National Gallery’s #GalleryB #Rubens and #Rembrandt

Gallery B is the first new space @NationalGallery in over 25 years.  Until 16 July 2017, it houses a free compare-and-contrast exhibition of Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn (yes, the Rembrandt).  That is the purpose of the new space, which links Gallery A with the other Ground Floor Galleries: to provide a large space that can be used for special displays and exhibitions.

This current display is of existing work, using the juxtaposition to give us new ways of seeing the paintings and in all honesty using a new gallery and this conceit of compare and contrast to get us into the Gallery to see them at all.  To that extent, it is a success and it is a great excuse to have a look at two key Dutch painters.

The biggest problem is finding the galleries, especially if you come in from the Sainsbury Wing.  It is on the lower floor, level 0.  There are four stairways down, two from the main front entrance, a quite narrow staircase next to room 12 to the left of the Central Hall (if you have your back to the main entrance) behind the shop, and the large modern staircase in the East Wing to the right of the Central Hall.  (On a Sunday, there is another route via Gallery A at the Northside of the building but I haven’t used it yet so this is speculative.)

There are lifts at the latter two staircases.  From the staircase to the left of Central Hall, turn right at the bottom of this staircase and it takes you directly to the entrance to Gallery F from where you walk to the circular Gallery E, turn right through Gallery C and there you are.  From the large staircase to the right of Central Hall, make your way through the doorway at the far side of the Espresso Bar and you will find yourself at the entrance to Gallery F.

Once you get there, you’ll see that Gallery B is the shape of a squared off lozenge creating four bays in which to display the art.  Large paintings are hung low so we can see them in the middle of the bays with smaller paintings around them.  The walls are pale.  The lighting is adequate but creates a bit of glare from some angles.

Rubens is on the near wall as you enter and Rembrandt is on the far.  This allows you more easily to compare and contrast the two artists.  The main wall panels provide some context.  The individual labels focus on describing each painting rather than explaining the contrasts.  What follows is my impression of the comparisons and contrasts.

There is more colour on the Rubens side of the room with bigger pieces and a tendency to use biblical and mythological stories as subjects.  As is often the case, it can be hard to understand what is going on without knowing the original story.

His portraits are perhaps a little more accessible.  It seems to me that Rubens was painting in the period of creating likenesses of the subject’s appearance, not simply flattering.  Rubens still uses symbols, for example, surrounding his doctor friend, Ludovicus Nonnius, with books and a bust of the Hippocrates (the Greek founder of medicine) but these are real people staring out of the canvass, or wood in Rubens’s case.

I did think his young woman (Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?)) in the so-called straw hat looked a little sickly, pale skin and big eyes, but that might be more about the standards of beauty at the time.  She is certainly looking at us a little coyly in her colourful flounces.

I did like the small landscape, A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape, even though there is something about it that is twee and overly sentimental.  The larger version of the same scene, (The Watering Place) is in Gallery C just outside so it is interesting to compare and contrast the two of them, too.

I implied that Rembrandt’s side of the room has less colour.  This is particularly the case of his portraits.  They are generally pared back with very little to see but the subject and maybe a chair.  But even when there is something to see, such as the sword and the book on his right of An Elderly Man as Saint Paul, it is very hard to see it.  I did notice that if I spent longer and looked and looked, my eyes became accustomed to the dark painting as they do to the dark in a low light environment.

One major exception to the lack of colour is Belshazzar’s Feast where Belshazzar’s wealth, the sumptuous and elaborate 17th century dress and jewels of his courtiers and the splendour of the Temple plate are all conveyed and highlighted with thick brushwork.

Then there is Rembrandt’s famous lighting.  This features in many of the works but one particularly caught my attention.  The Woman taken in Adultery is glowing in the middle of a group in the dark Temple, all looking insignificant against the splendour of the enthroned High Priest above.

If you come to see the new space for one reason alone make it the Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip from Portraits of Jacob Trip and his Wife Margaretha de Geer.  There are no accoutrements apart from the sober but rich clothing and the shadow of a substantial chair but the hands and the face with the steady gaze from the eyes are compelling.  In fact, in all the portraits it is clear that for Rembrandt the eyes have it!

