Titian: Love, Desire, Death

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has reopened with a small exhibition about Titian’s interpretation of Classical myths. Known as the poesie, Titian: Love, Desire, Death, reunites all six paintings for the first time in centuries. Painted for Prince Philip of Spain, the future King Philip II, these artworks demonstrate Titian’s talent at the height of his career as well as his ability to capture a story. Unlikely to be displayed together again anytime soon, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some of the greatest paintings in Europe.

Titian had already had a long career before he started working on the poesie. Born sometime around 1488, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian was his anglicised name) was the son of Gregorio and Lucia, who, although there is little information about them, were related to notaries in Venice. When he was about ten years old, Titian and his brother Francesco (c.1475-1560) became apprentices of Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516), who were the leading artists in Venice at the time.

While in Venice, Titian met and became the assistant of Giorgione (c.1477-1510), but it was clear to clients that Titian’s paintings far surpassed his master’s. He was also in charge of finishing paintings left by Giovanni Bellini and received commissions to paint the portraits of five Doges of Venice.

After Giorgione and the Bellini’s had passed away, Titian began to come into his own, developing his mature style. For the following 60 years, he was considered the master of Venetian painting. Titian’s first masterpiece was the Assumption of the Virgin, which is still in situ in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari, Venice. He continued to paint for churches for the next few decades, producing many artworks on a religious theme.

During the 1520s, Titian also began to produce paintings on a mythological theme. A few of these artworks were commissions from Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534), Duke of Ferrara, for his private rooms. Titian also worked for Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), an Italian cardinal, for whom he produced one of his famous paintings, Danaë. Titian made several copies of this scene, including one that forms part of the poesie.

As time went on, Titian’s style became more dramatic and vibrant, plus he was a popular choice for portraits. He painted portraits of people high up in society, including royalty, Doges and cardinals, as well as artists and writers. “…no other painter was so successful in extracting from each physiognomy so many traits at once characteristic and beautiful.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)

In 1546, Titian visited Rome and received the freedom of the city, a privilege that once belonged to Michelangelo (1457-1546). He was also in the running to succeed Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) as Keeper of the Seal to the Papacy and take Holy Orders, but he had to return to Venice to work for Charles V (1500-58) and his son, Philip (1527-98).

For the last 26 years of his life, Titian predominantly worked for Philip II as a portrait painter. By this time, he had become a perfectionist and was very critical of his work, often reworking paintings for years until he was satisfied. When Titian met Philip, the 21-year-old prince was on a tour of the European countries he would soon rule over. The first meeting was organised by Charles V, who was then Titian’s patron, to paint a portrait of Philip. Pleased with the result, Philip became another of Titian’s patrons.

The six poesie, produced between 1551 to 1562, were the result of an open commission from Philip in which he gave Titian free reign of the subject matter. Titian produced paintings of both religious and secular themes, six of which were mythological scenes based on Ovid’s (43 BC-c.AD17) Metamorphoses. These six paintings became known as the poesie because Titian considered them to be visual equivalents to poetry. They covered many themes, including, love, desire and death.

When Philip became the King of Spain in 1556, Titian’s importance increased. He was now the painter for the most powerful man in the world. As well as Spain, Philip II ruled over the Netherlands, Genoa, Milan, Naples and a handful of American colonies. He later became the King of Portugal and was briefly the king consort of England through his marriage to Mary I (1516-58). Philip was a great lover of art and filled his palaces and houses with paintings. Since he had no fixed place of residence, there were several buildings to decorate, making Titian and other artists of the time very valuable to the king.

Considered to be one of the first paintings of the poesie to be completed is Danaë, a copy of one of Titian’s earlier paintings. Since there are at least six versions, it is unsure which one he sent to Philip II. In some versions, a nursemaid is depicted with Danaë and in others, she is alone or with the figure of Cupid.

Princess Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, the King of Argos, who had imprisoned her in a bronze tower after learning from an oracle that her future son was destined to kill him. Whilst the tower protected her from mortal suitors, it was no barrier for the Roman gods, particularly Jupiter, king of the Olympians, who had fallen in love with Danaë.

