The Finest of the Fine

Although closed due to the coronavirus, The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham has uploaded many images of their artworks online for people to browse online. Known as the North’s Museum of Art, Fashion and Design, the museum is a hidden treasure in the market town of Barnard Castle in the heart of Teesdale. It was established by John (1811-85) and Joséphine Bowes (née Coffin-Chevallier, 1825-74) who wanted to create a world-class museum in order to introduce art to the local people of Teesdale. Unfortunately, both John and Joséphine died before the museum’s completion, however, the Trustee’s continued their dream and The Bowes Museum was opened on 10th June 1892.

Today, the museum contains a vast collection of important and precious works from across Europe. Teaming up with Google Arts and Culture, The Bowes Museum has put together several online collections, including their top twenty-five fine art paintings in the museum. Fine art is a type of art that has been produced primarily for aesthetics or beauty. It is not produced for a purpose, like decorative art, graphic art, pottery and so forth, but rather allows the artist the full expression of their imagination.

The Tears of St Peter – El Greco (1541–1614)

El Greco, 1541-1614; The Tears of St Peter

The Tears of St Peter – El Greco (1541–1614)

The first painting on The Bowes Museum’s list is The Tears of St Peter by the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, most widely known as El Greco. His nickname, El Greco, which means “The Greek”, was given to him while working in Toledo, Spain between 1577 and his death in 1614.

El Greco had many patrons in Toledo, many of whom were Catholics, therefore, religious subjects were popular amongst his commissions. The Catholic Church was associated with making confessions of sin, which is why El Greco produced several paintings under the title The Tears of St Peter.

The version of the painting at The Bowes Museum was El Greco’s first painting on the subject, which John Bowes purchased in 1869 for 200 francs (£8). It shows Saint Paul raising his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, praying for forgiveness. Those familiar with the Gospel of Luke will know that before Jesus’ arrest, he said to Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” (Luke 22:61). Peter was adamant that he would never deny Jesus, however, within a few hours he had denied knowing Jesus three times. “So Peter went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

El Greco’s painting appears to be set after Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than the moment Saint Peter realised he had denied his Lord. In the background are an empty tomb and two figures representing Mary and an angel. This alludes to a passage in the Gospel of John, which says:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” – John 20:11-13

This was followed by Jesus appearing to Mary.

The Nativity – Jacques Stella (1596-1657)

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The Nativity – Jacques Stella

There are several religious paintings at The Bowes Museum, including a painting of the Nativity by French artist Jacques Stella. Although born in France, Stella spent eighteen years in Italy where he became a close friend of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who taught Stella a lot about classicism.

Stella’s religious work, including The Nativity, were mostly produced after he had returned to France in 1634. He became the official painter of Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), although later moved into the Louvre when King Louis XIII (1601-43) made him peintre du roi. From then on, Stella produced several paintings on the theme of the childhood of Christ.

In Stella’s The Nativity, Mary and Joseph are alone with the baby Jesus, enjoying a moment of delight at the birth of Christ. The parents will not be alone for long because, in the background, an angel is announcing the birth to the shepherds. In the foreground, pieces of broken masonry represent the end of pagan religion.

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines (active 1483-90)

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, active c.1480-1500; Crucifixion

The Crucifixion – Master of the Virgo inter Virgines

Paintings of the Nativity have always been popular, as have paintings of the crucifixion. This version of the crucifixion was painted by a nameless man who is referred to as Master of the Virgo inter Virgines in reference to an altarpiece he produced for a convent in Konigsveld, Bavaria.

In this image, Christ is shown nailed to the cross in between the two thieves. The crowds below tell the different aspects of the story. A soldier is holding up a sponge soaked with vinegar whilst the Virgin Mary weeps in the corner, surrounded by St. John and five women. In the background is Judas, who has hanged himself in remorse for his betrayal of Jesus and, on the right, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wait with other men to take Christ’s body from the cross for burial.

The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

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The Triumph of Judith – Luca Giordano

The Triumph of Judith is just one of many studies Italian artist Luca Giordano produced in preparation for his final decorative masterpiece of the same name on the ceiling of the Treasure Chapel of the Carthusian S Martino in Naples. Known as Luca fa presto (Luca paints quickly) he completed numerous religious paintings in his lifetime.

This particular painting depicts the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who had been dispatched by Nebuchadnezzar to take vengeance on the cities that refused to assist his empire. As a result, Holofernes planned to destroy the city of Bethulia, the home of Judith, a Jewish widow. Judith tricked her way into Holofernes camp, promising him information about the Israelites, however, when Holofernes was lying in his tent one night in a drunken stupor, Judith seized her chance and decapitated him. Without their leader, the Assyrian army dispersed and the city of Bethulia was saved.

Artists have depicted Judith’s triumph in many different ways. In some, she appears innocent and secretive and in others, a temptress and schemer. Giordano, on the other hand, painted Judith holding Holofernes’ head aloft like a warrior, whilst the Assyrian men flee in fright.

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574)

van Heemskerck, Maerten, 1498-1574; An Allegory of Innocence and Guile

An Allegory of Innocence and Guile – Maerten van Heemskerck

Maerten van Heemskerck was a Dutch painter who specialised in portraits and religious scenes. Occasionally, the two genres overlapped, as can be seen in An Allegory of Innocence and Guile. It is uncertain who the woman is but the meaning of the painting is taken from a verse in the Bible.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16

It is not certain when the painting was produced but it is likely to have been after Heemskerck had set off for his Grand Tour of Italy in 1532. Inspired by the Italian style of art, this painting depicts a pale, richly dressed woman holding a snake with a dove flying above her right hand. Since the painting is a personification of the biblical verse, she is nameless. This type of subject was often commissioned for public buildings to remind people of the high standards expected of the people who worked there: wealthy and pious.

A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta (1392-1450)

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A Miracle of the Eucharist – Sassetta

Italian painter Sassetta, also known as Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, was a deeply pious man, therefore, the majority, if not all, of his works depicted religious scenes. A Miracle of the Eucharist is not based on a biblical passage but is meant to tell a story about a young Carmelite monk.

This painting was one of a sequence of paintings that followed the life of the unfortunate young monk. In this scene, set in the interior of a 15th-century church, the monk has been struck dead at the altar whilst the other monks and congregation look on in horror. At that time, the church taught that only true believers could accept the communion bread and wine; evidently, the monk was not a true believer.

