National Gallery

Ter Boch’s Bitch, Netcher’s hat, and other little things in Room 27

I keep going back to Room 27 (the one with the Dou and the Schalcken). So much playful surprise in the details here, such as Ter Boch’s bitch (in this painting):

(She also appears in Room 26):

Or Netcher’s hat:

which also appears here:

And while you are at it, check out Netcher’s soap bubble:

Or how about Codde’s little cat and mouse game?

It is a pity that I will never ever return here.

And wait till you see Room 28.

Paulus the Potty

In a crowded market developing a signature look helps business — a swoosh mark or slanty bars or whatever.  You can see this in Dutch painting, too:  some Dutch Masters specialized in nautilus cups, others in candle-lit interior scenes; some, like Weenix, set out to conquer a particular texture (rabbit fur in his case), or carnation petals (Huysum).  But Paulus Potter’s choice of cows seems more obsessive:  first, because there’s nothing especially cachet about cows.  It’s difficult to imagine Potter painted this for a hot market:

Second, because his rendition of the cows was too detailed and too labored to be just market-driven (he often repainted horns or position of legs — sometimes as often as seven times — before he finally settled on a particular look); I mean, just look at the mottled details of the hide:

the teary eye:

the soft underbelly, the tender nipple:

And third because — well, I think it’s easy to understand how one could become obsessed by cows:  these huge unbelievably stupid breathing monstrosities, these towering mountains of food on legs.  I mean, just look at this:  the drama of this presentation surely beats almost every scene of crucifixion and resurrection ever painted in the western canon:

(A Hindu whom I walked through the galleries the other day froze in front of this painting, convinced it was religious and the bull some sort of prophetic savior figure.  She refused to believe me when I told her it wasn’t).

You should be convinced by now that Potter painted cows out of a deep, personal need.  You will therefore not be surprised to hear that in his very short life he did nothing but paint cows:  he died of tuberculosis at the age of 28; yet, over one hundred cow paintings by his hand survive. Which makes several hundred individual cows.

One of London’s small saving graces

Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and
Saints Edward and Edmund (‘The Wilton Diptych’),
Anonymous, ca. 1395, egg on oak, 53 x 37 cm, National Gallery

If I were condemned to serve time in this frustrating, joyless city, the daily lectures at the National Gallery would be one of the few things I’d use to sweeten my sentence.  Such as the one I attended recently on the topic of the Wilton Diptych.  The lecture covered the provenance (of which we know nothing except that before it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1928 it was in the Wilton Hall of the Dukes of Pembroke), the iconography — the two less familiar saints on the left are the two English Edmunds — the Martyr (with arrow) and the Confessor (with ring), and some details of workmanship, which, even at the maximum magnification of the National Gallery’s Flash viewer are not visible, such as, for example, that much of the visible gold has been stippled (covered with gold leaf, then varnished, then chiseled with the stipple — a tiny-point chisel: every blow makes a tiny, round impression which looks like a minute nail-head).  Thus, the Infant’s halo contains within it — stippled, i.e. drawn using lines made up of separate tiny points — the instruments of the passion:  the crown of thorns and three nails.  You can just barely make the outlines of their shapes in the online version (below) at the 9, 12 and 3 o’clock positions of the halo:

Stippling is a demanding technique:  not only does the artist have to have good eyes but also a steady hand:  the gold leaf is about 1 micron thick, hammer the stipple just a tad too hard and you tear the gold-leaf and — ruin the whole job.  You can perhaps see the stippling a little better below:  the background design and the crown are drawn using small gold points — the dots made by the stipple.

What you cannot see above is that the jewels in the crown are three dimensional objects — congealed blobs of lead white.  (Really, NG, what is the point of giving us these impressive magnifications if they stop just short of perfection?)

The lecturer went on to discuss some design elements of the painting. For instance, here you may see Richard II, the sponsor of this painting, wearing a broach with a design of a white hart:  which he used as his personal emblem.

