The National Gallery, London is a treasure trove for art-enthusiasts. Getting an opportunity to visit the gallery, I was pleasantly surprised to find works like ‘Supper at Emmaus’, which I have included in a previous post for explaining what the concept of ‘Chiaroscuro’ means. In this post, I will try to include some works that struck me as interesting and appealing, and describe them briefly.
Claude Lorrain’s and Others
Claude Lorrain was the most successful landscape painter of the 17th century. Claude’s early work shows the influence of both his Italian contemporaries and North European artists working in Rome. His mainstay was idealised landscapes and port scenes. The delicacy with which he painted the effects of light maximised the poetic impact of his works. His works and those of some other artists such as Pierre Patel are displayed in room 20.
Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Pierre Patel (1652)
Patel’s landscape shows the impact Claude’s works had, and was painted shortly after the arrival in Paris of works by the latter. Here he creates a version of the Roman Campagna, which is a low-lying area surrounding Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy. He uses framing trees and elegiac ruins in this work. The Holy Family pause beside a derelict temple covered with picturesque bas-reliefs; behind them a vista opens between trees to a cerulean seascape.
The Enchanted Castle
This Claude-painting revolves around the story of Psyche, which tells how Cupid falls in love with Psyche but conceals his identity from her, visiting her only at night. Fearing he is an evil magician, she looks at him, although forbidden to do so, and Cupid then abandons her. The moment shown by Claude in this work may be before Psyche has encountered Cupid, when, following her salvation from danger by the West Wind, she was ‘qualifying the troubles and thoughts of her restless mind’. It may also be after she has been left by her two sisters who attempted to persuade Psyche to murder her beloved. This painting influenced John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Frans Hal and the Mannerists
A couple of roughly contemporaneous strands of 17th-century Dutch painting: those of Northern Mannerism and the art of Frans Hals, are exhibited in room 24. Frans Hals spent his career in Haarlem. Hals’s vigorous brushwork allowed him to convincingly characterize and animate his sitters, and seemingly bring them to life, thereby establishing a legacy of a highly individual and expressive style of portraiture.
Mannerism encompasses a variety of approaches influenced by, and reacting to, the harmonious ideals associated with artists such as Da Vinci and Raphael. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial qualities. Mannerism favours compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting. The Statue of David by Michelangelo is an example of a Mannerist sculpture. In the statue, David is not shown to be victorious over Goliath as in the depictions of David by Renaissance sculptors, but rather as a tense figure who has decided to battle Goliath but has not fought him yet.
The Judgement of Paris
Peter Paul Rubens (~1597-1599)
The painting is based on a famous story from Greek mythology, which was one of the events that led up to the Trojan War. It is recounted that Zeus held a banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles). However, Eris, goddess of discord was not invited, for she would have made the party unpleasant for those attending it. Angered by this, Eris arrived at the celebration with a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, which she threw into the proceedings, which had the inscription kallistēi or “for the fairest one”.
Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually he, reluctant to favour any claim himself, declared that Paris, a Trojan mortal (a prince), would judge their cases, for he had recently shown his exemplary fairness previously. While Paris inspected them, each attempted with her powers to bribe him; Hera offered to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite offered the world’s most beautiful woman: Helen of Sparta, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Paris accepted Aphrodite’s gift and awarded the apple to her, receiving Helen as well as the enmity of the Greeks and especially of Hera. The Greeks’ expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris in Troy is the mythological basis of the Trojan War.
In this painting, Paris, seated with his back to the viewer, gives the prize of a golden apple to Venus/Aphrdoite, the central standing goddess, whom he judged to be the most beautiful of the three. To the left stands Juno/Hera who is angered by the choice, and to the right, turned away, Minerva/Athena, identifiable by the armour at her feet. Venus is accompanied by Cupid and crowned by a putto (a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged); another putto holds two doves. Paris is accompanied by Mercury at the left, and in the background two satyrs watch the contest. At the right a water god and a nymph recline on the ground.
Young Man with a Skull
Frans Hals (1626-1628)
This painting is not a portrait. The skull held by the boy is a reminder of the transience of life and the certainty of death. This powerful theme has been captured beautifully with oil on canvas by Frans Hals. Such a subject is known as a ‘Vanitas’ (Latin for vanity), and corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.
The Rembrandt School of Art
Rembrandt was the most influential artist of the Dutch Golden Age. His works and those of those associated with the ‘Rembrandt School’ are displayed in room 23. Rembrandt’s distinctive painting style, his dramatic use of light and shadow (Chiaroscuro, dear readers) and his sensitivity to human emotion made his works famous. Individuals such as Aert de Gelder (his last pupil) and Aelbert Cuyp are considered as his followers.
