Following the Stars

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

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

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

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

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

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

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

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

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

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

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

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

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

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

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

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

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

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

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

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

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

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

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

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

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

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

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

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Virgin of the Rocks

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The 500th anniversary year of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) death has come to an end but not before the National Gallery jumped on the bandwagon and ended the year with the exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. Unlike the Queen’s Gallery, which focused on Leonardo’s life, and the British Library, which displayed examples of his notebooks, the National Gallery chose to focus on just one of the artist’s paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks.

The exhibition was split into four sections, each exploring a different aspect. Firstly, by reading quotes from Leonardo’s notebooks in a mirror (he always wrote backwards) visitors learnt about his fascination with rocks and landscapes, which feature in the background of many of his works. Secondly, visitors were introduced to a mock-modern studio, which revealed the secrets that science and conservation have revealed about The Virgin of the Rocks, for example, the colours used and the discarded composition hidden under the paint. The third room allowed visitors to experiment with shadows, discovering the dramatic effects light has on an object. Finally, visitors came face to face with the original painting, hanging on the wall of an imagined chapel to contemplate how the masterpiece looked in its original setting.

The Virgin of the Rocks, sometimes known as Madonna of the Rocks, is the title of two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. They both depict the same scene: the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting; however, there are a few significant differences, for example, the direction of the angel’s gaze. The original version, or at least the version considered to be the eldest, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, the other, hangs in the National Gallery and was the subject of the Leonardo exhibition.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Virgin of the Rocks shortly after his move to Milan in the early 1480s. Having established his painting career in Florence, Leonardo had moved to search for new opportunities, which he found at the church of S. Francesco Grande. On 25th April 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scoreline contracted Leonardo to produce painted panels for the new altarpiece in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception that was attached to the church. Leonardo was contracted as the “master” of the project with brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis as his assistants.

The artists were instructed on the colours and subject of the paintings. The central panel was to be of the Virgin Mary and Christ child with two prophets, perhaps David and Isaiah, surrounded by angels. Another panel was to show the Virgin Mary with God the panels to the side of the main painting were to contain angelic musicians. The job was to be completed by 8th December 1483, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

As can be seen when looking at both versions of the painting, Leonardo did not stick to the instructions. Only one angel is present in the scene and there are no prophets except for the child John the Baptist. The church was not happy with the work Leonardo had produced by the completion deadline, therefore, he continued to work on it for a further five years until they were satisfied. Unfortunately, there was a dispute over payment so Leonardo, whether from spite or the need for money, sold the painting, which has eventually found itself in the Louvre. Leonardo was allowed to begin a second version, which was installed in the chapel in 1508.

The subject of the two paintings, which was not what the church had originally requested, is the adoration of the Christ child by the infant John the Baptist. Although it depicts Biblical characters, the scene is not an event that features in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew reports that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was warned by an angel in a dream about King Herod the Great who had ordered that “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” were to be killed. (Matthew 2:16 ESV) Therefore, Joseph fled to Egypt with his wife and Jesus.

Several non-Biblical stories explain the flight to Egypt in more detail. One such story claims John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was also staying with his family in Bethlehem where the Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Whilst the Holy Family made their way to Egypt after the angel’s warning, John the Baptist was escorted there by the Archangel Uriel, where he met his aunt and cousin on the road. It is this scene that Leonardo painted, therefore, it is assumed the angel he depicted is Uriel. Similar stories, however, claim the angel was Gabriel.

It is not certain whose idea it was to deviate from the original contract but Leonardo had just come from Florence, whose patron saint was John the Baptist. Many religious artworks produced in Renaissance Florence involved the Christ child with John the Baptist, therefore, it may have only been natural for Leonardo to include the future preacher in his painting.

Both paintings contain the same subject matter and similar background of rocks and distant mountains. The Christ child sits on the right of the painting, being supported by the angel, raising his hand as a sign of Benediction towards his cousin. John, on the opposite side of the painting, kneels with his hands together as though in prayer, whilst gazing at Jesus. This, however, is where the similarities end.

The figures in the second painting are slightly larger than the original and everything is more defined. In the first, the angel’s hand is raised as though pointing at John, whereas in the second, he rests his hand on his lap. The pointing angel also looks out towards the viewer, almost as though it is saying, “Look, it is John!” Leonardo’s second angel, on the other hand, looks down in a contemplative manner. Other notable differences include the halos, which are omited in the first painting, and the cross held by John, which only features in the second.

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A study of the fall of light on a face, about 1488

The style of the second painting appears to be remarkably different from the former. The sharpness of the outlines is one thing but there is also a lot of attention to shadow and shade. Notebooks belonging to Leonardo reveal he approached his paintings in a scientific way. Being a polymath, Leonardo was interested in the natural world and human anatomy, therefore, paid great attention to detail. He was aware of the effects light had on an image. When lit from above, shadows fall in a different direction to when lit from below, which can create a vastly different appearance. In the first painting, there is a distinct lack of shadow, however, it features heavily in the second.

The effect of contrasting light and shadow in art is known as chiaroscuro, which is derived from the Latin words for clear/bright and dark/obscure. The term was first used during the Renaissance period, coinciding with Leonardo’s career. Since it was a new idea, Leonardo may not have been educated in chiaroscuro painting but rather developed the style himself. This could explain the difference in style between version one and two, however, some people also suggest the second was painted by someone else under Leonardo’s instruction.

The rocky background blocks out a lot of the natural light, the only daylight coming through a small gap to the left of Mary. As a result, the opposite corner is in shadow and only parts of the four figures are lit by the light. Rather than making it difficult to view the characters, the gloomy light creates an unnatural illumination, which highlights and emphasises their features.

Another technique Leonardo used is sfumato, which means “shaded off”. This is a method for softening the transition between colours and tones, making parts of the painting appear out of focus. It is also useful when painting backgrounds, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye can see. Leonardo described sfumato as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders “in the manner of smoke”.

Leonardo used sfumato around the edges of delicate forms, such as the Virgin Mary’s facial features. Rather than drawing the nose, eyes and mouth with stark outlines, Leonardo made them seem to emerge gradually from the darkness. By using graduated smoky tones, the figures appear three-dimensional.

Leonardo also used sfumato in the background where the tips of the mountain reached the sky, creating the illusion that the land continues on further than the eye can see. Just as he had studied how the light fell on the human figures, Leonardo concentrated on the shadows on the rocks that framed the light source, making the background as interesting to look at as the figures in the foreground.