Not only has the monk died, but his white cloak has turned black and a small, winged version of the devil is snatching the monk’s soul from his mouth. The plate held by the officiating priest is full of blood, which is a reference to the Miracle of Bolsena where a communion bread allegedly began to bleed onto a corporal. The painting, and the others in the series, were intended as a teaching tool to warn the congregation of the “consequences of sinfulness, the perils of feigning faith and the power of God.” (Andrew Graham-Dixon, 1997)

Reading Lesson in a Convent – François Marius Granet (1775-1849)

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Reading lesson in a convent – François Marius Granet

French artist, François Marius Granet, spent the years 1802-1819 in Rome where he studied at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. Granet and his fellow students were provided with a studio in the convent of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti church next-door to the academy. It is here that Reading Lesson in a Convent is set.

The painting shows a young girl reading to an elderly nun while a younger nun, possibly the girl’s tutor, sits beside them. Granet, who was known for the atmospherical portrayal of light, uses the light from the window to create an ethereal effect, drawing attention to the girl, nuns and the crucifix on the wall behind them. In contrast, the rest of the convent appears to be in darkness.

Santissima Trinità dei Monti had a predominantly French congregation, hence its connection with the French Academy. French soldiers had been stationed in the convent since Rome surrendered to the French revolutionary army in 1798. Unfortunately, the troops, followed by the arrival of artists, caused parts of the convent to be neglected and in need of repair. After Napoleon’s (1769-1821) fall from power in 1815, the new king, Louis XVIII (1755-24) restored the church and convent and named Granet Chevalier de l’Ordre St Michel and Conservateur des tableaux de Versailles.

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani (1656-1764)

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Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni – Francesco Trevisani.

Amongst the portraits at The Bowes Museum is Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni by the Italian painter Francesco Trevisani. Ottoboni, who was the grand-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII (1610-91), became a cardinal in 1689. He was also one of the most important patrons of the arts in Rome at the beginning of the 18th century. Amongst the painters the cardinal supported was Trevisani, who painted the flattering portrait of Ottoboni dressed in richly coloured cardinal robes.

Others Ottoboni supported included the violinist Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), who he introduced to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the violinist and composer, was also a favourite, as was the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). Ottoboni regularly wrote librettos for oratorios, such as Scarlatti’s La Giuditta, and the paper the cardinal holds in his portrait may be a reference to this.

Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

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Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter – Anthony van Dyck

This portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter (d.1633) was once mistaken as a representation of Queen Henrietta (1606-69), the wife of Charles I (1600-49). As it turned out, it is a portrait of Henrietta’s lady in waiting and niece of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628).

Anthony van Dyck was commissioned to paint this portrait by Olivia’s husband, Endymion Porter (1587-1649), who was the artist’s patron and close friend. Porter commissioned several portraits from Van Dyck, who was living in England at the time. It is estimated that Van Dyck also produced around forty portraits of the king during this time.

Olivia Boteler Porter wears a white satin dress with long puffed sleeves, which was considered a timeless garment during the early 17th century. The red carnation in her hair may have been added to the painting as a heraldic motif since the flower also appears in portraits of other female members of the Villiers family. Olivia’s mother was the half-sister of the Duke of Buckingham. Her father, Sir John Boteler (1566-1637), was an English politician and member of the House of Commons.

Self-Portrait – François-Saint Bonvin (1817-87)

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Self Portrait – Francois-Saint Bonvin

François-Saint Bonvin was a realist painter born in the poor region of Paris to a seamstress and a policeman. His mother died when he was young and his father married again. Bonvin’s step-mother, however, abused and starved him. To keep out of her way, Bonvin began to draw, finally escaping the abuse when a family friend paid for him to receive drawing instruction at a Parisian school.

Bonvin met François Marius Granet, who painted Reading Lesson in a Convent (see above), in 1847, around the same time he painted his self-portrait. The brushwork and dramatic light are similar to Gustave Courbet (1819-77), another artist and friend of Bonvin. Courbet had already painted a portrait of Bonvin and Bonvin was likely trying to replicate the same technique.

In 1850, Bonvin won recognition as a leading realist artist at the Paris Salon, which encouraged him to give up his day job as a policeman to pursue a career in art. Unfortunately, an illness he had contracted in the police force troubled him for the rest of his life. In 1881, he underwent an operation in an attempt to alleviate some of his problems, however, it did not work and he became blind.

The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic – Canaletto (1697-1768)

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The Bucintoro returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic – Canaletto

The Bowes Museum owns plenty of landscapes, most notably The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day after the Ceremony of Wedding the Adriatic by Giovanni Antonio Canal, also known as Canaletto. This is one of Canaletto’s largest works, which shows the Doge’s state vessel, the Bucintoro, returning to Venice after the festivities on Ascension Day.

Each year on the Festa della Sensa (Ascension Day) the Doge set out on his barge to the Adriatic Sea to perform the “Marriage of the Sea”. This involved tossing a wedding ring into the sea followed by the words “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii.” (“We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination”). This ceremony symbolised the maritime dominion of Venice, which lasted from around 1000 AD to 1798 when Napoleon conquered Venice.

Canaletto captured the festivities of the day with dozens of boats on the water, market stalls on the Piazzetta, and hundreds of people celebrating on land and water. The Bucintoro, which has just reached the quayside, was built in 1724 but was later destroyed by the French.

Gibside from the North – Turner (1775-1851)

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Gibside from the North – Turner

Artists from the continent may dominate the list of top fine-art paintings, however, there are a couple of British artists in The Bowes Museum, including Joseph Mallord William Turner. The museum owns four watercolours by Turner, including two that depict the Gibside Estate.

Gibside in the Derwent Valley, now owned by the National Trust, was once the home of Scottish nobleman John Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1769-1820), an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926). John Bowes commissioned Turner to produce paintings of the estate from different compass points. Gibside from the North puts Gibside House in the centre and, in the distance, the Column to Liberty can be seen upon a hill.

The Column to Liberty was commissioned by George Bowes (1701-60) who inherited the estate in 1721. His instruction to a local architect was to erect a 141 ft column that could be seen for miles. Bowes wanted people to know he was a very important man as both a coal baron and a Whig politician. On top of the column stands a Statue of Liberty holding the Staff of Maintenance and Cap of Liberty.

Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

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Barnard Castle – Thomas Girtin

Friend and adversary of Turner, Thomas Girtin was regarded as one of the best British landscape artists of the period. Before his marriage to Mary Ann Borrett in 1800, Girtin went on several sketching tours of north England, including the historic market town Barnard Castle where The Bowes Museum was later founded.

