Sunday, September 5, 2010

Great Paintings from England

My last day in England, I traveled into London, to check out some great art. My first stop was the National Gallery, which houses an enormous collection of great paintings. I had been there over a decade ago, in my early twenties, and it had made an enormous impression on me. I spent about 2 hours there, and saw a lot of paintings (too much, actually!) Here are some of my favorites:

 The Toilet of Venus, 1647-51
Diego Velazquez

This was one of the first paintings I saw that day, as it was in the main gallery as you come up the central staircase. The only surviving female nude by Velazquez, it was made for a private patron, probably the son of the First Minister of Spain. Something like this would probably not be looked upon with the Church's approval during the Inquisition; and for good reason, it's an extremely sexy painting. Depicting Venus, the goddess of love, and her son, Cupid, her form radiates from across the room. Her flesh is painted so beautifully; kind of glows from the inside, with alabaster-like highlights on her hips, legs, and shoulder. I love the way the soft curvature of her body sits on the crinkley blue drapery; each of the forms mimicing, yet complimenting, the other. Your eye passes over the profile of her face, to where she's looking, which is into the mirror that Cupid is holding. Velazquez was such a master at using mirrors and framing devices inside his painting, (Las Meninas, being the best example), which gives the painting an added spatial and narrative dimension. Her face is not painted as clearly or as descriptively as the rest of the painting. The mirror has a smokey quality to it, which hides her features somewhat, and adds to the sense of mystery. Also, she's not really looking at herself in the mirror, but over her shoulder at the viewer/painter.....amazing.

The Four Elements: Fire,1560-1574
Joachim Beuckelaer

Done by a 16th century Dutch artist, who I hadn't heard of before, this painting was in room with the 3 other companion pieces (the other elements, Earth, Air, Water). This painting is huge, about 5 x 7 feet, and is just so over the top. The first thing that caught my eye, was the way he depicted the space. He created these receding spaces in the back, through both the doors, with the middle-ground floor tilting forward. The figures and still-life elements in the foreground, flatten out and seem like they are going to slide right off onto you.  He also has Jesus in the back room, depicting the story of Mary and Martha, while in the kitchen, the servants are trying to keep the fire going and the cooks preparing the meal. The whole painting seemed very humorous to me and over-stuffed (no pun intended). The clarity and precision with which the still-life elements were painted is just beautiful....a great fusion of the physical and spiritual world.

The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
Jan van Eyck

Amazing painting! I love the inscription over the mirror on the back wall: "Van Eyck was here in 1434"....a witty trompe l'oeil 15th century 'tag'. The sense of diffused light and the minute details are awesome...I wanted to jump over the rope partition and stick my nose right up to the painting to check out what's happening in the curved mirror on the back wall. (there are 2 figures there; one supposedly could be the artist) The brass chandelier hanging between the figures is stunning...everything is perfectly calibrated and exists in a perfect state of timelessness.

A Wall in Naples
Thomas Jones, 1782

Never heard of this artist either, but was Welsh, and a very early plein-air style painting. At this point in time, most oil paintings were done in the studio, and if work was done 'in the field', it was usually in a drawing media to support a more finished and larger piece. It's a small painting, about 4 x 6 inches, and depicts some drying laundry outside a window. A very simple and humble painting...the quickness and efficiency of the paint handling is perfect.

A Woman bathing in a Stream, 1654

So many great Rembrandt's at the National Gallery. This one was in the same room as the Tripp portraits and a stunning self-portrait. Painting doesn't get much better than late Rembrandt, and this one highlights his bravura brush work and emotional intimacy. The woman is most likely Hendrickje Stoffels, who lived in his house and became his common-law wife. It's a touching portrait and catches her in a playful, private moment. His paint handling is jaw-dropping, and you can tell that the dress and her hands were probably done in one shot, with a loaded brush, wet into wet. Her legs, the reflections in the water, and the background, just dissolve into these abstract patterns and forms....damn!

Bathers at La Grenouillere, 1869
Claude Monet

Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary and different the Impressionist stuff was at the time. We're sort of over run with their work now; most find it fluffy eye-candy, and it doesn't help when the work is plastered all over everything from coffee mugs to umbrellas. But coming into the room of early Impressionist work, you realize how much these guys turned the lights on in Painting with their color and paint handling. The Monet's, and this one in particular, just jump off the walls. This was probably done as a quick sketch, for a larger version to be done in the studio, but the loose paint handling and sense of light is amazing. Looking at the treatment of the water, you can see why the Ab Ex painters were particularly drawn to Monet's work. (The bottom right hand corner made me think of Joan Mitchell, in particular)

Atlantic Storm, 1876
John Singer Sargent

Not at the National Gallery, but the Royal Academy nearby, there was a Sargent show of seascapes. I'm a big fan of his work, and was really excited to see this show up. (The image of this painting was all over London and used as the promotional poster) It was a small show, covering mostly early works, with the sea as a theme. This painting was one of my favorites, and was probably done in the studio from either drawings or memory. He apparently went through a major storm on a trans-Atlantic trip, and recorded it in this wonderful, dark and brooding piece. The paint handling is loose and simple; he seems to be after the atmosphere and 'feeling' of the scene, rather than visual details and facts. I love the life raft in the lower right corner, painted really quick and hazy, and how he orients your view point, so that you're looking down the deck of the ship towards the back, as the boat's tilting up and out of the water. I almost felt seasick just looking at this painting....

 Still Life, 1946
Giorgio Morandi

Ah...Morandi. This was at the Tate in St. Ives. I always love seeing Morandi; he's always painting more than just bottles. Every brushstroke quivers with life, and his palette and sense of light have a quality that seems to have been frozen in time.  The surfaces of his paintings feel as if they've been laid out on the beach in the sun and sand for like a hundred years; almost like what happens to a piece of glass when it's thrown into the ocean. The retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York a few years ago made a big impression on me.

I love that feeling I get after looking at great paintings like this...totally recharged and ready to get back to work. My goal when I get back to the studio, is to finish off the paintings I started this summer and dive into some new work that I have swimming around in my head. (and check out some upcoming shows in NYC)


  1. Thomas Jones was a painter who went to Italy and did many wonderful works like the one you show here. I came across him a few years ago on the web and have a book on him that I found online. He was called back to Wales on his fathers death as I remember it and painted rather ordinary landscapes on rare occasion the rest of his life. Business, being head of the family and fitting into society took precedence . Really a pity since some of the work from Italy was so promising, nice balance of shapes, good color. I seem to remember a couple rooftop paintings that were very good.

  2. Very inspring, thank you!