The Genius of Hard Work

I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.” J.M.W. Turner

Lending his name to the Turner Prize, held annually at Tate Britain, J.M.W Turner is one of the most notable artists in British history. Galleries across the UK and further afield display Turner’s paintings, and Tate Britain devotes their Clore Gallery to a permanent exhibition of Turner’s work. Since 2020, a self-portrait of Turner has decorated British £20 notes, with a backdrop of his painting, The Fighting Temeraire. So, what makes Turner one of Britain’s most loved artists?

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in April 1775 in Covent Garden, London. He preferred to go by his middle name, William, the same name as his father, who worked as a barber and wig maker. Turner’s mother, Mary, gave birth to his little sister in 1778, who passed away shortly before her fifth birthday. Mary suffered greatly from this loss and spent time in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and Bethlem Hospital until she died in 1804.

Following his sister’s death, Turner went to live with his maternal uncle and namesake, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford. The earliest examples of Turner’s artwork were produced at this time, before being sent to Margate, Kent, in 1786. While in Margate, Turner painted scenes of the town, which his father displayed and sold in his shop for a few shillings each, boasting that his son “is going to be a painter”.

In 1789, Turner started studying with Thomas Malton (1748-1804), an English painter of topographical and architectural views. Malton specialised in views of London and taught Turner by getting him to copy examples of his work and prints of British castles and monasteries. In the same year, 14-year-old Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts, earning a place as an academic probationer the following year when he submitted a watercolour to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

During his first few years at the Academy, Turner focused on watercolours. He travelled around Britain to produce sketches of architectural buildings, particularly those in Wales and Cambridge. In 1793, he painted a watercolour of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. The painting reveals the spires of King’s College Chapel hidden behind the hall and the River Cam flowing in front. Instead of submitting this artwork to the Summer Exhibition, Turner sent in The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol, which is now lost. Yet, comments given at the time suggest older artists were impressed with Turner’s “mastery of effect”.

In 1796, Turner turned his hand to oil painting and exhibited Fishermen at Sea at the annual exhibition. The artwork depicts fishermen on a boat upon a rough sea off the coast of the Isle of Wight. On the left, the Needles, a row of jagged, chalk rocks look threatening in the gloom of the stormy sky. The cold light of the moon shines through a break in the clouds, which contrasts with the warm glow of the fishermen’s lamp. Critics commented on Turner’s ability to combine the fragility of human life with the power of nature. The painting helped establish Turner as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner gained one of his earliest patrons in 1797 at the age of 22. Walter Ramsden Fawkes (1769-1825), a politician, invited Turner to visit him at Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire. Fawkes allowed Turner to explore the grounds belonging to the Hall and commissioned a series of watercolours of the area. In one painting, Turner depicted Fawkes and his companions grouse shooting on Beamsley Beacon in the Yorkshire Dales.

Around 1802, Turner travelled to Europe, visiting several countries, including France, Switzerland and Italy. While in France, Turner studied at the Louvre in Paris but also spent some time on the coast, capturing the stormy sea on canvas. He particularly enjoyed trips to Venice, where he combined two of his favourite subjects, architecture and water.

Turner did not always paint the landscape as he saw it. Instead, he imagined scenarios, such as Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps during a snowstorm, which he painted in 1812. Turner took inspiration from several places, including the Alps in Europe and a storm he witnessed while staying at Farnley Hall with his patron. Combining these elements with his imagination, Turner depicted the Carthaginian general, Hannibal (247-182 BC), leading his troops across the Alps in 218 BC. Whilst the general is not visible, the tiny silhouette of an elephant in the background represents his presence. According to the history of the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy with North African war elephants.

The stormy painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps shared parallels with the ongoing Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The conflicts began in 1803, shortly after Turner studied at the Louvre. Turner painted the scene three years before the end of the conflicts when the winning country remained uncertain. It is unusual for a British artist to depict their enemy as Hannibal, but Turner was referencing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps in 1800. After already taking power in France, Napoleon was determined to seize parts of Italy.

Not all of Turner’s European scenes contained storms and he showed an equal talent for depicting calm skies. In 1817, Turner visited Dordrecht in the Western Netherlands, where he made sketches of the harbour. The following year, Turner produced a painting based on these drawings, which he titled Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed. Known as The Dort for short, the painting depicted “a canal with numerous boats making thousands of beautiful shapes,” as John Constable (1776-1837) recalled in 1832. Constable also thought it was “the most complete work of a genius I ever saw.”

After displaying The Dort at the Royal Academy in 1818, where critics rated it “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited,” Turner sold the painting to Walter Fawkes for 500 guineas. This is the equivalent of more than £40,000 today.

Around 1820, Turner returned to Farnley Hall, where under the guidance of Walter Fawkes, he produced illustrations for the five-volume Ornithological Collection. Fawkes was a keen natural historian and animal lover, allegedly purchasing a wild zebra to live on his land. Turner’s watercolours of birds and fishes prove his capability for producing detailed, delicate studies, not only expressive landscapes.

Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) praised Turner’s natural history drawings, particularly “the grey down of the birds and the subdued iridescences of the fish”. Whilst Turner also painted animal studies later in his career, particularly of fish, this style of artwork is often left out of biographies and exhibitions about Turner. Yet, those who come across these animal pictures are struck by the differences between these paintings and Turner’s landscapes. French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), for instance, wrote enthusiastically to his son after seeing Turner’s watercolours of fish in the National Gallery.

Whilst Turner’s animal paintings are not amongst the artist’s well-known works, there is more information about them than his personal life. Turner had very few friends and spent the majority of time with his father, who worked as Turner’s studio assistant for 30 years. William Turner Senior’s death in 1829 greatly affected his son, who suffered bouts of depression. Much of Turner’s life is told through letters and accounts by other people, particularly artists at the Royal Academy, who either admired or despised him.

Turner allegedly had an affair with an older woman called Sarah Danby and fathered two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana. According to the 2014 biopic Mr. Turner, Turner refused to acknowledge and support the children. The film also revealed he spent 18 years living with the widow Sophia Caroline Booth. During this time, he went by the name “Mr Booth” to disguise his true identity.

Irrespective of his private life, Turner continued painting expressive landscapes, which became less detailed, focusing instead on colour and light. On the evening of 16th October 1834, a fire broke out at the Houses of Parliament, turning the sky dark with smoke. Thousands of people witnessed the blaze, including Turner, who felt inspired to capture the colours of the fire and sky on two canvases. Whilst the crowds stood on the other side of the River Thames, watching in horror as the fire spread rapidly throughout the building, Turner hired a boat to take him closer to the inferno, where he filled two sketchbooks with drawings from different vantage points. The watercolours on canvas are based on these sketches and were not painted en plein air.

By 1838, Turner’s reputation had spread to the continent, where King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) of France presented him with a gold snuff-box. In the same year, Turner painted one of his most famous works, The Fighting Temeraire. The watercolour shows the HMS Temeraire, one of the last ships used in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames towards Rotherhithe. Some art historians believe Turner added symbolic meaning to the composition. The famous ship appears almost ghostly in comparison to the dark tugboat, potentially symbolising the ship’s fate. When the Temeraire reached its destination, it was broken up for scrap. The setting sun may also symbolise the end of the ship’s life.

Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from sketches he made, which was Turner’s preferred approach. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, completed in 1839, is another example of this method. Turner visited Rome twice, yet spent twenty years painting views of the city. Modern Rome is the final artwork in the series, depicting a mix of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. In the foreground, Turner included an imagined group of goatherds and other modern workers, going about their work in a city rich in history.

Some of Turner’s landscapes involve events he did not witness, for example, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, yet he usually combined elements from sketches made throughout his career to produce dramatic scenes. The Slave Ship, painted in 1840, is one such example. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on depicts a scene that only those on board the ship witnessed. In 1781, a slave ship owner ordered 132 sick and dying slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could claim insurance payments. The insurance policy did not cover slaves who died of natural causes onboard the ship.

The crew on the slave ship Zong kept quiet about the incident, but the British public soon learnt of the massacre after one of the surviving slaves, Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), confided in Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade. Sharp argued with the slave-owner, accusing him of murder, but received the response, “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Whilst a judge ruled that the shipowner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence, the man got away with slaughtering innocent lives. Nonetheless, the incident inspired abolitionist movements and turned many people against slavery, including Turner.

In hindsight, Turner’s late landscapes bordered on Impressionism, an art movement that did not appear until the 1860s. Yet, Turner is never described as an impressionist, and his style drew mixed reactions from his contemporaries. When commenting on Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), one critic likened it to “soapsuds and whitewash”, greatly offending the artist. John Ruskin, on the other hand, wrote that the painting was “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas.”

To some viewers, Snow Storm is a smear of dark, grey colours, and to others, it depicts a paddle steamer caught in a snow storm. Rather than using watercolour, Turner painted with oils but tried to replicate the same style. Instead of blending colours, Turner built the scene in layers, giving the picture texture. The monochromatic colours emphasise the darkness caused by the storm, but the steamboat is almost lost amid the swirling greys.

Whilst Turner always had a distinctive style, the looser, darker, indistinct paintings of his mature period coincided with the death of painter and clergyman Edward Thomas Daniell (1804-42). Despite the age difference, Daniell and Turner became close friends after the death of Turner’s father. Acquaintances suggest that Daniell provided Turner with the spiritual comfort needed to “ease the fears of a naturally reflective man approaching old age.”

Throughout his life, Turner always refused to let anyone paint his portrait. Before Daniell embarked on a voyage to the Middle East, he persuaded Turner to sit for John Linnell (1792-1882). Turner reluctantly agreed but only stayed long enough for Linnell to observe him during a dinner party. Linnell produced the portrait from memory.

Daniell set off to tour the Middle East in 1840, aiming to capture the foreign landscapes in watercolour. During the return trip in 1842, Daniell fell ill with malaria and passed away at the age of 38. Distraught at the news, Turner declared he would never form such a friendship again.

Turner’s paintings from the 1840s may represent his grief, but they also capture the changes in Britain. Turner lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, which saw a rise in factories, machines and electricity. In 1844, he painted Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts an oncoming steam train in the countryside during a summer rainstorm. In 1838, the Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), ran its first trains. Turner captured the train travelling over Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also designed by Brunel.

Although the railway and steam train are the main focus of Rain, Steam and Speed, the hazy atmosphere almost obscures them from view. Art historians often comment that Turner was ahead of his time and among the very few painters who considered industrial advancement an appropriate subject of art. The blurred elements of the painting suggest the train is travelling at speed. It also symbolises that modern technology is advancing forwards at a rapid pace. At almost seventy years of age, Turner had seen more changes in Britain than any of his predecessors.

Not all of Turner’s later works were dark and stormy. Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845), for instance, shows an early morning view of Norham Castle from across the River Tweed. Turner visited the Northumbrian castle in 1797, where he produced a highly detailed watercolour painting. His later version of Nordham Castle is based on the original but much less refined with vague outlines of the scenery. The castle appears to be shrouded in mist, which the sunlight is fighting to shine through.

On 19th December 1851, Turner passed away from cholera while staying with Sophia Caroline Booth at her house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Royal Academician Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) took charge of Turner’s funeral arrangements after writing to friends and family “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral near Sir Joshua Reynolds, who played a large part in establishing Turner as an artist.

Turner bequeathed his finished paintings to the British nation, leaving instructions for a special gallery to house them. After 22 years of debating the location of the gallery, the British Parliament allowed Turner’s paintings to be distributed and lent to museums and galleries, thus going against Turner’s wishes. Fortunately, the art collector Henry Vaughan (1809-99) purchased over one hundred of Turner’s watercolours, which he bequeathed to British galleries instructing they should be “exhibited to the public all at one time, free of charge”.

In 1910, a large number of Turner’s paintings arrived at the Duveen Turner Wing at the National Gallery of British Art, now called Tate Britain. In 1987, the gallery constructed a new wing, known as the Clore Gallery, specifically for their collection of Turner’s work. The gallery was met with approval from The Turner Society, established in 1975, who declared that Turner’s will had finally been carried out.

The prestigious Turner Prize, established in 1984 in the artist’s honour, annually awards one controversial British artist £25,000. Whilst many critics debate whether some of the entries count as art, the artists are encouraged to change the course of art history and step away from traditional methods. Turner’s work may appear traditional today, but at the time, many found his style controversial and modern.

In 2005, the BBC conducted a poll to discover Britain’s greatest painting. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire won first place, followed by John Constable’s The Hay Wain. The Bank of England selected the same painting for the background of the first £20 British banknote printed on polymer, which came into circulation on 20th February 2020. The note also features Turner’s self-portrait from 1799.

Whilst Tate Britain boasts the largest collection of Turner’s work, his paintings and drawings belong to galleries throughout the world. In London, the British Museum holds several watercolours, and the National Gallery displays Rain, Steam, and Speed and The Fighting Temeraire amongst others.


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The Finest of the Fine

Although closed due to the coronavirus, The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham has uploaded many images of their artworks online for people to browse online. Known as the North’s Museum of Art, Fashion and Design, the museum is a hidden treasure in the market town of Barnard Castle in the heart of Teesdale. It was established by John (1811-85) and Joséphine Bowes (née Coffin-Chevallier, 1825-74) who wanted to create a world-class museum in order to introduce art to the local people of Teesdale. Unfortunately, both John and Joséphine died before the museum’s completion, however, the Trustee’s continued their dream and The Bowes Museum was opened on 10th June 1892.

Today, the museum contains a vast collection of important and precious works from across Europe. Teaming up with Google Arts and Culture, The Bowes Museum has put together several online collections, including their top twenty-five fine art paintings in the museum. Fine art is a type of art that has been produced primarily for aesthetics or beauty. It is not produced for a purpose, like decorative art, graphic art, pottery and so forth, but rather allows the artist the full expression of their imagination.

The Tears of St Peter – El Greco (1541–1614)

El Greco, 1541-1614; The Tears of St Peter

The Tears of St Peter – El Greco (1541–1614)

The first painting on The Bowes Museum’s list is The Tears of St Peter by the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, most widely known as El Greco. His nickname, El Greco, which means “The Greek”, was given to him while working in Toledo, Spain between 1577 and his death in 1614.

