Drawn in Colour

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A rare opportunity to see stunning paintings, pastels, and drawings by leading French Impressionist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Coinciding with the centenary of Degas’ death, the National Gallery has organised an exhibition of the artist’s pastel works in collaboration with the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Rarely ever put on public display, twenty fragile artworks are arranged in a darkened room to protect them from light damage, and will remain for public consumption until 7th May 2018. As well as celebrating his life’s works, Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell provides an insight into how Degas worked and the impact his personal circumstances had on his outcomes.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917; born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) was the firstborn of a family of five children. Growing up in Paris, Degas was encouraged by his father, a wealthy art-loving banker, to train for law work, however, Degas quickly made his own decision to change career direction. At the age of 20, Degas began studying with Louis Lamothe (1822-69), an academic artist who taught him all he knew about draughtsmanship.

Degas also briefly enrolled in classes at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, he preferred to educate himself by carefully studying paintings in the Louvre. Incidentally, it was whilst making a copy of a painting in the gallery that he was spotted by the modern painter Édouard Manet (1832-83). Manet introduced Degas to the newly formed circle of Impressionist artists. The group focused on expressing their personality through their artwork in response to the world around them. Joining the Impressionists set Degas on a path that influenced him to focus on contemporary scenes rather than the historical type witnessed in the Louvre. Degas was to become known for ballet and theatre scenes, cafés and women bathing.

Like most Impressionist art, Degas’ scenes look fresh and informal as though they were spontaneous and unplanned. However, Degas confessed that this was only how they appeared and were a far shout from reality. Degas was a very meticulous artist and carefully planned all his compositions.

Initially, Degas preferred to use oil paints, however, by the age of fifty, his eyesight was becoming significantly impaired. As a result, he began to use pastel as an alternative (as seen in this exhibition) because it meant he could get physically closer to the work surface in order to see it better. Degas experimented wildly with pastel, inventing ways to manipulate the colours and produce effects that had never been seen before. The worse his eyesight became, the more garish the colours and tones of the artwork.

 

The exhibition is divided into sections which include Modern Life, Dancers, Private World, and Horses. This shows the range of themes Degas explored as an Impressionist artist. One thing that is striking about Degas’ outcomes is that the people depicted appear unaware that they are being watched. Pastel drawings of ballerinas appear to have been made whilst viewing a dance rehearsal, the jockeys as though viewing a race, and the bathing women do not seem to realise anyone else is in the room.

“Until now, the nude has always been represented in poses that presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest, simple folk … It is as if you looked through a key hole.”

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Nude Grand Arabesque, First Time. 1860s

Amongst the twenty pastel drawings in the exhibition is a nude sculpture of a dancer. Originally molded out of wax, Degas produced these himself in order to aid his artwork. Degas often relied on these tactile forms to help him draw the dancers who he could no longer see clearly.

It is obvious which artworks in the exhibition occurred after sight loss due to the change in tone and execution. Older works feel much smoother and the scene is easier to make out, whereas those produced in the latter stages of Degas’ career have a more rushed appearance; the lines are more chaotic and the figures blurred. It is as though viewing a scene with poor eyesight – the way Degas probably saw it.

 

The two drawings above are a clear example Degas’ eyesight had upon his outcomes. In The Rehearsal (1874), the figures are clear with detailed shadows and clothing. The architecture of the room is precise, particularly the spiral staircase which reflects the contortion abilities of the dancers. In contrast, Dancers on a Bench (1898) is less defined, the colours unnatural and the pastel strokes obvious.

A strange fellow, this Degas — sickly, a bundle of nerves, with such weak eyes that he is afraid of going blind, yet for these very reasons extremely sensitive to the character of things. He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know.

-Edmond de Goncourt (1874)

Today’s exhibition would not have been able to take place, or at least be significantly harder to curate, without the extensive collection of one Scottish man. Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was an art collector who, from 1916 onwards, devoted his life to collecting. Whilst his interests were diverse, his collection soon became strong in medieval art and 19th-century French painting. His passion for the latter resulted in a number of Degas’ pastel drawings, which are currently on loan to the National Gallery.