Situated on the River Tees is the remains of a castle from which the town gets its name. Named after its 12th-century founder, Barnard de Balliol (d.1154), the castle was developed by Richard III (1452-85) whose boar emblem can still be seen above one of the windows. By the time Girtin painted the castle, it was in ruins. In the foreground, Girtin has included a man fishing. Turner also painted scenes of Barnard Castle and it is said Charles Dickens (1821-70) visited the area in 1838 to research his novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Dutch men-of-war at anchor – Simon de Vlieger (1601–53)

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

Dutch Men of War at Anchor -Simon de Vlieger

Maritime landscapes were once popular and were one of the main outcomes of Dutch painter Simon de Vlieger. Considered to be one of the best-known Dutch maritime painters, de Vlieger painted ships in harbours and at sea as well as storms and the resulting shipwrecks.

The ship in Dutch Men of War at Anchor has been identified as Admiral Maarten Tromp’s (1598-1653) flagship Amelia. Tromp originally served with the Dutch Navy but later moved to the Royal Danish Navy as admiral. De Vlieger regularly painted Amelia, even after she ceased to exist, so it is uncertain if this painting was produced from life or memory. It is likely to have been painted towards the end of De Vlieger’s career, having moved away from the monotonal paintings that were popular at the time to a more realistic use of colour.

Beach Scene at low tide – Eugène Louis Boudin (1824-98)

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Beach Scene at Low Tide – Eugène Boudin

Bodies of water have fascinated artists for centuries, particularly the play of light on the reflective surface and movement of ripples and tides. They are also a great location for observing human activities, such as in Eugène Boudin’s Beach Scene at Low Tide.

Boudin is considered to be one of the forerunners of Impressionism and Claude Monet (1840-1926) looked up to him as his first master. Nicknamed “King of the skies”, Boudin was, by trade, a marine painter, painting everything from ships on the sea to life on the beaches. It is not certain where Beach Scene at Low Tide was painted, however, it is likely to be one of Boudin’s favourite resorts in either Trouville, Deauville or Normandy. As well as the French coastline, Boudin details the clothing of the urban tourists. The style of dress suggests they are members of the aristocracy and the rapid brushstrokes hints at a windy day.

Landscape with figures and goat – Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli (1824-86)

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Landscape with figures and goats, Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli

Adolphe Monticelli, like Boudin, was a French painter who preceded the Impressionists. Originally trained to work in a neoclassical style in Marseille, he adopted a new style when he moved to Paris in 1846. He began to work with bold colours and thickly applied paint, which inspired the young Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who he met in the 1860s. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) was also an admirer of his work.

Landscape with figures and goat is painted from an upward perspective to convey the steepness of the hill upon which four goats are grazing. Three figures in the background, one female and two male, are likely to be goat herders from the style of their clothing. The thickly applied paint creates a sense of movement and the brightness of the colours suggests it was a hot, sunny day.

Mowers – Charles-Émile Jacque (1813-94)

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Mowers, Charles-Emile Jacque

Charles Jacque was primarily a painter of animals and member of the Barbizon School, who were part of a movement towards Realism in art. Barbizon was a commune in North France surrounded by rustic and pastoral landscapes, which were the inspiration for many of Jacque’s paintings.

Mowers, which is considerably brighter than the majority of Jacque’s work, is a small painting of peasants at work in the field. Apart from a couple of birds in the sky, there are none of Jacque’s characteristic animals. The brightness of the green grass and blue sky create a pleasant atmosphere, however, the peasant’s laborious tasks do not go unnoticed. Each figure is wearing a hat to protect them from the sun, suggesting it is hot and tiring working in the heat of the day.

After the Thunderstorm – Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822)

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After the Thunderstorm – Achille-Etna Michallon

Achille Etna Michallon was a French landscape painter with a difference. Inspired by works in Italy, Michallon did not have time to fully form his style since he died at the age of 25 from pneumonia, however, he did have an interesting choice of subject matter: trees that had been struck by lightning.

After the Thunderstorm depicts a wooded landscape, lit by the sun that shines through the abating storm clouds. On the left stands a tree that was struck by lightning during the recent storm. Yet, Michallon did not leave the image there; he included three male peasants discovering the body of a woman who, like the tree, had also been struck by lightning. There is no indication of who the unfortunate woman was or whether the scene was based on imagination, a story, or something the artist had once witnessed.

Prison Interior – Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Prison Interior – Goya

When John and Joséphine Bowes were sourcing artworks for their museum, they made several purchases from the collection of the deceased politician Conde de Quinto (d.1860). One of these purchases was Francisco Goya’s Prison Interior, which has become one of the museum’s best-known pieces. The Spanish artist painted this not long before he became the leading painter of his age.

Having experienced the Peninsular War fought by Spain and Portugal, Goya’s paintings tended to be macabre and morbid. Often Goya was attempting to make a political point, in this case, the ill-treatment of men in prison. Prison Interior does not depict a prison as they are known today but rather a lunatic asylum. At the time, there were no psychiatric hospitals, instead, there were “small dumps into which the psychotic could be thrown without the smallest attempt to discover, classify, or treat the nature of their illness.” Goya often worried about his mental health, which may be why he was passionate about changing the way patients were treated.

The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70)

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The Rape of Helen – Francesco Primaticcio

During the Mannerist and Renaissance eras, mythological subjects were popular amongst art collectors. Francesco Primaticcio was an Italian Mannerist who worked at the French Court of Fontainebleau for King Francois I (1494-1547).

A famous story, which Primatticcio depicted in The Rape of Helen, was the abduction of Helen of Sparta and the subsequent war, as recorded in Homer’s Iliad and other ancient literature. Paris, a Trojan prince, was promised Helen as a bribe by the goddess Aphrodite. Helen, however, was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Many sources claim Helen went with Paris on her own accord, however, as Primatticcio depicts, others suggest she was abducted by force and subsequently raped.

Mercury and Argus – Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819)

de Valenciennes, Pierre Henri, 1750-1819; Mercury and Argus

Mercury and Argus – Pierre Henri de Valenciennes

Another popular mythological story amongst artists, particularly landscape painters, was the myth of Mercury and Argus. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who was an influential open-air painter, chose this story for its setting in the sacred grove of Mycenae.