According to Ovid, Jupiter entered Danaë’s tower disguised as a shower of gold, which her elderly maid attempted to catch in the hopes of bringing her youth. Jupiter impregnated Danaë who later gave birth to a son, Perseus. Still intent on preventing his fate, Acrisius forced his daughter and grandson into a chest and threw them into the ocean. Fortunately, Polydectes, King of Serifos, rescued them and Perseus grew up to fulfil the prophecy. At a sports contest, Perseus’s discus struck Acrisius’ head, killing him instantly.

In the story, of which there are several tellings in addition to Ovid’s, Jupiter raped Danaë, but Titian did not depict a struggle. Instead, he painted the nude Danaë lying on a bed, seemingly expectant of events to come as she calmly let Jupiter’s golden shower descend upon her. British art historian, Kenneth Clark (1903-83) claimed in The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Danaë’s body was “clearly based on drawings of Michelangelo … At every point Michelangelo’s grandiose invention has been transformed from an embodiment of spiritual malaise into an embodiment of physical satisfaction.”

Danaë was sent to Philip in 1553 while he resided in either Madrid or Valladolid. There is some damage to the surface, possibly caused during transport, which has revealed some of Titian’s preliminary studies below the paint. It appears he originally intended to include an image of Jupiter’s head, which he later did in another version of the painting.

Diana and Actaeon, now owned by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, portrays the moment the hunter, Actaeon, stumbled across the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, was renowned for being a virgin goddess, so it was forbidden for mortal men to see her naked. Outraged by the intrusion, Diana turned Actaeon into a stag so that he could not tell anyone what he had seen.

Titian painted Diana, who can be identified by her crescent moon crown, hastily covering herself with the help of a black woman. It is uncertain whether this woman is one of the nymphs or if she was Diana’s maid or servant. Given the era Titian worked, it is more likely to be the latter. Nonetheless, Titian has painted the dark-skinned woman with great care. Unlike Diana and the nymphs who have a generic body shape that is common to many Renaissance paintings, Titian may have used a model for Diana’s maid.

Ovid wrote that Diana was enraged with Actaeon, yet Titian did not depict that emotion in his painting. Instead, Diana fixes Actaeon with a glare, causing the innocent Actaeon to realise he has witnessed something he should not. The nymphs are more expressive, reaching for something to cover their bodies or hiding behind a pillar.

Although Actaeon is still in human form, Titian hid a few symbols in the painting to indicate the hunter’s fate. In the foreground, Diana’s lapdog barks at and frightens Actaeon’s much larger hounds. In the background, a small figure is hunting a deer and, on top of the stone pillar, is a stag’s skull, suggesting that not only would Actaeon be transformed into the animal, he will also be killed.

Titian painted Diana in another of his paintings based on Ovid’s story, Diana and Callisto. The scene Titian chose to depict occurs midway through the tale after Callisto has been raped by Jupiter who tricked his way into the nymph’s presence disguised as Diana.

Knowing Diana demanded chastity, Callisto kept the attack secret, but she was pregnant and could not hide it forever. When Callisto was eight months pregnant, Diana and the nymphs decided to bathe together. When Callisto did not remove her clothing, the other nymphs stripped her, revealing her swollen stomach. Although the situation was not Callisto’s fault, Diana, who once considered Callisto to be her favourite nymph, immediately cried, “Be gone! This sacred spring must not be polluted!”

It is this moment Titian captured in paint, revealing the struggling Callisto’s pregnant stomach and Diana’s dismissal of the nymph. Critics claim Diana and Callisto to be the most dramatic painting in the poesie. Callisto’s bloodshot eyes and body language indicate her desperation. She is a rape victim but is being shunned by her only friends rather than supported.

Callisto’s distress indicates her banishment from Diana’s presence is not the end of the story. After Callisto had given birth to a boy, Arcus, Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno discovered her husband’s infidelity. Rather than confronting Jupiter, she took her anger out on Callisto, transforming her into a bear. For years, Callisto roamed the forest until, many years later, she met her adolescent son out hunting. Frightened, Arcus pointed his weapon at his mother, but Jupiter intervened, picking them both up and transforming them into constellations: the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the Herdsman.

Titian’s painting of Venus and Adonis is slightly different from the others in that there is no portrayal of violence, wrongdoing or punishment. It is a scene Titian painted several times, each slightly different, although the figures of Venus and Adonis remained in the same pose.