Burrell eventually had 8000 objects in his collection, which he presented to the city of Glasgow in 1944 along with a considerable sum of money to pay for a museum to be constructed in which to display the artworks. Now currently under refurbishment, the Burrell Collection is closed until 2020, thus providing the perfect opportunity to temporarily rehouse Degas’ drawings at the National Gallery rather than putting them into storage.

Despite it being easy to obtain permission to borrow the artwork, it was not easy to transport and display the fragile drawings. Pastels can quickly be damaged by handling and light, but Degas’ pastels are even more delicate because of the type of paper he preferred. The majority of his work was produced on tracing paper which is very flimsy and easily torn. Their age only increases the risk of breakage making this exhibition one of the more challenging the Gallery has assembled.

The artworks are displayed on dark grey walls in rooms with subdued lighting. Although this is to limit the possibility of damage, it changes the way visitors perceive the images. The darkness makes Degas’ work feel precious, rare and special – almost sacred. Unlike the rest of the National Gallery, which can get very noisy, no one raises their voice above a whisper as they tour the Drawn in Colour exhibition.

One of the great things about seeing an exhibition devoted to one artist, rather than viewing randomly positioned paintings, is the insight into the artist’s life, thoughts, and techniques. Seeing one painting alone, whether in person or online, almost removes any meaning or history, whereas in a collection the processes and developments can be seen. Along with explanatory captions and walls of information, the National Gallery’s tailor-made displays and exhibition are as educational as reading a textbook.

As already mentioned, Drawn in Colour is open until 7th May 2018, so there is plenty of time to arrange a visit to the Gallery. There are also a few other works by Degas in other rooms that may also be worth viewing in order to compare his pastel works with those completed in oil on canvas.

A list of works by Degas that the National Gallery has in their possession can be found on their website.

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Treasures of Trafalgar Square

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Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Trafalgar Square is one of the most popular tourist interests in Central London, attracting well over one million people per year. Surrounded by museums, galleries and historic buildings, the public square is continually travelled through as sightseers make their way from place to place. Containing numerous statues, there are plenty of photographic opportunities for selfies or group pictures as well as the chance to witness a diverse selection of street performance.

With so much to offer, how much do visitors gain from their visit to Trafalgar Square? Apart from the lions and the acclaimed Nelson’s Column, a lot goes unappreciated or even unnoticed. By stepping back from the crowds and taking the time to look around you – up high, down low and side to side – you will discover the history and wonders of the dynamic location.

Trafalgar Square was developed by the architect John Nash (1752-1835) in the early 1800s. After its completion, the new square was officially christened Trafalgar Square in 1830 to commemorate the victory at the infamous Battle of Trafalgar a quarter of a century earlier. Some tourists are frequently confused by the name and incorrectly assume that the battle against Napoleon took place in this very square. The British Naval victory was earned at Cape Trafalgar on the coast of Spain, in which the Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life.

In 1843, a bronze statue of Nelson was erected on top of a 145 ft Corinthian column designed by the English architect William Railton (1800-77); a tremendous monument in honour of the war-hero. The bronze lions on the pedestal below, sculpted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), were added thirty years later to stand guard around the column.

Nelson, literally and figuratively, overshadows all the other statues and plinths around the square and, unless time is taken to study them carefully, many remain unaware of who they represent and the significance of their position. Over the years, several sculptures have been erected (and even removed from) Trafalgar Square and they are worth having a look at.

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Jacobus Secundus, Photograph by Prioryman

To the left of the entrance to the National Gallery, stands a particularly old bronze statue. Originally erected in the Palace of Whitehall in 1686, King James II stands in a Contrapposto pose (hips and legs twisted away from the position of the head and shoulders) sculpted to resemble a Roman emperor. With right hand outstretched, it is believed that the King, or Jacobus Secundus as the plinth states, once held a baton, which is now missing.  The rest of the plinth, when translated from the Latin, reads “by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. Defender of the Faith. 1686.”