El Greco had many patrons in Toledo, many of whom were Catholics, therefore, religious subjects were popular amongst his commissions. The Catholic Church was associated with making confessions of sin, which is why El Greco produced several paintings under the title The Tears of St Peter.

The version of the painting at The Bowes Museum was El Greco’s first painting on the subject, which John Bowes purchased in 1869 for 200 francs (£8). It shows Saint Peter raising his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, praying for forgiveness. Those familiar with the Gospel of Luke will know that before Jesus’ arrest, he said to Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” (Luke 22:61). Peter was adamant that he would never deny Jesus, however, within a few hours he had denied knowing Jesus three times. “So Peter went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

El Greco’s painting appears to be set after Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than the moment Saint Peter realised he had denied his Lord. In the background are an empty tomb and two figures representing Mary and an angel. This alludes to a passage in the Gospel of John, which says:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” – John 20:11-13

This was followed by Jesus appearing to Mary.

The Nativity – Jacques Stella (1596-1657)

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The Nativity – Jacques Stella

There are several religious paintings at The Bowes Museum, including a painting of the Nativity by French artist Jacques Stella. Although born in France, Stella spent eighteen years in Italy where he became a close friend of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who taught Stella a lot about classicism.

Stella’s religious work, including The Nativity, were mostly produced after he had returned to France in 1634. He became the official painter of Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), although later moved into the Louvre when King Louis XIII (1601-43) made him peintre du roi. From then on, Stella produced several paintings on the theme of the childhood of Christ.

In Stella’s The Nativity, Mary and Joseph are alone with the baby Jesus, enjoying a moment of delight at the birth of Christ. The parents will not be alone for long because, in the background, an angel is announcing the birth to the shepherds. In the foreground, pieces of broken masonry represent the end of pagan religion.

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines (active 1483-90)

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, active c.1480-1500; Crucifixion

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines

Paintings of the Nativity have always been popular, as have paintings of the crucifixion. This version of the crucifixion was painted by a nameless man who is referred to as Master of the Virgo inter Virgines in reference to an altarpiece he produced for a convent in Konigsveld, Bavaria.

In this image, Christ is shown nailed to the cross in between the two thieves. The crowds below tell the different aspects of the story. A soldier is holding up a sponge soaked with vinegar whilst the Virgin Mary weeps in the corner, surrounded by St. John and five women. In the background is Judas, who has hanged himself in remorse for his betrayal of Jesus and, on the right, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wait with other men to take Christ’s body from the cross for burial.

The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

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The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano

The Triumph of Judith is just one of many studies Italian artist Luca Giordano produced in preparation for his final decorative masterpiece of the same name on the ceiling of the Treasure Chapel of the Carthusian S Martino in Naples. Known as Luca fa presto (Luca paints quickly) he completed numerous religious paintings in his lifetime.

This particular painting depicts the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who had been dispatched by Nebuchadnezzar to take vengeance on the cities that refused to assist his empire. As a result, Holofernes planned to destroy the city of Bethulia, the home of Judith, a Jewish widow. Judith tricked her way into Holofernes camp, promising him information about the Israelites, however, when Holofernes was lying in his tent one night in a drunken stupor, Judith seized her chance and decapitated him. Without their leader, the Assyrian army dispersed and the city of Bethulia was saved.

Artists have depicted Judith’s triumph in many different ways. In some, she appears innocent and secretive and in others, a temptress and schemer. Giordano, on the other hand, painted Judith holding Holofernes’ head aloft like a warrior, whilst the Assyrian men flee in fright.

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574)

van Heemskerck, Maerten, 1498-1574; An Allegory of Innocence and Guile

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck

Maerten van Heemskerck was a Dutch painter who specialised in portraits and religious scenes. Occasionally, the two genres overlapped, as can be seen in An Allegory of Innocence and Guile. It is uncertain who the woman is but the meaning of the painting is taken from a verse in the Bible.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16

It is not certain when the painting was produced but it is likely to have been after Heemskerck had set off for his Grand Tour of Italy in 1532. Inspired by the Italian style of art, this painting depicts a pale, richly dressed woman holding a snake with a dove flying above her right hand. Since the painting is a personification of the biblical verse, she is nameless. This type of subject was often commissioned for public buildings to remind people of the high standards expected of the people who worked there: wealthy and pious.

A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta (1392-1450)

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A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta

Italian painter Sassetta, also known as Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, was a deeply pious man, therefore, the majority, if not all, of his works depicted religious scenes. A Miracle of the Eucharist is not based on a biblical passage but is meant to tell a story about a young Carmelite monk.

This painting was one of a sequence of paintings that followed the life of the unfortunate young monk. In this scene, set in the interior of a 15th-century church, the monk has been struck dead at the altar whilst the other monks and congregation look on in horror. At that time, the church taught that only true believers could accept the communion bread and wine; evidently, the monk was not a true believer.

Not only has the monk died, but his white cloak has turned black and a small, winged version of the devil is snatching the monk’s soul from his mouth. The plate held by the officiating priest is full of blood, which is a reference to the Miracle of Bolsena where a communion bread allegedly began to bleed onto a corporal. The painting, and the others in the series, were intended as a teaching tool to warn the congregation of the “consequences of sinfulness, the perils of feigning faith and the power of God.” (Andrew Graham-Dixon, 1997)

Reading Lesson in a Convent – François Marius Granet (1775-1849)

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Reading lesson in a convent – François Marius Granet

French artist, François Marius Granet, spent the years 1802-1819 in Rome where he studied at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. Granet and his fellow students were provided with a studio in the convent of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti church next-door to the academy. It is here that Reading Lesson in a Convent is set.

The painting shows a young girl reading to an elderly nun while a younger nun, possibly the girl’s tutor, sits beside them. Granet, who was known for the atmospherical portrayal of light, uses the light from the window to create an ethereal effect, drawing attention to the girl, nuns and the crucifix on the wall behind them. In contrast, the rest of the convent appears to be in darkness.

Santissima Trinità dei Monti had a predominantly French congregation, hence its connection with the French Academy. French soldiers had been stationed in the convent since Rome surrendered to the French revolutionary army in 1798. Unfortunately, the troops, followed by the arrival of artists, caused parts of the convent to be neglected and in need of repair. After Napoleon’s (1769-1821) fall from power in 1815, the new king, Louis XVIII (1755-24) restored the church and convent and named Granet Chevalier de l’Ordre St Michel and Conservateur des tableaux de Versailles.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani (1656-1764)

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Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani.

Amongst the portraits at The Bowes Museum is Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni by the Italian painter Francesco Trevisani. Ottoboni, who was the grand-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII (1610-91), became a cardinal in 1689. He was also one of the most important patrons of the arts in Rome at the beginning of the 18th century. Amongst the painters the cardinal supported was Trevisani, who painted the flattering portrait of Ottoboni dressed in richly coloured cardinal robes.

Others Ottoboni supported included the violinist Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), who he introduced to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the violinist and composer, was also a favourite, as was the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). Ottoboni regularly wrote librettos for oratorios, such as Scarlatti’s La Giuditta, and the paper the cardinal holds in his portrait may be a reference to this.

Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

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Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck

This portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter (d.1633) was once mistaken as a representation of Queen Henrietta (1606-69), the wife of Charles I (1600-49). As it turned out, it is a portrait of Henrietta’s lady in waiting and niece of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628).

