Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reuniting Rubens

For the first time in over 200 years, two landscape paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have found themselves in the same room. Painted as a pair, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning parted ways in 1803, eventually ending up in the Wallace Collection and National Gallery, respectively. In partnership with VISITFLANDERS, the two paintings are temporarily on display at the Wallace Collection until 15th August 2021, after which they will separate once more. Attracting the likes of Jon Snow, who filmed his visit to the exhibition for Channel 4, the paintings have captured the attention of art lovers and tourists alike, providing what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The name Rubens is usually associated with historical and mythological paintings, full of action and voluptuous women, rather than the idyllic landscapes shown at the Wallace Collection. Yet, landscape painting had intrigued Rubens since his youth and one of his first teachers specialised in the area. To succeed as an artist, Rubens needed to paint what his commissioners and buyers wanted. Landscape painting was not a respected theme where Rubens lived in Antwerp, so he focused on fleshy figures depicting historical moments in the typical Flemish Baroque tradition.

Towards the end of his career, Rubens moved away from the busy city lifestyle to devote himself to landscape painting. The majority of these Rubens produced as a hobby rather than for profit. Not many knew about the extent of his artistic talents until after he died in 1640.

In 1592, Rubens was serving as an emissary for the Spanish crown. At 53 years old and a widower, he longed to settle down in his homeland. Unlike many artists of his day, Rubens had a considerable amount of money, having worked for the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain and Queen Marie de Medici of France. After completing his negotiations in England on behalf of Spain, Rubens returned home to Antwerp, where he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment (1614-73).

Following his marriage, Rubens contented himself by painting his young wife and growing family, whilst spending time in his large garden. Rubens enjoyed painting for pleasure, unrestrained by commissions and deadlines. Throughout his career, Rubens was restricted to the preferences of his patrons and buyers, but in his retirement he had the freedom to choose his subject matter. His love of landscapes resurfaced and he longed for the countryside, away from the pressures of commercial and city life.

In 1635, Rubens purchased an eight-acre country estate in Elewijt, Flemish Brabant. The house, known as the Castle of Het Steen, cost Rubins 93,000 florins and gave him the right to the title of Lord of Het Steen. A three-hour ride (half an hour by car) took Rubens from his home in Antwerp to his “manorial residence with a large stone house and other fine buildings in the form of a castle.” It also had a garden, an orchard, a lake and extensive grassland. The family used the estate as their summer home, returning to the city during the autumn.

Built in the typical Flemish style, the manor house had gabled roofs, red-bricked walls and a crenellated tower. The latter has since been demolished, and the house has also undergone remodelling and renovation over the past centuries. Rubens captured the building as it looked during his day in the paintings, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. 

The extensive views around Het Steen provided Rubens with the perfect backdrop for many landscape paintings. Although he had produced many landscapes before moving to the estate, his nephew Philip admitted Rubens made the purchase intending to study and paint the landscape. Rubens kept most of these artworks, displaying them at Het Steen. As a result, not many knew of the extent of his oeuvre until after his death.

“Having bought the seignory of Steen, between Brussels and Malines in the year 1630 [sic] he took great pleasure living there in solitude, in order to paint vividly and au naturel the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at the rising and setting of the sun, up to the horizon.” – Philip Rubens

After producing many landscapes, which explored composition, figure and animal placement, light and darkness, and so forth, Rubens finally painted his two most famous landscapes. The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning represent Rubens zenith of his achievements in landscape painting, evidenced by their sheer size and panoramic content.

A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning

In A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, usually shortened to Het Steen, the house is set to the far left, making the extensive open plains the main focus of the painting. The colours suggest it is late summer or early autumn on a sunny morning, although puddles and clouds hint at a recent rainstorm. Whilst the house is a faithful representation, Rubens elevated the view of the land between the foreground and the horizon to produce a continuous panoramic sweep.

On the left, a man drives a cart away from the house, carrying a woman and a trussed calf. Closer to the building is a group of people, which many believe represent Rubens’ family. In the foreground, a hunter and his dog hide behind a large tree stump, keeping a steady gaze on a bevy of partridges. This activity, combined with the altocumulus clouds, gives away the time of day, as does the cart, which is presumably on its way to market. In the distance, maids milk the cows in the pastures.

The Rainbow Landscape

Het Steen sits in the far distance in The Rainbow Landscape, which provides a view of the estate from the other side of the fields. Once again, Rubens raised the level of the viewpoint to encompass the many topographical features. The scene in this painting takes place later in the day after farmhands have already had time to create two haystacks. Yet, the cart carrying more hay in the left-hand corner suggests their workday is far from over. Some art historians propose Rubens based the appearance of the cart driver on his likeness, although it is unlikely he ever contributed to the farm work.

The cart driver greets two milkmaids, one who is balancing a pitcher on her head. Their smiling faces suggest happy workers, which compliments the idyllic landscape. Meanwhile, a herdsman goes about his work, herding cows along a path beside the stream, contrasting with the lively ducks playing in the water. Both the ducks and cows are similar to those in other paintings by Rubens, suggesting he did not paint them from life but memory or imagination.

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the lower half of the painting, it is the sky that captures the viewer’s attention. Spanning the width of the landscape is a double-arced rainbow, which is an unusual feature in artworks from this era. Artists were discouraged from depicting rainbows because their fleeting appearances were difficult to portray accurately. Rubens attempt is impressive, yet it is not true to nature. He chose not to represent its full-colour spectrum, obscuring sections with clouds instead.