The king of the gods, Jupiter, had a habit of lusting over women despite being married. His jealous wife, Juno, often intervened, causing terrible things to happen to the women. In this story, she turned the beautiful girl Io into a cow and instructed Argus to guard it. Argus was traditionally a beast covered with hundreds of eyes, however, De Valenciennes depicted him as a shepherd. Zeus sent the god Mercury to steal the cow, which involved lulling Argus to sleep with pipe music. In another version of the story, Mercury kills Argus. Juno, upset at the loss of her servant, took the eyes of Argus and put them on the tail of a peacock so that he would be remembered forever.

The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)

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The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was an Italian Rococo painter who was commissioned by Carlo Archinto (1669-1732) to paint the ceiling of his palace in Milan. The Bowes Museum owns an oil sketch of a section of the ceiling, which shows part of the story of Phaethon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Phaethon was the son of Helios whose job it was to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. Phaethon begged his father to let him have a go at riding the chariot, however, he lost control and flew too near to the ground, scorching forests, creating deserts and turning men black. Zeus eventually put an end to the disaster by throwing his thunderbolt at Phaethon, killing him instantly.

This painting by Tiepolo shows the moment Phaethon has decided to drive the chariot, whilst his father tries to dissuade him. In the background are the marble columns of a palace belonging to Apollo, the Olympian god of the sun.

Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904)

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Fruit and Flowers – Henri Fantin-Latour

Amongst The Bowes Museum’s top twenty-five paintings are three still-life scenes, including Fruit and Flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour. This is a fresh-looking image with bright flowers and ripe fruit. It is meant to appear casual, as though the basket has just been tipped over, however, it was probably carefully arranged by the artist.

Born Ignace Henri Jean Théodore Fantin-Latour in Grenoble, he initially learnt to draw from his father who was also an artist. Despite having friends who would go on to be associated with Impressionism, such as Whistler (1843-1903) and Manet (1832-83), Fantin-Latour preferred a more conservative style. Fantin-Latour’s paintings were practically unknown in France during his lifetime because the majority of them were taken to England by Whistler to be sold.

Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647)

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Breakfast piece – Jacob van Hulsdonck

Jacob van Hulsdonck, an artist from Antwerp, played a role in the development of still lifes of fruit, banquets and flowers. There are roughly 100 paintings attributed to him in which he captures the colour and texture of his subjects.

Breakfast Piece depicts a partially eaten breakfast of bread, meat, fish and cherries. Van Hulsdonck expertly portrays the folds in the table cloth, the patterns on the china and even crumbs on the edge of some plates. This painting is worthy of note because it is the earliest painting that shows Chinese porcelain being used in a meal. It had only just been imported by the Dutch East India Company at the time the painting was produced.

Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries – Blas de Ledesma (1556-98)

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Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries – Blas de Ledesma

Blas de Ledesma is a fairly unknown artist. He is thought to have worked in Granada and designed a fresco for the Alhambra. More than one still-life has been identified as his, suggesting Ledesma prefered this genre of painting.

The title, Still life with Asparagus, Artichokes, Lemons and Cherries, sums up what can be seen in the painting. The woven basket in the centre was a common feature in the still-lifes attributed to Ledesma. The fruit and vegetables are arranged almost symmetrically, with geometric precision, which makes the basket appear to be floating slightly above the table. Nonetheless, all the objects are realistically detailed, particularly the lemons, which, at a glance, appear photographic.

These twenty-five paintings are not only the best in The Bowes Museum but they also demonstrate the wide scope that the term “fine art” covers. As a result, it is difficult to give a precise definition of the term. It encompasses religious paintings, mythological scenes, portraits, landscapes and still life. There is no particular style; realism, renaissance, mannerism, impressionism, rococo and so forth all fall under the fine art umbrella.

There are so many examples of fine art in existence that it is impossible to list the best. The Bowes Museum have only looked at the paintings in their collection and the results of the top twenty-five are a matter of personal opinion. The museum has also listed their top ceramics, furniture, silver, fashion and textiles, and archaeology.

The Bowes Museum is usually open from 10 am to 5 pm every day. An adult ticket at £14 provides unlimited access for a year.

Following the Stars

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

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

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

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

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

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

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

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

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

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

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

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

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

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

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

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

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

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

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

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

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

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

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

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

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

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

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

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk Through British Art

“Our mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art.”
– Tate

On the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary prison, the new National Gallery of British Art opened its doors to the public in 1897. Since then, the building has undergone fifteen extensions, more than doubling it in size. From a collection of 245 artworks at its inception, the Tate Gallery, as it was renamed in 1932, now owns over 70,000 works. Since 2000, the gallery has been known as Tate Britain and contains art dating back to the 16th century.

Whilst the Tate Britain hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year, there is a permanent display of hundreds of famous works. Set out in chronological order and titled Walk Through British Art, each room shows visitors paintings and sculptures from different eras, gradually revealing the changes in styles over time. Beginning in the 16th century and stretching to the present day, the gallery offers insight into the various art movements and artists that have lived and worked in Britain.

Whilst the Tate Modern, another gallery owned by the Tate Collective, is a more appropriate venue to see contemporary works, Tate Britain is the perfect place to study the changes in British art, both rapid and slow, between 1545 to the 1910s. Although other art galleries display numerous paintings from a whole range of eras, no place describes the journey through British art better than Tate Britain.

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A Man in a Black Cap – John Bettes, 1545

The Walk Through British Art begins with the oldest dated painting in the gallery’s collection: A Man in a Black Cap. As the numbers in the background confirm, this oil painting was completed in 1545 and a panel attached to the back of the oak-wood canvas records “faict par Johan Bettes Anglois” – done by John Bettes, Englishman.

Nothing much is known about John Bettes (active c. 1531–1570) except that records state he was living in Westminster in 1556 and had previously been working for Henry VIII (1491-1547) at Whitehall Palace.

Art historians compare Bette’s painting to the style of the German artist Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1543) who also worked for the king. The sitter, however, is unknown but it is believed he was 26 years old due to the inclusion of the Roman numerals XXVI.

The journey through British art starts with works from 1540 to 1650 during which time portraiture was popular, particularly within family dynasties. To put it into perspective, these paintings were produced during the reigns of Henry VIII and his children up until Charles I (1600-49) and the civil war. Thus, it is only natural to find a portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

There is some discrepancy over the artist responsible for Portrait of Elizabeth I, which was produced roughly around 1563. Referred to as the “famous paynter Steven”, this portrait has been attributed to the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen (d. 1563/4), however, it has recently been suggested that the Dutchman Steven Cornelisz. van Herwijck (1530-1567) may have been the artist.

