The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition – Royal Academy of Arts

The Great Spectacle

After visiting the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year, I fancied seeing The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition, the celebratory co-exhibition. Tickets were only £5 with a ticket for the Summer Exhibition, so I popped along after work on Friday.

The exhibition looks at the history and significance of the Summer Exhibition, displaying a mix of artwork which made an impact at the time, and pictures showing visitors actually at the exhibition. Satirical cartoons suggest the crush created by this popular venue, while William Powell Frith’s work shows the great and the good attending the Summer Exhibition during its Victorian heyday.

William Powell Frith,
A Private View at the Academy, 1881 (1883)

The show displays significant works by Reynolds and Gainsborough, as well as Turner. There is a small room dedicated to architecture, while sculpture is interwoven with painting and other more traditional forms of art. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of artworks by women on display, although the number of women elected to the Academy was in the past embarrassingly small. The exhibition does not shy away from controversy, covering the former perceptions of the RA as stuffy and old-fashioned, while Sargent’s painting of Henry James, attacked by suffragette Mary Wood, is displayed.

After the overwhelming busyness of the Summer Exhibition, The Great Spectacle is much calmer, displaying fewer works of art that, nevertheless, are of great significance. I found it to be well worth a visit.

Jean Etienne Liotard – Royal Academy of Arts

I paid a visit to the Jean Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is on until 31 January in the Sackler Wing, Burlington House. Liotard (1702-89) worked largely as a portraitist across Enlightenment Europe. Born in Geneva, he travelled widely, working at times for the British, French and Austrian royal families. More unusually, his exploration of the Near East and the Ottoman Empire gave him a fascination with Oriental costume and a nickname, “the Turk”. This is the first sole exhibition of Liotard’s work in the UK, and includes over 70 works.

Liotard worked largely in pastels, which makes him very different from other artists that I am familiar with. His portraits have fantastic detail and he was clearly a very accomplished artist, but to my eye there is something slightly flat about them: I missed the depth that oil paintings have. The exceptions are Liotard’s self-portraits and the pictures of his family and friends, which reveal sensitivity and depth. I particularly liked the unusual Self-Portrait Laughing from c. 1770.

I did notice that the pictures included a lot of blue, and I wondered why. Perhaps blue was just a common colour of the clothes of the period, or perhaps Liotard wanted to make the pictures look expensive: I know that in terms of oil paint, blue shades were particularly expensive, so perhaps using pastel was a way to get this effect without the cost. However, this is just conjecture.

This was an interesting and unusual exhibition, well worth seeing, and rather enlightening.

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.

Reubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne – Royal Academy of Arts

My parents left London on Easter Sunday and I spent Easter Monday seeing some exhibitions. I began at the Royal Academy, with Reubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne.

The artist Peter Paul Reubens (1577-1640) was often called the “Homer of Painting”. He has been described as the most inimitable and influential painter of the Low Countries, influencing different generations and nationalities of painters over the years. The exhibition has been organised by theme.

Natural Landscapes

The first section looks at the natural landscapes inherent in Reubens’ work and how it impacted other artists. Reubens studied natural landscapes on his estate, resulting in pictures including the Landscape with Rainbows (c. 1630) and the Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon (1630-40), which can be said to have influenced J.M.W. Turner’s The Forest of Bere (1808). Reuben also influenced British artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable.

The Garden of Love

While landscapes inspired British artists, Reubens’ lyrical exoticism, evident in works such as The Garden of Love (c. 1635), struck a particular chord with early eighteenth century French artists. Jean-Antoine Watteau’s La Surprise (1718-19) drew inspiration from the earlier artist’s Château in a Park (c. 1632-35).


Reubens’ portraits of Genoese high society in Italy, such as his Portrait of a Woman (c. 1625-30), impressed Anthony van Dyck and inspired painters such as Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, whose Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester (1824) shows Reubens’ influence.


Reubens worked as a propagandist and diplomat at courts through his art, including his Cycle for Marie de Médicis (1621): he painted two series of twenty-four paintings for the galleries at her new residence. He also worked on the ceiling of the Banqueting House in London. His work inspired The Triumph of Apollo, a ceiling decoration at the Louvre painted by Eugène Delacroix.