The rainbow hints at the recent storm, whose dark clouds are still visible in the distance. The phenomenon also had religious connotations, symbolising God’s divine blessing. In the Bible (Genesis 9:11-15), God made a covenant with his people, promising never to flood the world again. This promise followed the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (Genesis 9:12-15, NIV)

Art historians believe Rubens produced Het Steen and The Rainbow Landscape to be displayed together because they are linked by their subject matter, scale, size and composition. The English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837) agreed, saying some years after the two paintings were separated: “When pictures painted as companions are separated, the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture. Companion pictures should never be parted…”

Both paintings have similar motifs, such as milkmaids, wagons, cows and fowl. These, along with the inclusion of the manor house, albeit almost unnoticeable in The Rainbow Landscape, suggests the landscapes depicts the same area from different perspectives. Although the paintings represent different times of day, when hung together, they complete a cycle of a late summer’s day.

Another connection between the two paintings is the way Rubens constructed the landscapes. Using X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection have discovered that Rubens produced the paintings in three stages. Rubens began both compositions on a medium-sized panel, upon which he depicted the middle ground leading to the horizon. Rubens then added or commissioned someone to add extensions to the bottom and sides of the panel. Upon these, he extended the landscapes, making them more panoramic. A final extension to the top, bottom and sides, gave the landscapes a dimension of 136 cm x 236 cm (54 in x 93 in).

Careful analysis of the two paintings has revealed images below the top layer of paint, which indicates Rubens developed the composition gradually. Unlike his commissioned work, Rubens did not need to rush and had no deadline. X-rays show Rubens included a seated milkmaid and herdsman on the original panel of The Rainbow Landscape but painted over them after extending the boards. A half-rainbow decorated the sky, which tells us Rubens always intended to include it in the landscape. After increasing the size of the work, Rubens repainted the trees and added the herdsmen and cattle by a river. The ducks, horses and wagon joined the scene after the final extension.

With more space above the horizon to play with, Rubens expanded the rainbow to sweep across the sky. Although it remained a double-arced rainbow, only a section of the second arc is visible in the top right-hand corner. Rubens added touches of blue, pink and yellow to the trees, river and ground to suggest a reflection of the rainbow, although, in reality, the rainbow would make no such impression.

The construction of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning has similar paint handling and attention to detail as its companion. During the first stage of the painting, Rubens filled the space with open pastures interspersed with trees. As the boards grew, so did the landscape, incorporating a bridge, stream, tree trunk and hunter. Only in the final stage did Rubens paint the house and add the other figures and cart to the composition.

Unlike The Rainbow Landscape, which developed gradually with the expansion of the boards, the painting of Het Steen changed dramatically in the final stages. During the first two stages of the painting process, the composition was typical of Rubens’ landscapes, revealing idyllic farmland and a peaceful environment. When he began the painting, he had no intention of including his house, yet it became a key feature during the latter stages. This element, with the suggestion of the building in the background of The Rainbow Landscape, is what convinces many art historians that the paintings belong together.

Shortly after Rubens died in 1640, the two paintings appeared in a sales catalogue with 312 other works of art from his collection. A version of the catalogue translated for Charles I describes the landscapes as “A great landschap after the life, with little figures in’t uppon a board,” (Het Steen) and “A great landschap where it raines with little Cowes in it” (The Rainbow Landscape). Since they were listed one after the other suggests Rubens’ family intended them to stay together, which they did for many years.

In 1691, both paintings hung in the palace of Juan Gaspar Enríquez de Cabrera, the 10th Admiral of Castile (1625-91) in Madrid, after which they appeared in Genoa in the early 18th century. Records state they belonged to a Genoese banker to the Spanish Crown, Bartolomeo Saluzzo (1651-1705), who bequeathed his art collection to his sons. Constantino Balbi (1676-1741) purchased the landscapes in 1706 and hung them in the Palazzo Balbi. In 1802, art dealers William Buchanan (1777-1864) and Arthur Champernowne (1767-1819) purchased the paintings and brought them to London, where they were displayed at an Oxdenden Street gallery. They quickly became the talking point of the artistic circle in the capital.

Despite attempts to sell the two landscapes as a pair, Buchanan and Champernowne were unsuccessful. Instead, they sold Het Steen to Lady Margaret Beaumont for £1500 in 1803. Little did they know the paintings would not appear in the same room again until 2020. Lady Margaret gave the artwork as a present to her husband Sir George, who pronounced it the “finest landscape I believe [Rubens] ever painted.” On his death in 1823, George Beaumont bequeathed Het Steen and other paintings in his collection to the National Gallery.

In 1815, Champernowne sold The Rainbow Landscape to art collector George Watson-Taylor (1771-1841), who, in turn, sold it to Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1783-1858) for 2,600 guineas. Walpole hung the painting in the Principle Dining Room at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, where many people admired it. Allegedly, George IV (1762-1830) attempted to purchase the painting from Walpole shortly before his death in 1830. The landscape remained in Lord Orford’s possession until he decided to sell it in 1856.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), the first Director of the National Gallery, attended Lord Orford’s sale intending to reunite Rubens’ landscapes. Unfortunately, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), was also in attendance and outbid the director. Lord Hertford paid £4,550 for The Rainbow Landscape, which he hung in his London residence, Manchester House. After his death, his son Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) inherited the house and its contents, thus becoming the new owner of the painting. Wallace extended the house to create a large gallery where he installed the landscape and other notable paintings. After his death, the collection was bequeathed to the nation. The house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection, and The Rainbow Landscape has hung here ever since.

Thanks to the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, the public have once again been able to view both landscapes in the same room. Unfortunately, the exhibition is ending soon, and the paintings will separate once more. There is speculation that Rubens’ two great landscapes may be reunited permanently in the future. Hopefully, we will not need to wait 200 years to make this a reality.

It is a shame that the exhibition coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people than expected have visited the Wallace Collection to see the two landscapes in situ. Yet, the display made the national news, proving that the story of two landscape paintings, reunited, at last, has touched the hearts of thousands of people.

