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.

Overpainting, conspiratorial thinking, and mystery as the spice of love

Pieter De Hooch is perhaps best known for this painting.  But the National Gallery show entitled Close Examination — a show dedicated to identification of forgeries and alterations — discusses an interesting case of another painting of his, one otherwise easy to miss perhaps in the mass of Dutch genre scenes at the gallery:  this one, dated to about 1655:

It’s dull, nearly monochrome colors, undistinguished interior, and indifferent subject matter — A Man with Dead Birds, and Other Figures, in a Stable — serve as a kind of…  camouflage.  Only a custodian’s eye could be expected to dwell upon it at any length; but when doing so, it just might notice that the game have been painted in a manner somewhat different from the rest of the painting.  Inspired by precisely this observation, an x-ray of the picture revealed a mystery:  a ghostly image of an underpainting of a wounded man, lying parallel to the surface of the painting, with his knee bent:  in the original design, the man in the center of the picture was in fact dressing the wounded man’s knee.  At some later time, the wounded man was painted out; and covered up by game.

The exhibition notes suggest that the overpainting may have been done by Ignatius Van Regemorter, who purchased this painting at an auction in 1825.  Van Regemorter was a picture dealer and he is known to have thus “corrected” a number of old paintings in his possession in order to make them more marketable.

The mystery, to me, is how this particular change could have been expected to have done so:  the presence of the wounded man explains everything:  both the woman’s intense stare (his wife?  his sister?) and the menacing figure in the back (his co-conspirator?  his second?  a man at arms here to carry out an arrest?):  there is a tense drama here — rare — and striking — in a Dutch painting.  On the contrary, the change from wounded man to dead animals made the painting dull and — difficult to understand.  (What is the woman doing here?  And the man in the back?)  Was Van Regemorter seeking to dullify the picture in expectation of better sales as a result?

This mystery made a big impression on me.  One half of my brain — the Anglo-Saxon half — thought of the painting as a possible motif in some sort of crime mystery, the overpainting hiding a vital clue to solving the crime.  But my mind’s other half — the East European one — thought instantly of revolutions, assassins, anarchist plots.  In fact, several similar objects have once existed in my family’s archive:  portraits of armed men whose uniforms and insignia have been carefully painted out so as not to offend the victorious enemies; photographs of revolutionaries of 1863 cropped to cut off the flags so that the men might appear an ordinary hunting party.  Etc. We all knew just what was missing.  And, of course, the missing part was what the object in question was all about.

Raised in conspiracy, I am forever smelling hidden meanings and dark plots.  This frame of mind is useful:  I can for example decipher messages in modern Chinese art my Anglo-Saxon friends cannot.  I remember discussing Yellow Earth with some Anglo-Saxon Chinese scholars.  In it, there is a scene in which a man bicycles through a forest, hears strange, menacing noises, comes to a stop and looks around him in terror.  “What a superb scene”, gushed my Anglo-Saxon friends.  “Existential fears.  Mystery of the forest!”  “Nonsense”, I told them.  “Gulgag”.  (I.e. the noise was that of political-prisoner-slaves felling trees in the forest).  Raised on free speech and tell-it-how it is films, my interlocutors did not realize that under dictatorship some touchy subjects can only be talked about by way of metaphor; let alone know how to identify and interpret such a metaphor.

It could be said, perhaps, that bad government sharpens your wits; and that a couple centuries of fairly benign government has, on the contrary, dulled — simplified — the Anglo-Saxon mind.  Or, perhaps, I should say, it has made it virtuous: “Let your speech be yes, yes; no, no”, says the Gospel, and my Anglo-Saxon friends are, by and large, yes-yes-no-no people.  That is good for business and makes for a relatively problem free life.

But it makes for a damn boring love life:  how does one fall in love with a woman who does not know how to send sufficiently mixed messages so as to appear — mysterious?  Mysteries are really the great spice of life:  they make life interesting.  And unmysterious life obliges us to resort to lousy, flat substitutes — crime novels and crossword puzzles.

Check out the exhibition site for other examples of art mysteries:  a great play-ground for suspicious, convoluted minds.

Two out of five hundred ain’t bad

Willem van de Velde was the son of… Willem van de Velde. He learned his craft in his father’s shop. His father was a marinist and assumed that his son would be one, too. At first, young Willem, aspiring to make his own mark, rebelled and — experimented with cows and landscapes, before having to admit to himself that — well, it wasn’t going to work. With a sigh, perhaps, he went back to marinist painting.

