Eastward Ho!

Not long ago, I visited the Museum of London with a friend because … why not? Whilst we were discovering the history of London (from prehistoric eras to the present day), we were both drawn to a particular painting hanging on the wall in the Expanding Cities – 1670s-1850s gallery. Neither of us were familiar with the artwork, nor the artist, but the bright colours were powerful and enticed me to have a closer look.

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Eastward Ho!

The painting, I learnt, was called Eastward Ho! by a man named Henry Nelson O’Neil, and was completed in c.1857/8. A minuscule notecard was situated to the left of the frame, providing an inadequate explanation and description of the artwork:

Soldiers are shown boarding a ship at Gravesend, leaving to fight in the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – the first Indian war of Independence. They are saying their final farewells to their loved ones. This immensely colourful and vibrant painting was Henry Nelson O’Neil’s most popular work.

The basic scenario has been explained, but who was Henry Nelson O’Neil? Why did he choose to paint this particular situation? How comes, if this work was so popular, I have never heard of it, nor him?  Let’s find out. Henry Nelson O’Neil, who are you?

Henry Nelson O’Neil

Henry Nelson O’Neil was born in Russia on 7th January 1817, however he spent the majority of his life in England, where he moved with his parents in 1823. Despite his origin of birth, his parents were British nationals, therefore his brief Russian beginnings had very little impact upon his future. Nothing is known about the O’Neil family, nor his childhood, until he entered the art scene in 1836 after enrolling at the Royal Academy.

The year 1838 saw O’Neil’s first exhibited artwork on display at the academy. Simply titled The Student, this picture – sadly unknown today – sparked off his career, resulting in almost 100 of his paintings adorning the academy’s walls during his life time. O’Neil produced a new painting almost yearly, experimenting with a range of subject matter. Art historians can assume the artist was an educated and cultured individual on account of his interest in painting scenes from literature and the Bible, as well as historical incidents.

O’Neil opted for striking colours, however his compositions were often criticised as faulty. It appeared that O’Neil was averse to demonstrating negative emotion in his artwork, resulting in unrealistic contexts. A particular example is titled The Parting Cheer (1861) which showed the emigration of British and European families at a time when this would have caused heartbreak, worry and despair. However, as the title suggests, O’Neil painted a cheerful atmosphere, implying that emigration was a cause for celebration rather than a time of uncertainty.

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The Last Moments of Mozart

More popular were O’Neil’s romantic scenes, particularly ones portraying the deaths of Mozart and Raphael. The Last Moments of Mozart (1849) shows the composer, moments from death, listening to a performance of his Requiem.

O’Neil also had a go at writing, publishing Lectures on Painting delivered at the Royal Academy containing a selection of talks he gave to students at the academy. Moving away from art, O’Neil also attempted a few pieces of literature, however he supposably was not all that successful in this venture. He also had a passion for music and enjoyed playing the violin. It may be assumed that O’Neil continued working until his death on 13th March 1880. His body is interred in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Compared with other artists of the era, O’Neil does not stand out amongst the greats, and today remains virtually unknown. The most significant endeavour during his lifetime is arguably his connection to the group of artists known as The Clique.

The Clique

Formed by Richard Dadd in the late 1830s, The Clique was a group made up of an assemblage of British artists, Henry Nelson O’Neil being amongst them. Not much evidence remains of The Clique‘s existence, however it is supposed that the group met up to sketch and receive opinions on their artwork.

The Clique apparently rejected academic high art in favour of genre painting – a term associated with the celebrated William Hogarth, who was probably a great influence to the group. They believed, like Hogarth, that art should be judged by the public, not by preexisting academic ideals.

Hopefully the Museum of London will continue to display Eastward Ho! as part of the exhibition, not only because it represents a particular event in London, but because it is one of the only remaining evidences of O’Neil’s existence. Although he may not have made himself known to the world, it would be a great shame to lose all recognition in the future.

The Courtauld: A History of Art

Located in Somerset House, The Courtauld Institute of Art is amongst the most prestigious galleries in the world. Not only does it exhibit hundreds of well known paintings and artists, the gallery provides a visual timeline of the history of art, at least in Europe. Spanning from medieval art to paintings of the 20th century, The Courtauld reveals the gradually changing styles and techniques that influenced the old masters, and led to the contemporary artworks we create today.

Unless visiting with the intention of viewing a specific artwork, it makes sense to conduct your tour of the gallery in chronological order. Beginning on the ground floor, you can study and contemplate a collection of Medieval art and sculpture alongside a handful of paintings from the Renaissance era (13th-15th Century). Although spanning over two decades and being produced by different artists, many of the artworks look alike, not only in style, but content as well.

It does not take a genius to notice that everything  displayed in Room 1 is of a religious (Christian) nature – the birth and death of Jesus Christ being the most predominant. This reveals a lot about the culture in Europe at that time, an era when religion was at the zenith of most people’s lives. As the information provided alongside the artworks explains, artists were often commissioned by the Church in order to deck out the building with religious effigies – either biblical, or depictions of saints.