As well as being a prolific painter and biologist, Leonardo had a lifelong passion for the natural world. Many of his surviving sketches feature his observations of nature, including rivers, rock formations, trees and plants, including a star-of-Bethlehem, which features in the foreground of Virgin of the Rocks. The majority of these drawings were observations of the areas he lived or travelled through. It may be due to this fascination that Leonardo used a dramatic rock formation for the background of both versions of the painting. It certainly does not represent the Egyptian deserts of the land to which the Holy Family fled.

Although the rock formation is a natural landscape, it creates an other-worldly landscape when placed behind the Virgin Mary. The broken rocks thrust upwards from the ground and downwards from the roof of a cave, creating energy that contrasts with the peaceful meeting of John and Jesus as well as the calm water between the rocks and the mountains in the distance.

The landscape feels primaeval, as though it had remained untouched since God created it thousands of years before Christ’s birth. The presence of the Holy Family makes the environment come alive, plants blooming beneath John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Although one plant appears to be a star-of-Bethlehem, the other plants have been invented by Leonardo.

Whilst The Virgin of the Rocks (second version) is impressive to look at, science and technology have revealed hidden details that create a mystery about the painting and commission. Many paintings have underdrawings, showing the preliminary sketches of the artist before they began applying paint to the canvas. When conservators examined The Virgin of the Rocks in 2005 for the underdrawing, they were surprised to find a different sketch to the final composition.

Infrared reflectography (IRR) revealed Leonardo had begun a drawing of the Virgin Mary then abandoned it. A detailed eye could be seen on the scans but little was thought of it at the time other than the artist had not been happy and started again.

More recently, the painting has been examined again with new technologies and more details have been discovered. Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning showed up elements under the painting that had been drawn in a material that contained zinc. This showed up an alternative composition of the angel and Christ child. With wings slightly open, the angel appears to be looking tenderly down at the baby, holding him in a tight embrace.

Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) provided clearer images of the angel and baby, revealing that the Christ child’s arm is raised. Whether Jesus was interacting with the angel or reaching for his mother or John is unclear.

When examining the rest of the painting, an entirely different scene was revealed. The angel appears to be holding the Christ child on his lap, who is reaching out for his mother. Rather than sitting comfortably as she is in the finished version, Mary is on her knees in mid-movement, facing her son with one arm thrown out and the other on her chest as though in adoration. John the Baptist does not appear at all.

No one knows why Leonardo changed his original composition so drastically. Perhaps there was an intervention from the church who may have wanted Leonardo to paint a replica of the first painting. Nonetheless, this second version is by no means a reproduction. The use of lighting and attention to detail shows Leonardo had conducted more research into optics and human physiology, resulting in a more realistic interpretation of the Holy Family.

There may be more hidden under the painted layers of The Virgin of the Rocks, however, until technology is enhanced further, there is no way of knowing. Unfortunately, it is 500 years since the artist died, therefore, it is impossible to answer the many questions these revelations provoke.

Using lights and animation, the National Gallery recreated how Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks would have looked in its original setting. Today, Leonardo’s work hangs as a stand-alone painting in the gallery, however, it was originally made to be inserted into a pre-existing sculpted altarpiece, carved by Giacomo del Maino (1469-1505), in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Over the following centuries, the altar was modified several times and eventually dismantled in 1780. The chapel in which the altar stood had also been demolished, and the rest of the church was torn down by Napoleon (1769-1821) to make way for barracks in 1806.

Following the dismantling of the altar, the Scottish painter and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton (1723-98) purchased Leonardo’s painting and brought it to England. Two paintings of angels that featured on the altar, although not painted by Leonardo, were also sold, however, the rest of the altarpiece is now lost.

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The Contract

Some evidence remains that helps us picture what the chapel once looked like. The commission for a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin can be traced to the spring of 1475 when the Franciscan friar and theologian Stefano da Oleggio proposed the idea during one of his sermons. Italian painters Francesco Zavattari (active 1417-1453) and Giorgio della Chiesa were commissioned to paint the decorative touches to the dome of the chapel, which included stars and the images of God, seraphim and the four Evangelists.

The contract states that the chosen sculptor of the altar had previously produced altarpieces in other churches in places such as Ponte, Sernio, Morbegno and Ardenno to the north of Milan. It is likely the church requested something similar from the sculptor.

As well as the paintings, Leonardo and his two assistants were contracted to paint and guild the entire altarpiece. In total, sixteen items were included in the contract. A statue of “Our Lady” was to have an outer coat of gold and ultramarine blue brocade and a dress of gold and crimson. The seraphim were to be painted red, but the other angels were to be decorated “in the Greek manner, painted in oils.” The place where the Christ child lay was to be painted to resemble a straw basket. “All the faces, hands and legs that are bare should be painted in oil to perfection.”

It is from the description of the contract and the existing examples of altarpieces from other churches in the area that the National Gallery managed to recreate an interactive version of the altar at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Of course, no one can ever be certain how it looked but to see The Virgin of the Rocks in situ was a breathtaking experience.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece has been extended until 26th January 2020, therefore, there is one week remaining in which to view The Virgin of the Rocks in a unique setting. Tickets are £18 and it is recommended that a timed ticket is purchased in advance of the visit.

Gauguin Portraits

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Self Portrait, 1885

This winter (2019) in an exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse, the National Gallery is providing visitors with the opportunity to view the portraits of Paul Gauguin. Never exhibited together before, the portraits illustrate the artist’s life from his early years in France to his last in French Polynesia. Fifty paintings have been sourced from collections all over the world that demonstrate Gauguin’s experimental use of colour and Synthetist style that, whilst unappreciated during his lifetime, have made him an important figure in art history.

The exhibition begins with a selection of Gauguin’s self-portraits. Described as self-obsessed, Gauguin painted himself many times throughout his career, believing that the world could only be understood from his point of view. He thought art could only exist in relation to memory, dreams, heritage and emotions, therefore, many of his paintings reflect the way he saw the world.

Often, Gauguin used himself as a model for paintings that were not necessarily intended to be self-portraits. By adopting other personas, Gauguin placed himself in histories and mythologies, showing the world how he interpreted the stories.

On more than one occasion, Gauguin painted himself as Christ. He is not the only artist to have done this; Dürer (1471-1528), for instance, had used himself as a model for Christ centuries before. Gauguin’s features are highly recognisable in his paintings of Christ and his facial expressions demonstrate Christ’s anguish and distress. He found a parallel between himself and Christ, feeling that he too was misunderstood.