Anthony van Dyck was commissioned to paint this portrait by Olivia’s husband, Endymion Porter (1587-1649), who was the artist’s patron and close friend. Porter commissioned several portraits from Van Dyck, who was living in England at the time. It is estimated that Van Dyck also produced around forty portraits of the king during this time.

Olivia Boteler Porter wears a white satin dress with long puffed sleeves, which was considered a timeless garment during the early 17th century. The red carnation in her hair may have been added to the painting as a heraldic motif since the flower also appears in portraits of other female members of the Villiers family. Olivia’s mother was the half-sister of the Duke of Buckingham. Her father, Sir John Boteler (1566-1637), was an English politician and member of the House of Commons.

Self-Portrait – François-Saint Bonvin (1817-87)

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Self Portrait – Francois-Saint Bonvin

François-Saint Bonvin was a realist painter born in the poor region of Paris to a seamstress and a policeman. His mother died when he was young and his father married again. Bonvin’s step-mother, however, abused and starved him. To keep out of her way, Bonvin began to draw, finally escaping the abuse when a family friend paid for him to receive drawing instruction at a Parisian school.

Bonvin met François Marius Granet, who painted Reading Lesson in a Convent (see above), in 1847, around the same time he painted his self-portrait. The brushwork and dramatic light are similar to Gustave Courbet (1819-77), another artist and friend of Bonvin. Courbet had already painted a portrait of Bonvin and Bonvin was likely trying to replicate the same technique.

In 1850, Bonvin won recognition as a leading realist artist at the Paris Salon, which encouraged him to give up his day job as a policeman to pursue a career in art. Unfortunately, an illness he had contracted in the police force troubled him for the rest of his life. In 1881, he underwent an operation in an attempt to alleviate some of his problems, however, it did not work and he became blind.

The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic – Canaletto (1697-1768)

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The Bucintoro returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic – Canaletto

The Bowes Museum owns plenty of landscapes, most notably The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic by Giovanni Antonio Canal, also known as Canaletto. This is one of Canaletto’s largest works, which shows the Doge’s state vessel, the Bucintoro, returning to Venice after the festivities on Ascension Day.

Each year on the Festa della Sensa (Ascension Day) the Doge set out on his barge to the Adriatic Sea to perform the “Marriage of the Sea”. This involved tossing a wedding ring into the sea followed by the words “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii.” (“We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination”). This ceremony symbolised the maritime dominion of Venice, which lasted from around 1000 AD to 1798 when Napoleon conquered Venice.

Canaletto captured the festivities of the day with dozens of boats on the water, market stalls on the Piazzetta, and hundreds of people celebrating on land and water. The Bucintoro, which has just reached the quayside, was built in 1724 but was later destroyed by the French.

Gibside from the North – Turner (1775-1851)

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Gibside from the North – Turner

Artists from the continent may dominate the list of top fine-art paintings, however, there are a couple of British artists in The Bowes Museum, including Joseph Mallord William Turner. The museum owns four watercolours by Turner, including two that depict the Gibside Estate.

Gibside in the Derwent Valley, now owned by the National Trust, was once the home of Scottish nobleman John Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1769-1820), an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926). John Bowes commissioned Turner to produce paintings of the estate from different compass points. Gibside from the North puts Gibside House in the centre and, in the distance, the Column to Liberty can be seen upon a hill.

The Column to Liberty was commissioned by George Bowes (1701-60) who inherited the estate in 1721. His instruction to a local architect was to erect a 141 ft column that could be seen for miles. Bowes wanted people to know he was a very important man as both a coal baron and a Whig politician. On top of the column stands a Statue of Liberty holding the Staff of Maintenance and Cap of Liberty.

Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

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Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin

Friend and adversary of Turner, Thomas Girtin was regarded as one of the best British landscape artists of the period. Before his marriage to Mary Ann Borrett in 1800, Girtin went on several sketching tours of north England, including the historic market town Barnard Castle where The Bowes Museum was later founded.

Situated on the River Tees is the remains of a castle from which the town gets its name. Named after its 12th-century founder, Barnard de Balliol (d.1154), the castle was developed by Richard III (1452-85) whose boar emblem can still be seen above one of the windows. By the time Girtin painted the castle, it was in ruins. In the foreground, Girtin has included a man fishing. Turner also painted scenes of Barnard Castle and it is said Charles Dickens (1821-70) visited the area in 1838 to research his novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Dutch men-of-war at anchor – Simon de Vlieger (1601–53)

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Maritime landscapes were once popular and were one of the main outcomes of Dutch painter Simon de Vlieger. Considered to be one of the best-known Dutch maritime painters, de Vlieger painted ships in harbours and at sea as well as storms and the resulting shipwrecks.

The ship in Dutch Men of War at Anchor has been identified as Admiral Maarten Tromp’s (1598-1653) flagship Amelia. Tromp originally served with the Dutch Navy but later moved to the Royal Danish Navy as admiral. De Vlieger regularly painted Amelia, even after she ceased to exist, so it is uncertain if this painting was produced from life or memory. It is likely to have been painted towards the end of De Vlieger’s career, having moved away from the monotonal paintings that were popular at the time to a more realistic use of colour.

Beach Scene at low tide – Eugène Louis Boudin (1824-98)

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Beach Scene at Low Tide – Eugène Boudin

Bodies of water have fascinated artists for centuries, particularly the play of light on the reflective surface and movement of ripples and tides. They are also a great location for observing human activities, such as in Eugène Boudin’s Beach Scene at Low Tide.

Boudin is considered to be one of the forerunners of Impressionism and Claude Monet (1840-1926) looked up to him as his first master. Nicknamed “King of the skies”, Boudin was, by trade, a marine painter, painting everything from ships on the sea to life on the beaches. It is not certain where Beach Scene at Low Tide was painted, however, it is likely to be one of Boudin’s favourite resorts in either Trouville, Deauville or Normandy. As well as the French coastline, Boudin details the clothing of the urban tourists. The style of dress suggests they are members of the aristocracy and the rapid brushstrokes hints at a windy day.

Landscape with figures and goat – Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli (1824-86)

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Landscape with figures and goats, Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli

Adolphe Monticelli, like Boudin, was a French painter who preceded the Impressionists. Originally trained to work in a neoclassical style in Marseille, he adopted a new style when he moved to Paris in 1846. He began to work with bold colours and thickly applied paint, which inspired the young Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who he met in the 1860s. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) was also an admirer of his work.

Landscape with figures and goat is painted from an upward perspective to convey the steepness of the hill upon which four goats are grazing. Three figures in the background, one female and two male, are likely to be goat herders from the style of their clothing. The thickly applied paint creates a sense of movement and the brightness of the colours suggests it was a hot, sunny day.

Mowers – Charles-Émile Jacque (1813-94)

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Mowers, Charles-Emile Jacque

Charles Jacque was primarily a painter of animals and member of the Barbizon School, who were part of a movement towards Realism in art. Barbizon was a commune in North France surrounded by rustic and pastoral landscapes, which were the inspiration for many of Jacque’s paintings.