Often it is difficult to identify artists from this period because not many signed their work. This is the case with the panel An Allegory of Man of which the original purpose has also been lost. Unusually for the time, particularly the years following the Reformation, this is a religious piece of work featuring the figure of the resurrected Christ. From the 1540s onward, it was not permitted to publicly display religious images.

In the centre of the meticulously detailed scene is the figure of “Man” surrounded by a scroll on which the Christian Virtues are written: “Temporans, good reisines, chastity, almes deeds, compassion, meekenes, charity and paciens.” Surrounding the Man are several figures, including Death represented by a skeleton, who are preparing to fire arrows, each named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This provides an insight into the beliefs and values of Christians, particularly Catholics if the angels are anything to judge by, during the 16th century.

The majority of the other paintings from the 1540-1650s room are portraits, mostly of people who are no longer considered significant to British history today. These include the English court official Sir William Killigrew (1606-95) and his wife Mary painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Whilst Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque painter, he famously became the leading court painter in England, hence why these two portraits are considered to be British art.

The period between 1650 and 1730 saw an enormous change, not just in art but throughout Britain. Whilst there was still antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, the threat of upsetting the Tudor monarchs was long gone. The country had seen the beheading of a king but by 1660 they were celebrating the Restoration of the Monarchy. With Charles II (1630-85) on the throne, Londoners suffered from the plague and the Great Fire of London. Later, James II (1633-1701) was overthrown by the Dutch stadtholder William III (1650-1702) in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Finally, to end this period of transformation, the United Kingdom was created in 1707.

All of these events had an impact on British art, which had previously been dominated by portraiture. During the Restoration, new genres began to appear, including landscapes and still-life. Whilst there have been many British landscape artists, the genre was introduced by the Dutch and Flemish artists who were coming to England in the hopes of better job prospects.

Still-life paintings became very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, artists during the 17th century were already experimenting with the genre. One such artist was Edward Collier (d.1708), a Dutchman who arrived in England in 1663. One of his paintings, Still Life with a Volume of Withers ‘Emblemes’, gave still-life paintings another name: vanitas. The composition is built up with musical instruments, jewellery and wine, which represent life’s pleasures. This is emphasised by the Latin inscription of Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, hence vanitas. Other objects, however, including the skull and the open book featuring a poem about mortality, gives the message that pleasure is fleeting and that death comes to all.

Now that the Stuarts were on the throne, it was once again safe to produce religious paintings, which both Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) did during this era. Lely’s painting Susanna and the Elders is based on a story from the biblical Apocrypha during which two elders of the Jewish community attempt to seduce the young lady, threatening to accuse her of adultery if she did not consent to their desires. Kneller, however, painted a slightly more positive scene involving the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah and the Angel shows the elderly prophet being awakened by an angel who is making him aware that God has sent him bread and water to save him from starvation.

This period of art also introduces one of the earliest female artists, Mary Beale (1633-99). Beale, with the help of her husband, ran a professional portrait painting business. It is believed that Portrait of a Young Girl was produced as a study piece to help Beale improve her art technique by painting quickly in order increase the number of sales and commisions.

Prior to the 18th-century, the majority of world-famous painters came from the European continent, however, there began to be a rise in the number of painters born and educated in England. The most significant of these and, perhaps, the first internationally famous British artist, is Willaim Hogarth (1697-1764), whose self-portrait hangs in the Tate Britain along with his dog Trump. Hogarth is well-known for his narrative series of paintings that tell a moral story, particularly A Rakes Progress, which can be found in the Sir John Soane’s Museum near Holborn, London.

An example of Hogarth’s narrative moral series can be seen in the sixth frame of The Beggars Opera based on a scene from John Gay’s (1685-1732) play of the same name, which was first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. In this scene, the highwayman Macheath is being sentenced to death while his two lovers, who happen to be the daughters of the jailer and lawyer, plead for his life.

Tate Britain owns a handful of Hogarth’s work, which can be seen in the third room of the Walk Through British Art. In a display case are a few prints that were produced of some of his paintings. Prints became popular in the 18th century because they were cheaper thus more affordable to the people of lower status who wish to purchase artwork. It was also a means for the artist to earn some money; whilst a single painting would take months and earn a lump sum, several prints could be made at once and sold to many different customers.

Although British born artists were beginning to take the stage, painters from the continent were still flocking to London. This includes Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1768), a vendutisti painter (painter of cityscape views), who arrived in England in 1746. He was already known as ‘the famous painter of views of Venice’ but during his ten-year stay in the English capital, he painted many beautiful landscapes showing the grand London architecture. Landscapes include buildings such as the new and old Horse Guards and A View of Greenwich from the River.

The rise of British born painters continued during the later 18th century, helped by the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 by George III (1738-1820). The Academy was intended as a venue for public displays of art and an art school for future generations, both of which it remains today. With 34 founding members, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), who was knighted by the king in 1769, was elected as the first president. A number of Reynold’s works are owned by Tate Britain, including Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen.

By the end of the 18th century, more British artists were on the scene and a wider range of styles and themes were being painted. William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the Prime Minister at the tender age of 24, a term that coincided with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. These events influenced many artists, including John Copley Singleton (1738-1815) whose painting pays tribute to Major Francis Peirson who lost his life during the attempted French invasion of Jersey.

The island of Jersey had once been part of France, however, since 1066 it had been in the possession of the English. The Death of Major Peirson shows the death of the young man as well as the victory of the British against the French. In one painting, Copley manages to depict both the victories and horrors of war. Whilst Britain may have won the battle, not everyone lived to see it.

In complete contrast to Copley’s work is Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-88) portrait of Giovanna Baccelli, which was painted at roughly the same time. Giovanna was an Italian ballet dancer who became brief friends of Marie Antoinette (1755-93) until the French Revolution unfolded. Gainsborough paints her in a lively but elegant manner, using small, light brushstrokes to evoke a sense of movement, which suggests Giovanna is dancing rather than posing. This is a far more positive painting than the war paintings that were simultaneously being produced.

Another popular theme during the late 18th century was literature and mythology. Just as they are today, plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) were well-known and popular amongst the various social classes. Tate Britain displays a couple of paintings based on scenes from his plays, the most eye-catching being Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Although born in Switzerland, Fuseli spent the majority of his working life in Britain and was particularly fond of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His oil painting shows the events of Act IV, Scene I in which Oberon, the king of the fairies, has cast a spell on Queen Titania, causing her to fall in love with Nick Bottom, whose head has been transformed into that of an ass.