In Christ in the Garden of Olives, the red-haired Gauguin depicts himself as Christ on the eve of his betrayal. When he painted this, Gauguin was struggling to sell his work and felt isolated and persecuted by the art world. By using himself as the model for this Biblical event, Gauguin communicated his own sense of suffering.

There is less emotion in Self Portrait (Near Golgotha), which was painted in front of Gauguin’s impression of the hill on which Christ was crucified. To the left of Christ – or Gauguin – is the head of a Polynesian idol. To understand this reference, the viewer needs to know a little about Gauguin’s life, particularly his later years.

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Paul Gauguin, 1981

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848 to Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. Both parents were rather radical; his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of the political and feminist activist, Flora Tristan (1803-44).

Gauguin’s mother was of Spanish-Peruvian descent and the family decided to move to Peru in 1849 shortly after the Revolution in France. Clovis hoped the move would help his journalistic career, however, he died of a heart attack en route. Aline arrived in Peru a widow with 18-month-old Paul and his 212 year-old sister, Marie. They were welcomed by Aline’s great-uncle whose son-in-law was soon to become the president of Peru. Due to the prestige of his mother’s family, Gauguin grew up attended by nursemaids and servants.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s family fell from political power during Peruvian civil conflicts in 1854 and returned to France. Gauguin and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandfather in Orléans while his mother worked as a dressmaker in Paris. Despite this unconventional life, Gauguin received a prestigious Catholic education at Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, a boarding school in the north of France. This was followed by a couple of years at the Loriol Institute, a naval school preparatory in Paris, and a final year at the Lycée Jeanne D’Arc in Orléans.

On finishing school, Gauguin enlisted as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine and later served in the French Navy for two years. Unbeknownst to him, his mother died on 7th July 1867 whilst he was at sea and he did not learn of the death until his sister found him in India. Although he had enjoyed sailing around the world, Gauguin returned to Paris where family friend Gustave Arosa acted as his legal guardian.

With Arosa’s help, Gauguin got a job as a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse when he was twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, Gauguin became a successful businessman earning 30,000 francs a year. During this time, he met a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920) who he married in 1873. Around the same time, he began painting in his free time and became friends with the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who encouraged Gauguin’s love of art.

Pissarro introduced Gauguin to other artists, including Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). He was encouraged to take part in three Impressionist exhibitions, however, the reviews he received were rather dismissive in comparison to the highly regarded opinions today.

Gauguin and Mette had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–97); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961), who were frequent subjects of Gauguin’s paintings. Initially, the Gauguin family were fairly well off, however, in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed causing Gauguin’s earnings to diminish almost entirely. As a result, he decided to become a full-time painter.

The family moved to Rouen on the River Seine where they could live more cheaply. Gauguin hoped he would be able to earn a living from his paintings, however, the venture proved unsuccessful. As he was unable to provide for them, Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, presumably to stay with her family. Gauguin and his art collection joined them in 1884, however, the Danish city proved to be as equally difficult to establish himself as an artist. He was soon urged to return to Paris along with his six-year-old son Clovis.

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Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886

Gauguin found it hard to get back into the Parisian art world and was virtually living in poverty. He took on menial jobs to earn a bit of money but it was not enough to live on and his son Clovis fell ill. This prompted Gauguin’s sister to pay for Clovis to attend boarding school.

Without Clovis to look after, Gauguin was able to focus on his art. Although he did not produce many paintings during this time, he tried to sell artworks he had produced in Rouen and Copenhagen. He exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which had a similar outcome to the previous three, however, he did sell one painting to the French painter Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914).

Attracted by the affordable living conditions, Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Many art students visited the area, including Charles Laval (1861-94) who became an admirer and follower of Gauguin. In a still-life resembling the work of Cézanne, Gauguin included a side profile of Laval at the edge of the picture looking at the fruit displayed on the table.

The following year, Laval accompanied Gaugain to Panama and Martinique in the Caribbean. Despite suffering from dysentery and marsh fever, he produced a dozen paintings. On his return to France, these were displayed in a gallery where they were admired by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and the art dealer Theo van Gogh (1857-91). Theo purchased three of Gauguin’s paintings for 900 francs and arranged for them to be hung in his art gallery.

Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh became close friends and in 1888 Gauguin was invited to spend nine weeks at his Yellow House in Arles. They spent the time painting together, often producing the same scenes. On more than one occasion, they set their easels up side by side to paint portraits, for example, Augustine Roulin (1851-1930), the postman’s wife. Whilst Van Gogh rapidly completely his painting with large brushstrokes, Gauguin took his time using washes of flat, bold colours that almost resemble Japanese woodblock prints. Another portrait they both produced was of Marie Ginous (1848-1911), the owner of the Café de la Gare near Van Gogh’s home. Once again, Van Gogh immediately attacked his canvas with paint, whereas, Gauguin spent at least an hour making a detailed charcoal sketch before moving on to paint.

Whilst in Arles, Gauguin experimented with Van Gogh’s technique of completing a painting in one sitting. This was very different from his usual approach, which involved working over many sessions, however, the result is a pleasing, more energetic, freer portrait. The rapid brushstrokes of Old Man with a Stick emphasise the roughened skin of the sitter, particularly his red-raw hands from years of manual work.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s close relationship with Van Gogh was not to last. The Dutch painter’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and Gauguin decided he ought to leave. Distraught, Van Gogh, who worship Gauguin, confronted him with a razor blade, however, Gauguin still left and never saw Van Gogh again. Reportedly, later that evening, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a brothel saying, “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.”

Through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Gauguin met the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852-95). Together, Gauguin and De Haan visited Brittany where Gauguin produced many portraits of the artist. The National Gallery displays a couple of drawings Gauguin produced, presumably studies for larger paintings, and a wooden carving.

As well as painting, Gauguin produced sculptures from a variety of materials. In this instance, Gauguin produced a wooden sculpture of De Haan in the style of the religious sculptures they saw in Brittany. Originally decorated with brightly painted ambiguous symbols, De Haan’s face rises out of a block of oak wood. On his head is a winged creature that some believe to be a rooster, which would be a play on the English translation of De Haan’s name.

In 1891, Gauguin saw his family for the last time in Copenhagen. Gauguin and Mette’s marriage had fallen apart when he chose painting over his family and the rift was irreparable. His wife asked him to leave and Gauguin decided to leave European civilisation altogether.

After a successful auction of his paintings, Gauguin used the money to pay for his voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti where he hoped to find a culture unspoilt by the West. He was fed up with the “artificial and conventional” European culture, however, when he reached Tahiti he was dismayed to discover that the island had been taken over by missionaries and French colonialists. He settled in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, but was upset at the lack of the primitive idyll he had visualised.

