Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art – National Gallery


I quite fancied the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery, as though I can’t claim to know a great deal about the artist, what I do know I generally like. The exhibition, entitled Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, ended on 22 May so I only just managed to catch it.

The exhibition looked at the art of Eugène Delacroix in the context of his influence on later artists. Paintings of his were displayed alongside works by other artists, including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, to show how he influenced them; these works included landscapes, still lives and portraiture. Interestingly, one of Cézanne’s works directly references Delacroix’ heroic status among artists: his The Apotheosis of Delacroix (1890-1904) shows artists praying to Delacroix, who is being transported heavenwards. Other works displayed included Henri Fantin-Latour’s Immortality, which also paid homage to Delacroix. Some impressive Delacroix paintings were included, such as his 1858 Tangier from the Shore, but sadly his greatest paintings were absent, so I didn’t get the full sense of how impressive he was.

While I did enjoy the exhibition and found it illuminating, I would have liked to see more of Delacroix’ own work, and was slightly disappointed that it was not more closely concerned with him. Apart from that though, it was obviously well planned and thoughtfully organised.

Goya: The Portraits – National Gallery

I’d heard of the Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, more commonly known as Goya, because of his powerful war paintings, but this new exhibition at the National Gallery shows another side to him. Goya: The Portraits encompasses the artist’s career in portraiture, from his earliest work to his final years. The exhibition contains 70 works, made up of paintings, drawings and miniatures.

I enjoyed the exhibition: I thought some works were better than others, but they all had Goya’s unique style and power. I was particularly interested in the self-portraits, most notably the “Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta” (1820) in which Goya pays tribute to the medical man who saved his life when he was stricken with a serious illness. The picture shows an ill-looking Goya prostrate in bed, attended by the doctor, while shadowy figures – possibly harbingers of death, or waiting to give the last rites – lurk in the shadows. I also thought that the artist’s family pictures, including the sensitive portrait of his wife, Josefa Bayeu de Goya and his final portrait, an image of his beloved grandson Mariano Goya y Goicoechea, were rather touching.

I thought it very impressive how Goya managed to stay in favour for so much of his life, given the tumults within Spanish society. From an established portrait painter to the Spanish aristocracy, he became the official portrait painter to the Spanish court, and yet when the 1808 popular uprising led to conflict between the existing royal family and the French emperor Napoleon, he managed to keep his position, painting all sorts of powerful figures. I hadn’t previously known that a serious illness in his mid-40s left him almost totally deaf: his portraits became a way for him to communicate with his sitters.

I sometimes find looking at portraits to be a bit boring – there’s only so many times you can gaze with interest at powerful figures posing in beautiful outfits – but Goya’s grasp of psychology and his unusual style made these pictures genuinely fascinating for me. The exhibition runs in the Sainsbury Wing until 10 January.

Inventing Impressionism – National Gallery

I visited the Inventing Impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery on Sunday. Subtitled Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market, the exhibition looks at the role of Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel in championing and promoting the Impressionist painters. Though Impressionism is now well-respected and loved, this was not always the case – when this new kind of art first began to emerge, most critics and members of the public shunned and mocked it. Monet himself suggested that if it wasn’t for Durand-Ruel, his work and that of his contemporaries would not have flourished.

Filled with works by Renoir, Monet, Manet and Degas, as well as Rodin, Rousseau and Millet, the exhibition is incredibly impressive and it’s hard to imagine how and why contemporary critics rejected the work. Anyone attending the exhibition will surely find themselves feeling extremely grateful to this entrepreneurial art dealer.

Rembrandt: The Late Works – National Gallery

After a tense few days during which I feared I’d missed my chance – only a phone call to inquire about tickets saved me – I managed to get a ticket to the National Gallery‘s exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works on its last day. My efforts proved to be well worth it: the exhibition was very well laid-out and organised, and I really appreciated the fact that information about the pictures was set out in a booklet rather than presented on labels beside the paintings – this meant that though the exhibition was very busy, it was still manageable because you weren’t faced with hordes of people crowded round the pictures trying to read the captions.

Of course, it goes without saying that the actual content – Rembrandt’s work – was stunning. I particularly liked the five self-portraits on display at the beginning: full of variety, they captured the painter in different moods and at different stages. The most affecting was the portrait painted in the year of his death (1669), which shows him as visibly frail, but I also liked the 1659 portrait in which he wears a quizzical expression.

