Monet’s Architectural Visions

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The Water-Lily Pond

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Differently

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Detail from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, ‘Odalisque in Grisaille’, about 1824–34

Spanning 700 years of art, the National Gallery’s Autumn/Winter exhibition focused on the world of shadow with over 50 paintings produced with a limited colour palette. Monochrome: Painting in Black and White explored the reasons artists, both Old Masters and modern, reduced their selection of paint to white, black and grey, and the effects this produced. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the exhibition spanned seven rooms, each tackling a different time period or aspect. For a medium that is usually full of colour, monochrome paintings alter the manner in which artists work as well as the way their audience perceives them.

As shown in a video at the beginning of the exhibition, curators Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka explained the various reasons an artist may prefer to work in black and white. The reduction of colour helps to focus the viewers’ attention on a particular subject, concept or technique. What may have been missed in a painting full of colour, is exaggerated by its absence. Working in monochrome allows the artist to experiment with form, texture and mark making, with particular emphasis on light and shadow.

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A Woman in Netherlandish Dress Seen from Behind – Albrecht Dürer

During the 16th century, most artists were producing colourful paintings, influenced by the rapidly growing Renaissance movement originating in Italy. Yet, the National Gallery managed to produce examples of monochrome painting from this era. Black and white paint was a lot cheaper than the majority of coloured pigments, therefore it was more economical for artists wishing to practice on a separate canvas before completing their final piece, to do so in grey tones. This also allowed artists to work out how light should fall upon their figures or models and to determine which sections would be obscured by shadow.

The use of monochrome within artworks, however, began a long time before the Renaissance era. The exhibition introduces visitors to the term grisaille which defines “a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral greyish colour.” This method first appeared in the middle ages, particularly in buildings belonging to the Cistercian Monks. Prohibiting colour by religious command, the stained glass windows of many 13th century churches were created with translucent glass in various grey tones, the opposite to the vibrant, eye-catching patterns that Christian structures contain today. This was an attempt at eliminating distraction from prayer and devotion to God; whether this was successful is undivulged.

An example of grisaille stained glass windows is the ‘stained glass panel with quarries and a female head’ owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, dating back to circa 1320-24. As can be seen, the glass was not totally black and white, however, the only colour to feature is yellow, which the monks were unlikely to find off-putting.

Another example of a monochrome sacred subject is a four and a half metre high indigo cloth decorated with white paint to represent events in the life of Jesus. Titled Agony in the Gardenthis is a portable cloth originally created in Genoa in 1538, that could be moved from one chapel to another and be reassembled anywhere it is needed. To be produced only in white paint is extremely impressive. The tones and shadows have been created by the amount of paint applied, the more the brighter, which is the opposite method when using black paint.

 

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St Barbara 1437 Eyck, Jan van

Putting these sacred relics to one side, the earliest independent painting in grisaille, i.e. produced deliberately in monochrome, is Saint Barbara painted by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) in 1437. It shows the early Christian Saint Barbara imprisoned in a tower by her pagan father. There is, however, some debate amongst art historians as to whether van Eyck intended the painting to remain black and white. The background of the canvas has been filled with blue and ultramarine paint, but the intentions behind this are unclear. Some argue that the colour draws attention to the ink and oil drawing in the foreground, whereas others insist the pen and brush strokes are an underdrawing for an unfinished painting – it was, after all, produced in the final years of van Eycks life. The only thing standing in the way of the latter debate is the date and signature of the artist found on the panel.

Regardless as to whether van Eyck was the first to experiment with monochrome painting, the origins of grisaille remain in the Netherlands area. Rembrandt van Rijn‘s (1606-69) famous Ecce Homo is an example of this technique, however, one Dutch artist became known for creating most of his work in monochrome. This was Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662) who produced numerous grisaille paintings of peasants, beggars, thieves and characters of comic value.

Grisaille paved the way for artists to discover how to accurately represent stone in their paintings, particularly statues. This led to a rise in the technique called Trompe-l’œil (“deceive the eye”) in which the paintings are so realistic they create an optical illusion, making their subjects appear three dimensional. This lead to a paragone (comparison) debate amongst late Renaissance artists over which form of art – sculpture or painting – was the most superior. The painting was the most affordable of the two art forms, therefore, when artists began achieving the Trompe-l’oeil technique with the help of monochrome shading, commisions for fake carvings began to rise. Take, for example, Jacob de Wit’s (1695-1754) Jupiter and Ganymede. Produced in an era without electric lighting, it could easily be mistaken for the real thing.

