Francis Towne at the British Museum
January 21 2016
Picture: British Museum
A new exhibition opens today at the British Museum on the work of watercolourist Francis Towne. Says the BM website:
Come and experience 18th-century Rome through an astonishing series of watercolours not displayed together since 1805.
British artist Francis Towne (1739–1816) made a remarkable group of watercolours during a visit to Rome in 1780–1781. They include famous monuments such as the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, ancient baths and temples, and the Forum. These watercolours were Towne’s way of delivering a moral warning to 18th-century Britain not to make the same mistakes – and suffer the same fate – as ancient Rome. 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of their bequest to the British Museum.
Towne’s 52 views of Rome are among the great creative landmarks in the use of watercolour within British art. They played a central role both in Towne’s career, and in the revival of his reputation in the 20th century. They were his main claim for recognition in the London art world and he continued to revise and work on them throughout his life. The views of Rome were the centrepiece of Towne’s one-man retrospective exhibition in London in 1805, and have not been displayed together since. When Towne bequeathed them to the Museum in 1816, they became his permanent public legacy. In addition to the views of Rome, the exhibition will feature further views of Italy by Towne and other works on paper by his contemporaries in Rome, including the important recent acquisition A Panoramic view of Rome by Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821).
As a landscape painter based in Exeter, Towne’s work was not well known in London during his lifetime, and he failed to be elected to the Royal Academy on several occasions. The Victorians had written off 18th-century watercolours as unambitious and limited, but in the early 20th century, the flat planes and spare, angular designs of Towne’s long-ignored drawings seemed unexpectedly fresh and elegant to modern eyes.
The exhibition has been organised by Richard Stephens, who is writing a catalogue raisonné of Towne's work, to be published online by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Richard will also be giving a talk on Towne at the BM on Tuesday 26th January at 1.15pm.
Regular readers will know Richard for his invaluable online resource, The Art World in Britain 1660-1735. I think it's high time AHN designated him a Hero of Art History.
Update - the show gets five stars from today's Guardian.
New identity for Raphael's 'Lady with a Unicorn'?
January 12 2016
Picture: Galleria Borghese
Raphael's Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn has travelled from the Galleria Borghese in Rome to a new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. There, a new identity for the sitter has been proposed, as reported in The Huffington Post:
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Galleria Borghese director Anna Coliva sticks to the long-standing view that the fair-haired sitter is Maddalena Strozzi -- based on similarity in pose and composition to a Raphael portrait from Florence's Pitti Palace. Through a detailed exploration of the sitter, unicorn, and setting, Dr. Linda Wolk-Simon, Raphael specialist and director and chief curator of the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University, suggests a new identity for the young woman.
In a catalogue essay that reads like a detective story, Wolk-Simon makes a persuasive case that the sitter is Laura Orsini, daughter of acclaimed beauty Guilia Farnese, mistress of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (the rumor at the time was that Laura's father was Alexander, not Farnese's husband). In late 1505, right around the time Raphael painted the portrait, 13-year-old Laura Orsini wed Niccolo Franciotti della Rovere, nephew of Alexander's successor, Julius II.
"I started looking at every detail in the picture for clues and certain things started jumping out," says Wolk-Simon. To start, the sitter is blonde -- like Lucrezia Borgia, Alexander VI's illegitimate daughter and Laura Orsini's probable half-sister. A tower in the portrait's background is from a landmark in Urbino, the duchy ruled by the della Rovere family. Wolk-Simon also discovered that the sitter's stunning ruby and pearl pendant necklace closely resembles a description of Guilia Farnese's jewels from court documents; the mythical unicorn cradled in the young woman's right hand turns out to be part of the Farnese coat of arms.
White glove shot (ctd.)
November 16 2015
Here's a rare thing - actual art handlers actually hanging a painting. Not a press officer or intern in sight.
The picture is John Michael Wright's portrait of Charles II, and it's being installed for a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Samuel Pepys (20th Nov 2015 - 28th March 2016). More here.
"He's, er, relieving himself Ma'am".