Adonis was an orphan who had been brought up by Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Known for his good looks, Adonis attracted the attention of Venus, the goddess of beauty, who became his lover. The scene Titian painted shows the pair after a night of lovemaking. Venus, still unclothed, is begging Adonis not to go out hunting. She is warning him of the dangers of wild beasts, but he is insistent on going out with his hounds.

Venus was right to worry about her lover. Instead of heeding her advice, Adonis chased and hunted wild beasts and was killed by a boar. According to the story, Venus found her lover bleeding to death and, unable to save him, shed copious tears. Where her tears fell on Adonis’ blood, red anemones grew.

Titian captured the flexing muscles of the goddess as she desperately tried to prevent him from leaving. Adonis, on the other hand, is painted mid-stride, already determined to go out hunting. Titian included a slight hint of hesitation in Adonis’ stance but his face hints of incomprehension, unaware of his fate.

Titian sent this painting to Philip in London where he had just married Mary I. Titian explained in a letter, Venus and Adonis complemented his painting of Danaë. Both females had a similar, if not the same, body: one shown from the front and the other from the back. When placed together, the viewer could see the complete figure, thus competing with sculptures of a similar nature.

Of Titian’s poesie, his painting of Perseus and Andromeda has received the most damage over time. Sent to Philip while he was residing in Ghent in 1556, it was sold or gifted less than two decades later. In total, the painting has changed hands at least fifteen times, resulting in its poor condition. A lot of the colour has faded, making the paint seem darker than intended. The blue pigment, for example, has become grey in some places.

The story of Perseus, the son of Danaë, is fairly well-known, or at least bits of it, such as how he killed the snake-haired gorgon, Medusa. On his return, wearing winged sandals, Perseus flew across the Kingdom of Ethiopia where he came across Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Offended by this, Neptune, the god of the sea sent Ceto, a giant sea creature, to attack the kingdom. To appease Neptune, Andromeda sacrificed herself as bait for the monster.

Fortunately, Perseus arrived before Ceto could attack Andromeda. Using the head of Medusa, whose gaze turned living beings to stone, Perseus froze the sea monster. Having fallen in love with Andromeda on sight, Perseus had secured her hand in marriage before saving her, and they went on to live a relatively happy life – at least in comparison to the majority of Classical myths.

Titian’s use of expressive brushstrokes helped to capture the movement of Perseus as he swooped towards the sea monster. They also make the sea look violent and dangerous, and the dark rocks forbidding. In comparison, Andromeda’s pale skin makes her appear vulnerable and innocent.

The Rape of Europa

The Rape of Europa was the final painting Titian sent to Philip and thus concluded his poesie. Similar to Perseus and Andromeda, time and handling have damaged parts of the painting, causing some of the blue pigment to turn brown. Nonetheless, Titian’s expressive brushstrokes and detail are still visible.

Europa, the daughter of King Agenor of Phoenicia, had unknowingly drawn the attention of Jupiter with her beauty. While Europa and her friends were relaxing on the beach, Jupiter approached the princess in the guise of a snow-white bull. Fascinated by the creature, the girls gathered around him and Europa, rather foolishly, climbed on his back. Suddenly, the bull took off, carrying her to Crete where Jupiter raped her.

Despite not being the nicest of stories, the myth was widely interpreted in art and literature. Ovid had written about Europa in his Metamorphoses as well as his previous work, Fasti. Titian also used the 2nd-century book The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius for inspiration.

Titian’s rapid brushstrokes emphasise the speed of the bull as it charges through the water. Europa’s hair and clothing appear to be flailing around in all directions as she desperately clings onto the bull so that she does not drown in the sea. Her eyes are wild in fear, but some critics suggest her body language evokes excitement and her red scarf symbolises passion.

To contrast with the rapid speed of the bull, Titian included a graceful dolphin in the background and a couple of cherubs gliding through the air. A third cherub sits upon a fish while another more vicious-looking fish swims alongside the bull, foreshadowing the next part of the story.

The Death of Actaeon

The National Gallery included a seventh painting in their exhibition that is not considered part of Titian’s poesie. Titian may have intended to send it to Philip, however, he never completed it. It is thought someone else tried to complete the painting, although they left out the bowstring and arrow held by the female archer.