In the top right-hand corner of the square sits an equestrian statue of another king of England. Cast two years before George IV’s death in 1830, his statue depicts him in ancient Roman garments – possibly an attempt at resembling a Roman emperor similarly to James II – and was originally intended for the top of Marble Arch when it was used as the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Temporarily placed upon a plinth in Trafalgar Square, it has remained there ever since, although the inscription below was only added in the late 19th-century once his flattering features were no longer recognised by the public.

The most interesting thing about the George IV statue designed by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841) is that he is riding with no stirrups. Whether it was intentional to depict the king bareback riding or an oversight of the sculptor remains unknown.

There is another equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square on the opposite side, near Whitehall. Older than both James II and George IV, the statue was cast in the 1630s by Hubert Le Sueur (1580-1658), a French sculptor, in honour of Charles I. Dressed in armour typical of the era, the King sits proudly on his horse who has its right front leg raised as if walking.

Those who know their English royal history will wonder how the statue survived after the execution of Charles I. The bronze figure was sent to a metalsmith in Holborn along with instructions to melt it down, however, the smithy secretly hid the statue instead. When the royal family was restored to the throne, it was rediscovered and placed in Trafalgar Square in 1675, on the original location of one of the Eleanor crosses.

The Eleanor cross that stood in Trafalgar Square was destroyed during the civil war, however, a replica was produced in 1865 in front of Charing Cross railway station, where it still stands today. The Eleanor crosses were ornately decorated monuments adorned with a cross commissioned by Edward I in memoriam of his beloved wife. Each cross was positioned at the site her coffin lay overnight as it made its twelve-day journey from Lincoln to London before finally being buried in Westminster Abbey. Charing Cross was the final stop and therefore the most elaborate of the twelve monuments.

Victorian sculptor, Thomas Earp (1829-93), constructed the replica cross from designs by E. M. Barry (1830-80), an architect famed for his work in Covent Garden. Using Aberdeen granite, Earp expertly carved the decorative monument, including a statue of Eleanor of Castile standing towards the very top.

 

There are a number of other statues located in Trafalgar Square, and there are even more located nearby within short walking distance. When visiting the square, there is so much to see in the surrounding areas, for example, the Eleanor cross, that could so easily be missed by tourists. Diagonally across from the north-east corner of the square, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery stands a monument to the British nurse, Edith Cavell. Working in Brussels when the First World War broke out in 1914, Edith nursed hundreds of soldier regardless of which army they came from. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupation.

Unfortunately, Edith Cavell was caught and arrested by German soldiers, found guilty of treason and shot by a firing squad on 12th October 1915. Her remains were brought home after the war, her bravery earning her a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Sir George Frampton (1860-1928) constructed the modern-looking, ten-foot marble statue of the British nurse standing on a granite pedestal. Inscribed below are the words “Edith Cavell // Brussels // Dawn // October 12th 1915 // Patriotism is not enough // I must have no hatred or // bitterness for anyone.” The monument was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in 1920 and, since 2014, it received a Grade 1 listing.

Another statue to look out for in the area is the Royal Marines Memorial installed on the north side of The Mall. Created at the beginning of the 20th-century, the memorial honours those who lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Second Boer War in Africa (1899-1902).

To get to the Royal Marine Memorial from Trafalgar Square, the pavement takes you under Admiralty Arch. This is just one of the many historic structures that surround the square. The Grade 1 listed triumphal arch was commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his long reigning mother, Queen Victoria. Initially used as a residence for the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the arch became government offices at the beginning of the millennium. The neoclassical arch is now in the hands of property developers who intend to reopen it as a luxury hotel in 2020.

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Admiralty Arch

London, being steeped in history, has countless plaques around the city commemorating certain events, past and present buildings, notable people and so forth. Although buildings have been demolished, plaques provide information about the past to prevent history from disappearing entirely. On the ground by the Charles I statue is a metal sign explaining that it was once the site of the Eleanor cross. On the railings in front of Charing Cross Station is another plaque with a lengthy description of the design and construction of the replica. Nearby is another sign recording details of a violent storm that occurred in 1987.