Missionaries distrusted the traditional Tahitian way of life and forced the women to wear modest clothing based on the styles worn in Europe. Outraged by this, Gauguin soon moved to Papeari in the south of the Island where he hoped to discover a more authentic lifestyle. Examples of the clothing the Tahitian women were forced to wear can be seen in many of Gauguin’s paintings produced on the Island. In Melancholic, a young Tahitian woman wears a bright pink missionary dress, however, her melancholic demeanour implies she is less than happy about the gradual disappearance of her culture in the wake of colonial contact.

While in Papeari, Gauguin was involved in many sexual relations with young Tahitian girls. He supposedly married two of them, although the term “marry” is rather loose, after all, he still had a European wife. His first Tahitian “wife” Tehamana (1878-1918) was only 13 or 14 years old when they met and, although it was customary for women to marry young, Gauguin may have exploited his privilege as a Westerner to claim her.
Tehamana features in many of Gauguin’s portraits, for example, Woman with a Mango, which was later purchased by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) in 1895. In the majority of these paintings, Tehamana is an anonymous model, however, on one occasion, Gauguin names her in the title. The Ancestors of Tehamana shows Tehamana in a typical missionary dress, however, she is surrounded by spiritual references from her past, or at least Gauguin’s interpretation of traditional Tahitian beliefs. Symbols include glyphs similar to those found on ancient tablets, a female figure and spirits of the dead.

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Arii matamoe (The Royal End), 1892

In an attempt to console himself from his disappointment at the lack of authentic culture, Gauguin often added fictional elements to his paintings. Gauguin wanted to paint local customs but found they were remarkably similar to those back home. After witnessing the funeral of Pōmare V (1839-91), a Tahitian king, Gauguin painted an imagined version of events, which included the disembodied head of the deceased being displayed and mourned over.

Gauguin sent many of his Tahitian paintings to France where his patron, George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929) arranged for them to be displayed in a couple of exhibitions. Unfortunately, not many sold and Gauguin was getting dangerously low on funds. He was also suffering from a suspected heart problem, which in hindsight may have been early signs of cardiovascular syphilis, so Gauguin decided to return to France, leaving his “wife” and newborn child behind.

Gauguin arrived in Marseille on 30th August 1893. Although he was back in France, his work was still focused on Tahitian life. He began writing an account of his time on the island in a book called Noa Noa, however, critics claim it to be highly fictionalised and, on occasion, plagiarised.

Tahiti’s influence can be seen in Gauguin’s self-portrait from 1893. Although he wears typical Breton clothing, a sculpture of a Polynesian goddess can be seen in the background. Interestingly, Gauguin did not produce any pictures of himself while in Tahiti, yet immediately returned to the topic on his return to France.

After a moderately successful exhibition in November 1894, he moved to 6 rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris where he hosted regular gatherings with artists, musicians and writers. He was known for his exotic dress sense which exuded the atmosphere of the South Seas. Unfortunately, sales of his paintings were either slow or non-existent, so he decided to try his luck in Brittany.

While in Brittany, Gauguin demonstrated the typical scenes he saw in colonised Tahiti. Armed with a bright yellow missionary dress he had brought with him, Gauguin commissioned a young Breton woman to pose as a model. Standing on the wayside praying, Gauguin’s representation of the woman combines traditional Breton lifestyle with missionary characteristics.

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Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889

In 1895, after raising a tiny amount of money, Gauguin returned to Tahiti. For a time, he achieved a steady stream of sales and lived a comfortable life with other artists near Papeete. He took on another “wife” called Pau’ura, however, their daughter passed away shortly after birth. By this time he was also suffering from ill health and spent a short time in hospital during the summer of 1896.

The following year, Gauguin was able to send some of his artwork to France where they were exhibited in Paris as well as Brussels in Belgium. During this time, his book Noa Noa was being published in instalments. Yet, this brief period of positivity was not to last. In April 1897, Gauguin received the terrible news that his daughter Aline had died from pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Devastated, the news led him to attempt suicide.

Once again suffering financially, Gauguin was compelled to take a desk job at the Office of Public Works in Papeete. Meanwhile, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939) attempted to sell Gauguin’s paintings in France.

Gauguin began to play a role in Tahitian politics and contributed to the colonial government journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps). This encouraged him to establish his own monthly satirical journal Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later retitled Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper). In 1900, he also became the editor of Les Guêpes from which he received a salary.

Life on Tahiti was becoming increasingly westernised and Gauguin was frequently in hospital. Regardless of his health, Gauguin was determined to find somewhere more “authentic” and in September 1901 moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in Polynesia. There was no doctor on the island and Gauguin had to rely on the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had a little medical training.

Gauguin and Vernier became friends, however, many of the missionaries on the island were not impressed with his studio called the “House of Pleasure” in which he conducted relationships with local women as well as painting. Gauguin was particularly averse to the bishop Monseigneur Joseph Martin whose likeness he carved from miro wood. Titled Père Paillard (Father Lecher), Gauguin included devil horns to show how he really felt about the bishop.

When he was well enough, Gauguin painted portraits of the locals in their native costume or lack of, such as in Barbarian Tales. Another caricature of the bishop can be seen behind the two semi-naked ladies in the foreground.

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Self Portrait, 1903

By 1903, Gauguin’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He painted his final self-portrait, which was much simpler and less exotic than his usual style, and gave it as a gift to the Vietnamese exile Nguyen Van Cam (Ky Dong) who, along with Vernier, helped to look after him in his ill-health.

On 8th May 1903, Gauguin was weak and in great pain. He sent for Pastor Vernier, complaining that he kept experiencing fainting fits. Vernier ensured he was stable, however, later that day he was found dead by a neighbour. An empty bottle of laudanum on the bedside suggested he may have been the victim of an overdose, however, the general consensus is that he had suffered a heart attack.

Like his old friend Van Gogh, Gauguin did not receive any accolades until after his death. Today, people flock to exhibitions to see his work and his paintings belong to collections all over the world. Whilst the National Gallery’s exhibition only focuses on portraits, it manages to tell the story of Gauguin’s life from birth through to his final days. A 15-minute video provides specific details and an analysis of his work.

Paul Gauguin would be amazed to see the number of people purchasing tickets to see his work. He would never have thought that his work would sell for $210 million, as one piece did in 2014. He was also the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham’s (1875-1965) novel The Moon and Sixpence.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition Gauguin Portraits can be seen at the National Gallery in London until 26th January 2020. Tickets are priced at £22-24, although various concessions apply.