Also prevalent at this time were mythological scenes, particularly the tales written about in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the 4th president of the Royal Academy, painted an imagined scene of the Greek poet Homer reciting The Iliad to a small audience. Although no one knows who Homer was or even if he ever existed – some scholars suggest the stories had more than one author – Lawrence accurately portrays the way the epic poems would have been “read”. Paper books did not exist during Homer’s time, therefore, bards learnt the words and travelled around Greece telling the story in instalments at different locations.

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811 by Richard Westmacott 1775-1856

Jupiter and Ganymede, Richard Westmacott, 1811

Not all the artworks at Tate Britain are paintings. British Sculptor Richard Westmacott’s (1775-1856) Jupiter and Ganymede is a marble relief of Ganymede, a shepherd boy, being abducted by an eagle as written about in stories from classical mythology. The head of the Roman gods, Jupiter, was attracted to the handsome youth and took the form of an eagle so that he could seize Ganymede and take him to his home on Mount Olympus.

Later on in the Walk through British Art, another well-known sculpture is displayed, which many people will recognise from the centre of Picadilly Circus. This is the Model for “Eros” (or Anteros) on the Shaftesbury Memorial, Picadilly Circus produced by Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) in 1891 and eventually cast in Bronze in 1925.

During the early 19th century, Britain faced more wars, most famously the Battle of Waterloo which saw the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) defeat Napoleon (1769-1821). As well as victory, these conflicts brought more death and destruction as shown in JMW Turner’s (1775-1851) The Field of Waterloo, which depicts a group of people searching through masses of corpses for their loved ones. Despite these hostilities, artists continued to paint and new styles began to emerge, particularly in relation to landscape paintings.

Two British painters, in particular, held the forefront in landscape painting: Turner and his contemporary, John Constable (1776-1837). A marked contrast can be seen between Constable’s sketch of Hadleigh Castle in Essex and the landscapes produced by artists in the previous century, for instance, Canaletto’s painstakingly detailed cityscapes. Although this version of Hadleigh Castle was only a preparatory oil painting, Constable’s rapid brushstrokes and almost Impressionistic sky suggest artists were moving away from the traditional methods of painting. Constable’s gloomy and sombre sketch reflects his mood – his wife had just died – rather than the atmosphere he experienced on site.

Britain’s most famous landscape painter is arguably Joseph Mallord William Turner who gifted the majority of his work to the British public in his will. Tate Britain has an entire gallery devoted to his atmospheric watercolour landscapes, however, a Walk Through British Art focuses on a couple of his oil paintings. As well as his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, the gallery displays a mythological piece based on the poem Hymn to Apollo by the Greek poet, Callimachus (310-240 BC). The Greek sun god is on a quest to build a temple for his oracle at Delphi but in order to do so, he must defeat a giant python. Turner shows Apollo moments after delivering the final blow to the monstrous creature.

Whilst some artists were embracing new ideas, others preferred the tried and tested methods of the 16th and 17th centuries. Henry Thomson (1773-1843), a member of the Royal Academy, was one of these artists whose work resembles the style seen during the Renaissance era. Not many British artists produced large-scale religious works, however, this was one of Thomson’s main focuses. His painting of The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, a story that can be found in three Gospels of the Bible, is an example of this.

Densely hung in two tiers are many works produced in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). This is to evoke the atmosphere of a Victorian gallery where paintings would have been crowded together in a similar manner. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to view all of the artworks, particularly those higher up that have to compete with the glare of the sunlight coming through the glass ceiling. Yet, the number of examples from this period emphasise the vast range of styles and genres that artists gradually adopted.

Scenes from everyday life began to address topical issues that also reflected the changes in industry, culture and politics, including the question of female emancipation. Many of these artists were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who determined to ignore the teachings of the Royal Academy and revert to styles popular before the Renaissance, i.e. before the painter Raphael (1483-1520) came on the scene. A couple of paintings from the founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) are on display, as well as works by those who associated themselves with the Brotherhood, for example, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Other artists sought back to antiquity for inspiration, often focusing on ancient buildings such as the ones in the background of John William Waterhouse’s (1849-1917) Saint Eulalia. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was also famous for paintings of antiquity, however, the painting on display is of a more recent 17th-century setting.

Hidden messages and meanings began to appear in paintings, such as the American-born John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The artist draws attention to the young girls whose innocence is emphasised by the lilies, which represent purity. The Japanese lanterns, however, represent ephemerality, suggesting that this innocence will never last. George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914), on the other hand, hid meanings related to a more topical issue: women’s rights. Whilst many later became involved in Suffrage movements, there were some people completely against the cause, such as Hicks who represents women as the ‘fairer sex’, i.e. pure and submissive to men, thus suggesting women need not have the right to vote.

Biblical scenes were not as popular during this era but Tate Britain has located a couple of examples of artists who did use the Bible for inspiration. Millais painted a scene loosely based on scripture showing Christ in the House of His Parents. Likewise, Edward Armitage imagined The Remorse of Judas (1817-96) after he sold Jesus to the Romans.

The works produced from the end of the 19th century onwards are younger than the Tate Gallery, which Sir Henry Tate (1819-99) began providing artworks and funding for in 1889. Some of the works Tate donated “for the encouragement and development of British art” are still on display at the gallery, including Arther Hacker’s (1858-1919) The Annunciation, a more contemporary version of Mary receiving the news from an angel that she will have a son based on descriptions in the Protoevangelium of James (145 AD).

Many art movements were competing with each other and new styles and processes were being developed. Impressionism, whilst rejected by critics, to begin with, began to appeal to many artists, particularly those who painted en plein air. Henry Scott Tuke’s (1858-1929) August Blue is an example of this impressionist style painted by an Englishman; most Impressionist painters emerged from France.

Aubrey Beardsley’s (1872-98) Masked Woman with a White Mouse is an example of another art style, which was influenced by Japanese woodcuts. During his very short career, Beardsley was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, which including other artists, such as James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and authors, for instance, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

The 20th century and the beginning of the Edwardian-era saw a return to more realistic approaches to art. Art schools still taught classical and traditional painting techniques, however, young artists had been exposed to Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists and other avant-garde approaches. Whilst Realism was becoming popular, artists were moving away from the “old” version of realistic, as seen in many Renaissance paintings, and producing more natural-looking outcomes, particularly of the human body. Take Sir Thomas Brock’s (1847-1922) marble model of Eve for example; there is nothing to suggest she is the sensual temptress in artworks of the previous centuries, instead, she looks natural with an anatomically correct body and a subtle expression of feeling.

