In the first painting, Michelangelo depicts God breaking through the background to represent the separation of the waters from the heavens – the second day of creation. The movement of God’s body and his outstretched hands suggest His elemental powers and strength.
The next scene illustrates days three and four of creation. On the left, God faces away from the viewer, pointing His hand towards some green plants. On the third day, God created dry land and commanded, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” On the right, God’s outstretched arms point towards the sun and moon, which He placed in the sky on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The way Michelangelo paints God’s robe and hair suggest God is moving at speed across the sky.
Despite being the last scene displayed on the ceiling, the final painting depicts the first stage of the creation narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.” Michelangelo depicts God from below amidst swirling black and white clouds to demonstrate the separation of night and day. Some theologians liken the image to the Last Judgement, with the light representing God’s chosen people and the dark, the condemned.
As well as the nine scenes from Genesis, the Sistine Chapel ceiling contains pendentives (triangular sections) featuring figures from the Bible and mythology. Twelve of these are categorised as prophetic figures, twelve people who prophesied the coming of a Messiah. Seven are male prophets from the Bible, and the remaining five are female prophetesses or Sibyls from classical mythology.
Above the altar sits Jonah, a reluctant prophet famously swallowed by a large fish. Some Bible scholars believe the Book of Jonah is fictional, but whether it is a story or not, Jonah is considered a foreshadowing of Christ. Between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, He spent three days in the tomb. This is the same length of time that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. Michelangelo includes the image of a large fish beside the sitting figure of Jonah, although it does not look large enough to swallow a man whole.
The prophet Jeremiah sits on the left side of the altar with his head bowed in anguished meditation. Known as the “weeping prophet”, Jeremiah was called by God to proclaim Jerusalem’s coming destruction. According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah wrote the Book of Jeremiah, the Books of Kings and the Book of Lamentations. The latter is a collection of his laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Michelangelo captures Jeremiah’s emotional pain and reflects the same emotions in the two figures standing behind the prophet. It is suggested that Jeremiah is a self-portrait of Michelangelo lamenting his fate as a painter when he would rather earn a reputation as a sculptor.
Michelangelo depicts the prophet Ezekiel as an elderly man. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but he also spoke of the restoration of the land of Israel. The figure of Ezekiel twists in his seat to look at a smaller figure, who is pointing upwards, either towards God or at the painting of the fall of man. Art historians suggest Ezekiel’s open hand demonstrates his amazement and readiness to receive a message from God.
Joel is also represented as an elderly man. The prophet is only mentioned once by name in the Hebrew Bible, in the introduction to the Book of Joel. No one knows for sure when Joel lived and what events he witnessed. In his writings, Joel told people to repent of their sins and promised their safety on “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Michelangelo painted Joel with his brow furrowed as he concentrates on his words of wisdom. Some believe Michelangelo based the prophet’s face on the Italian architect Donato Bramante (1445-1514), who helped Michelangelo design the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.
Sitting above the entrance to the chapel is the prophet Zechariah, who proclaimed, “Behold, your King is coming to you … Lowly and riding on a donkey…”(Zechariah 9:9). This prophesied the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, which is celebrated annually on Palm Sunday. His position over the door is symbolic of the entrance the Pope enters in the Palm Sunday procession. Traditionally, Zechariah is portrayed as a young man, but Michelangelo chose to depict him in his old age. This helps to emphasise Zechariah’s profound prophetic abilities.
Isaiah is portrayed as a younger figure who has just been disturbed from his reading by two small figures. Each painting of the prophets features two figures that may represent the conveyors of God’s message. Isaiah foretold the death of the coming Messiah. Many of his prophecies are repeated in the New Testament, particularly concerning the death and resurrection of the “Suffering Servant”. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Even younger in appearance is Daniel, who spent many years working as a scribe for King Nebuchadnezzar (642-562 BC). The open book on Daniel’s lap may reference his career or allude to his ability to interpret dreams. Michelangelo used scrolls and books to highlight the prophets’ intellect, but Daniel is the only one who appears to be writing, as though recording his interpretations and prophecies for future generations. Unlike Jonah, whose famous encounter with a giant fish is documented in the painting, there is no reference to Daniel’s experience in the lion’s den, where he was thrown after disobeying the rule that forbade prayer.
