Cezanne Portraits at the NPG

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The Thursday immediately after the Christmas break I had to go down to London for a meeting so we took the opportunity to have a short break in the Capital as there was a couple of exhibitions we particularly wanted to see. We were lucky in managing to book a room in the Euston Premier Inn for less than £60 – a remarkable bargain these days.

After my meeting in Southwark had finished late afternoon, I crossed the river and took the bus from near St Paul’s

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over to Trafalgar Square to meet my wife in the National Gallery where she’d been spending a few hours. We went back inside for a quick look at some favourite paintings and the small exhibition of paintings by the Finnish artist Gallen-Kallela of Lake Keitele in his native country. No photos allowed but I downloaded this picture from the National Gallery’s website (under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons licence)

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Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The National Gallery’s website tells us

For the first time in the UK, this exhibition unites all of Gallen-Kallela’s ‘Lake Keitele’ landscapes. They are displayed side by side, showing the gradual shift of the composition, between naturalistic landscape and highly stylised, abstracted image. They also illuminate the various influences, Finnish and foreign, absorbed by this highly distinctive and versatile artist.

The National Gallery closes at 6 so we made our way out onto Trafalgar Square and past St Martins in the Field

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round to the National Portrait Gallery which is open late on Thursday evening.

We had a look round taking in some old favourites – the Elizabethan gallery and portraits of some of my “heroes” including William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Humphry Davy – and some new discoveries before purchasing tickets for the exhibition of Cezanne portraits.

This is a major exhibition with 50 portraits by Cezanne, which has already been shown in the Gare d’Orsay in Paris and will later move on to National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As usual over here no photos allowed (how different it was in Australia where we could take photos even in paid exhibitions) but there’s a short youtube video showing highlights

The portraits are mainly of his family and friends with some of other people he knew – including workers from around where he lived, one in particular who posed for some well known paintings. There are also a good number of self portraits. Covering the whole of his career, it’s possible to see how Cezanne’s technique changed and evolved. Some early portraits, including one of his uncle Dominique, have been painted with a pallet knife rather than a brush.

One person who appears more than anyone else in the exhibition is Marie-Hortense Fiquet  his wife,  who he met in Paris when he was 30 and she was 19. He painted her about 30 times and a good number of these portraits are included in the exhibition.

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Portrait of Madame Cézanne with Loosened Hair, c. 1883 – 1887, Philadelphia Museum of Art (source: Wikipedia)

It’s very interesting to see how his portrayal of her changed over the years. She doesn’t look particularly happy in any of them and the later portraits are far from flattering to say the least. What does it say about their relationship? He married her against the wishes of his family and stuck with her until he died so he surely can’t have hated her and in those days wealthy men could easily discard a wife or lover. It’s well known that he was a miserable so and so, so perhaps that was reflected in his paintings of her or does it just reflect how his art evolved.

If these portrayals are hardly “attractive” in the conventional sense, and Cézanne has been accused of  “cruelty” in his painting of his wife, with whom he had a difficult relationship, he would no doubt have painted her in exactly the same way had the pair been in the first flush of romance, such was his obsession with pure form and shape.   (Mark Hudson writing in the Telegraph)

 

 

Tudor Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

During our recent trip to London, we visited the National Portrait Gallery which has late night opening on a Thursday. I’d never really fancied looking around the gallery in the past as I thought it was full of stuffy portraits of establishment figures. But when we were in London last September we called in on impulse for an hour on the Thursday evening as we were passing and saw that it was open. We found that enjoyed it, so wanted to go back for a proper look. It certainly had plenty of “stuffy” portraits of establishment figures, but I really enjoyed looking at the Tudor period paintings, pictures of some ‘heroes’ from the Georgian period (Shelley, John Dalton, William Blake, William Godwin, Mary Wolstonecraft etc) and also the more modern portraits from the 1930’s and after WW 2.

I found the Tudor Gallery on the top floor particularly fascinating. The style of painting is quite different from those from later periods. The colours used for many of the paintings were much more vibrant than the dark, sombre tones used for most of the portraits painted through the Stuart period up to the 20th Century. There was extensive use of blue. Until the development of artificial pigments after the industrial revolution, good strong blue pigments, such as lapis lazuli derived from a ground up semi-precious stone, were very expensive. Although, we did notice that blue featured particularly on the portraits of members of the Royal family.

The detail in some of the paintings, such as on the dress in this portrait of a mature Elizabeth 1, was exceptional

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Queen Elizabeth 1 by an unknown Netherlandish artist
circa 1575 (Picture source National Portrait Gallery )

In some cases the paintings were rather “flat”, as in the following portrait of Elizabeth’s at her coronation, which was actually painted quite a few years after the event

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Elizabeth I in coronation robes by an unknown English artist, circa 1600  (Picture source: Wikipedia)

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Queen Mary I by Master John, 1544 (Picture source: Wikipedia)

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Catherine Parr, attributed to Master John, circa 1545 (Picture source: National Portrait Gallery)

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King Edward VI by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1547 (Picture source ; National Portrait Gallery)

There were some more sombre portraits, such as these of Elizabeth 1’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.

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Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John De Critz the Elder, circa 1585 (Picture source:Wikipedia)

and Thomas Cromwell.

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Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534). (Picture source: Wikipedia)

I was particularly interested to see the Cromwell portrait having read Hilary Mantel’s novel based on his life, “Wolf Hall”, which mentions Holbein’s painting. In the novel Mantel has Cromwell looking at the portrait and commenting "I look like a murderer". He certainly has a very grim, almost devious, expression.

I thought that the paintings on display were in remarkable condition given their age. The National Portrait Gallery are clearly very good at their job in preserving delicate works of art.

Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery also have a good collection of Tudor era paintings, including these two

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According to Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator & 16th Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, in an interview on the blog, “On the Tudor Trail

Very few portraits were produced in England before 1500 but portraiture became increasingly popular during the sixteenth century. The first commissions were mainly portraits of royalty, and often the exchange of portraits played a key role in marriage negotiations between courts.

That portraits can be misleading is shown by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves (his third wife). He, so the story goes,  made his decision to marry her having seen a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, only to be disappointed (to put it mildly) when he saw her “in the flesh”. Thomas Cromwell’s role in arranging the marriage contributed to his downfall. However, I think that there is a lot more to it than that in a period when a monarch’s marriage was principally driven by political alliances and the desire to produce a male heir.

She goes on to say

Portraiture was then adopted by courtiers as a means of displaying status and power through the display of their costly dress, jewellery, coats of arms and symbols of office. From the 1540s portraiture spread beyond the court and came to be commissioned by merchants and citizens.

The Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe meant that there was a reduction in demand for religious paintings, so there were a large number of artists available who were probably only too glad to receive commissions to produce the portraits. It also presented an opportunity for artists from overseas such as  Hans Holbein the Younger, who came to England. Given some of the impressive works they produced, this shows how immigrants can make a very positive contribution to British culture.