It is quite surprising the places that memorial plaques can be found. In St Martin’s Street, little more than an alley way, behind the National Gallery, is a sizable memorial of the 16th century Hampton Site. The information inscribed on the stone explains that the site used to belong to Hamptons furniture store which was flattened by bombs in 1940. Later, in 1959, the government acquired the demolished area allowing the National Gallery to expand. Thus, the Sainsbury Wing was born.

Plenty of tourists take photographs outside the entrances to the National and National Portrait Gallery even if they do not venture inside (although, judging by the crowds, most do!), however, it is not a common thought to look behind the buildings. By continuing along St Martin’s Street and turning right into Orange Street, a small Congregational Church is located sporting more historical information. According to historians, the former resident of the building next door was none other than the mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton.

Orange Street Congregational Church: This church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled from France at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1776 the Chapel passed into the hands of the Church of England. The Rev. Augustus III. Toplady author of “Rock of Ages” was one of its ministers. The Chapel passed into the hands of the Congregationalists in 1787. Adjoining the chapel was Sir Isaac Newton’s house which was built in 1710 and condemned in 1913. Mrs Jemima Luke, author of the beloved hymn “I think when we read that sweet story of old” was a teacher in the Sunday School. A copy of the hymn in her own handwriting is in possession of the church.

When exploring, always remember to look up. Approaching the National Portrait Gallery from Orange Street allows the building’s architecture to be seen in a new light. Above the highly positioned windows are sculpted busts that are easily missable from ground level. Sculpted along with the three founders of the gallery are fifteen illustrious portrait painters, writers and historians, notably: Horace Walpole, Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Louis François Roubilliac, William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynold.

 

There are far too many things to note in and around Trafalgar Square to write about it one go. The more you look the more you discover, especially when glancing in the more obscure places. Whilst standing at the foot of Nelson’s column, look out for the worlds smallest police phone box (now a cleaning store cupboard), and, whilst having a drink at the Cafe on the Square, do not miss the outdated standard Imperial measures plaque where people used to come and check the accuracy of their rulers.

 

Trafalgar Square is so much more than statues, water fountains and street performers. With so many marvels hidden in plain sight, hours can easily disappear as you tour the area. This goes for the rest of the City of London, too; the more you look the more you find. Do not be blind to the history surrounding you, it is there to be noticed.

Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of Trafalgar Square with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)

The Other Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most recognisable names of the 17th century. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Rembrandt is the greatest artist the Dutch have ever produced. In order to celebrate the opening of a new gallery at The National Gallery in London – the first to open in 26 years – an exhibition ran from 22nd March – 6th August 2017 entitled Rubens and Rembrandt. But why were these two artists merged together?

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Section of Self Portrait at the age of 34 by Rembrandt, 1640

Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn was born in Leiden, a city towards the south of the Netherlands, on 15th July 1606. Although he was the son of a miller, he would grow up to be the country’s greatest artist. His love of art was sparked by a local painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, to whom Rembrandt was apprenticed for roughly three years. However, Rembrandt’s most significant influence was Pieter Lastman, a painter in Amsterdam who he spent six months with in 1624. Lastman’s teaching inspired Rembrandt to focus on religious subjects but also to portray evocative emotion in his works through the use of dramatic lighting effects.

The beginnings of Rembrandt’s career included many portrait commissions, becoming the most sort out portraitist in the city of Amsterdam. However, by the 1640s the amount of formal portraiture declined as he turned his hand to religious painting. This may have been a psychological response to the death of his wife Saskia in 1642 and of his mother two years previously. Religion was likely to have been a comfort to him during this difficult period.

Unfortunately, it was portraits that earned artists the most money during this era, therefore Rembrandt began to suffer financial difficulties. To avoid the fate of bankruptcy, Rembrandt had to sell his lavish home and move to a poorer district – a complete contrast to the wealthy lifestyle he had been used to since birth. However, this downfall did not attack his productivity and he continued to receive important commissions from those who knew of and respected him.