 

Black and white artwork is far cheaper than coloured, which is something many artists kept in mind. Although paintings sell for millions nowadays, they were not as highly valued at the time of their completion. As paintings took a long time to complete, artists were frequently struggling to make ends meet in between successful payments. However, there was a solution to this predicament: printmaking. From the 1430s onwards, techniques such as etching and engraving became popular within the art world.  Rather than selling one unique painting, an artist or fellow printmaker could create a print of the artwork by etching on to a metal plate. This plate could be inked over and over again to create as many copies of the print as desired. Whilst artists could not charge the same amount for a print than they could for a painting, they were able to sell far more copies than they would otherwise.

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Ecce Homo print, van Vliet

Midway through the exhibition, the National Gallery showed examples of paintings and their corresponding prints. Often, a student or an apprentice would create the print on the artist’s behalf, thus being able to study the techniques of their master and perfect their drawing abilities.

One example is the print of Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, which was produced by another Dutch artist, Johannes van Vliet (c.1610). The linear design is a contrast to the brushstrokes of the original, however, some may prefer imagery in this fashion.

Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) was an early graphic artist who preferred the effect of printmaking over the traditional painting. He is now regarded as the pioneer of “pen-painting”, a technique involving the use of pen and ink, drawn straight on to canvas, mimicking the look of a print. He was, therefore, able to produce artwork of considerable size, which would not have been possible on a printing press.

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Etienne Moulinneuf’s Back from the Market, c.1770

Goltzius was not the only artist to paint print-like scenes. Alongside the original, coloured version of Back From the Market by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), hung what appeared to be two prints, however, one was not what it initially seemed. In 1770, Étienne Moulinneuf (1706-89) painted the engraving of Back From the Market, mimicking the print-marks from the printing press. He then went one step further, emphasising the difference between reality and illusion, by painting a trompe-l’oeil of broken glass over the top. This gives the false appearance that the painting (or engraving) is framed and had, at one point, fallen off the wall.

As the exhibition reached its final rooms, the dates of the paintings caught up with the recent 20th century. By now, technology was rapidly advancing and numerous art movements were coming forward, challenging all the rules that artists had followed for centuries. One of the challenges artists had to overcome was the invention of the camera. Commission for portraits and realistic scenes were no longer as popular because the public could produce their own in a photographic format in a shorter timeframe and at a fraction of the cost. Some artists responded to this by painting hyper-realistic black and white portraits that could easily be mistaken for a photograph, whereas others went down a route leading to abstract expressionism.

Chuck Close (b.1940), an American painter, produced a portrait of fellow artist Joel Shapiro (b.1941) that a camera could not possibly achieve. Spanning from floor to ceiling, the canvas is filled with black, and white squares containing hand painted rings of a number of grey shades. From a distance, the squares blur together to produce the portrait of Joel in a similar way that pixels merge together to create a digital image.

Vija Celmins (b.1938), a Latvian-American painter, also blurs the lines between real and abstract. Her painting Night Sky No.3 shows the stars in a way that cannot be seen by the naked human eye. However, as the exhibition pointed out, is it a painting of the night sky, or is it only white dots on top of black paint?

 

The exhibition’s penultimate room is where abstraction comes to the fore. After looking at paintings from the Old Masters and other well-known names, it is difficult to regard these final works as art. One canvas contains a slightly angular black square and another canvas is filled with black lines. Nonetheless, the fact that they are produced “without colour” means they have a right to be in the Monochrome exhibition. Although many will not understand what these artists were attempting to achieve, the minimal colour draws attention to the shapes and texture of the paintings. At a time when all colours are readily available, the complete lack implies a hidden meaning.

The final room of the impressive Monochrome exhibition was perhaps the one visitors spent the least amount of time in, however, it was also the most interesting. Containing an installation that Olafur Eliasson (b.1967) developed in 1997, Room For One Colour allows the viewer to see themselves and the people around them in monochrome. The immersive sodium yellow mono-frequency lamps on the ceiling suppress all other light frequencies, thus creating a monochrome world. It is unsettling to no longer detect individual colours especially as this causes the lines and textures of facial features to become more prominent. Unfortunately, the lights are difficult for the eyes to bear for longer than a minute, leaving just enough time to read the explanation the gallery supplied. Nevertheless, it was a fun and unique conclusion to a magnificent exhibition.

 

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Room For One Colour

 

Unfortunately, Monochrome: Painting in Black and White closed on 18th February 2018 and many of the paintings will have returned to their original locations. However, that does not mean that grisaille, black and white, and monochrome art cannot continue to be celebrated. When attending any exhibition or art gallery, keep an eye open for the works with minimal colour and see how they compare to their more vibrant neighbours. Notice the tones, shading, shadows, and textures that may otherwise go unnoticed.