Het Steen, now known as Elewijt Castle or Rubenskasteel, still stands. It was briefly used as a prison in 1792 before being abandoned. In 1955, the current owner restored the building, although the tower seen in Rubens’ painting was unsalvageable.

RUBENS: REUNITING THE GREAT LANDSCAPES is open until 15th August 2021 at the Wallace Collection, London. Tickets are free with a suggested donation of £5.


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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 Paul 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)

de Vlieger, Simon, 1601-1653; Dutch Men of War at Anchor

Dutch Men of War at Anchor -Simon de Vlieger

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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Painter of Disquiet

Getting off to a positive start with a realistic painting of a polished coffee server, the Royal Academy of Arts introduces the “very singular Vallotton” in the first major UK exhibition of the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Barely heard of on this side of the English Channel, Vallotton’s artwork can be compared to the likes of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), however, he is also known for his satirical woodcuts.

Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a Swiss-Protestant family in Lausanne. His father was a pharmacist who later purchased a chocolate factory and his mother was the daughter of a furniture craftsman. As always, his parents had ambitions for Félix and his three siblings and he attended university, leaving in 1882 with a degree in classical studies. Whilst studying, he also attended drawing classes lead by the artist Jean-Samson Guignard and, due to his success on the course, his parents granted him permission to go to Paris to study art seriously.

At sixteen years old, Vallotton enrolled at the private art school Académie Julian where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-88). Lefebvre believed Vallotton had the potential to earn a living as a painter and in 1883 Vallotton won a place at the most influential art school in France, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although he turned the offer down and remained at Académie Julian for another year.

The exhibition begins with a few examples of Vallotton’s earliest works. These reveal his talent as a realist painter and the influence of artists he studied at college, for example, Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is also interesting to note that despite the prevailing Impressionist movement in Paris at the time, Vallotton never engaged with the style.

In fact, in 1892, Vallotton became a member of the semi-covert group The Nabis, which took its name from the Hebrew word for prophet, thus referring to themselves as the “prophets of modern art”. Since he was not a French native, Vallotton was often called “The Foreign Nabi” by his peers who included, Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet (1863–1925) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) as seen in Vallotton’s painting The Five Painters (1902-3).

Despite short-lived, The Nabis wanted to transform the foundation of art. They believed that art was not a true depiction of nature but a combination of symbols and metaphors. The French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) wrote the group’s manifesto The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in which he stated “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order… The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colours to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.” The group, however, disbanded in the early 1900s.

Through his association with The Nabis, Vallotton discovered the art of woodcut printmaking. He began making woodcuts in 1891 and was particularly inspired by Japanese artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who were also an influence on many European artists at the time. The artworks are characterised by simple forms, flattened perspectives and decorative aesthetic.

Two of Vallotton’s paintings based on this Japanese style were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In The Waltz (1893), two-dimensional characters skate over the glittering ice in the arms of their partners. Displayed next to this, both at the Salon des Indépendants and the Royal Academy exhibition was Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-3). This was a more ambitious piece of work and is a complete contrast to Vallotton’s realist manner.

Vallotton combined inspiration from Japanese “ukiyo-e” prints with the themes of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Unfortunately, critics were unable to recognise this parody. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), on the other hand, was one of the few who appreciated the painting but worried that the police would take it down due to the negative reaction from the public.

Vallotton also began producing black and white prints based on the style of the Japanese artists he admired. Rather than using woodblocks, however, he opted for a technique called zincography, which requires a zinc plate coated in acid. The result is much more controlled than those produced with wooden blocks and the line work can be much more expressive.

One of Vallotton’s first series of wood prints (zinc prints) is called Paris Intense, which features unusual scenes of Paris life. Vallotton was anti-bourgeois, as many artists were at the time, and focused on people from all walks of life in his prints. In this particular series, he combined caricatures of Parisians from upper, middle and lower classes all experiencing the same event. For example, in a print titled L’Averse (The Shower), smartly dressed men and women fight with their black umbrellas whilst others are pulled along in horse-drawn carriages. A maid wearing a white apron can be seen running in the background with nothing to shelter her from the rain.

Vallotton’s prints found themselves published in the literary and artistic magazine La Revue Blanche, established by the Natason brothers: Alexandre, Alfred and Thadée. Vallotton’s portrait of the latter can be seen in the exhibition. He also painted one of the editors, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). This portrait resembles the work of The Nabis with an unrealistic approach to painting likenesses.

La Revue Blanche published works by many intellectuals, including Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925), and Vallotton was the chief illustrator. Vallotton proved to be a gifted graphic artist and numerous prints were featured in the magazine.

One of Vallotton’s greatest woodcut series to feature in La Revue Blanche was called Intimacies (1897-8), which features ten fly-on-the-wall scenes that satirise the sexual desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Married couples are seen arguing whilst in another frame an adulterous couple mockingly toast an absent spouse. Others are more ambiguous and could represent either married couples or those in an illicit relationship.

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Five O’Clock, 1898

Vallotton used a few of these prints as bases for paintings. Take, for example, Five O’Clock (Cinq Heures, 1898), which was also the title of one of the prints in the Intimacies series. Replacing black and white with colour, Vallotton produced a distemper version of the scene in which a man and a woman embrace in a red armchair. The title is a phrase that was used ironically in France by businessmen who would leave work at that hour to visit their mistresses before returning home to their wives.

Other print series include Musical Instruments (1896-7), in which Vallotton created portraits of particular musicians, some of which have been identified and others who have not. The darkness of the rooms depicted adds an element of mystery to their identities. The use of black in these prints is strong, using white for only a few line details that frame the musician and instruments, which include a cello, violin, flute, piano, guitar and cornet.