Mowers, which is considerably brighter than the majority of Jacque’s work, is a small painting of peasants at work in the field. Apart from a couple of birds in the sky, there are none of Jacque’s characteristic animals. The brightness of the green grass and blue sky create a pleasant atmosphere, however, the peasant’s laborious tasks do not go unnoticed. Each figure is wearing a hat to protect them from the sun, suggesting it is hot and tiring working in the heat of the day.

After the Thunderstorm – Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822)

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After the Thunderstorm – Achille-Etna Michallon

Achille Etna Michallon was a French landscape painter with a difference. Inspired by works in Italy, Michallon did not have time to fully form his style since he died at the age of 25 from pneumonia, however, he did have an interesting choice of subject matter: trees that had been struck by lightning.

After the Thunderstorm depicts a wooded landscape, lit by the sun that shines through the abating storm clouds. On the left stands a tree that was struck by lightning during the recent storm. Yet, Michallon did not leave the image there; he included three male peasants discovering the body of a woman who, like the tree, had also been struck by lightning. There is no indication of who the unfortunate woman was or whether the scene was based on imagination, a story, or something the artist had once witnessed.

Prison Interior – Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Prison Interior – Goya

When John and Joséphine Bowes were sourcing artworks for their museum, they made several purchases from the collection of the deceased politician Conde de Quinto (d.1860). One of these purchases was Francisco Goya’s Prison Interior, which has become one of the museum’s best-known pieces. The Spanish artist painted this not long before he became the leading painter of his age.

Having experienced the Peninsular War fought by Spain and Portugal, Goya’s paintings tended to be macabre and morbid. Often Goya was attempting to make a political point, in this case, the ill-treatment of men in prison. Prison Interior does not depict a prison as they are known today but rather a lunatic asylum. At the time, there were no psychiatric hospitals, instead, there were “small dumps into which the psychotic could be thrown without the smallest attempt to discover, classify, or treat the nature of their illness.” Goya often worried about his mental health, which may be why he was passionate about changing the way patients were treated.

The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70)

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The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio

During the Mannerist and Renaissance eras, mythological subjects were popular amongst art collectors. Francesco Primaticcio was an Italian Mannerist who worked at the French Court of Fontainebleau for King Francois I (1494-1547).

A famous story, which Primatticcio depicted in The Rape of Helen, was the abduction of Helen of Sparta and the subsequent war, as recorded in Homer’s Iliad and other ancient literature. Paris, a Trojan prince, was promised Helen as a bribe by the goddess Aphrodite. Helen, however, was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Many sources claim Helen went with Paris on her own accord, however, as Primatticcio depicts, others suggest she was abducted by force and subsequently raped.

Mercury and Argus – Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819)

de Valenciennes, Pierre Henri, 1750-1819; Mercury and Argus

Mercury and Argus – Pierre Henri de Valenciennes

Another popular mythological story amongst artists, particularly landscape painters, was the myth of Mercury and Argus. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who was an influential open-air painter, chose this story for its setting in the sacred grove of Mycenae.

The king of the gods, Jupiter, had a habit of lusting over women despite being married. His jealous wife, Juno, often intervened, causing terrible things to happen to the women. In this story, she turned the beautiful girl Io into a cow and instructed Argus to guard it. Argus was traditionally a beast covered with hundreds of eyes, however, De Valenciennes depicted him as a shepherd. Zeus sent the god Mercury to steal the cow, which involved lulling Argus to sleep with pipe music. In another version of the story, Mercury kills Argus. Juno, upset at the loss of her servant, took the eyes of Argus and put them on the tail of a peacock so that he would be remembered forever.

The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)

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The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was an Italian Rococo painter who was commissioned by Carlo Archinto (1669-1732) to paint the ceiling of his palace in Milan. The Bowes Museum owns an oil sketch of a section of the ceiling, which shows part of the story of Phaethon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Phaethon was the son of Helios whose job it was to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. Phaethon begged his father to let him have a go at riding the chariot, however, he lost control and flew too near to the ground, scorching forests, creating deserts and turning men black. Zeus eventually put an end to the disaster by throwing his thunderbolt at Phaethon, killing him instantly.

This painting by Tiepolo shows the moment Phaethon has decided to drive the chariot, whilst his father tries to dissuade him. In the background are the marble columns of a palace belonging to Apollo, the Olympian god of the sun.

Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904)

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Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour

Amongst The Bowes Museum’s top twenty-five paintings are three still-life scenes, including Fruit and Flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour. This is a fresh-looking image with bright flowers and ripe fruit. It is meant to appear casual, as though the basket has just been tipped over, however, it was probably carefully arranged by the artist.

Born Ignace Henri Jean Théodore Fantin-Latour in Grenoble, he initially learnt to draw from his father who was also an artist. Despite having friends who would go on to be associated with Impressionism, such as Whistler (1843-1903) and Manet (1832-83), Fantin-Latour preferred a more conservative style. Fantin-Latour’s paintings were practically unknown in France during his lifetime because the majority of them were taken to England by Whistler to be sold.

Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647)

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Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck

Jacob van Hulsdonck, an artist from Antwerp, played a role in the development of still lifes of fruit, banquets and flowers. There are roughly 100 paintings attributed to him in which he captures the colour and texture of his subjects.

Breakfast Piece depicts a partially eaten breakfast of bread, meat, fish and cherries. Van Hulsdonck expertly portrays the folds in the table cloth, the patterns on the china and even crumbs on the edge of some plates. This painting is worthy of note because it is the earliest painting that shows Chinese porcelain being used in a meal. It had only just been imported by the Dutch East India Company at the time the painting was produced.

Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries – Blas de Ledesma (1556-98)

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Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries – Blas de Ledesma

Blas de Ledesma is a fairly unknown artist. He is thought to have worked in Granada and designed a fresco for the Alhambra. More than one still-life has been identified as his, suggesting Ledesma prefered this genre of painting.

The title, Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries, sums up what can be seen in the painting. The woven basket in the centre was a common feature in the still-lifes attributed to Ledesma. The fruit and vegetables are arranged almost symmetrically, with geometric precision, which makes the basket appear to be floating slightly above the table. Nonetheless, all the objects are realistically detailed, particularly the lemons, which, at a glance, appear photographic.

These twenty-five paintings are not only the best in The Bowes Museum but they also demonstrate the wide scope that the term “fine art” covers. As a result, it is difficult to give a precise definition of the term. It encompasses religious paintings, mythological scenes, portraits, landscapes and still life. There is no particular style; realism, renaissance, mannerism, impressionism, rococo and so forth all fall under the fine art umbrella.

There are so many examples of fine art in existence that it is impossible to list the best. The Bowes Museum have only looked at the paintings in their collection and the results of the top twenty-five are a matter of personal opinion. The museum has also listed their top ceramics, furniture, silver, fashion and textiles, and archaeology.

The Bowes Museum is usually open from 10 am to 5 pm every day. An adult ticket at £14 provides unlimited access for a year.

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Following the Stars

Stars, very large balls of bright glowing light that appear tiny when viewed from earth, have fascinated humans for millenniums. An online exhibition provided by the National Gallery takes a look at the ways stars are portrayed in art. Star Trail traces the stars from one painting to another in the National Gallery Collection, pointing out the stars illuminating the night sky but also revealing them in less obvious places.