The National Gallery did a formidable job at introducing London to a colourless artworld. Not only did visitors get the opportunity to view paintings by 50 or so artists, a different way of looking at and producing art was presented. This was certainly one of the National Gallery’s top exhibitions.

“Artists choose to use black and white for aesthetic, emotional, and sometimes even for moral reasons. The historical continuity and diversity of monochrome from the Middle Ages to today demonstrate how crucial a theme it is in Western Art.”

National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi

 

 

Reflections​

Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Tate Britain, the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441) takes pride of place in an exhibition about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although this portrait was painted 400 years before the founding of the group, it had a significant impact on a group of British artists who wanted to break away from the stagnant style of painting of the 1800s. Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites explores the connection between one famous oil painting and the many artists it inspired.

The Arnolfini Portrait was obtained by the National Gallery in 1842, the 186th piece of work added to the growing collection. What made it extra special was the nationality of the artist. Jan van Eyck lived in the Netherlands and this portrait was the first painting the gallery received from this country. Available to public view for the first time, many flocked to see and study the painting, including William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and John Everett Millais (1829-96), the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jan van Eyck is the most acclaimed painter of the Early Netherlandish School and one of the first to use oil paints – he was originally believed to be the inventor of oil painting, but this has since been disproved. Little is known about his early life, however, from 1432-9, van Eyck helpfully dated all his paintings, allowing art historians to determine his whereabouts and the people with whom he associated. Two other van Eyck paintings are in this exhibition, however, it is the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes called Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434), that remains his most famous.

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Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

In this exhibition, the portrait is referred to as the Arnolfini Portrait and reveals a man and woman holding hands in a bedroom. This couple has been identified as members of the Italian Arnolfini family, the man possibly being Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who lived in Bruge at a similar time to van Eyck. From the date of the painting, 1434, it has been determined that the woman was Arnolfini’s second wife.

The figures are dressed in the fashions of the time, which today look rather peculiar. Arnolfini’s dark purple coat or jerkin appears to be made of velvet, but it is his black hat that makes him look rather odd. His wife, on the other hand, is much more brightly clothed in a fur-lined green gown.

Although the foreground characters have now been identified, the purpose of the portrait was lost for many years. This resulted in a large number of theories about the intended subject of the painting. Some believed that it showed a husband and wife, and others believed that it was a promise of future marriage. The theories escalated with the notion that the woman was pregnant, therefore a hasty marriage is occurring in private, however, the old-fashioned costume may be the cause of the appearance of a swollen stomach.

The National Gallery does not pay too much mind to the purpose of the painting, preferring to draw visitors’ attention to the items in the background. Although the room appears to be rather small with plain walls and uncarpeted flooring, other objects suggest the couple is richer than they may initially appear. On the window sill sit a few oranges, which were an expensive fruit during the 1400s, and above the couple hangs an intricate, polished chandelier.

The key element of the Arnolfini Portrait, however, is the convex mirror hanging on the wall behind the couple. Mirrors were considered a luxury at the time of painting, therefore, also hint at the wealth of the Arnolfini family. Within its reflective surface, two male figures can be seen entering the room, giving the painting more depth and sparking more theory about its purpose – some suggested that the figures in the mirror could be witnesses of the marriage.

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The mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait

The mirror itself is quite fascinating; van Eyck has successfully painted the glass to look like a real mirror, but the detail in the frame is even more impressive. Around the edge are ten small circles showing the scenes from the Passion of Christ. Although they are tiny, each scene has been carefully painted fully.

According to a ten-minute film included in the exhibition ticket price, the Arnolfini Portrait was not appreciated by people at the time of completion. It was not a popular piece of work and often changed hands, being passed from one owner to the next. However, this all changed in the 19th century. The realistic nature of the outcome was highly admired, as well as the pristine condition it was in despite its age. At this time, paintings would often degrade quickly, therefore, many were intrigued by the artist’s technique.

“A picture has just been added to the National Gallery which affords as much amusement to the public as it administers instruction to the colour-grinders, painters, and connoisseurs, who, since the day of its exhibition, have crowded rooms to admire its singularity and discuss its merits. To every one it is a mystery. Its subject is unknown, its composition and preservation of its colours a lost art.”

– Illustrated London News, 1843 (a copy features in this exhibition)

Jan van Eyck used paintbrushes to apply the oil paint to the canvas, however, he also used his finger to help blend the colours together. This may also have helped to produce the smooth finish since no individual brush stroke can be detected.