As Rembrandt entered his final years, his paintings took on a greater air of human understanding and compassion. Unfortunate circumstances throughout his life saw the deaths of his wife, children and lover, however, he kept his dignity until the very end, not letting tragedy negatively impact on his artwork. Rembrandt continued to paint up until his death on 4th October 1669.

It is not only his portraits and religious imagery that caused Rembrandt such renown. Although these make up the greater part of his collection, he also produced many landscapes, still-lives and paintings that defy classification. He was also adept at etching and drawing, his skills so adroit that it has been almost impossible to surpass.

Rubens

(Sir) Peter Paul Rubens – Rembrandt’s Flemish counterpart in this exhibition – was born much earlier on 28th June 1577 in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany). His youth was mostly based in Antwerp, Belgium, to which his family returned after the death of his father in 1587 (he had fled from religious prosecution for having protestant sympathies).

From approximately 1590, Rubens began his training to become the most influential artist of Baroque art in Northern Europe. Although he had tutors in his home country, Rubens’ style did not develop until he had spent some time in Italy at the dawning of the century. Here he took on some portrait commissions for aristocratic families whilst honing his skills by studying the artistic masters of the Renaissance.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 and promptly became court painter to Archduke Albert, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands. The demand for Rubens’ work increased rapidly and the artist often had to rely on his students and assistants to complete various commissions. As well as being able to paint nearly every subject possible, Rubens could also turn his hand to tapestry, book illustration and fresco, plus provide advice for architects and sculptors.

My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.

-Rubens, 1621

The exhibition at the National Gallery hailed the two artists as the most inventive and influential of the seventeenth century in Northern Europe. Although working at similar times, their approaches were profoundly different, yet, they both had a significant impact on the future of art. With Rubens’ work adorning one side of the gallery, and Rembrandt’s the opposite, the exhibition celebrated the differences and similarities of the two world renowned painters.

Although only a handful of each artists’ work made it into the exhibition, the selection showed off the diversity of their talent, including, but not limited to, subject matter and scale. Some paintings were more well known than others, particularly the self-portraits of Rembrandt aged 34 and 63.

The most expressive of Rubens’ work in the display was Samson and Delilah which was painted in approximately 1609. This is an interpretation of the Old Testament story in which Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair – where his source of great strength comes from – weakening him enough to be captured and imprisoned by soldiers (Judges 16:19). It is not the story that grabs the viewers attention, but rather the dramatic lighting effects and strong use of the colour red. This goes to show the influence other painters hand on Rubens during his time in Italy. (For example, see Caravaggio)

Many of the other paintings in the display revealed Rubens penchant for Roman mythology. One oil painting of significant scale, The Judgement of Paris (c1632-5), tells the story of the golden apple that Paris was solicited into giving to the goddess he believed to be most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, the goddess of love, angering the other two goddesses, Minerva and Juno, and foreshadowing the Trojan War.

Although this painting does not have the Caravaggesque of Samson and Delilah, it is still brightly coloured and detailed, making it pleasant to look at. Despite containing nudity, it is not lewd or suggestive, thus doing justice to the major Roman goddesses.

Rembrandt’s work, on the other hand, is much darker – not the subject, but in the choice, or lack of colour. As can be seen in the section of his self-portrait above, Rembrandt preferred to leave the background in shadow with little to none detail. His dramatic lighting draws the viewer to the important parts of the painting. At a glance, a general overview of the stories depicted can be ascertained, however, a deeper study must be made to reveal all the elements.

An example that sums up all these aforementioned approaches is Belshazzar’s Feast (c1636-8). The source of light highlights the lesser known Babylonian king written about in the Bible (Daniel 5), pouring wine from precious containers. In the top right-hand corner, Hebrew words appear that translate to “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.” As the Bible story goes, Belshazzar was killed later that night.

A closer look at the painting shows the shock of Belshazzar’s guests at his reaction to the words by the divine hand. The lack of colour in the figures help to emphasise the strong light source that shines through the written words of God. This is just one of many religious paintings that Rembrandt undertook during his career, and also goes to show that he did not only stick to the famous Bible stories, instead illustrating the more obscure.