The World’s Fair (1900), was the last series Vallotton created before he stopped working for La Revue Blanche. The World’s Fair was held in Paris during the first year of the 20th century. Vallotton’s prints record scenes of construction, fireworks, picnics and people shopping.

By the end of the 19th century, Vallotton decided to move away from print work, believing painting to be his vocation. This was partly due to his marriage to the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), the owner of a gallery and one of the most successful art dealers on the continent. Previously, Vallotton had been living in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his mistress Hélène Châtenay, however, he left her in 1899 to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, whose financial stability allowed Vallotton to concentrate on his paintings, which is generally a low paying, unstable career.

Gabrielle appears frequently in her husband’s paintings and often sat for portraits. Most of the time, however, she is captured in the middle of domestic tasks around the house. Vallotton was also the step-father of three children, who occasionally became the subjects of his paintings. One scene around a dining table reflects one of the children’s negative attitude to the new adult in their life.

Capturing Gabrielle at work around the house was more difficult than painting someone sitting still. As a result, Vallotton began using a Kodak camera to catch the scenes he wished to paint. In his studio, he would either recreate the photograph with paint or remove and add elements to the scene to create the image in his mind’s eye.

Vallotton’s paintings of Gabrielle moving around the house are usually full of clashing colours and patterns, which may or may not have been present in the real family home. When painting from a photograph, the image was black and white, therefore, colours could be left to the artist’s imagination. Vallotton also crowded the rooms with rugs, ornaments, furniture, curtains and patterned wallpaper.

These domestic scenes are not the typical images one might expect and are rather ambiguous in nature. In Interior with Woman in Red (1903), Vallotton shows several rooms of the house through a continuous row of opened doors. Gabrielle stands in the middle with her back to the viewer, clearly heading for the bedroom in the far room. Wearing her dressing gown, it is easy to assume she is going to get dressed; the sunlight from the hidden windows is suggesting it is morning. Other than this, little else can be ascertained from the painting. It is as though it has captured a stolen glimpse of a household that tells you almost nothing about its inhabitants.

Woman Searching Through a Cupboard (1901) is another of Vallotton’s domestic scenes. It is probably a painting of Gabrielle but the subject matter is an obscure choice for an artist. The figure is apparently unaware of the artist’s presence while she searches through the carefully folded linen. The only light source is a lamp, placed on the floor where the figure crouches down to look at something on the bottom shelf. Whatever this is has been hidden from view, leaving the purpose of the search a mystery to everyone. Presumably, Vallotton painted this from a photograph he took as he wandered through the house, therefore, there may not have been much thought about how the painting would be interpreted.

From 1904, Vallotton’s principal subject of painting became the female nude. He had worked a little on this theme before his marriage but had not focused seriously on the theme. Unlike other artists who painted from life, Vallotton produced a quick sketch of his models then completed the painting alone in his studio. This may account for the feeling of detachment these paintings evoke with very little or even no sexual emotion.

Some of the models are partially clothed, for instance, the woman in Nude Seen From Behind in an Interior (1902), whereas others are fully naked. One of Vallotton’s nude paintings is almost a response to Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Olympia (1863), which depicts a white female lying on a bed being attended by a black maid. In Vallotton’s version La Blanche et la Noire (1913), the white woman lying on the bed is naked and the black woman is elegantly dressed and smokes a cigarette while she observes her dozing companion. It is not clear whether these two women are mistress and servant, friends, or even lovers.

Vallotton believed one of his greatest works to be Models Resting (1905), which he submitted to the Salon d’Automne. Vallotton is believed to have wept in front of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) Turkish Bath (1862), which was the inspiration for this particular painting. Within the painting, he included two older works in the background: a portrait of his parents and a landscape, thus showing his development over the years.

Alongside his portraits of nudes, the exhibition showed examples of later works that focused on social scenes. Again, he attacked the bourgeoisie with imagery that suggested immoral behaviour, such as secret liaisons in theatre boxes. He also turned to New Testament stories, such as the story of Susanna who is the victim of lecherous old men. In Vallotton’s version titled Chaste Suzanne (1922), Susanna or Suzanne appears to be in control or even a seductress, dressed in a sequined hat and tempting a couple of balding men.

“War! The word is magnificent … The day I saw it appearing in big letters on the walls, I honestly believe I felt the strongest emotion of my life.”
– Vallotton

In 1916, Vallotton briefly returned to printmaking as a response to the First World War. Although he had become a French citizen in 1900 after marrying Gabrielle, he was too old at almost 50 to enlist to fight. Nonetheless, he got to experience some of the action on a government-commissioned tour of the trenches in the Champagne region. This became the inspiration for his final venture in printmaking.

C’est la Guerre (This is War) was a portfolio of six prints showing the brutality of war. Similar to his earlier work, Vallotton included people of all social standings in these illustrations. Horrific scenes of barbed wire strewn with corpses, barricades and explosions lead to scenes of civilians, cowering in fear in their homes.

In the final decade of his career, Vallotton turned to landscape painting and gradually returned to realism. He called his approach to landscapes “paysage composé”, which means “composed landscape”.

“I dream of painting free from any literal respect for nature … I would like to be able to re-create landscapes with only the help of the emotion they have provoked in me …”
– Vallotton

Instead of producing life-like landscapes, Vallotton simplified the compositions into shapes and colours, reminiscent of the flat Japanese-inspired paintings of his earlier years. The result is an almost abstract version of nature.

On the other hand, Vallotton’s still-lifes are extremely realistic. It is almost as though one could reach in and pick up one of the red peppers sitting on a white marble table. Their shiny skins and accurate shadows make them appear tangible. Similarly, his basket of apples is also life-like, although perhaps not as real as the peppers.