As well as being natural phenomena, stars hold meanings for different cultures, religions, mythologies and individuals. For some, a star is a sign from God, for example, the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. In Judaism, the six-pointed Star of David is an important symbol and a similar star is found in Hinduism.

A star’s meaning can alter depending on whether it is static or moving. Shooting stars are often symbolic, the most common being the opportunity to make a wish. Once again, different cultures have various ways of interpreting these so-called miracles (meteors to the scientifically minded). For some, a shooting star is a sign that you are close to your destiny but in Asia, they are considered a bad omen. For the Greeks, these stars symbolise the raising or lowering of human spirits, whereas, in some branches of Christianity and Judaism, they are believed to be falling angels.

Typically, stars carry positive meanings. They often represent hope, faith and new beginnings and artists throughout time have depicted them as objects of wonder. Just as there are hundreds of meanings, there are several ways of drawing and painting stars to signify their importance.

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319), the Tuscan painter, chose to use real gold to represent stars and heaven in the altarpiece The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea. This portable altarpiece may have been commissioned by Cardinal Niccolò da Prato (d.1321), who was both a Dominican Friar and the Cardinal of Ostia. This would explain the saints on the wings of the triptych: Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea of Ostia.

In the tympanum above the central panel are seven figures who have been identified as Old Testament prophets: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. They stand above a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, which is where Duccio has placed two stars; one on Mary’s shoulder and the other on the hood of her shawl. Duccio mixed gold leaf into his paint to draw these stars on top of the rich, blue egg tempera. The background of the entire wooden altarpiece was also painted in gold to represent the importance of heaven.

The famous English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) took a completely different approach to depict stars. The evening star is barely visible in Turner’s painting of the same name. It is the merest speck of yellow paint towards the top of the canvas. If it were not for the reflection of the star’s light in the sea, the star would go unnoticed.

The evening star is an incorrect term because, whilst it may take on the appearance of a star, it is actually sunlight reflecting off another planet, usually Venus, although Mercury, Mars and Jupiter can also cause this phenomenon. Turner was particularly interested in transitional moments such as the evening and morning star, which are the same “star” but appear at different times depending on Earth’s proximity to the sun.

The Evening Star was painted at dusk rather than night because, once the moon had risen, the star would no longer be the brightest thing in the sky. As can be inferred from Turner’s painting, the star is barely discernible in the early evening, therefore, it would be almost impossible to see in the competing glow of the moon.

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

Studying the night sky, or stargazing has been a popular pastime for centuries. Long before humans understood what they were seeing, astronomers, astrologers and scientists were producing maps of the night sky, pinpointing the individual stars they spotted, first with the naked eye and later with a telescope. It was through these studies that the Earth was eventually proved to be round rather than flat plus not the centre of the universe as previously thought.

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As well as maps, astronomers produced globes showing the stars that could be seen from Earth at different times of the day. One of these celestial globes can be seen in Hans Holbein the Younger‘s (1497-1543) painting The Ambassadors. Similar to Duccio’s painting, the stars appear to be painted in gold paint, making them stand out from the blue background of the globe.

The painting, produced during the same year that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born is a double portrait of two men. The identity of the men has been under debate for centuries but the most accepted identification of the man on the left is Jean de Dinteville (1504-55), a French diplomat. He may also be the person who commissioned the painting, particularly as he appears to be the grander of the two men. De Dinteville’s motto was Memento mori, meaning “Remember thou shalt die,” and there are several references to death in the painting. One is the anomorphistic skull at the bottom of the painting, which must be viewed from the side to be seen properly. Another is the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner.

The man on the right is believed to be Georges de Selve (1508-41). He would have been 25 when he sat for the painting and had just been appointed Bishop of Lavau in France. This explains his clergyman vestments and the other religious symbols in the painting, including the crucifix and Lutheran hymnal.

There is no written evidence that De Dinteville and De Selve were interested in the stars, however, the objects in the painting suggest they were involved with science. As well as a celestial globe there is a terrestrial globe, a sundial, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant for measuring angles, and a medieval astronomical instrument known as a torquetum. It is possible De Dinteville and De Selve, or their associates, were among some of the earliest people to discover scientific truths about the universe.

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

Before humans understood the science behind the stars, they often featured in myths and legends. In Greek and Roman mythology, constellations were often linked to particular gods or goddesses, as were the planets.

The constellation Corona Borealis features in the top left-hand corner of an oil painting by Titian (1488-1576). Bacchus and Ariadne was produced for Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1476-1534) and is considered to be one of Titian’s greatest works.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. The Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) discovered Ariadne on the island whilst leading a procession of partygoers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. In the painting, Bacchus is either in mid-leap from the chariot to save Ariadne, or Bacchus has just thrown Ariadne’s crown into the sky where it transforms into the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown.

There is more than one story that explains the Northern Crown constellation. The first, which is presumably being shown in Titian’s painting, is that Bacchus throws the crown into the sky. The other, claims Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and promised her the whole sky. He then raised her into the heavens where she became the constellation.

The Corona Borealis is one of many constellations that can be found in mythology. Others include Andromeda, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, Orion and Pegasus.

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

As well as the individual stars and constellations, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a story to explain the existence of the Milky Way.

The story, which is shown in The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94), involves Jupiter’s desire for his son Hercules to be immortalised. Hercules was the son of Alcmene, a mortal, therefore he could never be fully immortal unless he had been nursed by a goddess. Jupiter’s wife Juno refused to nurse a child that was not hers, especially the son of her unfaithful husband, however, whilst she was asleep, Jupiter held Hercules up to Juno’s breast so that he could drink her milk. At that moment, Juno awoke and milk spurted upwards into the sky, forming the Milky Way. The milk droplets that fell to earth became white lilies.

Instead of depicting milk, Tintoretto represented the beginnings of the Milky Way with ten shooting stars. The original painting also showed lilies forming on the ground, however, about a third of the canvas was cut off at the beginning of the 18th century.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

Of all the different genres of paintings, the one where you are guaranteed to find stars or at least a star are scenes of the Nativity. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men or magi followed a star from the East, which led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem. Paintings of this nature are often called The Adoration of the Kings or The Adoration of the Magi.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was one of many artists to depict this biblical scene. Mary, dressed in blue, sits with the Christ-child in the ruins of a building, receiving a gift from one of the “kings”. The Bible never mentioned the visitors were kings and nor did they have names. Art historians, however, have given this figure the traditional name Caspar. Melchior stands to the right of Caspar and Balthazar to the left. Alongside the “kings” are several exotically dressed attendants and more can be seen approaching in the distance.

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Floating above the scene are angels and right at the top, slightly dwarfed by everything else in the painting, is the Star of Bethlehem. The entire composition was painted on oak panels that when pieced together measured 177.2 cm (69.8 in) by 161.8 cm (63.7 in), and the star does not take up much space at all. Nonetheless, when studied closely, Gossaert’s precise brushstrokes and painstaking detail emphasise the importance of this star. Most likely painted in lead-tin-yellow, the star lights up the sky around it, appearing to push the surrounding clouds away so that it can shine over the Christ-child.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

The star is much more prominent in the Baroque painter, Carlo Dolci’s (1616-86) version of the subject. This highly finished picture contains fewer people than Gossaert included, keeping the focus on the three “kings” in opulent robes as they kneel before Mary and the Christ-child. Although their gifts look important and expensive, they are executed in paint, whereas the haloes over Mary and Joseph and the light surrounding Jesus’ head was painted in gold.