November 4 2015
Picture: Royal Collection Trust
Conservators at the Royal Collection have uncovered a man doing a 'number 2' as we say here, up against a wall in a painting by Isaack van Ostade. The detail had been painted out by a restorer in 1903 when the work was put on display at Buckingham Palace. Below is the offending detail (to be found lower right in the painting) and below that the picture before cleaning.
Here's the Royal Collection press release:
From street vendors peddling food to singers performing to a crowd, a 17th-century Dutch painting in the Royal Collection captures all the rustic charm of a village fair. But work undertaken by Royal Collection Trust conservators ahead of a new exhibition opening at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace next month has revealed that all was not quite as it seemed. Painstaking cleaning of the painting has uncovered a squatting figure relieving himself in the foreground, hidden for more than 100 years under overpainted shrubbery.
Painted in 1643, A Village Fair with a Church Behind by Isack van Ostade is one of 27 works going on display in the exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. It was acquired in 1810 by George IV, when Prince of Wales, and hung in the Middle Room at Carlton House, the Prince's London residence on Pall Mall. Inventories of Carlton House in the Royal Archives show that the coarse, comic depictions of peasant life in A Village Fair with a Church Behind would have been entirely to the future king's taste.
It is believed that the offending figure was painted over in 1903, when the work, which by then hung in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, was sent for treatment by an art restorer. The modified painting, perhaps now more in tune with Edwardian sensibilities, was returned to the Picture Gallery, where it hung for several more years. A similar alteration had been made to A Village Revel by Jan Steen, 1673, also acquired by George IV and in the Royal Collection. The painting shows a group of country people drinking and brawling outside an inn, symbolising human folly. Conservation revealed that the tavern sign was originally painted with an image of a man with his buttocks exposed, which at some point had been overpainted with a bull's head.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures and curator of the exhibition said:
'Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word 'nature', the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a 'low style'; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly'.
The new exhibition opens in London at the Queen's Gallery on 13th November.
Goya at the National Gallery
October 9 2015
Rave reviews flood in for the new Goya show at the National Gallery. Five stars in The Guardian, the Evening Standard, and The Telegraph. I have yet to see it. Here's a good piece by the show's curator Xavier Bray in Apollo on how he managed to secure some of the more difficult loans. He even learnt to shoot, to better mingle with Goya-owning Spanish aristocrats. The Art Newspaper reports that some loans were only confirmed with a month to go.
'God hates Renoir'
October 6 2015
Picture: Boston Globe
Here's a great story from The Boston Globe:
It’s nothing personal, says Ben Ewen-Campen, he just doesn’t think French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is much of a painter. Monday, the Harvard postdoc joined some like-minded aesthetes for a playful protest outside the Museum of Fine Arts. The rally, which mostly bewildered passersby, was organized by Max Geller, creator of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting, who wants the MFA to take its Renoirs off the walls and replace them with something better. Holding homemade signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and “Treacle Harms Society,” the protesters ate cheese pizza purchased by Geller, and chanted: “Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin !” and “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” Craig Ronan, an artist from Somerville, learned about the protest on Instagram and decided to join. “I don’t have any relationship with these people aside from wanting artistic justice,” he said. The museum hasn’t commented on the fledgling movement, but a few folks walking by Monday seemed amused. “I love their sense of irony,” said Liz Byrd, a grandmother from Phoenix who spent the morning in the museum with her daughter and grandchild. “I love Renoir, but I think this is great.”
I think I'd definitely have joined the protest. I had to spend way too much time in the (un-indexed) Renoir catalogue raisonné for the latest series of 'Fake or Fortune?'.
Update - the protest was *not a serious protest*. Ok? That said, I remember discussing Renoir's occasional badness with the late Prof. John House, of the Courtauld, and he said straight out: 'Renoir could be a truly awful painter. But every now and then he had moments of sublime genius'.
Update II - here's Jonathan Jones in The Guardian sticking up for Renoir. And also having a minor sense of humour failure.
Is this by Goya?