The Death of Actaeon concludes the story Titian depicted in Diana and Actaeon. After being turned into a stag, Actaeon fled from the scene but was chased by his hounds who eventually caught him and tore him apart. Titian portrayed Actaeon in mid-transformation between man and stag surrounded by a blur of movement to indicate the vicious attack from his dogs.

In the foreground, a female archer, presumably Diana, aims an invisible arrow at Actaeon. In the story, Diana is not involved in Actaeon’s death, so Titian has embellished the myth with his imagination. All the paintings in the poesie featured fleshy women, which may be why Titian included Diana in this scene.

Titian was in his mid-80s when he was working on The Death of Actaeon. He had been working on his poesie for just over a decade. Whilst they are considered to be some of his best works, these paintings did not remain in the Spanish Royal Collection for long. Philip’s successors were prudish and did not like Titian’s nude figures.

Pietà

While working on the poesie, Titian accepted other commissions, including decorations for churches. He continued to take on these jobs right up to the end of his life. His last painting was a rather dark Pietà, which, along with his other artworks of a similar nature, suggests he was very aware of his age and inevitable mortality.

Titian spent his final days in Venice where the bubonic plague raged through the city. It is not certain if Titian caught the plague, but he passed away after suffering from a fever on 27th August 1576. As it is impossible to determine his exact date of birth, Titian would have been somewhere between the ages of 85 and 100 at his passing.

Before his death, Titian had chosen the chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari as his final resting place. When interred, there was no memorial to mark his grave, although one of his paintings hung nearby. Centuries later, the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Antonio Canova (1757-1822) to produce a monument in Titian’s honour, which remains in the church to date.

Titian left no will, but other documents have revealed information about his family. His first wife was called Cecilia with whom he had two sons, Pomponio and Orazio (1528-76), and a daughter who died in infancy. Sadly, Cecilia died in 1530, and it is thought Pomponio also predeceased his father. Titian remarried and had another daughter called Lavinia, who often modelled for his paintings. A fourth child, Emilia, may have been the result of an affair with a housekeeper. When Titian died, Orazio was his only heir but died soon after from the plague.

Titian produced around 400 paintings of which 300 survive. Many of these ended up in private collections, but galleries have been able to purchase a handful. Diana and Actaeon was bought by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland for £50 million in 2009. Diana and Callisto was bought for a similar amount three years later.

It may seem expensive at £12 a ticket to attend the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death, which only consists of seven paintings, however, it is a once in a lifetime chance to see the entire poesie in one room. Titian is considered to be the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school and earned the nickname “The Sun Amidst Small Stars” from his contemporaries. He was one of the most versatile Italian painters and has influenced generations of artists. This small exhibition allows each painting to be admired in detail, thus receiving the respect they deserve.

Titian: Love, Desire, Death is open until 17th January 2021. Tickets must be bought online in advance. Concessions are available, including for NHS workers.

The Power of Seeing

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The name John Ruskin may be familiar to many people, however, how many can accurately say who he was, what he did and why he is important in today’s art world? In a recent exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated with a collection of 200 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, plaster casts and so forth that demonstrated Ruskin’s stance on aesthetics, culture and society. Regarded today as one of the greatest Victorian artists, critics, educators and social thinkers who devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, the exhibition briefly delved into the mind of a polymath whose influence is still felt today.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the only child of sherry and wine importer John James Ruskin (1785–1864), co-founder of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, and his wife Margaret (1781–1871). From an early age, Ruskin’s parents pressed their ambitions upon him, introducing him to writers, such as Byron (1788-1824), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Walter Scott (1771-1832). Whilst John Ruskin Senior was focused on intellectual knowledge, his mother, an Evangelical Christian, pressed the Bible upon her son, teaching him to repeatedly read it from beginning to end and learn lengthy passages by heart. At this time, Ruskin also began to develop a passion for geology.

Described by Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, he had very few friends his own age, to begin with, as a result of being homeschooled at Herne Hill, in Camberwell, South London, although, he later spent a year at a school in Peckham. It was not his education, however, that set his path for the future. When he was thirteen, Ruskin was given a book-length poem illustrated by the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which sparked an interest in both art and poetry.