Of course, it’s no longer just about the display in the Gallery.  The National Gallery has extensive resources on line.  You can do a virtual tour from the comfort of your computer if you can’t come to London. For Gallery B, perhaps because it is a temporary display, the Gallery hasn’t set up the displays in the same way as for other rooms.  So, to find the information about the paintings (as of 11 April 2017 when I accessed it this way), the best way to find them is to go to the page about the special exhibition and its related events, click here, then click through to the page about the display itself, then click on the underlined names of the two artists to go to their pages in the A-Z of Artists where you can track down their pictures.

In addition, there was a Facebook Live event where Head of Education, Gill Hart, and Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800, Francesca Whitwell Cooper, gave viewers a tour of the paintings.  This was simply an audio-visual event that could be accessed live from the National Gallery Facebook page.  It was a really good introduction to the exhibition and, for those of us who are new to art appreciation, it gave lots of pointers to look for.  The recording of the event is still available.  Even if you don’t have Facebook, you seem to be able to play it but I can’t guarantee that.  Give it a go by clicking here.


Michaelangelo & Sebastiano at the National Gallery

@NationalGallery until 25 June 2017 you can explore the relationship between two great Italian masters, Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo.

The contention of the Gallery is that this was an extraordinary friendship and collaboration in competitive times, and with Michelangelo who was famously prickly, and that it resulted in art that would not have been created by the men working completely alone.

To explore that argument fully, you need to be prepared to study sketches and read letters and consider copies and reproductions of art, or unfinished pieces, rather than see rooms full of finished masterpieces.  Now, it depends on how you feel about your art and how likely it is that you will ever go to Italy to see the originals whether you will enjoy this and feel it worth your while.

The North Galleries, to the back of the original building, are mainly rectangular rooms, arranged with compare and contrast work between the two artists or letters and sketches relating to the large work.  If you are following the booklet, you will find that in some rooms, you go clockwise and others you go anti clockwise or you start at the far end of the case in the middle.  It’s pretty confusing and difficult to navigate.

Room 1 contains work from before they met. The contrasts are Sebastiano’s bright colours and luxuriousness of the Venetian school and his more spontaneous approach, drawing and colouring at the same time.  In Michelangelo’s unfinished piece you can see his more methodical approach of planning, drawing, undercoat then finish.

In the second room, you encounter the first key piece, Michelangelo’s Pietà for S. Francesco in Viterbo.  Except that you don’t.  What you encounter is a cast of that sculpture.  I thought it was still wonderful to see but many people, including my partner, were unimpressed because the cast doesn’t have the same properties as the marble.

However, you can see the differences between it and Sebastiano’s painting of the same subject.  Michelangelo’s sculpture is realistic; the drapery looks like cloth and the body of Christ is heavy in Mary’s lap.  (I did think that the body of Christ was too small relative to Mary, though.)  Sebastiano’s painting is very large and I thought the depictions of people were not at all realistic.  In particular, it showed a very masculine looking Mary, at least in the body and the face.  I assume this is because they were not able to use female models but it did spoil the piece for me.  I thought the moon and the landscape in this picture was the best thing about it. By the way, for those who do not know, a Pietà is a portrayal of the Virgin Mary mourning the crucified Christ.

In Room 3 the exhibition reunites three altarpieces for the first time in 500 years.  I liked that, even if one is a copy.  Then there is The Raising of Lazarus, painted for the Cathedral of Narbonne in France, and a piece you can see normally in the National Gallery Collection.  Again, I like the landscape more than anything else about it.  There are a lot of letters in this room.  The hand writing is so neat!  I did wonder whether the letter was actually written by the artist or by a scribe or secretary.  There is also a rather lovely painting of the Holy Family, in a domestic setting.

Room 4 is where you’ll find the vaunted, exceptional loan of Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ (1514–15) from the Church of S. Vincenzo Martire in Bassano Romano, Italy.  It is in marble but was finished by another artist.  I actually preferred the other Risen Christ who seemed stronger and more lifelike, more animated with emotion, even though it is a cast again.