The exhibition focuses on the later years of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and like the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain that I visited last year, it shows that the artist did not become complacent or enter into a decline during his last years, but continued to experiment and develop as an artist. In particular, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c.1661) shows a profound mastery of the creation of darkness and light in painting, while his two versions of the Roman heroine Lucretia (1664 and 1666) are extremely powerful.

Less outwardly grand, but equally masterful, is his picture of his son Titus at his desk (1655), an affectionate and intimate portrait. Fully finished paintings sit alongside sketches and drawings in the exhibition, showing the developments of Rembrandt’s ideas and style, and several of these are exquisite, although their role in the development of the artist’s work will likely appeal more to other artists or art students.

This exhibition was well worth the visit and I am glad I managed to make it before the end.

Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting – National Gallery

This short exhibition at the National Gallery explores the role of architecture in the painting of the Italian Renaissance, with focus on the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York, Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting aims to show how architecture was inherently bound up with the work of many artists. The rooms of the exhibition are themselves laid out and divided by arches and columns, as if to illustrate the point.

The exhibition emphasises the multidisciplinary nature of art during the Renaissance: for instance, Michelangelo was a sculptor before designing buildings. Many paintings took architecture as a starting point. Most paintings were designed for specific spaces, such as Domenico Venziano’s “The Virgin & Child Enthroned” of 1435-43, which was designed to fit into a niche in Florence’s Carnesecchi Tabernacle.

Architecture was particularly present in annunciation scenes, in which it was common to divide Mary from Gabriel and any others present by use of walls. An example of this is Duccio’s “The Annunciation” of 1311, in which the two appear to belong in their own “frames” within the picture. This division was intended to mark Mary out as special.

Another kind of picture is “Saint Jerome in His Study”, a work from around 1510 by Vincenzo Catena. The architecture here is welcoming and open, as if inviting the viewer to step into the picture. Perhaps this represents Saint Jerome’s work of making the Bible accessible through translation.

Another series of works explores paintings that evoke the concept of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, such as Sebastiano del Piombo’s “The Judgement of Solomon”. Other images of the 5th century Saint Zenobius, Bishop and patron saint of Florence, invoke the architecture of the city to help locate his miracles in real places. Finally, a selection of Nativity paintings set in ruins showed how the setting symbolised the ruin of the old order.

This short but free exhibition is certainly worth a look if you are in central London with a bit of free time to spare.

Making Colour – National Gallery

I had some time to kill last Sunday, so I popped into the National Gallery to visit their Making Colour exhibition. It proved to be one of the most interesting exhibitions I’ve seen for a very long time. The exhibition took a rather different focus, looking at the ways in which artists have used colour over the centuries and the difficulties they have faced in finding the right shade. I’m not an artist, although I enjoy looking at art, so I’ve never really thought about the restrictions artists face when it comes to paint.

Concerning Colour

The first room was about the early use of colour, and made the point that the modern theory of primary colours was only developed around 1600. However, earlier artists such as Annibale Carracci instinctively used colour to emphasise and contrast. Colour wheels were developed, in which colours lying opposite one another produced the most effective contrasts. This can be seen in later paintings by Renoir and Van Gogh: Renoir painted an orange boat against blue water while Van Gogh depicted orange crabs against a blue-green background.

Despite the conventional representation of an artist’s palette as neat with distinctly marked colours, in reality palettes were incredibly messy owing to the need to mix colours together to provide an accurate shade. J.M.W. Turner’s paintbox on display shows that relatively few colours were available to him, and his palette was hugely messy. Later on, paints were produced in tubes, making them more convenient and easier to transport; the Impressionists were among those artists who benefited from this development.

The Quest for Blue

The history of blue in art is a fascinating one. The second room explored the various kinds of blue available to artists, and the benefits and drawbacks of each. For centuries natural ultramarine, made with the rare and precious mineral lapis lazuli (mined in Badakhstan, now part of Afghanistan), was the highest quality blue available: it was more expensive than gold, and figures and amulets made with this mineral have been discovered in Middle Eastern graves. This is the reason why, in Western art, Mary (mother of Jesus) is often portrayed in blue robes – painting her robes with the most expensive shade available was seen as a sign of devotion. I found this really interesting, as I had wondered in the past why Mary was always depicted in blue. Ultramarine is stable and long-lasting: this is shown in Pierre Mignard’s painting “The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons” (1691) in which the colours are as fresh today as they would have been at the time.