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Portrait of John Ruskin (1875)

Whilst studying at Oxford University, where he took up residence at Christ Church in 1837, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry and met the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Ruskin also met and became close to the future Dean of Westminster, William Buckland (1784-1856), who also had an interest in geology and palaeontology. Ruskin’s other good friends, however, were studying archaeology and medicine.

Unfortunately, Ruskin never achieved independence whilst at university because his mother was lodging nearby and his father joined him at weekends. He was also suffering from ill health and had to take a lengthy break from Oxford before returning to pass his exams with a double fourth-class degree.

Even with a degree under his belt, Ruskin was unable to escape from the clutches of his parents. From 1840 until 1842, the Ruskin family spent time abroad, mainly in Italy, where John had the opportunity to study Italian painting. After returning to England, Ruskin continued to live with his parents in Camberwell, where they were frequently visited by the likes of Turner and the watercolourist Samuel Prout (1783-1851), whose work was collected by Ruskin’s father. At this time, J.M.W. Turner’s work was under severe criticism at the Royal Academy and Ruskin was spurred to defend his childhood idol.

Ruskin passionately regarded Turner as the greatest painter of his age and was thus outraged at the critical judgment of the Royal Academy. In a book eventually published in 1843 under the anonymity of “A Graduate of Oxford”, Ruskin wrote Modern Painters I as a response to these attacks.

“Turner perceives at a glance the whole sum of visual truth open to human intelligence … The power of every picture depends on the penetration of the imagined into the TRUE nature of the thing represented, and on the utter scorn of the imagination for all shackles and fetters of mere external fact that stand in the way of its suggestiveness.”
– John Ruskin

John Ruskin held the controversial opinion that landscape artists, such as Turner, were superior to the “Old Masters” from the post-Renaissance era. He argued that these so-called Masters painted from pictorial convention, i.e. with emotion, and were not being true to nature. Ruskin maintained that an artist should observe the reality of nature and not produce imaginary scenes in a studio. Turner, on the other hand, had a better understanding of the “truth”, such as the air, the clouds, water, stones, and plants.

Inspired by Turner, Ruskin produced his own artworks, adopting the artist’s subtle use of colour. His watercolour painting of Towers of Freiburg, which was painted on a misty morning in Germany’s Black Forest, was used in the book Modern Painters as an example of “Turnerian Topography”. While in France, Ruskin painted Lanslebourg, Savoie, recording the “facts” and landscape that he saw, rather than an attractive impression.

Unlike Turner’s paintings that sometimes appear as a blur of colour, Ruskin produced many carefully observed drawings, such as The Kappellbrücke at Luzern (Lucerne) in which he has captured every element, including the angles of the bridge, the stonework on the turret and the shimmering light on the water.

As well as modern landscape painters, Ruskin was inspired by the works he saw on his travels around Europe. In 1844, whilst in France with his parents, Ruskin was able to investigate the geology of the Alps as well as study the artwork at the Louvre in Paris. Finally, in 1845 at the age of 26, Ruskin travelled without his parents for the first time, taking the opportunity to explore medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and Italy. Cities such as Florence, Pisa and Venice were of great inspirational value to the young artist, however, he was dismayed at the modernisation processes, which were gradually replacing the traditional buildings.

Ruskin’s independent tour of western Europe led him to write a second volume of Modern Painters. This time, however, he concentrated on the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, arguing that aesthetic and the divine are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. His tour also took him in a new artistic direction; temporarily leaving painting behind, Ruskin developed a keen interest in architecture.

Bunney, John Wharlton, 1828-1882; Western Facade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice

Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice – John Wharlton Bunney

In 1847, Ruskin developed a close relationship with Euphemia “Effie” Grey (1828-97), the daughter of family friends for whom he had written the story The King of the Golden River when she was twelve years old. They married on 10th April 1848 at her home in Perth, Scotland and spent their early years together in Mayfair, London.

Although the European Revolutions of 1848 restricted the amount of travel the newlyweds could undertake, the couple eventually visited Venice in October 1849. In the meantime, Ruskin’s knowledge of architecture had been rapidly increasing and earlier that year he had travelled with his parents – Effie was not well enough to join him – to gather material for the third and fourth editions of Modern Painters.