Spanish Master of Light

It has been over a century since the works of the Spanish painter Sorolla (1863-1923) were last exhibited in the UK. Known as the “Master of Light” for his luminous paintings, the National Gallery in London has provided the opportunity to see a collection of his works outside of Spain, a chance that may not come again for another hundred years. Until 17th July, The National Gallery has possession of Sorolla’s vivid seascapes and beach scenes, portraits, landscapes and Spanish genre scenes, totalling 58 canvases, many of which won awards.

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Self Portrait, 1904

In the first room of the exhibition, the National Gallery describes Sorolla as a family man, however, little is mentioned of his unfortunate upbringing prior to his marriage in 1888. Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was born on 27th February 1863 in Valencia, Spain to a tradesman, for whom he was named, and his wife, Concepción Bastida. The following year, Sorolla’s sister Concha was born, however, by August 1865, the siblings were orphaned after their parents died from cholera. Fortunately, their maternal aunt and her locksmith husband were able to care for both of the children.

Little else is recorded about Sorolla’s early years except that he began studying art from the age of nine. At 18, Sorolla travelled to Madrid where he studied the masters at the Museo del Prado and at 22, after completing military service, he received a grant to study painting in Rome for four years. These experiences introduced Sorolla to the traditional forms of painting, however, a temporary stay in Paris opened his eyes to the potential of modern painting.

 

In 1888, Sorolla returned to Valencia to marry Clotilde García del Castillo (1865-1929), who he had met ten years previously when working in her father’s art studio. In 1890, the couple moved to the Spanish capital, Madrid, and by 1895 they had three children: María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). The National Gallery displays portraits Sorolla made of his wife and children, however, they do not show the exceptional talent of the Spanish painter. These portraits introduce the artist and his family in the same way that a photo album would today.

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Mother, 1895-1900

A canvas titled Mother gives a better indication of Sorolla’s potential. The painting reveals Clotilde in bed looking tenderly at her youngest child, Elena, who is enveloped in a bright, white, cottony swathe of light. Although both the bedspread and walls are white, Sorolla has softened the brightness with yellow and green tones to create gentle shadows. This is one of the early examples of Sorolla’s excellent ability to control light in his artwork.

Although Sorolla is considered to be a Spanish impressionist artist, he preferred to work on large canvases, unlike the French impressionists who worked to a much more smaller scale. After his marriage, Sorolla began concentrating on producing large scale works on a social realism theme. Whilst Spanish landscape paintings were greatly admired, Sorolla wanted to bring attention to the hardships of working-class people who lived in the country.

 

Sorolla’s social realism paintings ended up in exhibitions displayed in numerous cities, including Madrid, Paris, Venice, Munich, Berlin, and Chicago. His first success occurred in 1892 when he was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid for his painting Another Marguerite. This award was shortly followed by first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition for the same painting.

Inspired by a scene Sorolla witnessed on a train, Another Marguerite depicts a broken woman who has been arrested for allegedly suffocating her baby son. Immediately after the event, Sorolla asked passengers to recreate the scene so that he could begin sketching out his idea. The diagonal view of the carriage emphasises its starkness and the downhearted appearance of the woman and two guards is contrasted with the warm glow of light from the window. All these elements build up a melancholy image that, even without context, stirs emotions in the viewers. The title stems from a character in Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

Fishing was a popular career for working-class men in Valencia and, whilst it was often rewarding, it also had its dangers. And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! features two fishermen attending their young companion who has been injured by a fish hook. The unstable space within the rocking boat is not the best conditions for performing potential life-saving procedures, however, this is the only space accessible to the fishermen. The title mocks the Spanish population who complain about the price of fish not realising the dangers the fishermen face on a daily basis.

This painting reflects the style of art taught in art schools at the time, the portrayal of light resembling that of 17th-century naturalist painting. Sorolla’s final social realism painting, however, is much more indicative of his future mature work. Sad Inheritance (1899) shows a group of crippled boys bathing in the sea in Valencia under the observation of a monk. These children are crippled as a result of their parents’ syphilis, hence the title Sad Inheritance.

Despite taking the Paris World Exhibition by storm in 1900 and receiving the medal of honour at the National Exhibition in Madrid the following year, Sorolla never returned to the social realism genre. “I suffered terribly when I painted it. I had to continuously force myself. I will never paint a subject like that again.”

 

Sorolla went on to win another gold medal, this time at the Paris Salon in 1895 for his much-admired painting The Return from Fishing (1894). This genre painting shows a group of fishermen returning to shore after fishing on the coast of Valencia. Two oxen are towing the boat through the last of the shallow waters to dry ground. Although Sorolla produced other paintings of fishermen, this was the first to demonstrate Sorolla’s personal style. The way the sunlight plays on the water is excellently portrayed as are the shadows created by the vessel, men and animals. As Sorolla said himself, this was the first canvas on which he had managed to give visual form to his painterly ideal.

Sewing the Sail (1896), which won awards in Munich and Vienna, was not as greatly received by some of the critics. Not so keen on the cramped conditions of the sewing party, critic José Ramón Mélida (1856-1933) wrote, “It is highly audacious for him that mass of formless canvas that seems to be the protagonist of the composition.” Whilst Mélida may not have approved of the overall composition, Sorolla was revealing the conditions in which the seamstresses were forced to work. Although the women seem cheerful, emphasised by the colourful climbing vine, their working conditions were not necessarily appropriate for the large canvas sail. Nonetheless, the mass of material gave Sorolla the opportunity to experiment with light and shadow over the folded sail.

These two paintings and many of his other works are known as costumbrismo, which is a term that sums up the “literary and pictorial interpretation of local everyday life, mannerisms, and customs, primarily in the Hispanic scene,” particularly in the 19th century. The majority of Sorolla’s works fall into this category and usually focus on a scene out in the open air. Packing Raisins (1901), however, is set in a gloomier location, which Sorolla witnessed during a sojourn in Jávea in the summer of 1901. Until more recent years, foods like raisins were individually packed by hand – a gruelling, tedious task. Sorolla captured the dreariness of the occupation using thick impasto, which was rather unusual for the artist but, perhaps, was inspired by other impressionist painters.

 

“I dislike painting portraits, unless it is in the open air.”
– Sorolla, 1909

Whilst Sorolla produced a few portraits, it was not his favoured genre of painting. Nonetheless, he applied himself to the genre and was rewarded with a considerable income and firm reputation, particularly in Spain and the United States of America. The portraits displayed by the National Gallery, reveal that Sorolla painted traditional “mundane”, elegant portraits in a similar style to that of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828), both of whom Sorolla admired greatly. In fact, the Spanish journalist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867-1928) wrote an essay in which he referred to Sorolla as the “grandson of Velázquez, son of Goya.”