Up the stairs, to the first floor, leads you to recognisable works from the 16th-19th centuries. Continuing with the Renaissance era, large paintings dominate the walls, again, mostly of religious scenes. This theme continues through to the 17th century with artists such as Rubens and the beginning of the Baroque era. However, it is from this point onwards that the artists’ choice of subject matter takes a dramatic change.

The 18th century brought about a shift in thinking in what is now referred to as the Enlightenment years. Scientific development of the past century was causing many to distance themselves from religion as they discovered the workings of the world for themselves, and worship inventors who were opening people’s minds to a future unlike any experienced before. As a result, presumably demand for biblical artwork dried up, causing artists to find other ways of attracting clientele.

Not only was the subject matter of art changing, but new methods of painting were being experimented with. The 19th century saw the beginning, middle and end of Impressionism, an art movement characterised by the usage of small, but visible, brushstrokes. Artists involved with this development, and exhibited at The Courtauld, include Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, and, of course, Vincent van Gogh.

The top floor of the institute brings you into the 20th century, the years in which a significant number of changes occurred in the art world. What you will notice are the contrasting techniques, choices of colour and differences in theme and imagery, particularly compared with everything you have viewed on the lower floors. Throughout Europe, artists were appropriating methods from their contemporaries and tutors while they sought their own, personal style. This is particularly noticeable when juxtaposing French paintings with German Expressionism, as well as a few British artists.

The experience The Courtauld provides differs significantly from the larger galleries in London – establishments where it is impossible to view everything in one visit. Rather than being a place to see a couple of well known paintings – although that is entirely possible should that be your intention –  the gallery takes you on a journey: a trip through the history of art. Whether or not you decide to pay close attention to individual artworks, scanning the framed paintings on the wall gives you an instant sense of the dramatic changes the art world has encompassed throughout the last 700 or so years.

The Courtauld Institute of Art is worth the entrance fee to bare witness to the great artists of the past centuries, in what is a relatively peaceful environment. Whatever your expectations, it will be hard to be disappointed in your visit; the inclusion of a variety of art movements guarantees an interest for each individual. And, whilst the paintings are the main reason you are there, do not forget to look up and be impressed by the beautiful, awe-inspiring ceilings!

Caravaggesque: the Master and Beyond

If you visit the National Gallery’s current exhibition Beyond Caravaggio, you will only get to view a handful of paintings by the powerful 17th century painter. The majority of the artworks are by other respected artists who, either through direct contact or posthumous influence, replicated Caravaggio’s original style.

Often, paintings produced during Caravaggio’s era were mistakenly accredited to him due to the similar techniques and subject matter. Caravaggio’s works are recognised by their darkness with dramatic usage of light. Some of the pieces painted by his followers do not quite replicate the ethereal beauty he achieves with his depiction of naturalistic lighting. If the scene relies on a visible light source, it is not a Caravaggio, for he never painted candles or fires.

So, the National Gallery shows us Caravaggio’s influence on other artists, but who was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio?

Born in Milan, 1571, Caravaggio, despite having such a great influence on his contemporaries, only had a very short career. Due to his death in 1610 aged 38, Caravaggio only has about 60 surviving pictures to his name, however his naturalistic, bold style lived on for many more years.

It is hard to imagine Caravaggio struggling as an artist, but as a young man he spent many years enduring hardship in Rome until he was finally recognised as an artist with potential by Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who subsequently became his first patron. Through del Monte, Caravaggio slowly began to get the attention he deserved, eventually receiving his first public commissions. Caravaggio’s first documented works were for the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi: Calling of St Matthew and Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600).

The choice of religious scenes – familiar stories – produced with immensely dramatic lighting and shade, established Caravaggio as the most exciting artist of his time, overshadowing the previously admired artists of the day.

Caravaggio’s fame spread throughout Italy as a result of self-inflicted exile after he accidentally killed someone during a fight over a wager of a tennis match. Although constantly on the run, Caravaggio had the opportunity to work on important commissions, influencing many local artists with his poignant artwork.

Unfortunately, Caravaggio died of a fever (possibly brought about from a infected facial wound) before he got the chance to see his influence in action. His legacy lived on for the remainder of the 17th century with many artists imitating his revolutionary approach to painting.

The Caravaggisti (Caravaggio’s followers) is a term applied not only to Italians, but other European artists who flocked to Rome to witness Caravaggio’s form of Realism. Some believed his previously unseen style to be a kind of miracle, and being keen to paint as pure a picture, painstakingly copied his brushstrokes, lighting and tones. Eventually the style broadened out as each artist added their own twist – for instance including candles, fires etc – until the movement gradually faded away during the 18th century.

Other than being a drastically different approach to painting in the 17th century, what did the Italian art world find so fascinating about Caravaggio’s masterpieces? Perhaps the key thing that stood out for them was the chiaroscuro (lit. bright-dark) technique. Most artists rely on contrasting light and dark colours to make their paintings work, however the contrast between the shades in Caravaggio’s works are so strong – it is almost as though a light has physically pierced the picture. It is this aspect that is most noticeable regardless of subject matter.

When standing in front of a Caravaggio, it feels like the light source shining in the picture is situated behind you. As a result, it is almost as though you are part of the scene laid out before you. You are not just looking at a painting, you are interacting with the characters depicted.