Although the figures and their robes were painted in rich colours, the Star of Bethlehem outshines them all. The star’s light bursts forth from the clouds above, making it the brightest part of the painting. When looking at the composition as a whole, the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the star, which some see as a symbol of God looking down on his precious son.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

In contrast to the previous two paintings, Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) version contains a less obvious star, fading in the light of the daytime sky. Probably due to the star mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, artists tended to portray the visit of the magi at night rather than during the day.

Another difference between Lippi’s version and the traditional version is the landscape. The Holy Family sit in the ruins of a building in a rocky landscape. They have very little shelter and there appear to be no other establishments nearby. As well as the “kings” and their retinue, there are several saints hidden in the background. These have been identified as Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine. There is also a representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

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The way Lippi chose to portray the star is very different from the previous two examples. To begin with, it appears much lower in the sky, floating above the Holy Family. Rather than a solid or compact star, it resembles a firework. Lines of golden light appear to be shooting in all directions, some landing within touching distance of the figures below. Yet, this slightly faded star does not make it seem less important than other versions. The explosion of light beams emphasises God’s magnificent power that, although it is not easy to see in the daylight, is always there.

Lippi’s painting was the last to feature in the National Gallery’s Star Trail. The handful of paintings they looked at revealed that stars have been important in science, mythology and religion. Of course, there are so many more examples of stars in the National Gallery and other locations. Each artwork demonstrates one method of representing stars. Some artists opt for a five-pointed star, whereas others choose a greater number. Alternatively, a star can be represented by a ball of light or the smallest of dots, as Turner chose.

Vincent van Gogh‘s (1853-90) Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhône are perfect examples of alternative ways to paint stars. As an impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s stars are less precise with no clear outlines. They are made from swirls or dabs of yellow paint and yet, everyone knows they are stars.

The National Gallery’s online exhibition Star Trail provides a new and interesting way of looking at art. Sometimes a painting has so much going on that it is impossible to appreciate every detail. Also, when walking around a crowded gallery, it is not always possible to pay the artworks the attention they deserve. Looking for stars, or any other object, helps people to understand the artwork and the artist. By first studying how the star is depicted, it is then possible to step back and admire how it interacts with the rest of the scene.

Challenge: next time you visit a gallery, look out for stars in paintings. Until then, enjoy looking at them online.

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The Power of Seeing

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The name John Ruskin may be familiar to many people, however, how many can accurately say who he was, what he did and why he is important in today’s art world? In a recent exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated with a collection of 200 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, plaster casts and so forth that demonstrated Ruskin’s stance on aesthetics, culture and society. Regarded today as one of the greatest Victorian artists, critics, educators and social thinkers who devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, the exhibition briefly delved into the mind of a polymath whose influence is still felt today.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the only child of sherry and wine importer John James Ruskin (1785–1864), co-founder of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, and his wife Margaret (1781–1871). From an early age, Ruskin’s parents pressed their ambitions upon him, introducing him to writers, such as Byron (1788-1824), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Walter Scott (1771-1832). Whilst John Ruskin Senior was focused on intellectual knowledge, his mother, an Evangelical Christian, pressed the Bible upon her son, teaching him to repeatedly read it from beginning to end and learn lengthy passages by heart. At this time, Ruskin also began to develop a passion for geology.

Described by Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, he had very few friends his own age, to begin with, as a result of being homeschooled at Herne Hill, in Camberwell, South London, although, he later spent a year at a school in Peckham. It was not his education, however, that set his path for the future. When he was thirteen, Ruskin was given a book-length poem illustrated by the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which sparked an interest in both art and poetry.

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Portrait of John Ruskin (1875)

Whilst studying at Oxford University, where he took up residence at Christ Church in 1837, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry and met the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Ruskin also met and became close to the future Dean of Westminster, William Buckland (1784-1856), who also had an interest in geology and palaeontology. Ruskin’s other good friends, however, were studying archaeology and medicine.

Unfortunately, Ruskin never achieved independence whilst at university because his mother was lodging nearby and his father joined him at weekends. He was also suffering from ill health and had to take a lengthy break from Oxford before returning to pass his exams with a double fourth-class degree.

Even with a degree under his belt, Ruskin was unable to escape from the clutches of his parents. From 1840 until 1842, the Ruskin family spent time abroad, mainly in Italy, where John had the opportunity to study Italian painting. After returning to England, Ruskin continued to live with his parents in Camberwell, where they were frequently visited by the likes of Turner and the watercolourist Samuel Prout (1783-1851), whose work was collected by Ruskin’s father. At this time, J.M.W. Turner’s work was under severe criticism at the Royal Academy and Ruskin was spurred to defend his childhood idol.

Ruskin passionately regarded Turner as the greatest painter of his age and was thus outraged at the critical judgment of the Royal Academy. In a book eventually published in 1843 under the anonymity of “A Graduate of Oxford”, Ruskin wrote Modern Painters I as a response to these attacks.

“Turner perceives at a glance the whole sum of visual truth open to human intelligence … The power of every picture depends on the penetration of the imagined into the TRUE nature of the thing represented, and on the utter scorn of the imagination for all shackles and fetters of mere external fact that stand in the way of its suggestiveness.”
– John Ruskin

John Ruskin held the controversial opinion that landscape artists, such as Turner, were superior to the “Old Masters” from the post-Renaissance era. He argued that these so-called Masters painted from pictorial convention, i.e. with emotion, and were not being true to nature. Ruskin maintained that an artist should observe the reality of nature and not produce imaginary scenes in a studio. Turner, on the other hand, had a better understanding of the “truth”, such as the air, the clouds, water, stones, and plants.

Inspired by Turner, Ruskin produced his own artworks, adopting the artist’s subtle use of colour. His watercolour painting of Towers of Freiburg, which was painted on a misty morning in Germany’s Black Forest, was used in the book Modern Painters as an example of “Turnerian Topography”. While in France, Ruskin painted Lanslebourg, Savoie, recording the “facts” and landscape that he saw, rather than an attractive impression.

Unlike Turner’s paintings that sometimes appear as a blur of colour, Ruskin produced many carefully observed drawings, such as The Kappellbrücke at Luzern (Lucerne) in which he has captured every element, including the angles of the bridge, the stonework on the turret and the shimmering light on the water.

As well as modern landscape painters, Ruskin was inspired by the works he saw on his travels around Europe. In 1844, whilst in France with his parents, Ruskin was able to investigate the geology of the Alps as well as study the artwork at the Louvre in Paris. Finally, in 1845 at the age of 26, Ruskin travelled without his parents for the first time, taking the opportunity to explore medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and Italy. Cities such as Florence, Pisa and Venice were of great inspirational value to the young artist, however, he was dismayed at the modernisation processes, which were gradually replacing the traditional buildings.

Ruskin’s independent tour of western Europe led him to write a second volume of Modern Painters. This time, however, he concentrated on the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, arguing that aesthetic and the divine are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. His tour also took him in a new artistic direction; temporarily leaving painting behind, Ruskin developed a keen interest in architecture.