September 8 2015
Picture: National Gallery
I'm looking forward to the National Gallery's forthcoming Goya exhibition, which opens on 7th October. I must confess to never being that impressed by Goya's portraits - awkwardly painted things - so hopefully I'll learn something, and be proved wrong.
Anyway, as a taster to what we can expect, the National Gallery has new small display looking at the above portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel, and more specifically its attribution. Apparently, when the picture was;
[...] purchased by the National Gallery in 1896, [it] was among the first paintings by the Spanish artist to enter the collection and has long been heralded as one of his most dazzling portraits. And yet it is precisely this flamboyance that has led scholars more recently to cast doubts over its attribution to Goya.
Although painted with tremendous flair, the picture’s brushwork – when compared with his other portraits – lacks Goya’s customary subtlety in describing transparencies and textures. The sitter, Isabel de Porcel, is extremely charismatic but we struggle to grasp her psychological state; something in which Goya’s portraits invariably excelled.
Technical examination of ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, including X-rays and paint cross-sections, has revealed that Isabel de Porcel was painted directly on top of another portrait. Although perhaps surprising, this is not unique in Goya’s work – nor was it a practice adopted exclusively by him.
This thought-provoking display brings together the historical and technical evidence surrounding ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, and looks again at the attribution question of one of the most striking and recognisable paintings in the National Gallery.
I'm no Goya scholar, and it has been a while since I've looked at this picture, so I won't dare proffer an opinion. Except to say that Goya connoisseurship has gone through a bit of a muddle of late. Rather like Rembrandt in the early days of the Rembrandt Research Project, a number of long accepted pictures have been doubted.
Schama's 'Face of Britain'
September 7 2015
Picture: Sunday Times
I'm looking forward to seeing Simon Schama's new series of the history of British portraiture, which starts on BBC2 later this month (I don't think the transmission date has been confirmed yet). To coincide with the series, the National Portrait Gallery will put on an exhibition of works curated by Schama, which opens on 16th Sept. More here.
In the press photo above, the good Professor goes for the dreaded white gloves, just to hold a frame.
New Botticelli exhibition
August 27 2015
Here's a picture from a photocall at the V&A to publicise their new show happening in March next year, Botticelli Reimagined. Of course, being a 'modern' show, this is not simply about Botticelli - but how later and contemporary artists and designers have ripped off 'reinterpreted Botticelli'. But the good news is that 50 works by Botticelli are to be included.
The picture above, tweeted by the V&A, shows the picture being held up with someone in white gloves, even though it's on an easel. Regular readers will know of my fondness for unnecessary white glove shots. Anyway, here's more on the show in The Guardian.
August 26 2015
In The Guardian, the writer Julian Barnes has some wise words for us on the origins of contemporary art guff:
[...] he said artists were today expected to explain and write about their work far too much: Matisse had offered good advice to young practitioners “when he said that ‘artists should have their tongues cut out’, because it has increasingly become the case that from a very young age artists have to have a narrative about what it is they are actually doing. You sometimes feel that the narrative is almost floating free from the art; it’s part of the publicity that they have to do. You feel that instead of gradually discovering what it is they are doing they seem to have to have a thesis to begin with.”
By way of example, he offered a text written by American artist Jeff Koons to accompany his work Puppy [above], a vast sculpture formed from flowering plants belonging to the Guggenheim Bilbao in northern Spain. Reading aloud from Koons’ text, he told the Edinburgh audience that Puppy “helps you have a dialogue about the organic and the inorganic. It’s really about the issue of the baroque, where everything is negotiated. The different aspects of the eternal through biology. Whether you want to serve or be served, love or be loved, all these types of polarities come into play because Puppy sets them up.”
Barnes added: “To use the technical term of art criticism, it’s bollocks. I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel but sometimes fish need to be shot.”
I think Barnes is right - that these days the narrative (that is, the words) must come before the art. Furthermore, the assumption that words and theories must come first has infected not only art criticism but also art history. Hence the profusion of art guff even about works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
I recently went to a selling exhibition of works by a reasonably well known Scottish landscape artist. I won't embarrass him or his gallery by naming either here. The artist is in his eighties, and paints extraordinarily beautiful but straightforward landscapes.