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark's, Venice by John Ruskin 1819-1900

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice – Ruskin, 1851

Whilst in Venice, John and Effie’s marriage began to breakdown. Effie wished to socialise, whereas, her husband was occupied in solitary studies. Already that year he had published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which promoted the seven virtues of secular and Protestant Gothic buildings: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. Now, all he wanted to do was gather material for his three-volume work, The Stones of Venice and create sketches of notable buildings that he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops.

“Nothing interrupts him … He is either with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerreotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs just as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.”
– Effie in a letter home to her family

Despite Effie not being keen on her husband’s work, Ruskin was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was established in 1848 by John Everett Millais (1829-96), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1826-82). The group were committed to “paint[ing] from nature only” and shared Ruskin’s opinion about the “Old Masters”.

Through the poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96), a mutual friend of Ruskin and Millais, Ruskin met the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote letters to The Times to argue against their critics. Ruskin provided the Brotherhood, particularly Millais, with encouragement and patronage, and Effie became one of their models.

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John Ruskin – Millais

In 1853, Millais visited the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he studied and closely observed the landscape. In his painting of Glenfinlas, Millais added Ruskin’s portrait. Previously, Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.

Unfortunately, Effie was growing increasingly distressed about her unhappy marriage, causing her to suffer both physical and mental illnesses. She was constantly arguing with Ruskin who would rather concentrate on his studies than spend time with his wife. Effie was also fed up with his intense and overly protective parents. In an act of desperation, Effie filed for an annulment on grounds of “non-consummation” due to Ruskin’s supposed “incurable impotency”. Although Ruskin disputed the claim, the annulment was granted in July 1854. A year later, Effie married Millais.

Shortly before the end of his marriage, Ruskin had begun lecturing on architecture and painting in Edinburgh. This led to lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 about how to use and acquire art. By 1869, Ruskin had become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, delivering his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The following year, he founded The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. The School’s intent was to challenge the orthodox teaching and methodology of government art schools. Often, his lectures, which included themes such as myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature, were so popular, they had to be given twice.

“The teaching of Art is the teaching of all things.”
– John Ruskin

In the 1870s, Ruskin visited Sheffield where his former pupil and friend Henry Swan (1825-89) was working as an engraver. By this time, not only had Ruskin had a fairly successful career, he had amassed an impressive collection of art, minerals, books, architectural casts, ancient coins and other precious, beautiful objects. After purchasing a small cottage in the district of Walkley to store his collection, Ruskin founded the Guild of St George, a charity devoted to arts, crafts and the rural economy. The cottage was then opened as a museum and he encouraged the working class man to view artworks that were once only something the wealthy could afford to see. The majority of the items at the Two Temple Place exhibition came from this museum.

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Rose La Touche – Ruskin

Whilst it is not certain how the collapse of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie affected him, he remained unlucky in love for the remainder of his life. When he was nearly 40 years old, he became the private art tutor to the daughters of the Irish poet Maria La Touche. Rose La Touche (1848–1875), who was only ten at the time, caught the eye of the much older Ruskin who gradually fell in love with her. Ruskin proposed to her on her 18th birthday but she asked him to wait three years until she was 21. At the time, Ruskin was having doubts about the Christian faith, which was beginning to cause problems with the staunchly Protestant family.

Ruskin proposed a number of times to Rose but she consistently turned him down. Her final rejection occurred in 1872, however, they still met up occasionally. Sadly, Rose died at the age of 27 after suffering from a long illness. As a result, Ruskin was plunged into despair, which led to bouts of mental illness, breakdowns and hallucinations. In an attempt to help himself come to terms with Rose’s death, Ruskin turned to Spiritualism, believing it would give him to power to communicate with the dead. Gradually, desperate to believe there was life after death, Ruskin returned to Christianity.

Throughout his life, Ruskin wrote numerous books, ranging in topic from art and architecture to travel guides and literature. His last great work was his autobiography Praeterita, meaning “things of the past”, which focused on selective parts of his life, omitting many facts.

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John Ruskin, 1882

Ruskin’s final home was in the Lake District where he tried to continue to write, however, most of this work was considered irrelevant in the art world. He was also still suffering from mental health issues and was unable to continue to travel to Europe. His 80th birthday was celebrated around the country, however, Ruskin was barely aware of the proceedings. Not long after, he passed away from influenza.