A Franciscan Friar
Rembrandt painted a young man in a Franciscan ‘habit’, in the tradition of what are considered to be ‘tronies’ (literally, heads), which were artistic works which were not meant to depict any identifiable individual but rather to depict a particular role or a character study.
The Woman taken in Adultery (enlarged)
Rembrandt portrays a Biblical story about the nature of God’s forgiveness for sinners. The Scribes and Pharisees, knowing that Jesus took pity on wrong-doers, tried to catch him condoning disobedience to the Law. They brought a woman to him who had been caught in the act of adultery and said, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?‘ Christ replied, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her‘. In Rembrandt’s interpretation, Christ’s stature is exaggerated to make him seem taller, and by analogy morally superior, than those trying to trick him. The painting shows Rembrandt’s gift as a colourist: the colours are generally muted but there are balancing touches of brightness, as in the dull gold of the throne and the altar.
The Maas at Dordrecht in a Storm
Aelbert Cuyp (~1645-1650)
On the right is Dordrecht (Netherlands), dominated by the profile of the Grote Kerk (Church of Our Lady in Dordrecht). The horizon is very low which gives greater prominence and space to the ship in the foreground as well as to the dramatic sky.
The 17th century proved an exciting and prosperous time for Amsterdam, making it arguably the new world capital of that time. During the period 1660-1800, painting technique generally became more refined in the Netherlands. Artists had fully absorbed and developed what they had learned from Italian masters, and found new inspiration in the elegant styles emerging from France. Dutch painters flourished during that age and rooms 21 and 22 have the works of some of the renowned Dutch artists of that age.
Still Life with a Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls
Jan Jansz. Treck (1651)
The muted tones and sombre composition of this work play down the sumptuousness of the precious objects on display, indicating and highlighting the inclination of Jan Jansz towards vanitas as a theme for his works.
View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam
Jan van der Heyden (1660?)
Characteristic of van der Heyden, who specialised in town views, is the way the picture is painted in every minute detail for the view. The figures were added later, and interestingly, given the artist’s attention to detail, their shadows and reflections in the water are missing.
The Avenue at Middelharnis
Meindert Hobbema (1689)
The painting shows the village and church of Middelharnis in South Holland. Hobbema’s design with the avenue of trees receding towards the centre of the picture is simple and yet majestic. The trees are employed to mark the quick recession from foreground to background while the expanse of sky is emphasized by the upward-pointing trees. Unfortunately the paint of the sky was damaged by cleaning some time in the 19th century; the billowing cloud to the right is the best preserved section.
River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants
Aelbert Cuyp (~1658-1660)
This painting is one of the greatest 17th-century Dutch landscapes and the largest surviving, and arguably the most beautiful, landscape by Cuyp. The entire scene is bathed in a gentle sunlight, harmonizing all the elements in the painting. This design is focused more directly on the landscape than in earlier paintings by Cuyp on the same scale, and the figures and animals are more minutely painted. According to the painter Benjamin West, it was this picture, acquired by the Earl of Bute in the early 1760s, that began the rage for Cuyp among British collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries. His popularity came to rival that of Claude.
Philippe de Champaigne’s and French Artists
Most of the paintings in room 18 were made in Paris around the middle of the 17th century. The political ambition to make of Paris a new Rome, resulted in more French-born painters making their careers in the city. This trend was encouraged by the founding in 1648 of a royal academy of the arts, and by many wealthy individuals refurbishing their homes. A distinctly French style emerged which rejected flamboyance and strong contrasts of light and shade, instead favoring restraint, even in lighting, elegance and clarity of composition.
Cardinal de Richelieu
Philippe de Champaigne (1633-1640)
Increasing French power and self-confidence are qualities evident in de Champaigne’s full-length portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, who governed France as chief minister from 1624 until his death in 1642. This portrait is one of several variants of a full-length composition showing the minister in cardinal’s robes and wearing the Order of the Saint-Esprit. For a prince of the Church to have himself portrayed standing like a secular prince was unique and new, and was presumably intended to underline Richelieu’s role as a statesman.
The Four Ages of Man
Valentin de Boulogne (~1629)
This picture was in the celebrated collection of the Dukes of Orléans during most of the 18th century. In this painting, Infancy (centre foreground) holds an empty bird trap, perhaps symbolising hope; Youth (left) plays a lute, probably symbolizing amorous desires; Manhood (right), in armour, wears a victor’s laurel wreath and holds a plan of fortifications; Age (centre background) is associated with a pile of coins, which are symbols of avarice. The glass he holds may be symbolic of the fragility of life.