Unfortunately, Vallotton’s health deteriorated during his fifties. Due to his persistent health problems, Vallotton and Gabrielle spent each winter in the warmer climates of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence, and their summers in Honfleur, Normandy where he produced many of his landscapes. Despite persisting in his painting, Vallotton passed away on the day after his 60th birthday following cancer surgery.

Throughout his life, Vallotton produced over 1700 works of art. A year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at Salon des Indépendants and some of his paintings were also displayed at the Grand Palais along with the works of well-known artists, including Van Gogh, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vallotton’s brother Paul was an art dealer and established the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne where he displayed a number of Félix’s paintings. Félix Vallotton was not the only artist in the family, his niece Annie Vallotton (1915-2013) went on to produce illustrations for the Good News Bible, thus becoming the best selling artist of all time when over 225 million copies were sold.

The Royal Academy of Arts has done an excellent job at introducing Félix Vallotton to a new audience and generation. Whilst none of the pieces are particularly famous, they are worthy of the attention this exhibition is affording them. Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is open until 29th September 2019 and costs £16 for an adult ticket. Children can visit for free with a fee-paying adult. As always, Friends of the RA are entitled unlimited free entry.


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Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire

“We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out is our own ignorance and folly.”
– Thomas Cole

Throughout the year, the National Gallery puts on several exhibitions about famous artists, art movements, styles and so forth, however, every once in a while, an unknown name crops up. These artists have generally been forgotten about over time and the Gallery endeavours to bring them back into public knowledge. The current exhibition, Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire, focuses on the founding father of American painting who, despite his importance across the pond, is virtually unheard of in Britain.

Thomas Cole was born in Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, England in 1801, however, nothing much is known about his early years. In 1818, the Cole family emigrated to Steubenville, Ohio where Cole taught himself to paint, relying on books and studies of other artists. His first artistic career was as an engraver but his painting soon took precedence. Working as a portrait painter, Cole was encouraged to turn his hand to landscapes, which is where he found his métier.

Cole perceived nature as God’s great gift to the world and aimed to capture its transcendence. At 22, Cole moved to Philadelphia, however, by 1825, he had settled in Catskill, New York where he set up a studio at Cedar Grove. Enamoured by the landscape, Cole was often travelling up and down the Hudson River, capturing in oil paints nature at its most powerful, a romantic portrayal of the American wilderness. This was a complete contrast to the urban, industrialised scenery Cole experienced growing up in England.

 

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire comprises of 35 works by the American artist, alongside landscapes by those who inspired him. Two British painters from the Romantic-era, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), impressed Cole with their naturalistic landscapes. Although Turner and Constable were less precise in applying paint to canvas, particularly Turner whose colours often blur into each other, once the viewer is familiar with Cole’s work, it is clear to see exactly why he enjoyed these paintings. Cole preferred natural, unadulterated scenes where the landscape was in a pure, God-intended condition. Turner and Constable’s countryside landscapes reflect this idea.

Another artist Cole admired was the English Romantic painter, John Martin (1789-1854), however, he was not specifically regarded as a landscape painter. Martin was mostly known for his spectacular painting of religious subjects, preferring dramatic and violent Biblical stories over the more humble ones. When he painted the story of the writing on the wall, Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), based upon Daniel chapter 5, he claimed, “it shall make more noise than any picture ever did before …” His mezzotint engraving of a scene from the story of Noah’s Ark, The Evening of the Deluge (1828), was equally as dramatic.

Cole also ventured into biblical painting, which is most likely one of the reasons Martin’s work appealed to him. Martin also included imposing landscapes in the background of his scenes, which was another element that would have gained Cole’s favour. The brushstrokes are much finer than Turner and Constable’s, in fact, they are barely discernable. Cole’s paintings were also produced in this manner, resulting in scenes that could have been imagined by one English artist but painted by Martin.

 

Living in the Catskills with his wife Maria Barlow, who he married in 1836, and their five children, Cole had plenty of opportunities to paint the idyllic landscape. A good number of Cole’s masterpieces were produced in this area, however, he also travelled around the United States to places he wished to paint and also returned to Europe to study the masters and explore various countries. Many of these scenes involved natural landscape, water and an expressive sky.

In 1830, Cole travelled to the border between the U.S and Canada to view the powerful Niagara Falls. Something to be understood about Cole’s work is that he rarely painted exactly what he saw, rather he portrayed what he wished to see. At the time, the landscape surrounding the Falls was crowded with factories and hotels, whereas, Cole depicted an unspoilt natural environment. Throughout his life, Cole was increasingly anxious about the industrialisation of the country believing that it was destroying the American wilderness.

When visiting Europe, Cole spent some time in Italy during the year 1831 where he made sketches of various vistas. Back in his New York studio, Cole transformed his drawings into oil paintings, using artistic license to add extra trees and foliage. View of Florence from San Miniato (1837) reveals the old and new buildings of the beautiful city combined with Cole’s ideal aspects of nature.

Cole’s landscapes tend to be very deep, stretching as far back as the eye can see. One of Cole’s influential paintings officially titled View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm but commonly referred to as The Oxbow (1836), shows a panorama of the Connecticut River Valley. On the left-hand side, the sky remains grey, the storm clouds have not yet completely passed over, whereas, the sky on the opposite side is much brighter, the sun shining onto the river below. Some of the vegetation under the dark clouds look dead or damaged, however, fresh foliage determinedly grows up around the lifeless plants, proving that nature will continually renew itself.

It could be argued that Thomas Cole’s landscapes are fictitious on account of the added natural aspects and removal of urban developments. Whilst this is a fair point, Cole produced completely fictional scenes as well. Cole was interested in history, particularly of native America, fiction, and the Bible and often incorporated notions of these into his paintings.