Bunney, John Wharlton, 1828-1882; Western Facade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice

Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice – John Wharlton Bunney

In 1847, Ruskin developed a close relationship with Euphemia “Effie” Grey (1828-97), the daughter of family friends for whom he had written the story The King of the Golden River when she was twelve years old. They married on 10th April 1848 at her home in Perth, Scotland and spent their early years together in Mayfair, London.

Although the European Revolutions of 1848 restricted the amount of travel the newlyweds could undertake, the couple eventually visited Venice in October 1849. In the meantime, Ruskin’s knowledge of architecture had been rapidly increasing and earlier that year he had travelled with his parents – Effie was not well enough to join him – to gather material for the third and fourth editions of Modern Painters.

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark's, Venice by John Ruskin 1819-1900

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice – Ruskin, 1851

Whilst in Venice, John and Effie’s marriage began to breakdown. Effie wished to socialise, whereas, her husband was occupied in solitary studies. Already that year he had published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which promoted the seven virtues of secular and Protestant Gothic buildings: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. Now, all he wanted to do was gather material for his three-volume work, The Stones of Venice and create sketches of notable buildings that he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops.

“Nothing interrupts him … He is either with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerreotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs just as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.”
– Effie in a letter home to her family

Despite Effie not being keen on her husband’s work, Ruskin was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was established in 1848 by John Everett Millais (1829-96), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1826-82). The group were committed to “paint[ing] from nature only” and shared Ruskin’s opinion about the “Old Masters”.

Through the poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96), a mutual friend of Ruskin and Millais, Ruskin met the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote letters to The Times to argue against their critics. Ruskin provided the Brotherhood, particularly Millais, with encouragement and patronage, and Effie became one of their models.

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John Ruskin – Millais

In 1853, Millais visited the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he studied and closely observed the landscape. In his painting of Glenfinlas, Millais added Ruskin’s portrait. Previously, Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.

Unfortunately, Effie was growing increasingly distressed about her unhappy marriage, causing her to suffer both physical and mental illnesses. She was constantly arguing with Ruskin who would rather concentrate on his studies than spend time with his wife. Effie was also fed up with his intense and overly protective parents. In an act of desperation, Effie filed for an annulment on grounds of “non-consummation” due to Ruskin’s supposed “incurable impotency”. Although Ruskin disputed the claim, the annulment was granted in July 1854. A year later, Effie married Millais.

Shortly before the end of his marriage, Ruskin had begun lecturing on architecture and painting in Edinburgh. This led to lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 about how to use and acquire art. By 1869, Ruskin had become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, delivering his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The following year, he founded The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. The School’s intent was to challenge the orthodox teaching and methodology of government art schools. Often, his lectures, which included themes such as myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature, were so popular, they had to be given twice.

“The teaching of Art is the teaching of all things.”
– John Ruskin

In the 1870s, Ruskin visited Sheffield where his former pupil and friend Henry Swan (1825-89) was working as an engraver. By this time, not only had Ruskin had a fairly successful career, he had amassed an impressive collection of art, minerals, books, architectural casts, ancient coins and other precious, beautiful objects. After purchasing a small cottage in the district of Walkley to store his collection, Ruskin founded the Guild of St George, a charity devoted to arts, crafts and the rural economy. The cottage was then opened as a museum and he encouraged the working class man to view artworks that were once only something the wealthy could afford to see. The majority of the items at the Two Temple Place exhibition came from this museum.

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Rose La Touche – Ruskin

Whilst it is not certain how the collapse of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie affected him, he remained unlucky in love for the remainder of his life. When he was nearly 40 years old, he became the private art tutor to the daughters of the Irish poet Maria La Touche. Rose La Touche (1848–1875), who was only ten at the time, caught the eye of the much older Ruskin who gradually fell in love with her. Ruskin proposed to her on her 18th birthday but she asked him to wait three years until she was 21. At the time, Ruskin was having doubts about the Christian faith, which was beginning to cause problems with the staunchly Protestant family.

Ruskin proposed a number of times to Rose but she consistently turned him down. Her final rejection occurred in 1872, however, they still met up occasionally. Sadly, Rose died at the age of 27 after suffering from a long illness. As a result, Ruskin was plunged into despair, which led to bouts of mental illness, breakdowns and hallucinations. In an attempt to help himself come to terms with Rose’s death, Ruskin turned to Spiritualism, believing it would give him to power to communicate with the dead. Gradually, desperate to believe there was life after death, Ruskin returned to Christianity.

Throughout his life, Ruskin wrote numerous books, ranging in topic from art and architecture to travel guides and literature. His last great work was his autobiography Praeterita, meaning “things of the past”, which focused on selective parts of his life, omitting many facts.

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John Ruskin, 1882

Ruskin’s final home was in the Lake District where he tried to continue to write, however, most of this work was considered irrelevant in the art world. He was also still suffering from mental health issues and was unable to continue to travel to Europe. His 80th birthday was celebrated around the country, however, Ruskin was barely aware of the proceedings. Not long after, he passed away from influenza.

The once slim lecturer with piercing blue eyes became the grumpy old man with a long beard who resembled an Old Testament prophet. Although he held strong opinions throughout his life, his later convictions were more complaints than anything insightful. As part of the Two Temple Place exhibition, the curators had pieced together Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed from the writings of John Ruskin.

Ruskin detested iron railings and bemoaned that the Houses of Parliament were “the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man.” The Renaissance buildings in Venice were defined as the “ribaldries of drunkenness” and, apparently, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge looked like an upsidedown table.

Other things Ruskin despised were the “doggerel sound” of Wagner’s The Meistersingers, lawyers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being photographed and cycling. He hated railway stations and could not stand the “beastly, blockheady, loggerheady, doggish, loggish, hoggish-poggish, filthy, fool-begotten, swindler-swallowed” railways round Dieppe in Northern France. And more fool anyone who got Ruskin talking on matters such as making money or the English constitution: “The rottenest mixture of Simony, bribery, sneaking tyranny, shameless cowardice, and accomplished lying that ever the Devil chewed small to spit into God’s Paradise.”

Regardless of the ups and downs of his personal life and his strong opinions, Ruskin is renowned across the world. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times”. Ruskin also influenced people such as Gandhi (1869-1948), the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and William Morris (1834-96). Ruskin’s thoughts about the conservation of historic buildings inspired the foundation of the National Trust and many Christian socialists were inspired by his ideas.

Overall, Ruskin wrote more than 250 works, beginning with topics involving art and architecture. As he became more known for his work, he expanded to cover topics encompassing science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, pollution, mythology, travel, economy and social reform. Alongside this, he painted and developed the idea that it was important to paint what can be physically seen rather than imagined.

Numerous areas of study, research and thought have been affected by Ruskin in one way or another. His influence is still present throughout the arts, education, economy and environment today. Although most people are oblivious to his presence, John Ruskin is embedded in contemporary culture and society. Without him, who knows what the world would be like today.

Whilst it is important to celebrate the phenomenal works of John Ruskin, the man behind the books and artwork must not be overlooked. A number of events are being held by Ruskin 200 in honour of the bicentenary of his birth. Details of events can be found on their website www.ruskin200.com


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