Tag Archives: French

Highlights of the National Gallery – Part One

It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back.  One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London.  So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls.  It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them.  In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist.  Two Crabs one of these.  The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January  1889.  It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’.  The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws.  The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image.  This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home.  The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles.  Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this.  His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital.  It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.

As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23


Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG35

And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology.  Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her.  Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies.  It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image.  The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet.  It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee.  Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is.  Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life.  The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers.  This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies.  Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s.  His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot.  Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement.  The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing.  The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display.  However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation.  An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation.  The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 Bathers at Asnières 1884 Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3908 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG3908

This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it.  I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery.  Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye.  He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works.  Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light.  But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings.  Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground.  It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom.  The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority.  While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future.  He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy.  He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.

Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.


Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 The Rainbow: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’ 1883 Oil on wood, 15.5 x 24.5 cm Presented by Heinz Berggruen, 1995 NG6555 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6555

Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series.  I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.


The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9





One of the great treasures of London’s National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych.  The piece, made up of two oak panels hinged together, bearing images on both sides, represents the presentation of Richard II of England to the Virgin and Child.  This form, the diptych, was designed to be close, so as to allow portability.  The diptych would thus be carried with Richard on his travels, providing a movable focus for his prayer and personal devotion.  Though it is debatable whether the work was created by English or French artists, it stands as a stunning example of the International Gothic style, characterised by the depiction of the figures and drapery, as well as the treatment of the backgrounds.

The diptych is an undeniably beautiful piece, and couldn’t fail to catch the eye, but it becomes even more intriguing when viewed in the context of the life of its patron.  Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard II has unsurprisingly become the one that has shaped modern characterisations of him.  Though it is not without its inaccuracies, it does a good job of capturing Richard’s firm belief in the royal prerogative, and the literally divine right of kings.  The Wilton Diptych ties into this idea, depicting Richard being presented to the Virgin and Child by two earlier English kings who were recognised as saints, alongside his own patron saint, John the Baptist.  The left most saint is Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia from about 855 until his martyrdom in 869.  Having been defeated by the Viking, Edmund refused to renounce his Christian faith, for which he was executed by the still-pagan Vikings.  His story bears some unsettling similarities to Richard’s own eventual fate.  The middle saint is Edward the Confessor, king of the English from 1042 until his death in 1066.  His epithet summarises the view of him as pious and unworldly.  Opinion is divided as to whether he did much to earn this reputation during his lifetime, but a cult did develop around him after his death, resulting in his canonisation (probably for political reasons) by Pope Alexander III in 1161.  As king-saint, Edward the Confessor served as a model to which Richard II aspired.  Richard made his own coat of arms by impaling the arms of the kings of England with the mythical arms of Edward the Confessor (heraldry as such did not exist in that period).  These arms can be seen on the back of the Wilton Diptych.  So the diptych itself offers strong evidence for Richard’s personal identification with Edward the Confessor.

The diptych also points towards Richard’s general conviction in his divine right to rule.  Alongside his coat of arms, the back of the diptych also depicts a white hart wearing a golden collar and chain, Richard’s personal badge.  In its position on the back, it serves to denote Richard’s ownership of the diptych.  On the inside however it serves a more pointed purpose.  Richard wears a literal badge depicting it, as do all the assembled angels.  This is a very simple way of showing that Richard enjoys divine favour.  He is being presented to them by a selection of worthy and appropriate saints, but the Virgin, Child, and the Holy Court already know about and favour him.


The reversed Diptych – what one would see when the Diptych was closed

While it is by no means uncommon for a patron to be presented to the Virgin and Child in this way, such blatant side-taking is perhaps a little more unusual.  But this was a particularly key period in Richard’s reign.  Created at some point in the last four years of his reign, the Wilton Diptych dates from a period when Richard became increasingly autocratic, acting on personal dislikes, and seemingly taking revenge on aristocrats who had rebelled against him in earlier years of instability. He sought and increased control over the aristocracy, and cultivated a culture of close personal rule, which has by some been called a tyranny.  Breakdowns in relations with the French after the rise of Louis, Duke or Orleans, left the way open for the return of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, who brought a considerable force to bear against Richard, supposedly with the sole aim of regaining his patrimony, but clearly becoming a rallying point for those dissatisfied with Richard’s autocratic rule.  He eventually gained a surrender from Richard, who was later imprisoned, where he died in dubious circumstances, the most popular theory being that he starved to death in early 1400.

It is hard not to view the Wilton Diptych in the context of what we know about the rest of Richard’s life.  From one perspective, it reinforces the idea of a pious king wrongfully deposed.  However it can equally be related to a king convinced of his own divine right to rule and desirous of a majestic and lavish court dedicated to serving him.  It was in Richard’s reign that the word ‘majesty’ began to be used as a royal epithet, with ‘highness’ being replaced with ‘royal majesty’ or ‘high majesty’ (terms which are still used when referring to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II).  The diptych is equally lavish, making wide use of the most expensive pigments, gold and lapis lazuli, to create a vivid image.  But the expense of these materials is matched by the skill of the artists to create an even more impressive piece.  The figures are elongated in their proportions, suiting the latest continental trends, and carefully detailed naturalistic elements such as the flowers are used to create an appealing image.  The floral elements five the impression of the heavenly setting in which the Virgin and Child stand, as well as recalling the aesthetic of the most popular and impressive art form of the time, the tapestry.

The diptych gives some insight into the thoughts of a man increasingly obsessed with his own power, and yet perhaps feeling the need to reassure himself of its divine origin.  As he knelt before his diptych on his increasingly desperate travels, it must have served as some comfort to see the most Holy Virgin and Child literally welcoming him with open arms, and showing that, whatever his aristocrats might think, they most certainly were on side his.  Even it is was only in an image of his own making.

The National Gallery’s entry on the painting can be found here.


All images sourced from Wikicommons.