Velázquez’s influence on Sorolla can be seen in Portrait of Ralph Clarkson (1911) in which a segment of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) can be seen in the background. Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942) was an American painter who also admired Velázquez. Las Meninas being both artists’ favourite painting was an appropriate addition to the commissioned portrait.

More references to both Velázquez and Goya can be seen in Sorolla’s painting My Children (1904) from which the figures: María, Joaquín and Elena; emerge from a dark background. It is evident that Sorolla asked his children to pose for the painting, which has resulted in a rather disconcertingly intense stare on their faces – thus not quite replicating Velázquez’s technique.

Other artists’ styles creep into Sorolla’s work every now and then, for instance, the aforementioned impressionists. Sorolla’s Portrait of Amalia Romea, lady of Laiglesia (1897), however, was influenced by the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Sorolla painted Amalia Romea in a soft colour palette typical of Alma-Tadema. The side-on, relaxed position of the sitter is also reminiscent of the Dutch-British artist.

Portrait of Mr. Taft, President of the United States, 1909

Although Sorolla may not have enjoyed portraiture as much as his other types of painting, his reputation caught the eye of William Howard Taft (1857-1930), the 27th President of the United States of America. Invited to stay at the White House with the Spanish-speaking Taft family, Sorolla painted the proud president in a similar fashion to the dark, elegant portraits of Velázquez and Goya. Whilst this particular painting is not displayed in the National Gallery’s exhibition – it is on permanent display at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio – it features in the Exhibition Film, which all visitors are invited to view.

 

Without a doubt, Sorolla’s artistic abilities are at their highest in his paintings of beach scenes. It is the way he created realistic light as well as the movement and dampness of the water that earned him the title “Master of Light”. Living in Valencia and other areas of Spain gave Sorolla plenty of opportunity to capture images of children playing on the sand and amongst the waves. At the time, it was usual for boys to play on the beach naked, whereas girls wore thin dresses or wraps. Although in today’s society scenes such as these would cause outrage, Sorolla’s paintings express the innocence, freedom and joy of the children at play.

Sorolla perfectly captures the colours and movements of the water, of which The White Boat, Jávea (1905) is a perfect example. The sunlight reflecting on the water is extremely realistic, as is the shadow of the boat and the bodies of the two boys swimming in the sea. Boys on the Beach (1909) is another painting that makes Sorolla worthy of his “Master of Light” title. Although the water is shallow, the sand is clearly covered with a layer of liquid and a sheen of water reflects off of the boys’ bare bodies.

Some of these beach scenes also fall into the costumbrismo genre, for example, Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904). Here, a young boy is carrying a basket of fish whilst other children his age splash around in the sea. Despite his age, he is already in the world of work, perhaps coming from a poor family who relies on the income of their children as well as their own to get by.

Running Along the Beach, Valencia (1908), on the other hand, reveals the carefree nature of children who were not forced into work. This is one of Sorolla’s most impressive works; not only has he painted the light on the sea, sand, clothes and bodies, but he has also captured the fast movement of the children. For paintings of this nature, it is not possible to ask someone to pose, the moment is over in a blink of the eye. Sorolla created many quick sketches and studies until he was satisfied with the composition, only then did he take to the larger canvas.

 

Throughout his career, Sorolla became increasingly known throughout the United States. His success resulted in a commission from Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), the founder of the Hispanic Society of New York, in 1911 to paint a decorative frieze for a new hall at the institution. Huntington initially wanted a mural featuring the milestones in Spanish history, however, Sorolla convinced him to focus on “renderings of contemporary life in Spain”. The frieze was to be over 70 metres long and just under four metres in height but Sorolla was not comfortable working at that size and proposed to break it down into a series of canvases of various dimensions.

This commission, known as the Visions of Spain, occupied the majority of Sorolla’s time from 1911 until 1919. During these years, Sorolla was constantly travelling around Spain in order to “truthfully capture, clearly and without symbolism or literature, the psychology of each region.” Sorolla wanted to portray a truthful representation of his country as well as reveal “the picturesque aspects of each region.”

Sorolla focused heavily on the Spanish traditions, often hiring peasants to pose for him in regional dress and various costumes. Whilst these carefully positioned portraits were arguably not the “truth” of the country, they did combine Spanish practices, beliefs and culture.

Unfortunately, this commission required an enormous effort from the ageing artist and it began to affect his health. As a result, Sorolla’s other projects began to dwindle and his reputation began to drop. By the time the Visions of Spain was installed in the hall in 1926, three years after his death, his prominence in the United States had waned and the opening of the hall did not cause the anticipated sensation.

 

“We painters can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.”
– Sorolla

The exhibition of Sorolla’s work reveals that not only was he skilled at representing natural light in his paintings, but he also loved working in outdoor settings. His better artworks are those that include bodies of water, particularly the sea. A handful of landscape paintings of gardens and famous Spanish buildings fail to live up to the reputation Sorolla set himself with his beach paintings. One of the final rooms of the exhibition displayed a few of the landscapes and gardens, however, the only two that particularly stood out were Reflections in a Fountain (1908) and The Smugglers (1919).

Reflections in a Fountain was painted in the gardens of the Alcázar of Seville. Rather than painting the facade of the building, Sorolla chose to paint the building’s reflection in the water of the fountain. By doing this, Sorolla was able to focus on the light and ripples on the water, which, as evidenced in his beach scenes, he is an expert at.

The Smugglers, whilst considered in the exhibition to be a landscape, is more of a genre or beach painting. Set above the cliffs looking down at the water, several smugglers are caught on canvas climbing up the rock face. Once again, Sorolla was able to play with the bright sunlight on the distant waves and the bright patches and shadows on the steep rocks.

The exhibition also reveals a little about Sorolla as a person. It is evident that he is a family man, faithful to his wife and protective of his children. When his eldest María contracted tuberculosis, Sorolla missed out on two exhibitions whilst he nursed her back to health.

Not including portraits, Sorolla’s children appear in many of his paintings. In Skipping Rope, La Granja (1907), for instance, Elena is skipping around a pond with some younger children. His daughters also appear walking along the beach, sitting on a bench, or even painting their own paintings in his other works.