Other artists chose to concentrate on realistic settings that depict the working class rather than the elite. Both Albert Rutherston (1881-1953) and Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) painted people at work in some of the least glamorous jobs, i.e. laundry and gleaning. Rutherston also painted in a realistic style, however, it was far from the smooth brushwork of the 15th and 16th centuries. Clausen, on the other hand, leans more towards an impressionist style.

The 20th century also saw a rise in female painters, including Lady Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979). Tenth child of the philanthropist Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908), who co-founded the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Clarke Hall was mostly known for her illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1818-48). Tate Britain, however, displays one of her oil paintings, Still Life of a Basket on a Chair.

The artwork from the 1910s onwards is much harder to document. Modern art was at war with academic art; Britain was at war with Germany; suffragettes were at war with parliament. It was a difficult time for everyone and artists turned to their work for consolidation. Some joined Futurist movements, others experimented with Cubism and some artists wholly embraced Abstract Expressionism.

Whilst Tate Britain continues its Walk Through British Art to the present day, it is impossible to accurately describe the styles and outcomes of British artists. With so many influences, it is simpler to use the title “International Art” since no form of contemporary art is unique to Britain. The spectrum of art is so diverse that every artist becomes almost incomparable to another, whereas, prior to the 20th century, only a trained eye could recognise whose hand had painted certain canvases.

From 1540 to 1840, Tate Britain does a fantastic job at documenting the history of British art. After this period, the rooms become more crowded and the styles more assorted, making it difficult to follow a timeline of development. Nonetheless, Tate Britain has access to some wonderful artworks and a huge range of British artists. Whether the aim is to experience the changes in art throughout time or just look at a handful of paintings, Tate Britain is an excellent destination.

Entry to Tate Britain is free for everyone with a charge for special exhibitions. Visitors with a disability pay a concessionary rate, and a companions entrance is free. Tate Members and Patrons get free entry to special exhibitions. Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian) and family tickets are available (two adults and two children 12 – 18 years) see individual exhibitions for more information. Tate.org.uk

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Spectacle

250 Years of the Summer Exhibition

“There shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings. Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all artists of distinguished merit”

Simultaneously seen as a “monster”, a “farrago”, a “delight” and a “triumph”, the Royal Academy is celebrating its 250th Summer Exhibition since 1769, a few months after the Academy was founded with permission of King George III on 10th December 1768. Considered to be the most democratic art exhibition in the world, the RA has gone to town with the anniversary celebration, decorating the nearby streets with flags designed by some of the Academicians: Grayson Perry, this year’s curator, Cornelia Parker, Rose Wylie and Joe Tilson.

 

 

The Summer Exhibition contains a mish-mash of artwork of all genres produced by artists working today. Although it is impossible to give it a theme – Grayson Perry has titled it Art Made Now – it is safe to say that the exhibits fall into the “contemporary” or “modern” category. Many people turn their noses up, unable to appreciate what they see because they “don’t understand it”. Nonetheless, the RA attracts thousands of visitors every summer who walk around saying things such as “that is clever” or “I like that one”, although, whether they are being serious is another matter.

“You go into the Summer Show and it’s a huge tumble-dryer of art swirling around you.”
– Grayson Perry RA

The RA Summer Exhibition was not always as varied as it is today; at the beginning, the “contemporary art” displayed is now considered traditional or masterpieces. Running concurrently with the Show is another major exhibition The Great Spectacle, which explores the history of the Summer Exhibition, or Annual Exhibition as it was originally called. The first exhibition in 1769 contained works from the founding members, including Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Benjamin West (1738-1820) and RA President Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Only running for a month, the show attracted approximately 14,000 visitors, a phenomenal amount for a new enterprise in the 18th-century.

Typical of the Georgian era, the first few exhibitions showed examples of portraiture and histories presented in the standard style that was taught in art schools, influenced by the Renaissance. The curators of The Great Spectacle have selected the works that they believe have had the strongest impact on the Annual/Summer Exhibition over the years, to provide visitors with a “chronological walk” through the changing themes and conventions in both art and British society.

 

 

The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds was known for his full-length portraits. Although portraiture was common during the 18th and preceding centuries, Reynolds stood out for his striking poses and literary motives. For him, painting likenesses of his sitters was not just about vanity. For example, in Maria Marow Gideon and Her Brother, William, whilst Maria sits with her head turned towards the viewer, her brother strikes a nonchalant pose, his attention solely focused on his sister. In Reynold’s portrait of Joanna Leigh (1776), he shows her inscribing the name of her husband into the tree in front of her, referencing a scene from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), one of two women to be included amongst the Founding Members, the only female members to be elected until the 20th-century, also excelled at portrait painting. However, the example of her work shown in The Great Spectacle is a grand history painting titled Hector Taking Leave of Andromache (1768), which depicts a scene from Homer’s Iliad. Hector is saying goodbye to his wife and baby son, Astyanax, completely unaware that this will be his final farewell – Hector is heading off to war and will not live to see the end.

 

 

The beginning on the 19th-century saw noticeable changes in the style of artwork exhibited. In 1790, the fifteen-year-old Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) exhibited in the Annual Exhibition for the first time. Rather than painting portraits or histories, Turner preferred seascapes, often blurring the colours of the land, sea and sky. He also introduced watercolour as a respectable medium, which had previously been considered unprofessional. He received mixed reviews and critics remarked upon the small scale of his canvases that were dwarfed by the much larger paintings of the other Members. Instead of causing his work to be overlooked, the diminutive size caught people’s attention, allowing visitors to study and comment on the details: “the sun is positively shining.”

The appeal of landscape painting was a result of the many wars in which Britain was involved. The breath-taking scenes, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, were symbols and reminders of what the soldiers were fighting for. Unfortunately, the increase in landscape painters created tension amongst members of the RA, particularly between Turner and John Constable (1776-1837). The two artists were always in competition with each other to produce the most noteworthy painting.

 

 

Another artistic development of the early 19th-century was the arrival of “genre painting”. These revealed scenes of everyday life including those of common people, not only the upper and middle classes seen in earlier works. The walls of the Academy were soon full of dirty urchins, lowly family homes and bustling marketplaces, topics that were previously taboo amongst the well-dressed exhibition-goers. One example is the Scottish painter David Wilkie’s (1785-1841) Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, showing a slightly inebriated crowd celebrating the decisive coalition victory of the Battle of Waterloo (1815). William Powell Frith (1819-1909) also produced a number of genre paintings. His depiction of the crowds at a private view of the Annual Exhibition is positioned at the beginning of The Great Spectacle, later, his painting Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) reveals a whole host of people of different status.