Other, cheaper blues were available, but these came with their own problems. Azurite has a tendency to go green over time: the contrast between the greenish robes of Saint Peter (painted with azurite) and the rich blue robes of Christ (painted with ultramarine) in the painting “The Betrayal of Christ” (1324-5) by Ugolinodi Nerio is clear to see. Another option was smalt, but this is also unstable. In Jan Jansz Treck’s “Still Life” (1651), smalt was used and the blue has now faded to grey.

In the eighteenth century a synthetic blue, Prussian Blue, was created and manufactured in bulk. Though it did not have the quality of ultramarine, it was an improvement on what had gone before. Gainsborough’s portrait of Sarah Siddons (1785) shows that while the Prussian Blue has faded, it still looks better than either azurite or smalt.

A synthetic ultramarine, known as French ultramarine, was developed in the nineteenth century, and is still used to this day. Finally, an artificial shade was available that matched the results of natural ultramarine. It was used in such works as Monet’s “Lavacourt Under Snow” (c. 1878-81).

Painting Green

The story of green is another fascinating one. The need for green became more marked as landscape painting grew in popularity, with artists struggling to replicate the colours of the landscape in pigment. Two of the most common early greens were verdigris – taken from the surface of copper and bronze – and green earth, producing more muted greens. In Renaissance Italy, green earth was used as a base for faces: this is why they often appear to us to have a greenish tinge. In the nineteenth century, emerald green and viridian replaced earlier greens. Rousseau’s “Valley” (c. 1860) and Cézanne’s “Hillside in Provence” (c. 1890-2) are examples of paintings that made use of artificial greens.

Fashionably Yellow

Muted yellow shades – ochres – were available for many years, with artificial yellows becoming available during the Renaissance: relatively early compared to some other shades. Lead-tin yellow and Naples yellow were among the shades which came into the world of painting via ceramics: there are some interesting porcelain colour test plates on display. Anthony Van Dyck’s “Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover” (c. 1637) and Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of his daughters chasing a butterfly (c. 1756) are examples of the use of these yellow glazes.

Orange could be created by mixing red and yellow, and red lead was also used until around the fourteenth century. Realgar, an orange mineral, was also used on occasion, but this was problematic as it contained arsenic, and was therefore poisonous.

Seeing Red

There were two main ways of creating red pigments. Vermilion was produced from the mineral cinnabar, and was also made artificially from the nineteenth century onwards. In addition, plant and insect dyes could be processed to create red lakes. Vermilion was a much brighter and more stable option, as shown in Masaccio’s painting of the saints Jerome and John the Baptist (c. 1428-9). Jerome’s robes, which were painted with vermilion, are still bright but John’s, which were coloured with red lakes, have faded to pink.

Royal Purple

Creating purple was less problematic than many other colours, as it could be mixed from blue and red. Paris Bordone’s “A Pair of Lovers” (1555-60) is an example of a painting that incorporates purple to give the illusion of rich silk. However, there were other ways of making this colour. The Romans used Tyrian purple made from shellfish, while in 1856 mauveine was patented by William Perkin, although the latter colour was chiefly used as a fabric dye. Queen Victoria and her family are pictured wearing purple in her cartes de visite, while paintings such as Arthur Hughes’ “April Love” (1855-60) capitalised on the popularity of the colour.

Gold and Silver

I found this section to be one of the most interesting in the exhibition. It appears that when real gold leaf is used in art, it is candlelight in which it appears to best effect: modern lighting makes it look flat and dull. Paint, which was increasingly used instead of gold leaf, actually looks better and more realistic to modern eyes. In terms of silver, paint effects were used to create the impression of this metallic shade. In Salvoldo’s “Mary Magdalene” (1535-40), the silver cloak was created using a mixture of lead white and lamp black.

I was really impressed with this exhibition. It was really different, and made me think about what goes into creating works of art. I have the utmost respect for artists in the past who had to make the best of the limited materials they had.

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice – National Gallery

I admit I had never heard of Veronese before visiting this exhibition at the National Gallery, but I was impressed with what I saw. Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice looks at the work of Paolo Caliari (1528–1588) of Verona (hence ‘Veronese’), who was one of the most acclaimed artists in late sixteenth-century Venice.