It was after the Arnolfini Portrait was put on display that three young students from the Royal Acadamy began their revolutionary art movement. Hunt, Rosetti and Millais were disappointed with the High Renaissance method of teaching they were receiving at the academy, therefore, were fascinated with the painting by van Eyck. They decided to revive the techniques used in the early artwork in Italy and the Netherlands of the fifteenth century, produced before the emergence of Raphael and his style of painting. As a result, they named their movement “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”.

Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood only had three founding members in 1848, they quickly added other artists to the group who shared their dissatisfaction with the Royal Academy. They developed rules, which whilst never published, were closely followed by all members of the brotherhood.

  1. To have genuine ideas to express.
  2. To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it.
  3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.
  4. To produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites aimed to produce genuine ideas that evoked emotion. They moved away from the popular military victory and classical history paintings in favour of what they thought were more serious subjects. Some of their outcomes had a religious nature, however, they also took inspiration from literature, for example, Shakespeare and Tennyson.

“… absolute, uncompromising truth in all it does, obtained by working everything down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” – John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Mariana 1851 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Mariana by Sir John Everett Millais (1851)

The Pre-Raphaelites were not only influenced by van Eyck’s style of painting, they were particularly intrigued by the use of the mirror in the background. The National Gallery has focused on this motif rather than the movement in general, with a selection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks that feature mirrors.

One painting that the National Gallery has deemed important enough to use on advertisements for the exhibition is Marianna (1851) by Sir John Everett Millais.

Millais was a thriving portraitist whose paintings of beautiful young women earned him popularity. He had a taste for Shakespeare plays and Tennyson’s poems and often painted scenes based upon them. Mariana was a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but also features in a poem by Tennyson. In this particular scene, Mariana has been sent into exile by her fiancé Angelo after her dowry was lost at sea.

The mirror in this composition does not play much of a role, however, an accompanying drawing in the exhibition suggests that Millais originally intended to include a mirror behind Mariana’s head. However, art critics still link Mariana with the Arnolfini Portrait. They claim that Mariana’s rich blue dress emphasises the curvature of her spine and slim figure in a similar way that the bright green gown in the van Eyck painting amplifies the swelling stomach of the Arnolfini woman.

The National Gallery explores the different ways that mirrors are used in the artworks by Pre-Raphaelite painters. Some painters used mirrors in a metaphorical sense, often to suggest ideas or feelings that could not be conveyed through the main section of the painting. One example of this is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853).

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s painting shows a wealthy man with his mistress who appears to be in a slight state of undress. She is captured in a position suggesting she is just raising herself up from the lap of her lover. Her facial expression clearly illustrates that something has captured her attention beyond the painting’s frame. This is where the mirror plays a vital part.

Beyond the two figures, Hunt has positioned a large mirror which reflects what those studying the painting cannot see. The mirror is facing a window that looks out into a brightly lit garden. No one can know for certain what the lady has seen, however, the picture notes at the National Gallery suggest that she may have been reminded of her lost innocence. She is rising up as if her conscience has been awakened and it is not too late to escape her morally corrupt situation. “… the sunlit garden reflected behind her suggests that she will choose a path towards spiritual enlightenment, and that faith will be her salvation.”

As time went on, members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement began to move away from their initial aims, blurring the lines between their radical ideas and the commencement of the Aesthetic Movement. Not all Pre-Raphaelites were sucked into this new concept, however, those that were, took their mirror motif with them. With a new aim of creating art for art’s sake, the mirrors were used to emphasise beauty and reality rather than having any stronger symbolic nature.

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Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) by William Holman Hunt

From the selection of paintings that the National Gallery grouped into this category, the one that stands out the most is Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) which was also painted by William Holman Hunt. Hunt was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters who prefered to convey an enlightening purpose or narrative, which makes this particular painting an anomaly.

Il Dolce far Niente, which translates into English as “it is sweet to do nothing”, is a portrait that focuses on female beauty. The convex mirror in the background, tying it in with the majority of the other paintings in the exhibition, shows a reflection of the snug domestic scene, however, adds little else to the composition.

Apparently, the original painting was intended to be a portrait of Hunt’s fiancé, Annie Miller, but the engagement was eventually broken off. Hunt later repainted the face to turn it into a portrait of his wife, Fanny Waugh, whom he married in 1865.

When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood combined their fascination of the convex mirror with their love of literature, the perfect poem was found. The Lady of Shalott (1832) by Sir Alfred Tennyson (1802-92) provided painters with potential scenes to show off their artistic style inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait. This ballad tells the story of a woman under a curse who cannot engage with the outside world. The only safe way to view the goings on outside her prison is through a mirror that faces a window. She spends her time painstakingly reproducing these reflections on a loom until one day she catches sight of the striking Sir Lancelot. Forgetting herself, she watches him from the window; the mirror cracks and her death is inevitable.

