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.