Fifty works are present in this, the first monographic exhibition on the artist ever held in the UK. The works, some of which are huge, have taken over some rooms above the Sainsbury Wing, and are shown off to wonderful effect owing to the rich natural light.

As well as the usual pictures and portraits, Veronese painted several altarpieces and frescoes. These are hugely difficult to transport from their original setting and help to explain why his work is less well known over here. I’m glad the effort was made, however, as they really are magnificent. Veronese also painted portraits, and drew inspiration from allegory and mythology. The paintings are stunning, with strong use of colour, and narratives that make an impact.

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance – National Gallery

After a busy weekend with my friend, I saw her off at the station and then headed to the National Gallery. One of their current exhibitions, on display in the Sainsbury Wing, looks at German Renaissance paintings.

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance explores how artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder were viewed and portrayed in their time. For many decades the Italian Renaissance was held to be superior, and many German works were viewed as excessive or ugly. On a more positive note, they were often admired for their technical mastery, and their representation of a German national identity.

The exhibition has been criticised for not borrowing works of art from Germany, and instead focusing on works from the Gallery’s own collection. Reviewers have also described it as lacking excitement or anything new to say. These are all valid arguments, but as someone who is a complete amateur when it comes to art, I enjoyed this focus on the German Renaissance and it helped me to view these familiar works of art in a new way.

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 – National Gallery

I popped in to the National Gallery after work on Friday night to check out the new exhibition, Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900. I found it an intriguing one.

From 1867, Vienna was the imperial capital of Austria-Hungary until the end of the First World War in 1918. Portraits depicted the growing, confident middle class, newly wealthy in times of economic renewal, and also the insecurities and anxiety inherent at times of growing nationalism and antisemitism.

In some ways I actually preferred the earlier paintings, more conservative in style but beautifully done and hugely detailed. However, I appreciated the innovation of the later works. Gustav Klimt’s work in particular surprised and impressed me – I am reasonably familiar with ‘The Kiss’ but I had no idea that he also painted extensively detailed portraits, almost photographic in quality. In his ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’ (c1894), the woman’s black dress is portrayed in all its shades and shadows.

Gustav Klimt, 'Portrait of a Lady in Black'
Gustav Klimt, ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’

Oskar Kokoschka’s colourful works were less immediately appealing, but were certainly highly unique and reflected the burgeoning modern society.

Another element of the exhibition was the presence of death masks: masks of Klimt, Beethoven, Egon Schiele and Gustav Mahler were all present. I find death masks fascinating as they offer a real glimpse into the faces of these famous figures.

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure – National Gallery

We were let out of the office early on Friday afternoon, so I took the opportunity to visit the latest exhibition at the National Gallery, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. I don’t know much about Vermeer apart from ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’, so I was looking forward to this.

The relatively small exhibition explored the role of music in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. In the art of the time, music often represented harmony, temperance and moderation, as well as transience – still lives showed how death meant the stilling of music. Gatherings of families and friends often revolved around music – but so did entertainment at establishments such as brothels. Some of the pictures on display deliver ambiguous meanings, for instance by using close-ups of musicians to explore emotions. In a restricted society, making music was one way in which young courting couples could spend time together and explore their emotions.

Paintings weren’t the only things on display: there was also a selection of early printed music books, which were often shared by lovers and carried around in secret. Several instruments of the kind seen in the pictures were also on show, some of which were quite different to modern instruments. For example, there was a lute, a clavischord and a virginial. Some of these instruments were seen as particularly suitable for women, while others were seen as rather dubious, often because of the positions a player needed to adopt while making music.

The highlight of the exhibition was the room in which three of Vermeer’s paintings – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (from the National Gallery) and Guitar Player (on loan from Kenwood House) – were displayed alongside each other, exploring the role of music in different ways. My favourite painting, though, was The Music Lesson, in which a young woman and her music tutor share a supposedly innocent music-making experience – until you see the reflection in the mirror and notice their positions and the expressions in their faces.

The last section of the exhibition looked at Vermeer’s use of colour in his work, including his unprecedented use of expensive ultramarine and decision to use green earth when painting skin tones. This was an interesting way to round off the exhibition.