Michelangelo included five Sibyls from classical mythology to emphasise the Messiah came for both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew or Egyptian Sibyl, may have authored the Sibylline Oracle, although some scholars believe the Persian Sibil was more than one person. Michelangelo alluded to this theory by portraying the Sibyl with a book in her hands. The Sibylline Oracles contained information about pagan mythology and Old Testament events, including the Garden of Eden, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Fragments surviving from the 7th century AD also contain details about the Roman Empire and early Christian writings.
The Erythraean Sibyl came from modern-day Turkey, where she prophesied the coming of the Messiah through an acrostic, which read “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, Cross” in Greek. The Sibyl forecast other events in the life of Jesus, and St. Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo, referenced her prophecies in his book The City of God. Michelangelo acknowledged the Sibyl’s wisdom by portraying her reading a book. He also depicted divine enlightenment by including a small figure lighting an oil lamp above her head.
The Delphic Sibyl looks up from her scroll with a slightly worried look upon her face, as though she has just envisioned an unpleasant future event. The Delphic Sibyl predated the Trojan War (11th century BC) and made several prophecies about events written about in classical mythology. She also foresaw that the Messiah would be mocked with a crown of thorns.
Michelangelo depicted the Cumaean Sibyl as an elderly lady. She presided over a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy. According to the poet Ovid, she lived for at least 1000 years. Ovid claimed the god Apollo offered her longevity in exchange for her virginity. She agreed, and taking a handful of sand, asked to live for as many years as the grains she held. Unfortunately, eternal youth did not come as part of the bargain. During her long life, the Cumaean Sibyl foretold the coming of a Messiah.
The Libyan Sibyl may not have mentioned Christ directly when presiding over the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert, but the Church has interpreted many of her prophesies as connected to the Messiah. For instance, she foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.” The ancient Greeks claimed the Libyan Sibyl, sometimes known as Phemonoe, was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, and Lamia, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea. According to Plutarch (46-119 AD), she also told Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) that he was a divine individual and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.
In each corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a triangular pendentive depicting Biblical stories associated with the salvation of Israel. These are four examples of the more violent ways the People of Israel were saved from their enemies and sinful ways. One illustrated the story of The Brazen Serpent as told in Numbers 21:4–9. Moses had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, but it was a long journey to the Promised Land. They began to complain and turn against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” As punishment, God sent venomous snakes to attack and kill many of the Israelites. Michelangelo depicted the Israelites’ frantic battle with the serpents. In the background, he included an image of a bronze serpent on a pole. To save the Israelites’, God instructed Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” This spectacle, whilst violent, taught the Israelites to trust and obey Moses and the Lord.
Another pendentive illustrates three scenes from the Book of Esther. Rather than telling the story chronologically from left to right, Michelangelo placed the final scene in the middle of the triangle. Esther was the wife of a Persian king who did not know that she came from a Jewish background. The king’s chief vizier, Haman the Agagite, hated the Jews and proposed a massacre to rid Persia of all people of Jewish descent. Haman particularly hated Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who refused to bow down to the vizier. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to have Mordecai hanged. This part of the narrative is illustrated on the righthand side of the painting. Mordecai begged Esther to intervene by talking to the king, which she is seen doing on the lefthand side. Realising Haman’s plan would also result in Esther’s death, the king hanged Haman instead, as shown in the centre of the pendentive. Thus, the people of Israel were saved from death.
Michelangelo’s painting of David and Goliath only illustrates one scene: Goliath’s death. David, an unlikely hero, defeated the giant warrior of the Philistine army with a slingshot, which ended the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. According to the Book of Samuel, chapter 17, after David knocked Goliath out, he “took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.” Michelangelo’s interpretation is slightly different, with Goliath trying to scramble to his feet while David methodically carries out his task in the name of the Lord. David appears much stronger than the little shepherd boy written about in the Bible and more like the powerful king he later became.
The fourth story comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith, which is not included in most Bibles. Judith was a Jewish woman living in Bethulia around 600 BC. At the time, the city was under attack by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, led by the Assyrian general, Holofernes. To protect her city and the Israelites who lived there, Judith tricked her way into the enemy encampment where she seduced and intoxicated Holofernes. While he lay in a drunken stupor, Judith cut off his head. Michelangelo’s painting shows Judith and her maid carrying the severed head out of the tent where the headless body of Holofernes remains sprawled on the bed. Having lost their leader, the army dispersed, and the Israelites were saved.