The same emblem can be seen on the king’s brocaded coat.  There, it is surrounded by a wreath of pea-pods — the same pea-pods which hang around his neck. The plant is broom cod — whose name in French may be the origin of the family designation:  Plantagenet (planta genista).  The same symbols are worn by the angels, of course:

Another possible heraldic design used in the painting may be this coat of arms on Endmund the Martyr’s coat:  its double bird — Imperial Two-headed eagle? — might perhaps reference Richard’s first wife, Ann of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, the Czech speaking Holy Roman emperor:

The lecturer then turned towards clues which may indicate the origin of the work — i.e the place of its manufacture.  The stippling, he said, was an Italian technique; so is the pose of folded arms seen in the angel standing to the right of Mary.  On the other hand, Mary’s pose looks Bohemian and the miniaturist technique used to paint the flowers on heaven’s lawn looks Northern French or Flemish:

And, to make things even more complicated, St John’s camel coat — complete with the camel’s head — looks English.  (As far as we know, only the English represented St John’s coat with the head still on it).  There, look, there is the head:

My favorite part of the whole painting is its reverse:  the King’s personal emblem of a White Hart.  The golden crown and golden chain around its neck suggest that it was not perhaps called a White Hart but rather a Rich Hart — i.e. Richard.  The graceful animal rests on a bed of rosemary, which was Ann’s personal symbol.

Pretty cool stuff, eh?

After the lecture I dropped in on the exhibition on identification of fakes again, checked out some books at the bookshop, and then took the murderous bus trip back home — a bloody hour in stop-and-go traffic in a stuffy, crowded, un-airconditioned bus.  And I live downtown!  How do most of these people hack it — who commute from places 20 or 30 miles away?  To make, like our lecturer today, less than 38,000 GBP pretax a year?  Can life in London, and the income one makes it, possibly be worth the pain of being here?

A few days ago I asked a nice pianist I met — all too briefly because he had to leave early enough to catch last train home (and it was well before midnight) — why he lives in London.  “For the same reason, he explained, why I am a pianist”.  Oh?  I said:  can living in London possibly be a vocation?  Or a passion?  No, no, he said, there is so much to enjoy culturally here.  Yes, quite:  except he does not go to National Gallery lectures, for instance; because life in London, while it offers the possibility of that pleasure, denies him the time to enjoy it.  What is the good of immense cultural riches when one just can’t use them?

My guess is that my pianist friend lives here on account of his thrownness.

(Clau: Didn’t observe any sleepers… on the other hand… can’t say anyone there lived up to Chris’ girl on the train standard, either).

A high renaissance murder mystery

Sometime in early 1930s, the National Gallery purchased this strange object.  It appears to be two vertical panels — perhaps once small doors of some object — now remounted in red velvet to make a comic-book-page-like picture of four.  What the original object was we are not told — perhaps it was something analogous to the renaissance portable altar.  As the story represented in it is one of a hopeless lover (Damon, hopelessly in love with  Amaryllis) — did the “altar” contain the portrait of the sponsor/ hopeless lover’s love?  If so, I wonder:  did it work?  Would any woman be able to resist a man who went to such lengths to declare his love for her?  Probably not — we’re all here precisely because, in the end, women must turn out unable to resist; but for poetry’s sake one hopes she did:  successful lovers are not as attractive as hopeless ones.

The Gallery paid 14,000 pounds for the painting — an equivalent of today’s 3.9 million American dollars in gold — a huge sum even by today’s inflated standards.  They paid it because at the time the work was thought to be Giorgione’s, but only the following year a scholarly reattribution was published, identifying the author as Andrea Previtali.  The reattribution, still accepted today, knocked out a huge hole in the valuation and a huge brouhaha followed — waste of nation’s money!  Though just why it should, I don’t know:  there are no deaccessions at the National Gallery; as its holdings will never be liquidated for profit (or loss) what does it matter what price the museum pays?  Think about it, anything that is forever must, by definition, be priceless because even a ha-penny multiplied by infinity is infinity itself.  Besides, surely, if a painting is good enough to be a Giorgione, it must certainly be good enough to command a Giorgione-like price?  (If not, why not?)

What interests me in this painting — other than the fact that it is perfectly respectable — one of the better paintings in the miniaturist genre — indeed, one of the best Previtalis anywhere (if, indeed, it is one), is that it is just possibly another crime-mystery clue.  I mean, take a look above:  there is Damon committing suicide — in the mountains.  And here — his bloodied body is discovered — by the sea.

Has someone moved the corpse?  Why?  Or was it perhaps not really a suicide?  I have the hunch that a careful analysis of evidence just might reveal multiple stab wounds; some perhaps where the shepherd could not have stabbed himself (like his back); and that — the ship at sea above will turn out to be the murderer’s get-away vehicle.

In praise of sfumato (2)

Not Leo(nardo).  Lui(ni). Here.

You have to see it face to face to notice why it has been relagated to the “after Luini” status — and banished to the infamous Room A:  St Catherine’s right hand:

OK. So the wrist is unnaturally bent, and the thumb and index finger look wrong. Would you want to call this “After Caravaggio” because the right hand of the apostle on the right has gone pear-shaped? I mean… this is the best Luini ever.

If it is one.