Sorolla’s career came to an end in 1920 when he suffered a stroke midway through a painting. With half his body paralysed, he was unable to work and his health deteriorated rapidly over the next three years. He finally died on 10th August 1923 when he was staying in the mountains near Madrid. Although his popularity in the States had diminished, he was still loved and respected in his own country and received a state funeral in his native Valencia.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light reintroduces a unique artist to a new generation. Although he has been called an impressionist painter, he does not really fit into any particular category of art, therefore, he can be appreciated for his own work with no need to compare with other artists. The exhibition remains open until 7th July 2019 and costs £16, however, members of the gallery can visit for free.

Courtauld Impressionists

The World Renowned Courtauld Gallery, one of the leading university art museums in the UK, is currently closed for redevelopment, however, there is still an opportunity to view some of the collection. This autumn and winter, the National Gallery in collaboration with The Courtauld Gallery have selected over forty masterpieces from the  Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era to display in their spacious Wohl Galleries (rooms 42-46). Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne includes famous works from many French artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, and Seurat.

The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 with the shared vision of two men, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Arthur Hamilton Lee, 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947). On its opening, Courtauld granted his impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork to the gallery. Since then, numerous gifts, bequests and donations have been provided from all art movements, including the early 14th century, the Renaissance and abstract. Today, the gallery contains around 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints.

This particular exhibition is focused on the collections of Samuel Courtauld rather than the art institution he formed. Not only is it an impressive collection, combined with paintings from the National Gallery, it tells the story of the development of modern French painting from the 1860s to the turn of the 20th century. Arranged into twelve sections, each one focusing on an individual artist, the exhibition chronologically explores the changing styles and themes over the many decades as well as Courtauld’s taste in art.

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Samuel Courtauld © By courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Samuel Courtauld’s career as an art collector began in 1922 after attending an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was one of the first collectors to take an interest in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and quickly assembled a large collection. Along with his wife Elizabeth, the Courtauld’s private art collection rapidly grew to more than 70 paintings.

With Courtauld providing the majority of the funding from his family’s wealth in the textile business, the Courtauld Institute was able to secure and introduce numerous paintings to the UK public. Samuel Courtauld had a significant role in promoting and encouraging the British love of Impressionism.

The first artist to feature in the Courtauld Impressionists exhibition is Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-79) and is the earliest French artist in Samuel Courtauld’s collection. He was chiefly a draughtsman and printmaker, however, Daumier also produced caricatures for satirical journals.

Daumier’s career spanned five decades during which he produced numerous sculptures and paintings that revealed his witty observations and commentary about life. Initially he was known for his humourous Parisian street scenes, however, later in life, he turned to literary scenes, such as Miguel de Cervantes’ (c1547-1616) 17th-century comic tale Don Quixote. Samuel Courtauld was inspired by Daumier’s “tragic humour” in his unfinished painting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (1868-72). The oil painting is full of fluid brushstrokes that make up an impression of two faceless men riding on horses through a rocky mountain gorge.

After Daumier, the exhibition moves on to Edouard Manet (1832-83), one of the most controversial painters of the Impressionist movement. Samuel Courtauld collected many of Manet’s works, including his final piece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2). Whilst being inspired by famous artists of the past, such as Velázquez (1599-1660) and Titian (1488-1576), Manet was also a radical influence on many of the painters in his close circle and successors. Mostly, he was admired for his approach to space and colour within his work.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was the purchase that established Samuel Courtauld as an ambitious collector. The Folies-Bergère was a fashionable place of entertainment popular in Paris in the 19th century. It was also popular for demi-monde or prostitutes who openly pursued their trade.  Although not entirely certain, it is likely the barmaids were also available to their clients, including Suzon, who Manet places behind a table full with bottles of alcohol. The mirror behind her shows a reflection of the hustle and bustle of the establishment and the presence of a customer at the bar. Unfortunately, this mirror has lead to much confusion and debate throughout the art world.

Critics have noted that the barmaid’s encounter with the customer shown in the mirror, does not match the lonely, isolated figure facing the spectators. Allegedly, x-rays have revealed that Manet initially painted a more accurate reflection but why he altered this remains unknown. These types of distortions and dislocations were common in Manet’s work, however, this is believed to be the most extreme.

Other works of Manet on display include Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), Le Déjeurner sur l’herbe (1863-8) and Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The latter was painted whilst visiting another Impressionist painter, Monet, in the suburbs of Paris. Unlike Monet, Manet prefered to paint in his studio, however, this painting of his wife, Camille, and his son Jean is likely to have been produced en plein air.

Naturally, the exhibition follows Manet with Claude Monet (1840-1926), perhaps the most famous Impressionist painter. Monet was a master at plein-air painting, spending his lifetime producing paintings of his immediate surroundings. Originally, Monet was a keen painter of the French countryside, particularly where a body of water could be seen. Later in life, he turned his hand to areas in Paris and the suburbs, however, these failed to impress Samuel Courtauld.

In the 1920s and 30s, Courtauld made the purchase of four works by Monet for his private collection. These all came from the height of Monet’s career and Impressionist period. One was produced in the same place Manet had complete his plein-air painting, Argenteuil. In Monet’s landscape, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), autumnal trees frame the River Seine, drawing attention to the handful of buildings on the opposite bank. Although Argenteuil was developing into an industrial town, Monet’s perspective captures it in a timeless manner.

The first Monet landscape Courtauld purchased was the much brighter Antibes (1888), which reveals a captivating expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Whilst in the north of France, Monet was focused on capturing cool light and colour, the strong sunshine in the south inspired him to intensify his palette. With only a simple tree in the foreground to break up the expanse of sea, Monet relied on a mix of blues and greens with touches of pink and red to suggest the effects of the bright sun on the water.

The Courtauld Impressionist exhibition is not only a showcase of a selection of artists, but it also explores the differences between those who fall under the Impressionism umbrella. Unlike previous and later art movements, Impressionism did not have particularly strong rules or regulations, and the artist opposite Monet in the gallery emphasises the differences in style within the group.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was one of the founding members of Impressionism, exhibiting in all but one of their art shows. Unlike Monet who was interested in landscapes, Degas focused upon his love of horseriding, ballet and showed women going about their everyday life. Coming from a wealthy background, Degas was also able to afford to experiment with different techniques, including pastels, sculpture and drawing.

By the time Samuel Courtauld began assembling a serious collection of art, Degas was already famous throughout France and Britain. During the 1920s, Courtauld purchased a total of eight works by Degas, five for his private collection and three for the nation. The most expensive painting by Degas in the Courtauld Gallery is Two Dancers on a Stage (1874), which shows two female figures in standard ballet poses. Degas either painted this while watching a play or a dance rehearsal, however, it is now believed that the ballerinas are dancing the Ballet des Roses, which features in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. This oil painting was already in possession of a British collector, however, in 1927, Courtauld bought it from him for a much higher price.