He developed a trick — it’s called ship’s at reed in calm weather. Once he mastered the work, he could replicate it quickly and reliably. It sold well. There are literally hundreds of Willem Van de Velde ships at reed in calm weather. Most are adequate, competent, but fairly unexciting work. But a few are rather special.

There is one at the Wallace collection which I saw this morning, entitled Calm: Fishing Boats under Sail.  I shall try to photograph it next week as it is far better of the two.  And there is one at the National Gallery, called — a creative new direction for Willem — Dutch Vessels Inshore And Men Bathing.  You can view it on the Flash magnifier here.  Surely, the two paintings must appeal to all marinists for their extraordinarily successful representation of ephemeral natural phenomena:  light, reflections on water, mist, clouds, gradients of color in the sky, even if only those who have clocked up thousands of hours on their back staring at the sky — like yours truly — will realize just how exceptionally accurate his rendition of the clouds is.  But what must make these paintings striking to any painting connoisseur, even one who has never been to the sea-coast, is their breath-taking, Claude-like luminosity.

All painters’ work is uneven, some more, some less.  Most would be happy to have produced even two works of this caliber.

Above are three fragments of the Men Bathing.  Below — a tiny foretaste of the painting at Wallace.

The mysterious power of Pontormo

Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (possibly Carlo Neroni), by Pontormo, 1529.

This painting gave me a startle today. Holding my breath, I kept going back to see it again and again.

How unsurprised I was therefore to see that of all National Gallery paintings, this one alone cannot be be bought in reproduction — indeed, cannot even be viewed in magnification online.  The tiny view I quote here, is the only reproduction of it available online. The web gallery of art does not list it.

The old story.

Yet, Pontormo has always done this to me.  Today, every new Pontormo still does.  Other painters’ effect has worn off, but not his.  I can’t say wherein lies his power.  I can only say that he amazes, surprises and spellbinds me.  Something in Pontormo beggars belief.

Yet, my tastes, though marginal, are not entirely solitary:  after all, he is here, and not in some store-room, gathering dust.  Enough scholars write about Pontormo.  Bożena Fabiani, the Polish scholar, confesses in her regular radio essay on PR2, W stronę sztuki, that Pontormo has had similar effect on her:  a feeling of explicable, wonderful, surprising power.  She recalls how excited she was to learn that Pontormo had left us his diaries, how eagerly she searched for them, and — how deflated she was to read in them about his gastritis, and how so-and-so still owed him money, and not a word about his art.

This Pontormo — possibly only after Pontormo — does this to me, too.  This one is in the storerooms.  But it can be magnified, here.

The aesthetic of regret

“Frédéric”, his French friends asked Chopin, “what is this beautifully moving emotion which pervades all of your music?”

Żal“, he answered with a wan smile,”which is a uniquely Polish emotion”.

It isn’t: the Portuguese have it, too, and call it saudade.  And Japanese, also, who call it kokai.

The feeling — which all three nations hold to be the most moving of all, and the most poetic — is a kind of regret, but not the Anglo-Saxon regret of can-do action-men — regret that one has not seized an opportunity when he had had the chance; nor the Catholic regret — remorse is a better word perhaps — that one has done something which he should not have; but the regret that something has been lost, that the past is passed and never to be had again.  It is the quintessentially Japanese aesthetic of the falling cherry blossom:  all cherry blossoms are beautiful always, but they are most beautiful when they begin to fall.

The emotional keyboard theorist will tell you that people of all nations are equally capable of experiencing all the emotions of the human species — specific stimuli pressing the individual’s specific emotional keys, so to speak, in order to elicit specific emotional states — but  that in some cultures some emotions may be hyporecognized.  Hyporecognized means, basically, unnamed.  If there is no name for the feeling you experience, you may be unable to recognize it.  You may find yourself, like Frédéric’s French friends, wondering:  what on earth is happening to me?

We regretters often wonder why the English  or the French don’t have a word for żal — it seems such an obvious omission, rendering the two nations in our eyes unpoetic, unsubtle.  The explanation is perhaps historical:  neither nation has experienced The Fall — the dramatic decline of fortune which takes one from very high to very low within a generation.  Yes, the English and the French have lost their colonial empires; each has on occasion lost a war; but neither has in consequence been reduced to the status of a ridiculous, despised pauper the way Poland and Portugal and Japan have.