Having been to see the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition, I have another theory as to why Caravaggio became such a celebrated painter. Firstly, I was struck by the realistic representation of material and clothing worn by the characters in the displayed scenes. It was so accurate, it could have been a photograph. Secondly, speaking of photographs, the paintwork was so smooth it was impossible to see the brushstrokes – it was so flat that, apart from the slightly flawed facial and head shapes, it could have been a photo.

I particularly like Caravaggio’s choice of colour. Of course the dramatic lighting is attractive, but I was also drawn to his use of reds – it made each painting extremely powerful and contrasted well with the dark backgrounds.  Nonetheless, I agree that it is the light – the chiaroscuro – that makes a Caravaggio a Caravaggio. My favourite painting is The Taking of Christ (pictured above) in which Caravaggio has produced a realistic shine on the Roman soldier’s armour. Absolutely phenomenal. I wish I could paint like that.

If you have time to go to London before 15th January 2017, I recommend taking a look at the National Gallery’s exhibition. Caravaggio’s paintings are impressive when looked at online, but to get a sense of awe, you need to see them first hand.

David Hockney: 82 Portraits of People You Probably Haven’t Heard of

This year David Hockney returned to the Royal Academy of Arts with a selection of his latest works, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life (July-October 2016). Throughout his life Hockney has painted a variety of subject matter, however the almost octogenarian is continuously lured back to the genre that has played a major role in his lengthy career: portraiture.

Although born in West Yorkshire, Hockney has spent a vast amount of time in Los Angeles from where he accumulated numerous friends and acquaintances. Critics on viewing the recent exhibition will have noticed that the sitters Hockney has painted, although named, are unknown to the general public. Hockney has painted the many friends of Los Angeles, their friends and their families, thus giving an insight into the types of people Hockney chooses to be associated with. As Hockney does not take commissions, instead inviting individuals to sit for him, he has not painted any celebrities.

Some may feel disappointed at not being able to recognise any of people in the portraits hanging in the gallery, however this gives everyone the opportunity to admire the artwork and painting technique without being distracted by who is being depicted. Whilst Hockney’s portraits are realistic they do not resemble photographs, thus highlighting different personalities, emotions and attitudes surrounding each individual. There is a uniformity in colour (vibrant blue and green acrylic backgrounds) and use of brushstrokes that makes it obvious that each portrait belongs to one body of work.

Studying the paintings closely the brushstrokes may look rushed or imprecise, however Hockney spent two to three days working on each individual canvas. His is a style that is impossible to replicate by anyone else, as only he can create such an immersive effect. Hockney’s work is not merely a painting of the subject in front of him, it is an intense psychological study of both the model and the artist.

Those already familiar with David Hockney will instantly recognise the style of painting – mostly due to the garish colours – and for those who don’t, these 82 portraits (and one still-life) are a great introduction to the renowned artist.

– If you are wondering about the “1 Still-Life” aspect of the exhibition, here is the story behind it: “The still-life was painted when one sitter was unable to keep the appointment; primed to paint, Hockney turned to what was available in the studio – a selection of fruit and vegetables.”

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The National Gallery vs the Smartphone

Last Friday I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in London. It is impossible to study all of the paintings in the collection, but I was able to appreciate the Van Gogh’s, Canaletto’s, Monet’s, Constable’s amongst many others. The gallery is currently exhibiting works by a contemporary artist, George Shaw, and it was fascinating to learn about the artists who have influenced him throughout his career. It was interesting to compare and contrast the techniques used by Shaw with this of renowned painters from bygone eras.

However, it was not only the magnificent painting that took my interest – I was very aware of the other visitors around me. I found myself wondering what it was that compelled people to visit the gallery. For some it was easy to determine why they were there due to their uniforms. Numerous school parties were being shown around the gallery by knowledgeable guides – a great earwigging opportunity for those wanting to know more about individual paintings.

As well as those that appeared to be taking a great interest in the artworks, there were quite a few who were not. On benches in the centre of the rooms were many bored looking people, often playing on their phones. Perhaps they had been dragged there against their will by an art enthusiast? I also spotted one person fast asleep and another reading a book.

The most common thing I saw people doing, however, was photographing the paintings with their smartphones. I had to carefully manoeuvre around crowds in order to prevent getting in the way of the many amateur photographers. It did not surprise me all that much since these days people seem to photograph their entire life in order to document it on social media.

One thing I could not help wondering was what these smartphone users were getting out of their visit to the gallery. Granted they can boast to friends that they have seen famous works of art, but they were not even taking the time to appreciate them properly. By looking at a painting through a camera lens, or phone screen, the effect of the original art work gets lost. Gone is the ability to closely look at the uneven surface of the canvas evidencing the way the artist has built up the picture. The awe at the size of the pieces are diminished when reduced to an 8×5″ photograph. If all you plan to do is take photographs, then you may as well stay at home and look them up on the internet.

It would be a shame for galleries to close because people are spending most of their time looking at phone screens rather than what is displayed on the walls around them. Next time you are at a gallery make the effort to fully appreciate the art you have the privilege of viewing. Study them closely… and then take your photographs!