The once slim lecturer with piercing blue eyes became the grumpy old man with a long beard who resembled an Old Testament prophet. Although he held strong opinions throughout his life, his later convictions were more complaints than anything insightful. As part of the Two Temple Place exhibition, the curators had pieced together Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed from the writings of John Ruskin.

Ruskin detested iron railings and bemoaned that the Houses of Parliament were “the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man.” The Renaissance buildings in Venice were defined as the “ribaldries of drunkenness” and, apparently, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge looked like an upsidedown table.

Other things Ruskin despised were the “doggerel sound” of Wagner’s The Meistersingers, lawyers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being photographed and cycling. He hated railway stations and could not stand the “beastly, blockheady, loggerheady, doggish, loggish, hoggish-poggish, filthy, fool-begotten, swindler-swallowed” railways round Dieppe in Northern France. And more fool anyone who got Ruskin talking on matters such as making money or the English constitution: “The rottenest mixture of Simony, bribery, sneaking tyranny, shameless cowardice, and accomplished lying that ever the Devil chewed small to spit into God’s Paradise.”

Regardless of the ups and downs of his personal life and his strong opinions, Ruskin is renowned across the world. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times”. Ruskin also influenced people such as Gandhi (1869-1948), the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and William Morris (1834-96). Ruskin’s thoughts about the conservation of historic buildings inspired the foundation of the National Trust and many Christian socialists were inspired by his ideas.

Overall, Ruskin wrote more than 250 works, beginning with topics involving art and architecture. As he became more known for his work, he expanded to cover topics encompassing science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, pollution, mythology, travel, economy and social reform. Alongside this, he painted and developed the idea that it was important to paint what can be physically seen rather than imagined.

Numerous areas of study, research and thought have been affected by Ruskin in one way or another. His influence is still present throughout the arts, education, economy and environment today. Although most people are oblivious to his presence, John Ruskin is embedded in contemporary culture and society. Without him, who knows what the world would be like today.

Whilst it is important to celebrate the phenomenal works of John Ruskin, the man behind the books and artwork must not be overlooked. A number of events are being held by Ruskin 200 in honour of the bicentenary of his birth. Details of events can be found on their website www.ruskin200.com

Monet’s Architectural Visions

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The Water-Lily Pond

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

Canaletto & the Art of Venice

The Royal Collection at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, currently contains a large number of the paintings and drawings of Canaletto, one of the most famous Venetian painters. These works were brought to Britain by an art dealer, Joseph Smith, who was incidentally the British Consul in Venice. The paintings entered the hands of the Royals in 1762 when King George III bought Smith’s entire collection.

Amongst the collection displayed in the exhibition Canaletto & the Art of Venice are some of the most recognisable of Canaletto’s works. Focusing on the views in Venice, Canaletto painted from various locations, producing a series that shows a journey along the Grand Canal.

Canaletto is not the only artist featured in this exhibition. In order to compare and contrast his artistic skill, his masterpieces are hung amongst paintings by his contemporaries, including Marco Ricci (1676-1730), Anton[io] Maria Zanetti the Elder (1680-1767), Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682/3-1754), Giovanni Cattini (c1715-1800) and Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734).

Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768

It is claimed that Canaletto is the most famous Venetian view-painter, etcher and draughtsman of the 18th century. He was born into the art world on 28th October 1697 to the theatrical scene painter, Bernardo Canal (1674-1744). It is thought that this is how Canaletto got his nickname, for, in order to distinguish himself from his father, Giovanni Antonio Canal was most likely referred to as ‘Little Canal’ or, as it is in Italian, ‘Canaletto’.

Canaletto began his career assisting his father with the sets for Vivaldi’s operas in Venice, and later, Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas in Rome. It was whilst he was in Rome that Canaletto began sketching famous buildings and ancient monuments, causing him to abandon the theatrical work on his return to Venice. Thus began his topographical painting career.