Those who had had a lot and lost everything have reasons to meditate on żal. The rest of you are free to get busy getting ahead in life.

My żal expertise was forged in Poland, honed in Japan, and aged in Portugal:  it is an especially sensitive detector.   Thanks to it I can find rather unexceptional works of art deeply moving — like this painting by Henri-Pierre Danloux, an ancien regime painter who found himself painting French refugees in London.  His last painting painted in France was this portrait of Baron Besenval, the last royal military commander of Paris whose inept command allowed the crowds to take the Bastille.  (His defenders say he was eager not to shoot civilians and worried about loyalty of his troops).  Arrested after the fall of the Republic he was put on trial and — spared only to die a year later in the safety of his bed.  A year before his death he had this portrait painted of himself.  In it he is seen with his Chinese celadon collection (encased in French ormolu):  as if gazing at a happier past, now irretrievably lost, never to be had again.

Godfried Schalken

Man offering a girl gold and coins, 1665-1670.

It’s tiny: 15.5 x 18.9 cm, the size of a Persian miniature. Schalcken trained in Gerrit Dou’s studio.

On the general unfaithfulness of reproduction

I had hoped the National Gallery’s Flash picture-viewer would prove itself ocularily faithful, but, at length, it did not. Above is a fragment of this — a picture by Gerritt Dou — he was a student of Rembrandt but decided not to imitate his master’s today much-admired sloppy finish — and not doing so paid off making him the economically most successful painter of his generation.  If you click on it you will see the outtake of the National Gallery object at its natural size (i.e. 1:1 scale).  (It is a pretty small picture).  Yet, if you do so, you still won’t see the amount of detail visible in the picture itself.  To get an idea of that detail you must see outtakes form the website Image in 2:1 scale.  Of which I give you three below.  (As always, remember to click on the picture to enlarge it).

An idea, I say, because even so, much detail is lost.

Still, check out this rabbit fur:

Or how about these pheasant feathers and down:

Or how about these goose-bumps?  Or the weaving in the sack-cloth?  Or the reflection in the tin bucket?

Benjamin was wrong — but also right: there is a problem with art in the age of reproduction, but the problem is not the issue of authenticity: it is the problem of faithfulness.

Geertgen Weird

Weird painting — extraterrestrial Madonna, mongoloid angels, beasts menacingly lurking in the dark — weird name, too. Geertgen who?  How did the know-it-alls miss this and come to pronounce this the best painting in the National Gallery?


A fragment of one of three panels of the Story of Griselda, once possibly part of a wall wainscoting, by — who else? — Anonymous.  (Here for the whole picture and here for the whole series).

One always suspects that the official pecking order of Italian Renaissance painters (e.g. “Raphael = great, Beccafumi = minor”, etc.) has more to do with what happens to be represented in the National Gallery collection than with any aesthetic facts of history:  after all, the National Gallery has been over the last two centuries the one place where the value-judging know-it alls spent most of their time and where they could look at art with (relatively) greatest ease.  Even if you spend a lot of time in Italy, the general unfriendliness of Italian museums and their inaccessibility does a great disservice to the artists to be found in their collections:  any artist overrepresented there and under-represented here is per force going to be less famous.

True, true, true.  But what a collection the National Gallery has!  Even the minor, unfamous, unsung works here are absolute masterpieces in every sense of the word.  Like this Griselda, say.

The Glory of Claude

This may not work where you browse from: last time I tried to look at National Gallery pages — from Asia — her images came stamped with an obnoxious machine-generated stamp saying “National Gallery” right through the center, an internet equivalent of a single-finger salute to the ingrate colonials. But give it a try all the same, for if it does work, it is well worth the surf: here the painting whose extract you see above can be seen in all its glorious detail (by using the enlarge control on the right).  And, if you happen to have one of those newfangled 4 x 6 foot screens, it can be seen in full.  (What a strong reason to go out and get one now).

Anyone who has ever lived by the sea, knows mornings like this:  hazy, hot, and so bright one has to avert his eyes.  Claude is the only painter who has ever managed to capture this atmospheric effect with such convincing verisimilitude:  one squints when gazing at this painting.