On a cliff edge, Cole depicted a couple of Indians making a sacrifice to a god. Indians refer to the indigenous people of the Americas who lived almost at one with nature. It was only with the arrival of people from Europe that America began to be developed and urbanised. Cole mourns the loss of the pure, natural environment by imagining what the world may once have looked like; a time when nature was bigger than anything else.

Cole painted another landscape set at a similar time period to Indian Sacrifice (1827), however, it was inspired by a work of fiction. Based on the historical novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cole painted his interpretation of a scene that took place in the year 1757 during the French and Indian War. Titled Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827), Cole depicts native Delaware Indians encircling two captives, Alice and Cora Munro, the latter who lies prostrate at the feet of the chief, Tamenundin a desperate plea for mercy.

Whilst based upon a book, relying on written description, it is believed that Cole incorporated a view of Mount Chocorua and Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, in the background. It is likely that the elements in the foreground had also been observed by the artist on his journeys in the American countryside.

The most famous of Cole’s individual fictional scenes is The Titan’s Goblet (1833), which has been described as a picture within a picture or a landscape within a landscape. The painting defies explanation, the artist has left no commentary to clarify his intentions. Set on a conventional terrain, a giant goblet sits larger than any of the natural elements in the background. The goblet is full of water that spills over the edge to create waterfalls whilst sailing vessels can be seen in the centre. The rim holds a mini world covered in grass and trees and is inhabited, as suggested by the Greek temple and Italian palace that can be seen on opposite edges. These buildings are similar to ancient relics that Cole would have seen when he visited Europe.

Another of Cole’s more appreciated paintings is his version of The Garden of Eden (1828). This was one of Cole’s earlier paintings and shows God’s garden as described in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Adam and Eve have yet to eat from the tree of knowledge and are unashamed about their naked bodies. A young deer can be seen in the clearing, which the pair appear to be reaching out towards. The landscape is picturesque and pure, the way Cole believed God intended his creation.

Arguably Cole’s best work, and the centrepiece of the exhibition Eden to Empire, is an allegorical work that tells the cycle of the rise and fall of a classical civilisation. The Course of Empire (1834-6) shows the same landscape over centuries, from its primitive beginnings, through its development and destruction by humans, to its return to nature. This series of five paintings were a response to Cole’s fears about the rapidly developing country and his belief that nature will always renew itself, whereas, human nature is far less sustainable.

The first image, The Savage State, reveals nature as it was supposedly intended. The only human interruption is a hunter pursuing a deer, thus revealing what aboriginal North American life was once like.  The unadulterated world is green and luscious; nature and the weather are in control, working together to survive.

The second image, known both as The Arcadian and Pastoral State, is still a natural area, however, there has been a few human developments. Families have settled and converted the wilderness into farmland with lawns, ploughed fields and sheep. The people are working hard to look after the animals and the crops, however, in the distance is a suggestion of further advancements; almost hidden by the trees is a megalith temple. The entire landscape is how Cole’s idealised pre-urban Greece once looked.

There is a massive jump between the Pastoral State and the next in the series, The Consummation of Empire. Here, the entire landscape has been obscured by collonaded marble structures, balcony-fitted buildings and crowds of people. A king strides across a bridge, robed in scarlet, looking very important. Ships fill up the river, the only evidence of the original terrain. In this instance, Cole was imagining the height of Ancient Rome, when it was the most powerful city in the world.

Unfortunately for the civilians, the city was not going to last. In a scene that resembles the sack of Rome in 410AD, Destruction shows enemy warriors attacking and killing the inhabitants. The bridge has collapsed and columns have toppled, barely any of the buildings remain intact. A statue of a warrior standing in a similar pose to a Borghese Gladiator has been decapitated, his head lying smashed on the ground below amongst the blood of fallen men.

Finally, the last scene Desolation shows the results of the destroyed city many decades later. It is the remains of a ruined city, one lone column stubbornly remaining standing, although, now only used by the birds nesting on top. Trees, ivy and overgrowth cover the remaining rubble. With humanity out of the way, nature has repossessed the city, taking back what had been stolen. This is the ultimate cycle of nature; without human intervention, the plants and wildlife would roam wild and free.

As well as Cole’s pessimistic outlook about the developing world, it is also suggested that The Course of Empire was a commentary on President Andrew Jackson’s (1767-1845) policies, which, Cole clearly disagreed with. There is also evidence that Cole was influenced by Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812):

“Freedom falls and then Glory –
when that falls,
wealth, vice, corruption … “

Despite not being well known in Britain, Thomas Cole was a great influence on American painters, particularly Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) who studied with the artist from 1844 until 1846. Looking at Durand and Church’s paintings, which the National Gallery displays in the final room of the exhibition, it is easy to be fooled into thinking they have been painted by Cole. The style, tone and focus of the landscape are exactly the same as their teacher produced, insinuating that Cole was a highly regarded painter.

From approximately 1825, Thomas Cole became a leading figure and possibly founder of the Hudson River School, a term retrospectively applied to the group of American landscape artists that worked between c1825 and 1875. All of these artists, like Cole, were inspired by the beauty of nature and the 18th-century artistic movement, Romanticism. As the name of the group implies, these artists worked within the Hudson Valley, in areas such as the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains. They mostly portrayed remote and untouched areas of natural beauty in their work.

Sadly, Thomas Cole’s life was cut short when he died on 11th February 1848. In honour of his devotion to landscape painting, the fourth highest peak in the Catskills is named Thomas Cole Mountain in his honour. His home, Cedar Grove, has been renamed the Thomas Cole House, declared a National Historic Site in 1999 and is now open to the public.

It is surprising that Thomas Cole is not known in Great Britain, despite his English origins and painting expertise. With the first ever exhibition of his work in this country, it is hoped that Cole will become more popular. There is nothing to dislike about his work, which is realistic with a magical quality within. Compared to world famous artists, some of Cole’s paintings are more pleasant to look at, earning their reputation through aesthetic rather than a recognised name.