Reubens is best known in Belgium as a religious painter, with altarpieces in Flemish and northern French churches. This aspect of his work was popular with Spanish painters, and some, which was displayed in the Louvre, inspired Romantic art such as the Sketch After Descent from the Cross (1766-69) and copies by the likes of Delacroix and Van Gogh. Claudio Coello’s Virgin and Child Adored by St Louis, King of France (1665-68) was influenced by Reubens’ Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints. The earlier painter’s St Cecilia (1620), showing the saint playing an organ, inspired Gustav Klimt’s St Cecilia (1885).


A different side of Reubens can be seen in the works that demonstrate horror and atrocity, including some gruesome details, not least scenes of people descending into Hell and the abduction of women, which frequently inspired the Romantics. Reubens’ The Fall of the Damned (1620) inspired Charles Le Brun’s The Fall of the Angels (1685), while his The Battle of the Amazons (1617-18) inspired Arnold Böcklin’s The Battle on the Bridge (1892).


The final section of the exhibition was about lust. Reubens is probably best known for his buxom nudes, such as his work with Jan Breughel the Elder, Pan and Syrinx (c. 1617). While I can definitely see the point of those who say his pictures can be sexist, I can also appreciate the quality of his work, which influenced paintings such as Paul Cézanne’s The Bathers (c. 1875) and Auguste Renoir’s Bather with Long Hair (c. 1895).

Overall, I found this to be an interesting exhibition and I did learn a lot. It emphasised the extent of Reubens’ influence over other artists and left me more aware of his impact.

Constable: The Making of a Master – V&A

Constable: The Making of a Master is the new exhibition looking at how the great artist created his works. The exhibition, which is held at the V&A, examines his influences, inspirations and work processes. Much of this would, I think, be particularly interesting to those with an art background; however, there is still plenty for the non-expert to appreciate.

The perception of Constable is of a solely “natural painter”, however this interpretation does not stand up in his later paintings which mark more of a retreat from naturalism. The artist had a reverence for the Old Masters and was strongly influenced by them; artists he revered included Raphael, Reubens and Claude Lorrain. He made copies of their paintings, some of which are almost indistinguishable from the originals, and collected prints of other artists’ work throughout his life.

Constable’s most famous works such as The Hay Wain (1821), The Leaping Horse (1825) and my personal favourite Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows (1831) are displayed, and it is fascinating to see how he worked on and developed these pictures. He would start with small black and white sketches, followed by large, full-size colour sketches, before attempting the finished painting.

Before I saw this exhibition I vaguely thought of John Constable as someone who painted slightly dull, traditional English landscapes. After seeing this exhibition I realise I need to revise my assessment somewhat.


Portraying the Past: Paintings from the Society of Antiquaries of London

The Society of Antiquaries of London originated in 1707, and was formally constituted in 1718. I recently attended their exhibition Portraying the Past, which showcased many of the Society’s collections, which largely originated in the 18th and 19th centuries before the establishment of national museums and galleries, when discerning collectors were looking for somewhere to safely leave their collections.

Based in Burlington House, near the Royal Academy, the exhibition takes place in the Meeting Room, Council Room and Main Staircase of the Society. These are worthwhile attractions in their own right, with their ornate furniture and sense of history. Of even greater interest, however, are the collections displayed on the walls. These include the famous Hans Eworth portrait of Mary I, well-known pictures of Edward IV, Richard III and other monarchs, important figures in the history of the Society and paintings of landmarks such as Stonehenge. Definitely worth a look around.

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.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany – Courtauld Gallery

After visiting the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House, I headed to the other side of the building and the Courtauld Gallery, where a new exhibition had just opened. A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany focused on aspects of Romantic landscape drawing in both Britain and Germany, covering the period 1760-1840. This kind of art is a favourite of mine, and I enjoyed looking at the beautiful and majestic landscapes of J.M.W. Turner, Samuel Palmer, Caspar David Friedrich and more.

Moonlit landscape
Moonlit Landscape (detail), c. 1808, Caspar David Friedrich
The Haunted Stream
The Haunted Stream (detail), c. 1826, Samuel Palmer

Elizabeth I And Her People – National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery‘s current exhibition is Elizabeth I And Her People, which explores Elizabeth’s reign alongside the lives of other important people of the late Tudor age. The exhibition uses portraits to explore how explorers, artists, soldiers, writers and merchants portrayed themselves and displayed their wealth and achievements.

I am fairly familiar with this period, having studied history at sixth form and university, and I thought the exhibition did a great job of looking at the sixteenth century and the kind of people who inhabited it, particularly the growing middle classes.