The other much publicised element of the exhibition is in Room 5: a “cutting-edge recreation” of the Borgherini Chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome.  Sebastiano decorated this to partial designs by Michelangelo so it is a clear example of their collaboration.  The Gallery has used 3D printing as well as standard construction methods to build the alcove.  I found this to be an impressive piece to see, looking at the perspective and how it changes as you move around.  I think the sweet spot to see the whole thing is slightly inside the rope, in the centre, which is a shame.  Anyway, this was the highlight of the exhibition for me.

Also in Room 5 is a portrait of Michelangelo by Sebastiano.  The woollen material and fur collar are exquisite.  Originally, this canvass or board, I forget which, held a Madonna and Child by one of Michelangelo’s rivals, Sato.  The patron it was painted for didn’t like it so didn’t want it and there would seem sweet revenge to Michelangelo to have his portrait painting out his rival’s the work like this.  How nasty they all were with one another!  And, how many other wonderful pieces of art, possibly ahead of their time, have been deleted because someone didn’t like them and had the power to destroy them?

In the final room is Sebastiano’s Visitation, painted at the same time as the Lazarus.  It shows the Virgin Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, dressed in bright clothing from Sebastiano’s Venetian roots.  I liked this but I actually liked the sketch of the two women better.  It had more life.  The younger woman’s face is smooth and lacking character – based on a boy, perhaps – while Elizabeth’s is much more realistic and full of character.

This was something I noticed throughout the exhibition.  In general, I found the art didn’t move me or speak to me even though it is representative of grand masters and praised by our culture.  I found the images of Mary were smooth and stylised.  However, I did like the glimpses of landscapes on many of the paintings and the images of the older people: Joseph in the picture of the Holy Family and Elizabeth, particularly in the studies for the Visitation, were full of character and compelling.

I came out, having not put in the work to read all the letters and study all the sketches, not being convinced of the main contention but knowing a little bit more about Sebastiano and having enjoyed seeing some key pieces, especially the recreation of the Borgherini Chapel, which really appealed to me.  I was, therefore, glad that I’d gone but it wouldn’t be the first choice of things to see if I had limited time.

As always, there is a lot of material on the website for you to study at your leisure.  Find links to it here.

Australia’s Impressionists at The National Gallery #AustraliasImpressionists

You still have another 12 days to see the exhibition of Australia’s Impressionists @NationalGallery in London.  If you can get there before it closes on 26 March 2017, I’d recommend you give it a go.

Billed as an escape from the darkness of winter, the time for that might have passed but, who knows?  This is London, right?  If you like the impressionists’ style, working rapidly, in front of their subjects and often in the open air rather than in a studio, you’ll find much to charm you here.

The exhibition is in the Sunley Room, straight ahead at the top of the main staircase in the older part of the Gallery.  The large rectangular space is divided up into three main sections, the paintings hung at head height and readily accessible.  There’s an introductory film in a small viewing space to the right of the entrance and it is worth taking the time to see that.

The Impressionists featured are Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and John Russell.  The former three worked mostly in Australia and share the first three sections of the exhibition: 9 by 5, Urban Australia and National Landscape.  Russell stayed in France after studying in Europe, counted Van Gogh, Monet and Sisley among his friends and mentored Matisse on colour.  He has a section devoted to him.  This organisation creates some interesting context for the work but also makes it harder to distinguish between the three artists other than Russell.

9 by 5 is an intriguing way to start.  In 1889, Streeton, Roberts and Conder staged an exhibition to introduce the public to their work, in the same way that the artists had done in Paris.  They called it “9 by 5” and this was the small size (roughly 9 by 5 inches) of most of the ‘impressions’ that made up the exhibition, many of them were painted on cigar-box lids, obtained cheaply from a friend of the artists. These were readily transportable for outside work and allowed Roberts, Streeton, and Conder to capture at great speed the ‘impression’ of a transient moment – its light and mood – in front of the subject.