The National Gallery will continue to display Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire until 7th October 2018. Being an unknown artist, the exhibition is usually quiet and therefore it is not vital to book tickets in advance. Standard admission price is £10 per person, although, members of the Gallery can enter free of charge. 

Monet’s Architectural Visions

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The Water-Lily Pond

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is perhaps best known for his en plein air paintings of gardens and countryside, particularly, for example, The Water-Lily Pond (1899). Whilst it is true that Monet produced many paintings of nature, for the majority of his artistic career, Monet concentrated on landscapes and cityscapes, focusing on the man-made buildings rather than the natural environment.

In a recent exhibition at the National Gallery, sponsored by the Credit Suisse, Monet & Architecture explored the overlooked aspects of Monet’s works with over 75 paintings spanning from the early 1860s until 1912. Split into three themes, the gallery focused on The Village and the Picturesque, which included paintings of cottages by rocky paths or sea fronts; The City and the Modern, featuring a mix of new and old buildings; and, finally, The Monument and the Mysterious, with examples of Monet’s experiments with atmosphere and light.

Born in Paris and brought up in Normandy, Monet had access to an area of France steeped in medieval history and buildings. With these scenes at his mercy, he produced many picturesque landscapes, not too dissimilar in style to his nature-based paintings.

As Monet’s reputation as a painter increased, he began visiting other areas of France and travelling to various countries on the continent. As a result, his broad collection of artwork almost reads like a photo album, documenting the places he lived or holidayed.

 

Many of Monet’s landscapes involve a body of water, be it sea, river or pond. Despite his Impressionist style – a name coined in 1874 to describe the works of the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres, of which he was a founding member – Monet was exceptionally good at portraying the movement of the water, both stormy and calm, and expertly reveals the reflection of the sky and buildings amongst the waves and ripples.

Whilst staying at Zaandam in the Netherlands, Monet had plenty of opportunities to combine water and architecture by studying the many commercial waterways, particularly those he saw during a trip to Amsterdam.

Often, Monet repainted scenes several times over a long period. He was always interested in the ways different lights and weather (effets) affected the landscapes he painted. An early example of this method of working took place on the coast of Normandy during 1882. Here, Monet became fascinated with a little cottage hidden between the jutting rocks of the cliffs.

 

The National Gallery displayed three paintings containing the hidden cottage, which was purportedly used during Napoleon’s reign as a customs office to keep a lookout for smugglers. The first painting, The Customs Officer’s Cottage, Varengeville, was most likely produced at the end of the winter months. The sea is choppy and the sky fairly dark, possibly a sign of an approaching storm. Monet stood behind and to the left of the building but near enough that the cottage became the main focus on the canvas.

The Cliff at Varengeville, on the other hand, was painted further away from the cliff edge. At first glance, it is easy to miss the roof of the cottage hidden by the uneven clifftop. This painting was produced during the summer months; the sky is clear and the sea much calmer. Although it is not shown in the landscape, the sun is bright, its rays lighting up the vegetation and reflecting off the surface of the water.

The final painting of the customs office was produced below rather than atop the cliff. The Path Through the Cliff at Varengeville is set in one of the ravines leading down to the sea. The cottage can be seen in the top left-hand corner, however, the eye is instinctively drawn to the v-shaped view of the sea in the distance. The blue water contrasts with the autumnal colours of the growth along the cliffs and the darkening sky, suggesting that this was one of the final paintings Monet produced before he left Varengeville in early October.

During the 1860s and 70s, Monet developed an interest of painting in cities, studying the more modern buildings that had begun to crop up – a contrast to the stone cottages as seen in the villages. The Exposition Universelle of 1867, the second world’s fair to be held in Paris, drew Monet to the capital. Here he sat on a balcony overlooking the Seine, painting the buildings on the opposite bank as well as portraying the crowds on the street below him. Including members of the public was an unusual feature for Monet, who prefered to concentrate on the scenery rather than the day-to-day goings on in the surroundings. This could be due to the manner of en plein air painting, in which most of the work is completed in situ; it is far easier to paint the stationary buildings than the moving bodies, carriages and animals.

Whilst in Paris, Monet painted a combination of old and new buildings, revealing the diverse styles of architecture. In The Quai du Louvre (1867), Monet contrasted the medieval clock tower of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont with the 18th-century Panthéon. Within the same landscape is the Pont Neuf, which was completed in yet another century, 1606 to be precise.

Three years later, Monet married Camille Doncieux (1847-79), who had already born him one son, Jean, in August 1867. The couple would later have another son, Michel, in 1878, a year before Camille sadly succumbed to pelvic cancer. For their honeymoon, M. and Mme Monet travelled to Trouville, a commune on the coast in the Calvados department in Normandy. Although this was not a city, it was a fashionable place for tourists with picturesque buildings. On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870), Monet provides a glimpse of the holiday resort from his position near the edge of the beach, looking over at the tall seaside buildings.

The following year, 1871, Monet and his family fled to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War. It was whilst he was here that he met artists, such as Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), with whom he developed the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres or Impressionism movement. During this time, Monet took pleasure in painting the recently built Houses of Parliament whilst also experimenting with different effets. After it was safe to return to Paris, Monet continued to paint important buildings, including the Pont Neuf and those along the Boulevard des Capucines.

At the end of 1871, the Monets moved to Argenteuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, approximately 15 kilometres from the city centre. This was useful for Monet who was often exhibiting with the Impressionists and needed to be within reach of the capital. Argenteuil was continuously being repaired and updated after the damage caused by the Franco-Prussian War, and its population was rapidly increasing. As a result, Monet was able to record the developments as they occurred, painting the modern houses, bridges and factories.