Other religious paintings that were displayed in the exhibition include Ecce Homo (1634), The Woman taken in Adultery (1644) and An Elderly Man as Saint Paul (c1659). These all contain a distinct lack of colour, preferring browns and shades of black over anything more flamboyant.

The most obvious difference between the two European painters is the choice of colour palette. Rubens’ brighter selection paint a more fairy-tale-like story that befits mythology, whereas Rembrandt’s dark colours create a sense of melancholy and seriousness. The contrast of theme between Rubens’ mythological paintings and Rembrandt’s religious is also evident, however, is also misleading, for only a marginal selection were on display. Both artists are known to have focused on both subject matters in their paintings.

One final observation and contrast is the brush work. The strokes in Rubens’ paintings are much smoother than Rembrandt’s who appeared to have dabbled the paint more often than applying a gentle, steady hand.

Take One Picture 

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A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

Every year, the National Gallery encourages primary schools throughout Britain to focus on one painting in their collection and create an artistic response. In an exhibition titled Take One Picture, the gallery is exhibiting a variety of the work produced by these children. This year’s painting of choice is Rubens’ A Roman Triumph, which felt highly appropriate regarding the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition in the adjacent room.

This painting depicts a Roman triumph to celebrate either a military campaign or victory. A procession of young men, musicians, dancers, a priest and exotic animals are witnessed by spectators as they make their way through the city. Instead of regarding the busy painting as a whole, each participating school was encouraged to select a particular aspect to study. Children contemplated the sounds, smells, and feelings the participants may have felt and responded to these ideas with a group art project. A range of art forms has been experimented with from performance to sculpture and puppet-making.

Despite the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition closing on the 6th August, Take One Picture has remained throughout the summer holiday and will continue to be shown until 24th September. Not only is it interesting to see how young minds reacted to the European master’s painting, it also encourages visitors to assess their own thoughts about the work.

Some children were inspired by the people in the painting, taking an interest in their postures and the way in which they were walking or standing. Others narrowed it down to the clothing, looking closely at patterns, fabrics and colours. Naturally, some classes were drawn to the animals, particularly the elephants, but the way they executed their creative responses varied greatly.  Some based their work on the types of animals, whereas others used the sounds the animals may have made as their inspiration.

Whichever element of the painting the schools honed in on, none of the responses were the same. This goes to show how open to interpretation artwork can be. No one will know what Rubens hoped viewers would take away from his painting, but today it still has educational purposes and is a great source of entertainment.

Take One Picture has been running since 1995 and has greatly benefitted children with its cross-curricular opportunities. It will be interesting to follow the scheme and discover which art works are chosen in the future. For 2018, the choice has already been made. Next summer, the National Gallery can expect to display a wide range of responses to Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768).

Take One Picture is generously supported by GRoW @ Annenberg, The Dorset Foundation, Christoph Henkel and other donors. Further information about the programme, related CPD courses for teachers, and the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery can be found here

Michelangelo and the Risen Christ

The current exhibition at the National Gallery, Michelangelo & Sebastiano (I wrote about this a few weeks back) emphasises the impact Christianity – mostly Catholicism – had on artists of the early Renaissance. The Renaissance era itself, a word that means rebirth, was a European movement that brought about the rediscovery of Classical Greek Philosophy, thus painters began refocusing on mythological stories. However, Florentine art during the years of Michelangelo (1475-1564) was still greatly influenced by the Church and papacy.

Whether as a result from commissions, or his own personal preferences, Michelangelo’s artwork suggests a fascination with the resurrection of Christ. Naturally, other biblical scenes were also popular, the birth of Christ for instance, but it is the death and resurrection that was most prominent in the choice of artwork exhibited.

The way Michelangelo chose to depict the body of Christ goes against all logic. Putting cultural misrepresentation aside, the paintings portraying the crucifixion are far too pure and clean, diminishing the pain and horror of death. Rather than presenting a realistic account of events, Michelangelo painted an impression of the immortal soul, rather than flawed, damaged physique. Instead of blood, sweat and tears, Christ is a symbol of celestial beauty and grace.