In between the paintings of prophets and Sibyls are eight spandrels (triangular spaces) featuring small families. These are known collectively as the Ancestors of Christ. Whilst Michelangelo labelled each one with a name from the genealogy of Christ mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is not clear which figure in each artwork is the named individual. Some suggest the ancestor is the child because the scenes are reminiscent of paintings of the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The woman or mother in each spandrel is more noticeable than the man or father, which also reflects the order of importance within the Holy Family, at least within the Catholic faith.
It is generally accepted that both Jesus’ parents descended from King David, whose father was Jesse, also known as Ishai. Jesse is one of the eight ancestors Michelangelo chose to depict. Jesse was a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Another ancestor is Asa, the third King of Judah and the fifth king of the House of David, who ruled between 913 and 873 BC. Michelangelo also portrayed Asa’s father, Rehoboam, the grandson of King David. Rehoboam became king after the death of his father, King Solomon. He ruled between 932 and 915 BC, during which the kingdom was divided into northern and southern tribes.
Josiah became King of Judah in 640 BC at the age of eight following the assassination of his father, Amon. Josiah was killed in 609 BC during a battle against the Egyptians. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, the prophet Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, although there is no mention of the king in the Book of Lamentations. There are other connections between Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets, such as Ezechias, also known as Hezekiah, who often consulted the prophet Isaiah for advice. During Ezechias’ reign as King of Judah between 752 and 687 BC, he witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BC) and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, the king of the Neo-Assyrians (701 BC).
Jeremiah stated that no offspring of “Coniah” would sit on the throne of Judah. Scholars assume the prophet meant King Jeconiah, who was taken into captivity in Babylon. His grandson, Zerubbabel was one of the first Jews who returned from this exile and began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Michelangelo may have chosen to depict Zerubbabel because the Sistine Chapel bore a resemblance to the Temple in size and dimensions. The other two ancestors Michelangelo chose were Uzziah and Salmon. Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah who often sought the advice of the prophet Zechariah. Salmon, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandfather of David. He was the father of Boaz and potentially the husband of Rahab, who famously assisted the Israelites in capturing the city of Jericho.
Twenty-five years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a reluctant Michelangelo returned to paint the altar wall. He began painting in 1536, by which time Michelangelo was in his early sixties. Despite his age, Michelangelo spent five years painting 390 individual figures to depict the last judgement and second coming of Christ. According to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, Christ will appear and judge the living and dead. The “chosen” people will enter heaven to live eternally with God, and the sinners will be sent to the fires of Hell.
In the centre of the fresco is Christ, whose crucifixion wounds are still visible. His face is turned towards the damned, who are destined for Hell. His mother, the Virgin Mary, stands on his right with her face turned towards the Saved. Positioned around Christ are some of His disciples, such as Peter, who holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Opposite Peter is John the Baptist, recognised by his animal skin cape.
Some of the disciples are recognisable from their attributes or deaths. Saint Thomas, for instance, holds a carpenter’s square, referencing his profession. Saint Bartholomew, on the other hand, holds his old skin, alluding to being skinned alive. Some believe the face on the skin is a self-portrait of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo included a group of angels on clouds. Seven are blowing trumpets, as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Other angels hold books in which to record the names of the Saved and Damned. Rather than depicting Satan, Michelangelo turned to Classical mythology for his representation of Hell. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, transports the Damned across the river to Hell, where they are received by King Minos, a judge of the Underworld.
In the bottom left corner, the resurrected dead arise from their graves and float up towards the angels and Heaven. Some of the Damned struggle against the devils who pull them towards Hell and others are paralyzed with horror.
On completion, Catholics were divided over the suitability of the painting. Whilst The Last Judgement often appeared in churches, it was unusual to see it over the altar. Others took offence at the nudity of the figures and accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper decorum. The Vatican council quickly hired the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra (1509-66) to paint discrete drapery over the exposed genitalia. These additions were added after the original paint had dried, so fifteen of them were easy to remove during restoration work between 1990 and 1994. Today, the fresco is a combination of Michelangelo’s intended design and Volterra’s alterations.
Whilst it is no replacement for the real thing, the Sistine Chapel exhibition allows people to look at each section of the ceiling in detail and learn about the history and Biblical significance of each figure and scene. At a time when travel is uncertain due to COVID-19, the exhibition brings the Sistine Chapel to those who cannot visit the Vatican. London is one of the first cities to host Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition and Londoners only have until 2nd January 2022 to visit before it jets off to another location around the world. Cities currently on the waiting list include Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Sydney, Singapore, New York and São Paulo. Book now to avoid disappointment.