Of course, Monet also continued with his more natural landscapes, as seen in The Ball-shaped Tree, Argenteuil (1876), which was lent to the National Gallery from a private collection specifically for the Monet & Architecture exhibition. This tidily balanced composition was actually one of Monet’s final artworks in Argenteuil before the family relocated to the village of Vétheuil. It reveals two large houses in the distance set within walled gardens. The main feature of the painting, however, as the title suggests, is the ball-shaped tree that stands in front of them and is carefully reflected in Monet’s signature water aspect.

Travelling to and from the city, Monet was a frequent passenger at the Gare St-Lazare which was fairly modern, having only been built in 1837, although it was enlarged and extended at the end of the 1860s. Monet was given special permission to paint the station, which he did several times, exhibiting at least seven canvases in the third Impressionist exhibition. The Gare St-Lazare (1877) is unlike anything Monet had chosen to focus on before. Instead of a broad landscape or a picturesque location, the painting reveal a dirty, smoke-filled modern construction. The steam trains are also an unusual subject for the artist.

Another painting that went against convention, was Monet’s The Rue Montorgueil, Paris (1878), which was produced on a portrait canvas. The French government had declared 30th June 1878 a national holiday and the streets of Paris were full of people taking advantage of the day to hold drunken celebrations. From a balcony, Monet painted the long street overflowing with excited crowds, the buildings covered with bright tricolour flags. The blue, white and red dominate the composition, making it appear busy and untidy.  Yet, when viewed from a distance, the outlines lose their blurriness, resulting in a fascinatingly elaborate composition.

During the final three decades of Monet’s career, he visited and painted in three particular cities. After the untimely death of his wife Camille, Monet and his sons moved to a large house in Giverny, a village in Normandy, with another woman, Alice Hoschedé (1844-1911) and her six children in 1883. It was here that Monet’s famous water lily paintings were made. Almost a decade later, Alice and Monet married shortly after returning from the city of Rouen on the River Seine.

Whilst in Rouen, Monet was enamoured with its 12th-century gothic cathedral of which he produced at least thirty paintings. Rather than present landscapes as he had done in other cities and villages, Monet chose to concentrate on the cathedral facade, working on different effets caused by the position of the sun during different points of the day. One canvas, although brighter in colour, was probably produced mid-morning rather than when the sun was at its peak on account of the shadows, which bring out the features of the architecture.

In contrast, the painting of Rouen Cathedral at sunset appears to be a blurry copy of the previous painting. Seen from a distance, the muted colours have an impressive effect, however, up close, the painting feels incomplete and rushed. Nonetheless, Monet was not attempting to produce a precise study of the cathedral, he was examining the play of fading light upon the building.

In 1899, Monet took the opportunity to return to London, a city he had enjoyed so much on his last visit. On this occasion, Monet travelled alone, staying on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, which at this point was fitted with balconies, providing the perfect position for Monet to paint the iconic buildings he could see from his suite. Depending on which way he positioned his chair, Monet had an excellent view of Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

Again, Monet’s focus was on effets rather than the buildings in question, painting in different lights at different hours. At the time, the many London factories often caused the city to be shrouded in smoke and fog, which along with the sun, created a hazy atmosphere. The vast changes in the British climate can be seen by comparing a painting of Waterloo Bridge on a clear day with one produced on a foggy day, the orange sun struggling to pierce through the smog.

Likewise, Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament varied enormously due to the fog, sunrises and sunsets. In some versions, the neo-Gothic architecture is shown as a pronounced silhouette, whereas, in the foggier version, the tower blends into the clouded background.

The final city Monet visited was Venice in 1908, where he stayed for two months with his wife Alice. Whilst Alice wished to go out and enjoy the magical city, Monet wanted to paint the important buildings and their reflections in the water of the canals. Just like the Rouen and London pictures, Monet disregarded the numerous tourists, painting only the architecture and water, his focus, as always, on the intensity of effet. These paintings, as well as those from the previous cities, have an other-worldly quality due to the unique use of light.

Two buildings Monet was particularly interested in were the 17th-century church Santa Maria Della Salute, which he could see from the opposite side of the Grand Canal, and the Venetian Gothic Doge’s Palace. Both these buildings are instantly recognisable from their unique structure, however, once again, Monet was not interested in this. The various lights altered the sharpness of the buildings depicted; some appear blurred, whereas, others are much clearer.

The unfortunate thing about all of these paintings today is they are rarely shown together, as Monet intended. One gallery may own a version that was painted on a clear, sunny day, whereas, another may only have access to a foggy scene, thus not showing Monet’s skills as a painter of buildings. In order to appreciate the paintings fully, they need to be displayed together so that the different effets can be compared and contrasted. Luckily, the National Gallery was able to provide a couple of different copies of each building for the Monet & Architecture exhibition.

Venice was the last city Monet painted; his eyesight was deteriorating and he was reluctant to undergo a cataract operation. As a result, he was often unable to work. After Alice died in 1911, Monet tended to stay at home, painting in his garden. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Monet remained in safety at Giverny, painting large canvases of Nymphéas (waterlilies). He continued as best as he could, wearing corrective glasses to aid his vision, until his death in December 1926 at the age of 86.

The National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture provided a new way of looking at Monet’s work. Instead of perceiving him as an en plein air French Impressionist with a penchant for waterlilies and poppies, the Gallery provided a different insight, introducing the non-artistic to the term effets and the result of focusing on atmosphere instead intricate details. This was the first exhibition of its kind and the National Gallery did an excellent job.

Monet & Architecture closed on 29th July 2018, however, there are many exciting exhibitions to look forward to in the near future. Visit the National Gallery’s website for details.