Specialising in grand views showing the public face of the city of Venice, Canaletto’s paintings are full of strong, bright colours and his handling of the brush is extremely smooth and precise. Canaletto would create a sketch on the spot from which to paint from, producing what looked like an accurate record of the landscape. However, this was often far from the case. In order to create a better composition, Canaletto would alter the proportions of buildings or shift their positions. In some instances, the view is entirely imaginary. The term for these paintings is Capriccio – Caprice in English – which refers to the combination of architectural accuracy (recognisable building etc) with elements of fantasy.

The 18th century saw an influx of wealthy visitors to cities such as Venice, particularly British aristocrats. With the assistance of the aforementioned Joseph Smith, Canaletto made these people his best customers, producing views of the canals for them to take home as mementoes (a precursor to postcards).

Unfortunately, Canaletto lost the majority of his clients as a result of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8), which put a temporary end to Continental travel. In an attempt to win back customers, Canaletto moved to London in 1746 where he resided for a decade, painting views of London and the countryside. However, rumours were spread that Canaletto was an imposter and not the famous Venetian painter he claimed to be. Therefore, in 1756 he returned to Venice and, although never recovering his popularity, continued to paint for the rest of his life.

Both during and after his life, Canaletto’s style of painting was highly influential in Italy and eventually the rest of central Europe. Many of his works were copied by his followers, causing his style to live on long after his death. His nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, was one of the artists who helped to spread his uncle’s renown and technique.

On display in the Queen’s Gallery are some of Canaletto’s brief sketches, which he made on the spot in preparation for the final painting. With a precise hand and a few sketchy lines, Canaletto was able to capture the scene in front of him. These, despite their quickness, were highly recognisable representations, and many, in fact, are finished drawings, rather than merely a starting point.

It is interesting to be able to view Canaletto’s preliminary sketches as well as the final paintings because it gives an insight into the way the famous artist worked. Paintings can be taken for granted when only seen in their final frames. The hard work and time taken are often forgotten, but logic indicates that these paintings did not just appear out of nowhere.

As the exhibition reveals, Canaletto carried a sketchbook with him around the city, drawing and making notes to refer back to. Letters labelled areas of the page to indicate how that section should be painted, e.g. “B” for bianco (white) and “R” for rosso (red).

Hung in a strategic order, Canaletto’s paintings, and those of his contemporaries, are set off by the royal blues, greens and reds of walls. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through various stages of Canaletto’s life, keeping his Venetian landscapes separate from other artistic ventures.

Interestingly, Canaletto did not only produce paintings of Venetian buildings but experimented with more spartan landscapes. With no structure to portray, these paintings are far less detailed and take on the aura of the religious and mythical artworks of other artists in Italy at the time. These are situated in the centre of the exhibition where the height of the ceiling allows the large canvases to be appreciated fully.

Without a doubt, Canaletto’s paintings of the Grand Canal are some of his finest works. The buildings are so precise, they are comparable with architectural blueprints. On close inspection, these lines may feel too perfect and unnatural, but when viewed on a grand scale, they help to produce an almost photorealistic snapshot of 18th century Venice. What his most significant achievement is, however, the quality of the painting of the canal itself. Whether the waters were as peaceful as depicted will remain forever unknown – Canaletto may have been making use of Capriccio – but his version looks impossible to have been produced by paint alone. Evidence of a paintbrush can be seen in the suggestion of water ripples that have been painstakingly added to the smooth underlayer. On the other hand, the accurate reflection and glass-like quality of the liquid are beyond the realms of comprehension. The eyes know what they are seeing, but the brain cannot believe it to be possible.

Canaletto also used his fantastic skill at architectural drawing to create a series of paintings of the ancient ruins in Rome. These, too, are phenomenally impressive, it feels like it should be possible to reach out and feel the texture of the stone and experience the dusty streets. Alas, the lack of canals in Rome prevents Canaletto from revealing his full range of skill. It is most certainly the combination of buildings and water that stand out the most and wins Canaletto the title of the best Venetian painter of the 1700s.

Canaletto & the Art of Venice will remain available to the public until Sunday 12th November 2017, when it will be dismantled to make way for a new exhibition: Charles II: Art & Power. Tickets are £11 for adults and £5.50 for children over five and are available to purchase on arrival to the Queen’s Gallery. However, during the school holidays, it may be advisable to purchase tickets online in advance.

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Canaletto, Il Canal Grande da Palazzo Flangini verso la Chiesa di San Marcuola, 1738.