In Constable's day, the honest and evocative rendering of landscape was seen as a Good Thing in itself. But now, as Barnes reflects, such pictures need 'narratives'. Sometimes, artists, especially those of an older generation, aren't especially good at drumming up the words beloved in art speak; these artists prefer simply to paint. And in such cases a wordsmith is often drafted in on their behalf; in this case the exhibition catalogue had an introduction by a well regarded, young art historian academic evidently steeped in contemporary artspeak.
I've no doubt that those fluent in artspeak understood what the academic was trying to say in the catalogue. But personally I couldn't figure out why the fine landscapes on display were about such things as 'subsiduary dualities', and 'dualities of the present'. I just about understood the bit about a 'deeply human connection' with the landscape, but wondered if human connections with landscapes - whatever they are - could ever be 'deep', or indeed rendered in a painted form.
To see if the artist himself (who was at the preview) understood his paintings in the manner described, I decided to ask him about one of the landscapes on display. And, charmingly, he told me all about the particular scene he had painted, when he did it, and how. I heard not a word about 'dualities', and was reminded of Turner's remark on Ruskin; 'he sees more in my pictures than I ever painted'. I appreciated the picture even more on hearing the artist's own interpretation, and bought it.
Update - Dr Matt Loder of the University of Essex tweets:
Steven Spielberg thinks Jaws is about a shark, Bendor. Artists are rarely the best people to ask about their work.
On which basis too much art history, as an academic discipline, has become what it has; a bullshitter's charter to impose upon a work or works of art whatever social, political or economic theory happens to be in fashion at the time, even though it may be impossible to base such a theory on contemporary evidence. I have no problem with people who go in for this sort of thing, and some of it is interesting and stimulating - at least in the sense that it poses questions. But it's not the way I see pictures, and I don't think it's the way artists painted them either.
New Liotard exhibition
July 12 2015
Picture: Shonbrunn Palace, Vienna
The new Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition here in Edinburgh, at the Scottish National Gallery, is extremely good - and well worth a trip if you can make it. That said, the show moves to the Royal Academy in the Autumn.
I blagged a trip to the press preview, where I pretty much had the place to myself. This was lucky, for the delicacy and stillness of Liotard's works, the majority of which are in pastel, is best appreciated in silence and space. When looking at Liotard's portrait of his daughter, above, I experienced one of those rare moments when my eye was momentarily fooled by the painting's exquisite realism; for a split second, I believed I was looking at an actual wooden doll. Then my brain caught up - nope, that's a painting. It's happened to me before with a Holbein.
Anyway, for mastering the then relatively new medium of pastel, Liotard ranks for me as one of the great geniuses of painting. To see so many works together in one place and in good condition was a treat. He could also paint in oil - though the portraits on show reveal a hesitancy and adherence to convention one doesn't see in his pastels - and he was good at portrait miniatures too, as a fine pair of Charles Edward Stuart and Henry Benedict Stuart (below) show.
I was glad to see the below portrait of the Countess of Northampton on display as a work fully catalogued as by Liotard. It had recently been sold at Christie's in New York as 'attributed to Liotard' for the relative bargain price of $242,500. The picture had been rejected by the authors of the 2008 catalogue raisonné, but was considered an autograph work by the great pastel connoisseur, Neil Jeffares. For what it's worth, I saw the picture at the sale and thought then that it was 'right'. It now belongs to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth - a good buy, for a not dissimilar and fully catalogued Liotard made almost £1.2m in Paris in 2012.
The show is in Edinburgh till 13th September. There is an excellent catalogue, available here.
Blockbuster exhibitions - what's the point?
July 12 2015
The Royal Academy's announcement of a new exhibition next year called Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse has prompted a new round of angst about blockbuster exhibitions. Another Monet exhibition, went the cry?
Here is The Guardian's Jonathan Jones:
This week the Royal Academy’s announcement of its January 2016 blockbuster Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse was greeted with groans. What, more Monet? The editor of the Burlington magazine confessed a “fatigue” with the same famous names being trotted out again and again because they “draw people in”.