The poem, written in four parts and nineteen stanzas, supplied the Pre-Raphaelites with many scenes to illustrate, making good use of the prominent mirror. Four examples are shown in the exhibition, revealing different interpretations. Three of the four chose to encapsulate the curse in action, emphasising the cracking mirror and the Lady of Shalott facing the window, distraught with the realisation about what she has done.

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The Lady of Shalott (1894) by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), was born at the same time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established. Although the movement had largely come to the end by the time he started his career, he was still influenced by their style. Waterhouse was also guided by other artists’ techniques of his era, for example, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1865-1940), therefore his outcomes are not as smooth and detailed as the founders’ artwork.

Nevertheless, Waterhouse was one of the painters who attempted to demonstrate the curse of the Lady Shalott. The background contains the typical circular mirror complete with the crack symbolising the protagonist’s demise. The lady herself is tangled up in the skeins of wool, emphasising that she cannot escape her dreadful fate.

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“I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) by Sidney Meteyard

 

The painting that does not depict the breaking of the mirror is, perhaps, the most striking of the selection, if not the most beautiful in the whole exhibition. Sidney Meteyard (1868-1947), who was too late for the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but worked in a later revival of the style, used rich, dreamlike colours to illustrate the fairytale-like ballad. Taking the title directly from a line in the poem, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) reveals the lady dozing in front of the mirror and loom after witnessing two lovers who can still be seen in the convex mirror.

“But in her web she still delights/To weave the mirror’s magic sights,/For often thro’ the silent nights/A funeral, with plumes and lights,/And music, when to Camelot;/ Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed;/’I am half sick of shadows,’ said/The Lady of Shalott.”

– The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson, Part II, final verse

The expressive colours emphasise the dream-like state the Lady of Shalott. It suggests she may be dreaming of the lovers or imagining herself in a similar scenario, which she will never get to experience in real life. The flowers in the foreground, which help to frame the painting, also indicate the romantic, intimate scene the lady has recently witnessed.

From this exhibition, the National Gallery stresses the influence the Arnolfini Portrait with its convex mirror had on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, these were not the first people to be affected in this way. Long before Hunt, Rosetti and Millais began to make a fuss about the Royal Academy’s teaching methods, the painting was spotted by a seventeenth-century artist in the Spanish Royal Collection. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was enamoured with van Eyck’s portrait and went on to produce the second most famous mirror in the history of Western art.

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Partial copy of “Las Meninas” (1862) by John Philip

The original painting, Las Meninas (c1656) is very famous and recognisable, however, it is currently hanging in the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid. Fortunately, the National Gallery was able to display a partial copy of Las Meninas produced by John Philip (1817-67) in 1862. This copy shows approximately one-quarter of the original composition showing the detail in the bottom left-hand corner.

The partial copy by the Scottish artist brings in to focus the mirror hanging on the wall amongst a selection of framed paintings. This feature is likely to be overlooked in the original, the lighting drawing attention to the girls in the foreground.

Whilst the mirror is not round, as it is in the Arnolfini Portrait, it adds a further dimension to the painting. In the dark glass, the figures of the King and Queen of Spain can be seen, who do not feature anywhere else in the composition. This has resulted in the meaning of the painting remaining ambiguous, with critics coming up with varied suggestions about the purpose of the King and Queen’s presence.

The Pre-Raphaelites were not impressed with Las Meninas in the same way that the Arnolfini Portrait struck them. Although it contained a mirror, the painting style leant more towards impressionism than van Eyck’s hard-edged style. It was the photorealistic aspect that the Brotherhood wanted to replicate more than anything else.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is a visual journey of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the effect a single painting can have on a large number of people. By limiting the display to paintings featuring mirrors, the National Gallery compares and contrasts the various interpretations artists developed. It is interesting to see how one key idea – a mirror – can result in so many different outcomes.

Occasionally, the National Gallery’s claim that various paintings were inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait is debatable, but, assuming this conclusion was reached by experts, visitors can only take their word for it. Regardless of whether the connection is obvious or not, the selection of paintings is beautiful and intriguing, and worth taking the time to study.

The National Gallery provides an audioguide at a small extra cost and has detailed notes throughout the exhibition explaining the paintings and the thoughts of the Pre-Raphaelites. By introducing the public to poems, such as The Lady of Shallot, the exhibition is as educational as it is entertaining.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites remains on display in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery until 2nd April 2018. Tickets are £10 on weekdays and £12 at weekends.