Tickets are available online starting at £11 per adult and £8 per child. Whilst it is open to children, some paintings contain nudity which may be unsuitable for younger visitors.
Until January 2022, visitors to the National Gallery in London have the opportunity to view several paintings by the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, Nicolas Poussin. Each artwork demonstrates Poussin’s unique methods of depicting the movement of dance whilst also bringing to life the classical world of the Olympian gods. Contemporary wax-work models attempt to replicate the evolution of Poussin’s ideas and provide an insight into his love of ancient marble sculptures.
Before the advent of Impressionism in the 19th century, Poussin was the most important artist in French history. Born near Les Andelys in Normandy in 1594, Poussin grew up learning Latin but spent much of his schooling drawing in his sketchbooks. Although his parents disapproved of a painting career, Poussin ran away to Paris in 1612 to search for work as an artist. At first, Poussin could not get a job as a painter because he did not belong to the guild of master painters and sculptors. Fortunately, his early work caught the attention of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle (1570-1637), who invited Poussin into his studio for three months.
After leaving Elle’s studio, Poussin found a position in the workshop of the French artist Georges Lallemand (c.1575–1636). Here, he studied anatomy and perspective but preferred to work alone and at his own pace rather than follow Lallemand’s instruction. While in Paris, Poussin had the opportunity to visit the Royal Collection, which introduced him to paintings by the Italian artists Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Raphael (1483-1520). This sparked within Poussin the longing to visit the Italian capital, Rome.
Poussin attempted to travel to Rome in 1617 but only made it as far as Florence. He thus returned to France and made another attempt in 1622, this time not even making it out of the country. Back in Paris, Poussin received his first major commission from the Order of Jesuits to paint a series of paintings to honour the canonization of the order’s founder, Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Now making a name for himself, Poussin received further commissions, including illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the court poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and decorations for Marie de Medici’s (1575-1642) residence, the Luxembourg Palace.
At the age of 30, Poussin finally made it to Rome, the artistic capital of Europe, in 1624. He joined the Academy of Domenichino and the Academy of St Luke to study the art of painting nudes and took many opportunities to visit churches to examine the works of Raphael, Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose work Poussin hated, and other well-known Italian painters. Poussin fell in love with the architecture and statues around Rome, particularly the figures on ancient marble friezes.
One of the antiquities Poussin most admired was The Borghese Vase, also known as Krater with a Procession of Dionysus (1st century BCE). Sculpted in Athens from marble, the monumental vase became a garden ornament in Rome. A procession of dancers winds around the vase, overseen by the Greek god Dionysus. Many of the movements and fluidity of the characters are replicated in Poussin’s work, as are other ancient sculptures and friezes.
In 1626, Poussin found lodgings with the French sculptor François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), whose work also inspired Poussin. Before his death, Giambattista Marino, Poussin’s patron, frequently found him commissions from notable Italians, including Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644). Yet, after Marino died, Poussin found it difficult to establish himself in the city.
Not only did Poussin lose Marino, but the Cardinal also moved to Spain as a papal legate, taking with him some of Poussin’s other sponsors. Poussin fell ill with syphilis and could not paint for several months. He survived by selling some of his old paintings until the French Dughet family took Poussin in and cared for him until he recovered. Poussin regained most of his health by 1629 and married Anne-Marie Dughet the following year. Her brother, Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), became Poussin’s pupil and signed his paintings “Gaspard Poussin”.
During the latter stages of his illness, Poussin completed a few commissions, which helped him afford to purchase a small house on Via Paolina. The Cardinal returned to Rome and Poussin painted several artworks for him, starting with The Death of Germanicus in 1627. Following the success of this work, Poussin gained many patrons, including the art dealer Fabrizio Valguarnera for whom he painted The Realm of Flora between 1630 and 1631.
The National Gallery displayed The Realm of Flora, which usually resides at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, next to Poussin’s pen-and-ink study for the painting. Both painting and drawing show Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, holding her skirts and dancing with putti (winged infants). Within her kingdom are several characters from Roman mythology, including Narcissus, who gazes at his reflection in a vase while Echo sits beside him. According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD), the handsome youth Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and rejected the amorous advances of anyone else. This was his punishment for spurning the nymph Echo, who attempted to talk to Narcissus but could only repeat the words he said.