Personally, I can take a lot on Monet – what’s not to like about his shimmering contemplative bottomless water garden? – but the really irksome thing about the way our big museums and galleries now operate is right there in the dates. This exhibition opens next January. Why is it even news six months in advance? Why the press breakfasts, pumped-up interviews and remorseless cavalcade of advance publicity?
And here in The Times, is more from Burlington Magazine editor Richard Shone :
Art historians suggest the academy is in thrall to the artist’s power to pull in audiences and there is a danger of “Monet fatigue”. Richard Shone, editor of The Burlington Magazine, says there is a hint of desperation about the show.
“I think there is some fatigue with Monet,” he says. “It’s a name that exhibition organisers almost automatically put on to a title even if the artist is hardly represented. It’s the same with Caravaggio. It just draws people in.
“It does seem a little late in the day for the Royal Academy to be doing this. It’s coming at the end of many Monet shows. I think they’re a bit desperate for their historical shows. Getting these works costs a fortune, but it does put money in the coffers of the RA, which has no government grant. But it’s going a little far.”
Shone, albeit perhaps reluctantly, points out just why the RA (and other institutions) indulge in the crime of putting on exhibitions people are actually keen to see - because they pay the bills, and bring in the funding needed to put on less popular but more academic shows. I see nothing wrong with that; indeed, I applaud it.
Here is the RA's blurb for the show:
In January 2016, the Royal Academy of Arts will present Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, a major exhibition examining the role of gardens in the paintings of Claude Monet and his contemporaries. With Monet as the starting point, the exhibition will span the early 1860s to the 1920s, a period of tremendous social change and innovation in the arts, and will include Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Avant-Garde artists of the early twentieth century. It will bring together over 120 works, from public institutions and private collections across Europe and the USA, including 35 paintings by Monet alongside rarely seen masterpieces by Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt and Wassily Kandinsky.
Re-assembling Charles I's art collection
June 29 2015
Here's an exhibition I can hardly wait for: the Royal Academy will, in 2018, bring together a large number of works from the former collection of Charles I. Although many pictures were brought back into the royal collection by Charles II - after the great Commonwealth sale of the collection in 1649 - a large number of works escaped overseas, and these are the ones the RA (working with the Royal Collection Trust) hopes to bring back.
Another little-known loss to the royal collection came in the late 17th Century, when William III took a stack of pictures with him to Holland, to furnish his palace at Het Loo. The British government tried to get them back after William's death, but the Dutch resisted. Eventually some of them were even sold, after the Dutch government ran into financial trouble.
More on the 2018 show here, where the Surveyor of the Queen's pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, discusses the show's aims in further detail.
A trip to Antwerp
June 26 2015
I was in Antwerp last week, and took the time to hunt out Van Dyck's birthplace, which is thought to be no. 4 on the Grotemarkt. In Van Dyck's day it was called 'Den Berendans', or 'the Bear Dance'. Today, the house is rather a sad sight - there's a rusting plaque declaring that Van Dyck was indeed born there, but the place itself is empty, having been a tea room by the look of it. Next door is the 'Pizzeria Antonio', which must be where the great man went for his Friday night takeaway.
In fact, no. 4 Grotemarkt is available to rent, if anyone fancies turning the place into a 'Van Dyck-huis', rather like the excellent Rubenshuis museum just down the road. If I was a billionaire, that's what I'd do.
Talking of the Rubenshuis, I went to have another look at the really excellent Rubens in Private exhibition. It closes on 28th June, so you have two days left to go and see it. I particularly enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of Van Dyck's portrait of Rubens' first wife, Isabella Brant, and Rubens' own portrait of her. In the below snap, you can see Van Dyck's portrait on the left, and just in the distance in the next room, Rubens' portrait.