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As well as paintings, Michelangelo turned to sculpture to demonstrate his version of the Risen Lord. At the beginning of the 16th century, Michelangelo produced two marble statues of The Risen Christ (The Giustiniani Christ). The first attempt was abandoned after a vein of black marble became visible in Christ’s face, thus making it less than perfect. An unknown artist finished the job in the early 17th century.

The second version, located in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, is slightly different. Christ is positioned in a different stance, stepping forward on one foot, suggesting a continuation of the Easter story, rather than concluding it with the resurrection.

 

In both statues, Christ is portrayed nude – presumably because he has only that moment risen from the tomb – clutching a linen cloth and holding up the cross, as if posing in triumph over death.

Michelangelo was not trying to be provocative in his decision to sculpt Jesus nude, he wanted to give the impression of perfection by using this classical form. Unfortunately, this has resulted in unintentionally making Christ appear like a pagan god.

Primarily known for his solo work, Michelangelo held great influence over his Italian contemporary Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). As a result, Sebastiano shares Michelangelo’s aesthetic visions and almost replicates the exact same style. Often the pair would collaborate on a commission, Michelangelo providing initial sketches, and Sebastiano executing the final outcome.

The Borgherini Chapel Project (1516-24) is a significant example of the work produced when the two joined forces. Pierfrancesco Borgherini commissioned Sebastiano to decorate the chapel located in the San Pietro in Montorio church in Rome, however Michelangelo also contributed toward the masterpiece.

50854859_9b53780fde_zThe plan was for Michelangelo to provide Sebastiano with sketches of the design, however due to another commission, Sebastiano was largely left to his own devices. Michelangelo only provided drawings for the lower section, The Flagellation of Christ, but Sebastiano was just as capable of tackling the remaining sections alone.

The resulting artwork has been labelled as the most influential of their joint works, and has resulted in countless interpretations. The National Gallery has recreated the masterpiece through means of 3D printing, which successfully conveys the atmospheric effect of the original.

As with Michelangelo’s statues and paintings of Christ, Sebastiano has retained the god-like aura when painting Jesus’ body. The idea of the artwork is that Christ appears twice, thus telling parts of his death and resurrection: the Flagellation and Transfiguration. In the upper dome, Christ is depicted in a dazzling white, symbolising his purity and flawlessness of character. His disciples look on in awestruck wonder, whilst Moses and Elijah, prophets of the Old Testament, regard the event from either side.

In contrast, the version of Christ in the lower half, the Flagellation, is much darker and distressing. Shown here is Jesus chained to a pillar, being flogged by Romans. Stripped of clothing and in evident pain, his suffering is distinctly illustrated. Yet, Christ is still represented as a superhuman character. His toned body and strong muscles betray Michelangelo’s visualisation of Christ in the same vein as an Ancient Greek or Roman god. Although this is an inaccurate portrayal of the biblical record, it does help to emphasise the primary intention of the artwork. The Flagellation emphasises the corrupt state of Christianity in the early 16th century, whilst the Transfiguration provides hope for a more glorious future.

Were Michelangelo and Sebastiano right to depict Christ in such god-like proportions? Some would argue yes, for he was the son of God. Others would be less inclined to agree. With the latest versions of technology at our disposal, artists and film makers of the 21st century have created more realistic imagery of the New Testament, going as far as to show a convincing amount of blood and emotion. Unlike the angelic Christ of the Renaissance, Jesus has been shown as human, like each and every one of us.

Whether or not you agree with Michelangelo’s unblemished form of the son of God, or you prefer to witness the blood, sweat and tears, it goes without saying that the paintings of the past are shrouded with awe and reverence. It is definitely worth seeing the artworks for yourself – nothing compares to standing directly in front of an original masterpiece.

WARNING: the exhibition closes on 25th June 2017

PS, Happy Easter!

Michelangelo and Sebastiano

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.

It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.

Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.

Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.

This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.

Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.

Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.

Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.

As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.

Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.

As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.

Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.

The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.

The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.

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.

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!