Other characters in The Realm of Flora include the warrior Ajax falling on his sword, the athletic Hyacinthus, the beautiful Adonis, the mortal Crocus, the nymph Smilax, and the water nymph Clytia gazing at the sun. According to the myths, all these figures turned into flowers after their deaths. The physiology of each mythological person resembles the style of sculpture from the first century BCE that Poussin so admired.
As well as studying ancient sculptures, Poussin fashioned figurines out of wax, moulding them into the desired pose. While lodging with Duquesnoy in 1626, Poussin learnt a lot about modelling and frequently used wax figures when live models or classical sculptures were unavailable. Later in his career, Poussin modelled entire scenes from wax, placing the figures in a grande machine, a large box that resembled a toy theatre. Holes in the box allowed Poussin to control the lighting, which helped him choreograph his painted outcome.
Unfortunately, none of Poussin’s wax models survive, but the National Gallery commissioned modern reproductions for the exhibition. These examples demonstrate how Poussin studied the movement of the body, proportions and the effects of lighting. Other artists also used this technique, but historical evidence suggests Poussin was devoted to using wax figures more than anyone else.
Evidence of Poussin’s studies of wax models and Borghese sculptures are in his preparatory sketches for many of his paintings. Several of Poussin’s paintings feature dancing figures, such as The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4), which depicts an Old Testament scene. The Israelites are dancing around and worshipping the golden calf made by Aaron in chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. Moses went up Mount Sinai, and the people feared he would not return, so Aaron made them a new idol to worship. In the distance, a furious Moses smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments he has just received from God.
The Adoration of the Golden Calf was one of two paintings commissioned by the Marchese di Voghera of Turin. The other painting, The Crossing of the Red Sea, was separated from its pair in 1945 when it was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The National Gallery in London bought the Golden Calf for £10,000 and it has remained in the collection ever since.
Another example of Poussin’s study of classical sculpture and wax figures is A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-3), which the National Gallery purchased in 1826. The term is a carved bust of a bearded and horned man around which wild men and women dance. Dancing revellers were often depicted in classical art concerning the rites of Bacchus, the god of wine. Poussin was familiar with the ancient Roman symbols for the god and festivals, including grapes and dancing.
Poussin’s painting can almost be read from left to right, as though a sculpted frieze. On the left, a woman squeezes juice from a bunch of grapes into a small dish held by a putto, and on the right, a woman has stumbled, presumably intoxicated with wine. A lustful satyr draws the woman into an embrace. Whilst these figures resemble classical art, the landscape contains similarities to other artists Poussin admired, such as Titian (1488-1576) and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516).
As Poussin’s reputation grew, he gained patrons and admirers, including from his home country, France. One of his most prestigious clients, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), worked for Louis XIII (1601-43), who was one of the most powerful people in Europe. In 1635, Richelieu commissioned Poussin to paint three Triumphs: The Triumph of Pan, The Triumph of Bacchus and The Triumph of Silenus. Several preparatory drawings exist for The Triumph of Pan, which reveal Poussin experimented with different poses, presumably manipulating wax models until happy with the composition. Many of his figures also resemble characters on The Borghese Vase.
Although titled The Triumph of Pan, there is some discussion whether the red-faced statue represents Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and herdsmen, or Priapus, the god of gardens. The shepherd’s crook and musical pipes attributed to Pan are in the foreground, but the statue wears a floral garland and exposes its genitalia, which usually symbolise Priapus. Nevertheless, both gods were followers of Bacchus, and the painting depicts a traditional Bacchanalian festival.
The muscular figures and draped garments recall ancient statues and the frieze-like arrangement make the scene look like actors on a stage. The painting is similar to the work of Renaissance artists studied by Poussin, particularly the tranquil landscape and distant mountains that may represent Pan’s native land of Arcadia.
Of Poussin’s surviving sketches, his preparatory drawing for The Triumph of Pan is his most detailed. Unlike other sketches that reveal the bare bones of the final painting, Poussin tried out the full effect of the composition with the figures in their final positions. There are a few minor differences between the sketch and the painting. The proportions of the artwork also changed, forcing Poussin to compress the group into a tighter huddle.
Whereas the figures dance around a statue in The Triumph of Pan, the rowdy revellers form part of a procession in The Triumph of Bacchus. Half-human-half-horse creatures called centaurs pull Bacchus’ chariot as he makes his way back to Rome after his triumphant victory in India, where he successfully taught the people of Asia how to cultivate the vine and make wine.