The National Gallery exhibition reproduces a small portion of the 1889 exhibition showing us a selection of the small paintings.  They are exquisite but quite hard to see.  It is as if you are looking through a small window, glimpsing the world outside.  I particularly liked Arthur Streeton’s The National Game 1889.  This portrays a game of Aussie Rules football, introduced in the colony of Victoria to keep cricketers fit in winter.  The goal posts stand tall and sharp on the left, a representative of each of the teams in their colours stands next and then the game is a flurry of shapes with flashes of the two colours.  I thought it was very clever and beautifully composed.  Looking at Hoddle Street, 10 p.m., also by Streeton, I realised that the painting is actually quite blurry.  It is the fact that it is a glimpse of life that gives it precision when you look at it.  That same affect is seen in Streeton’s Railway Station, Redfern 1893.  It’s fast and minimal but there are lines, delineating carriages and parts of buildings, which creates important contrast.

The biggest section of the exhibition is about the countryside.  In the late 19th century immigrant Australia was building itself into a nation.  In 1901 it became a single commonwealth rather than a set of colonies.  Streeton, Roberts and Conder painted the landscapes of the country to help define a sense of national landscape.  Thinking back on the paintings now, it does occur to me that most of the work, if not all, took place in the coastal fringes in places that are now part of the built-up suburbs surrounding the cities, if not actually part of Sydney and Melbourne.  So, Heidelberg where Streeton established a camp for his colleagues to be able to work “en plein air” and in front of their subjects is a suburb of Melbourne; and Sirius Cove where he established a similar camp on the banks of Sydney Harbour is also built up although I recognised Camp, Sirius Cove in Roberts’s 1899 painting as being close to Taronga Park Zoo.

Maybe that is a clue why I appreciated the Australian pictures more than Russell’s.  Several of them portrayed places I have been and could vaguely recognise even though it is over a hundred years later.  Or, like Fire’s On 1891 by Streeton, it shows a countryside I recognise but is also a tunnel that we probably rode through on the train.  They are evocative paintings, capturing the colour palette of Australia, which is quite unique.  They also reflect the harshness of the light when the sun is so high in the sky.  In A Holiday at Mentone 1888 Conder shows the brightness of the light, casting almost no shadows.  It is glaring.  How did they manage in those heavy clothes of the Victorian and Edwardian ages?

Trying to distinguish one artist from the other is hard, as I’ve mentioned.  There are three paintings that help.  In 1888, a painting expedition along the Pacific coast near Sydney produced two paintings of contrasting styles, Coogee Bay by Conder and Holiday Sketch at Coogee by Roberts.  It seems to me that Conder’s is less realistic and has more green with less contrast between the sand and the vegetation, whereas Roberts paints bright blue water, bright white sand, and brown vegetation with some orange and a hint of pink in the sky.  Then Streeton, painting The Blue Pacific in 1890 on the clifftops just above where the other were, gives us the bright blue ocean but yellows and greens in the sky and pinks and oranges in the cliff-top.  Not convinced? Well, I’m not sure I am either.  I’m not sure I’d recognise the one artist from the others if you just showed me a series of pictures.  However, I hope I would recognise the general style of Australia’s Impressionists.

Russell’s work looks more like the work of the European painters, becoming increasingly abstract and wild in its use of colour.  His Cruach en Mahr, Matin is built up of layer up on layer of colour, vivid pinks and purples and limes creating an impression of the darkness of a west-facing cliff as the sun rises.  In 1905 its exhibition helped name the newest of the avant-garde painters, the Fauvistes.  I didn’t dislike his work but I found the work of the others more interesting and fresh to me.  If “Russell poses the question of what it meant to be an ‘Australian Impressionist’”, as it says in the National Gallery’s notes, then for me the answer is that art is supranational.  Someone from the other side of the world can enter a milieu and produce pieces to match and lead the others in that milieu, if they are allowed the freedom to do so.  At the same time, people can take the techniques to the other side of the world and use them to create the highest quality portrayals of the geography and society there.  There were Australians who were Impressionists and painters who produced Impressionist views of Australia.


If you want to find out more, the National Gallery has introductory material on line.  Click here to find it.

By the way, in writing this, I’ve been surprised by how much of this art you can find on line – just in case you can’t get to the exhibition, of course.  Here are some links.  If you search yourself, for John Russell, use “John Peter Russell” or you’ll get an 18th century Englishman.

For Tom Roberts, click here.

For Sir Arthur Streeton, click here or here.

For Charles Conder, click here.

For John Peter Russell, click here.