For me, Van Dyck will always be the better portraitist, for when you encounter a Van Dyck portrait you get the sense of truly individual human character. He (usually) resists the temptation to stick to a formulaic way of constructing heads, as so many portraitists do - in England, the likes of Lely and Kneller are obvious examples of artists who, it can feel, barely bothered to look at the person they were tasked with painting. Sometimes, it must be said, one does sense this towards the end of Van Dyck's career in England, when he was beginning to churn portraits out with the help of assistants - but it's rare.
Rubens, who was not fond of painting portraits, doesn't fall into this trap either, but can sometimes seem to produce works that border on the caricature - are they real people, we wonder? But the flipside of Rubens' approach is that his portraits are often full of character, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of verisimilitude, an age old problem for the portraitist. And in Rubens' portrait of Isabella Brant (below)* we see an example of a great artist painting a portrait that conveys both character and likeness to an almost perfect degree. In Van Dyck's portrait we feel confident to say 'this is what Isabella Brant looked like'. But in Rubens' portrait we can just as confidently say, 'this is what Isabella Brant was like'.
*I'm not entirely sure that hand is by Rubens by the way, could be an addition.
New Samuel Pepys exhibition
June 15 2015
I think Samuel Pepys' diary would be the one book I'd take to the desert island - perfect for dipping in and out of, and always amusing. So I'm glad to see there's a new Samuel Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, opening on 20th November 2015, until 28th March 2016. Here's the bumf:
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution opening at the National Maritime Museum on 20 November 2015 will be the largest ever exhibition about the famous diarist with 200 objects from national and international museums, galleries and private collections.
Pepys, one of the most colourful and appealing characters of the 17th-century, witnessed many of the great events that shaped Stuart Britain, bringing them brilliantly to life in his famous and candid diary. He lived through a time of turmoil which saw kings fighting for their crowns, and medieval London transformed into a world city following the devastation of the plague and the destruction of the Great Fire. He was a naval mastermind, a gossip and socialite, a lover of music, theatre, fine living and women. He fought for survival on the operating table and in the cut-throat world of public life and politics, successfully navigating his way to wealth and status until his luck, intimately entwined with the King’s fortunes, finally ran out.
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution places this fascinating and multifaceted figure within a broader historical context, beginning at the moment a schoolboy Pepys played truant to witness the execution of King Charles I in 1649. It explores the turbulent times which followed, including the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 in a year of personal crisis for Pepys as he underwent a life-threatening operation to remove a bladder stone the size of a snooker ball without anaesthetic or antiseptic. He was fortunate to survive the ordeal; his recovery perhaps, in part, due to being the first on the operating table that day, reducing the risk of infection. The grisly and extremely painful procedure is graphically brought to life by 17th-century medical instruments (Royal College of Physicians).
Pepys began his now-famous diary on 1 January 1660 and was on board the ship that carried Charles II out of exile at the restoration of the monarchy later that year. He met and conversed with the King and his brother, James, Duke of York (later James II), who promised Pepys ‘his future favour’. In the diary he records his disapproval of the debauchery at court during Charles II’s reign, including the King’s many mistresses. But Pepys himself was frequently unfaithful to his wife. The exhibition will display the famous Portrait of Charles II in Coronation Robes (Royal Collection), as well as objects connected to his mistresses including one of his love letters to Louise de Kéroualle which uses her nickname ‘Fubbs’, meaning chubby (Goodwood Collection).
During his lifetime Pepys was best known for his important work in running the naval affairs of England, a career that propelled him towards wealth and power and the creation of a truly ‘professional’ navy. His work also took him to the English colony of Tangier, a place notorious for drunkenness and immorality, all of which he observed and noted in his writings.
The penultimate section of Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution looks at the dawn of the scientific revolution. Pepys was president of the Royal Society when Newton’s Principia Mathematica (Royal Society) was published, placing him at the centre of scientific debate. Publications like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (British Library), which Pepys thought ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’, made unseen worlds of lice and fleas visible. While the matters discussed at the Society interested him, he confessed not always to understand what he heard.
The exhibition ends with extraordinary events of the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of Pepys’s great patron, James II. It shows how intimately Pepys’s own career was intertwined with larger national events outside his control. With the accession of William and Mary in 1689, Pepys stepped down from office and began an active retirement, indulging his many passions.