Poussin conveyed as much dynamic movement as possible in The Triumph of Bacchus with rearing centaurs, dancing women and other mythological characters playing instruments. Amongst the figures is Pan playing his pipes, and the muscular Hercules. In the background, Apollo, the sun god, drives the sun across the sky. In the bottom right corner, a river god lounges on the ground, watching the procession. He is a representation of India and the River Indus.
With one leg slung over a tiger, the naked Silenus partakes in a drunken celebration in Poussin’s The Triumph of Silenus. Silenus, the old god of wine-making and drunkenness, was the foster-father of Bacchus. Silenus was once captured by King Midas, but instead of being used as a slave, Midas treated the old man with hospitality. Bacchus rewarded the king by granting him the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Poussin depicted Silenus as described in Greek and Roman myths: bald and naked.
Many of the dancers are naked or in the process of removing their clothes. Their muscular bodies are similar to those of Greek statues, and the setting is similar to works by Titian. Parts of the scene, such as the wreath lowered onto Silenus’ head, are mentioned in the Eclogues, a series of poems by Latin poet Virgil (70-90 BCE).
The highlight and final artwork in the National Gallery exhibition is Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time (1634). It is on loan from the Wallace Collection for the first time and is Poussin’s most celebrated dance scene. It was commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), who later became Pope Clement IX. Rospigliosi requested a painting containing four dancers representing Poverty, Labour, Wealth and Pleasure. The four allegorical figures are dancing to the music of the lyre played by Time in the right-hand corner.
Each of the four dancers is dressed appropriately for their station in life. Poverty, the only male dancer, is barefoot and dressed in green. Labour wears a simple orange gown, whereas Wealth wears pearls in her hair and golden sandals. Finally, Pleasure wears luxurious blue silk and a floral crown. Time, on the other hand, wears nothing, revealing his elderly but muscular body. Beside him, a putto holds an hourglass, and on the other side of the painting, another putto blows bubbles, representing the fleeting nature of life.
As well as the figures in the foreground, Poussin includes mythological characters in the sky, including the sun god Apollo. Before Apollo’s carriage flies the goddess Dawn, and behind the carriage are the Hours or Horae, who represent the seasons. Some interpretations of the painting mistook the four dancing figures as Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. As a result, when it was sold to Sir Richard Wallace’s (1818-90) father in 1845, it had the title La Danse des Saisons, ou l’Image de la vie humaine (The Dance of the Seasons, or the Image of Human Life).
Although A Dance to the Music of Time does not depict a Bacchanalian revel like Poussin’s other paintings of dancers, his figures still resemble those on Greek friezes and statues. His preparatory drawings look similar to his other sketches, and infrared reflectography has revealed the same style of figures under the layers of paint. Poussin tended to draw naked figures from marble sculptures then add clothing and draperies during the painting process, presumably after studying his wax models. As well as using wax, Poussin wrapped his models in silk cloth to examine the way the fabric draped over the body.
The National Gallery does not venture into Poussin’s later years, during which time he stopped painting Bacchanalian scenes in favour of religious themes. In December 1640, he briefly returned to Paris to take up the position of First Painter to the King. He soon found himself inundated with commissions, which he struggled to complete. Poussin preferred to paint slowly and carefully, so he found life in the royal court overwhelming. In 1642, he returned to Rome.
With fewer patrons, Poussin lived a comfortable life, working at his preferred pace. French painter Charles Le Brun (1619-90) joined Poussin in his study for three years, learning and adapting Poussin’s style. In 1650, Poussin’s health began to decline, and his drawings suggest he had a tremor in his hand. Nevertheless, Poussin continued painting, returning to mythological themes. He continued working until 1664, the same year his wife died. The following year, on 19th November, Poussin passed away and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome.
The exhibition Poussin and the Dance focuses on Poussin’s ability to depict dancing figures, expertly demonstrating movement and revelry. Today, cameras allow artists and photographers to capture physical actions, but artists during the 17th century did not have access to futuristic technology. Studying sculptures, friezes and wax models was Poussin’s only option, and it certainly paid off. Whilst all his figures may appear to have stepped out of ancient Greek and Roman art, Poussin’s paintings are delicate, precise and beautiful.
Poussin and the Dance is open until January 2022. Standard admission tickets cost £12, but members of the National Gallery can visit for free. Tickets must be booked in advance.