 

tumblr_m4827tfy0b1qggdq1In 1840, the Royal Academy Schools admitted its youngest ever student, the eleven-year-old John Everett Millais (1829-96). Less than a decade later, his genre painting Isabella (1848-9) was displayed at the Annual Exhibition, revealing the skill and tuition he had received by the RA teachers. This painting, however, is rather significant in the timeline of the history of art due to one small segment. On the bench that Isabella is sitting on are the initials PRB. At the time, critics did not know what this stood for, yet it would soon become clear. In 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded, a group of artists who rejected the teachings of the Royal Academy believing the classical poses and compositions students were encouraged to produce were a corrupting influence. The group particularly despised Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they nicknamed “Sir Sloshua”. Ironically, Millais was elected as President of the RA in 1896, however, died of throat cancer later that year.

Being part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did not prevent artists from submitting works to the Annual Exhibition. Millais’ two paintings My First Sermon and My Second Sermon were both included, which expressed two opposing attitudes about going to church. In both paintings, the little girl, Millais’ daughter Effie, is dressed in her Sunday best, seated on a pew in a church. In the first scene, Effie is fully focused and engaged with the sermon, whereas, in the second, she has fallen asleep. Previous artists would never have dared to tackle such controversial themes.

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The Roll Call – Elizabeth Butler, 1874

From the PRB onwards, artists became radically honest in their artwork. Rather than paint beautiful images or portraits that people wanted to see, they began painting what could actually be seen, the truth. None is more poignant than Elizabeth Butler’s (née Thompson, 1846-1933) The Roll Call showing the surviving soldiers from the Grenadier Guards during the Crimean War. Instead of smartly dressed, respectable heroes, the artist revealed the horrors of war through their collapsed, exhausted states. The Roll Call, the first of its kind, needed to be guarded by a policeman due to its popularity amongst exhibition-goers. Later, Queen Victoria insisted on purchasing the painting and it still remains part of the Royal Collection today.

It was unfortunate that there were no policemen around on 4th May 1914 to protect John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) painting of the writer Henry James (1843-1916) from being attacked with a meat cleaver. The Suffragette Mary Wood smuggled the weapon into the Summer Exhibition and slashed the painting with a cry of “votes for women”, in protest of art by men being more highly valued than those by women.

The year 1914 sparked the beginnings of turbulent times for the RA. Although the Summer Exhibitions continued through the First World War, there was a significant drop in visitors, resulting in a financial struggle for the Academy. To make matters worse, the Academy was hit by a bomb in 1917, completely destroying Gallery IX. When the war ended, the first ever poster advertising the Summer Exhibition was produced in the hopes of enticing visitors back to the gallery – it worked. Examples of posters from the past century are included in The Great Spectacle.

 

The end of the First World War also resulted in the right for women (aged 30 and over) to vote. Although women had been involved with the RA, two of whom were founding members, they had mostly been shunned from the Academy. In 1922, the RA elected its first female Associate Member, Annie Swynnerton (1844–1933), but it was not until 1936 when it named the first woman to be a full Member since Kauffman and Moser in 1768. Laura Knight (1877-1970) was honoured with this position and her painting Lamorna Birch and his Daughters received mixed reviews from critics.

After the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was elected Honorary Academician Extraordinary. To date, Churchill is the only person to ever hold this title. Unbeknownst to some, Churchill had submitted a couple of paintings to the Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym David Winter.

 

The final rooms of The Great Spectacle resemble what parts of the Summer Exhibition looks like today. Post-WWII, the Academy accepted works from a number of the new art movements that were cropping up throughout the world. Peter Blake’s (b1932) Toy Shop was the first example of Pop Art in the Exhibition, which caused many people to begin questioning what “art” meant. Also, the year 1956 introduced the first non-painter President, Charles Wheeler (1892-1974). Although a previous President, Lord Leighton (1830-96), had produced sculptures, he was primarily a painter; Wheeler, on the other hand, was solely a sculptor.

By the 1990s, the Royal Academy was seeing more contemporary art than ever before. In 1997, Tracey Emin’s (b1963) re-upholstered chair There’s a lot of money in chairs was exhibited at the Summer Exhibition, a complete contrast to the types of art shown at the original shows. Tracey Emin later became a Royal Academician as well as a number of other contemporary artists.

The final artwork in The Great Spectacle is Cornelia Parker’s (b1956) Stolen Thunder III, which certainly challenges the meaning of “art”. Since 1865, red dots have been used to indicate that an artwork has been sold; Parker photographed an example containing numerous red dots, digitally removed the artwork from the frame, and submitted the resulting photograph to the Exhibition. She then photographed her own image, complete with new red dots, and submitted that the following year. Every year since, she has presented a similar outcome; one can be seen in the current Summer Exhibition.

As Academicians, Emin, Parker and other artists, such as David Hockney (b1937), can forego the selection process and exhibit their work in the Summer Exhibition. Hockney has several wall-sized paintings on display this year, which are detectable by his very unique style.

 

If Sir Joshua Reynolds could see the Royal Academy now, would he be pleased? Probably not. No longer are the traditional art styles of 18th and 19th centuries submitted to the Academy. Instead of fighting to produce the best work, artists are determined to create something unique in order to stand out amongst the thousands of others. Often, it is not what an artwork looks like, it is the artist’s intention and purpose that earns it a place in the Summer Exhibition. Nonetheless, as the current President Christopher Le Brun (b1951) points out, the RA was originally established to “promote the arts of design”, therefore, since everyone today has a different perception about what makes art “art”, it is only right that a mishmash of submissions makes it to the final show.

This year’s exhibition, the extra special 250th, is the largest thus far, spreading out over several galleries. It is also one of the brightest, colourful exhibitions the RA has ever produced. Often, art exhibitions are situated in dimly lit rooms so as not to damage the artworks, however, the Summer Exhibition is so light and spacious that it could almost be outside in daylight.

Although many people turn their noses up at “modern art”, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition receives more visitors than ever before, the record being more than 230,000. Since it is the Summer Exhibition’s anniversary, it is anticipated that this year will surpass the current record of attendees, setting a precedent for the next 250 years.

Both The Great Spectacle and the Summer Exhibition are open to the public until 19th August 2018. The former costs £14 (£16 with donation) per person and the Summer Exhibition costs £16 (or £18) plus an additional £3 for a catalogue of artwork.