The first Degas painting to be purchased by the Courtauld fund was one of his earlier works, Young Spartans Exercising (1860). Although Degas is known for his depictions of everyday life, this is an example of his experimentation with history painting. Described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch, the picture shows a group of boys and girls preparing for a wrestling contest, something that was encouraged by the Spartan legislator Lycurgus. This painting is almost unique in comparison to all Degas’ well-known works; in fact, Young Spartans Exercising was never shown to the public during the artist’s lifetime and was discovered after his death.

Another famous Impressionist painter Samuel Courtauld admired was Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) who produced more than 5000 paintings during his 60-year career. Primarily a painter of people, Renoir used small brushstrokes to build up the radiance and vibrancy of light and colour. One of Renoir’s most popular artwork, Le Loge (1874) is used on advertisements for the exhibition at the National Gallery.

Renoir painted many scenes of theatregoers, particularly those sitting in theatre boxes, which revealed the lifestyle of many Parisians. Le Loge shows Renoir’s brother Edmond and a model, Nini Lopez, seated in a box. Whilst Edmond looks upwards through a pair of binoculars, Lopez faces forward, opera glasses beside her, which she probably used to peer at members of the audience, rather than the action on stage. Dressed up as she is, Lopez was there to be noticed, suggesting an ambiguous social status.

Another theatre scene, also one of the first works purchased by the Courtauld FundLa Première Sortie (1876-7) reveals a different type of theatregoer. As the title suggests, the young woman leaning expectantly forward in her seat is on her first formal visit to the theatre. Unaware of the eyes of the audience on her from below, Renoir captures her eagerness to see the performance and experience theatre life.

It was not these theatre portraits, however, that initially attracted Samuel Courtauld’s attention. Instead, it was the intimate Woman tying her Shoe (1918), which he and his wife Elizabeth purchased in 1922, the first French work of art they bought.

Samuel Courtauld’s first purchase from the Post-Impressionist period was Jane Avril in the Entrance to Moulin Rouge (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). The National Gallery quote Courtauld admiring the “fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Toulouse-Lautrec,” implying he believed it to attest to the end of Impressionism.

Jane Avril was a leading performer at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. She was also Lautrec’s favourite model and close personal friend and, as a result, appears in many of his works. It is said that Courtauld was so taken with this painting, he was annoyed when its delivery was delayed.

Whereas Lautrec was squeezed into a corner, it is impossible to miss Georges Seurat’s large canvas Bathers at Asniéres (1884) on the wall of the next room. Seurat was obsessed with light and colour but dissatisfied with the way the Impressionists’ had approached the idea. Employing a pointillist technique, Seurat placed dots of different colour paint to make up an entire recognisable scene. Bizarrely, this particular masterpiece of industrial workers resting on the banks of the Seine was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1884. Four decades later, long after Seurat’s untimely death at the age of 31, the Courtauld Fund bought the painting for Britain.

The Courtauld Gallery owns a couple of other works by Seurat, including Young Woman Powdering Herself, which is a portrait of Seurat’s mistress, Madeleine Knobloch. Seurat never explained the meaning behind this painting, however, he used his trademark pointillist technique to execute the rounded and angular forms in the scene.

A fan of Seurat’s pointillism was the French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Initially a founding member of the Impressionists, Pissarro adopted this new technique later in his career. Of his many paintings, Courtauld only selected town scenes, such as The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) – a contrast to his preference of Monet’s works.

The final room of the exhibition features Samuel Courtauld’s favourite artist, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), of whom he purchased an incredible eleven works as well as drawings and personal letters. Courtauld’s fascination with the artist is clear with the purchase of Hillside in Provence (1890-2), which he purchased with his own money for the nation because the Courtauld Fund was almost exhausted.

At the time of purchase, the British public was sceptical about Cézanne’s work, often sparking intense debates. It appears Courtauld took a risk by purchasing so many of his paintings, however, it was a risk that paid off. The first Cézanne Courtauld purchased was one of his most daring compositions, Still life with Plaster Cupid (1894), which went against traditional laws of composition and perspective. Nevertheless, it was a painting Courtauld treasured his whole life.

One of the most expensive of Cézanne’s works purchased by Courtauld was The Card Players (1892-6); it is also one of Cézanne’s most iconic works. It is a scene of two men, probably farm labourers, playing a game of cards whilst seated at a small table. True to Cézanne’s style, the perspective is inaccurate, a feature that critics believe was not deliberate. Despite these distortions, Courtauld coveted the painting so much that he considered trading in another of Cézanne’s works in order to pay for it.

With Cézanne’s work taking up half the room, the final three artists in the exhibition are squeezed into the remaining space. This includes Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) who developed an outmoded Impressionist approach to painting in his later years. This can be seen in Blue Balcony (1910), which Samuel Courtauld purchased to fit in with his collection of Impressionist art.

A rather surprising fact appears in the description of Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) Te Rerioa or The Dream (1897). Painted while in Tahiti, two women watch over a sleeping child, whilst the Tahitian goddess Hina looks on from a painting on the wall.

“Te Rerioa (The Dream), that is the title. Everything is a dream in this canvas; is it the child? is it the mother? is it the horseman on the path? or even is it the dream of the painter!!! All that is incidental to painting, some will say. Who knows. Maybe it isn’t.”
– Gauguin in a letter to Daniel de Monfreid

The theme of the painting is a stark contrast to all the other paintings in Samuel Courtauld’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, however, that is not the most intriguing thing about it. According to the description, Courtauld sold one of his Cézannes in order to afford to buy it. Judging by his infatuation with Cézanne, Courtauld must have truly believed Te Rerioa to be something special to go to such lengths to purchase it.

The last painter to mention is Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). Most of his work belongs to the Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, however, the Courtauld Fund was able to secure four paintings, including a version of his famous Sunflowers, Chair and A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889), the only van Gogh to feature in this particular exhibition.

From Daumier to van Gogh, Courtauld Impressionists takes spectators on a journey through the art of the 19th and early 20th century. It is interesting to see the differing style and method of each painter, particularly as they all worked at similar times. It is difficult to put into words the changes that occur over those years; the best way to understand the shifts in style is to see the paintings for yourself.

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne is open to the public until 20th January 2019. Tickets are a reasonable £7.50 and can be booked online in advance or purchased on the day from the ticket desk. Under twelves may view the exhibition free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Mantegna versus Bellini

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.