Using the voice and personality of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution explores and interprets a remarkable time of great accomplishment, upheavals and excess. It was a formative era in British history that saw the repositioning of the monarchy and the development of Britain’s place as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage.
Art History ads (ctd.)
May 15 2015
I saw many plugs for the Rijksmuseum's 'Late Rembrandt' when in Amsterdam airport yesterday.
'Spot the fake' at Dulwich Picture Gallery (ctd.)
April 28 2015
Picture: BBC/Dulwich Art Gallery
In January, Dulwich Picture Gallery hung a fake painting in place of one of their masterpieces, and invited visitors to see if they could identify it. I thought it was a good idea - anything to encourage close-looking. Now they've revealed which picture the fake was; Fragonard's Young Woman. More here.
The lure of the blockbuster
April 21 2015
I love a blockbuster exhibition, and I love smaller offbeat ones too. Many bemoan the prevalence of the former these days, but as Charles Saumarez Smith points out in The Art Newspaper,* blockbusters have always been with us. Do read the full article, which looks at the history of the blockbuster from the 19th Century in Britain. But Charles focuses onto his experience of such shows at the Royal Academy, of which he is Chief Executive:
In the past two decades, our most successful exhibitions have been the two Monet shows held in 1990 and 1999, which attracted 7,003 and 8,597 visitors a day respectively. The Van Gogh exhibition in 2010 drew 4,785 visitors a day; David Hockney in 2012 drew an average of 7,512 a day; and “Manet: Portraying Life” in 2013 drew 4,359 a day.
What conclusions can one draw from a historical analysis of exhibition numbers? Statistically, exhibitions by the Impressionists have always come top, not just in Britain and the US, but most of all in Japan. The Pre-Raphaelites are also popular, as was evident when we exhibited Waterhouse in 2009, and when Tate Britain showed “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” in 2012. In recent years, we have demonstrated that contemporary artists can be as popular as the Impressionists. The Hockney exhibition was a mass cultural phenomenon, not only in London but also, more surprisingly, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, wh ere the show again got more than 500,000 visitors in a city with a population of only one million.
While we study our visitor numbers, and have to, this does not preclude trying to ensure a varied exhibition programme. We try to develop a portfolio of exhibitions in which the more commercial shows subsidise the loss-leaders. This year, “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” drew 167,906 visitors; an average of 2,332 a day. Anselm Kiefer drew 184,910; an average of 2,341 a day. What the bald numbers disguise is that both were particularly successful in drawing new visitors to the Royal Academy.
*which has a zippy new website - looks nice.
Re-uniting Rubens three Magi
March 24 2015
Picture: NGA Washington
It's all go for Rubens at the moment. In Washington DC, the National Gallery has re-united Rubens' three c.1618 Magi paintings. There's a good online exhibition site here.
Reynolds exhibition at the Wallace Collection
March 13 2015
Picture: Wallace Collection
There's what looks like a great new exhibition at the Wallace Collection on Joshua Reynolds. The approach is refreshingly old-fashioned, for it looks at what Reynolds did, and how he did it:
This exhibition offers a snapshot of Joshua Reynolds’s creative process, and reveals discoveries made during a four-year research project into the outstanding collection of his works at the Wallace Collection. We have selected not only significant portraits but lesser known ‘fancy pictures’ and a rare history painting, all of which will be shown side by side. Among the works on display will be famous pictures such as Nelly O’Brien, Mrs Abington as Miss Prue and Reynolds’s own Self Portrait Shading the Eyes.
By focusing on the themes of experimentation and innovation, we trace Reynolds’s working practice in two ways: on the material level, through his use of pigments and media; and on a conceptual level, through his development of composition and narrative. What emerges is a vision of Reynolds as a pioneering painter, highly original in his approaches to pictorial composition. This drive to innovation is exemplified in his ambitious allusions to the great masters of the past, such as Titian and Rembrandt and his obsessive tendency to rework and revise his images as he painted.