Monthly Archives: March 2015

Van Gogh – Sunflowers




Sunflowers: Vincent van Gogh: 1888

This painting is probably very familiar to you, because it’s one of the most famous in the world. The postcard of this is the best-selling card in the National Gallery shop, and the floor here is the most scuffed in the gallery. Everyone wants to look at it.

A simple description might just be that it is a painting of 15 yellow flowers, in a yellow vase, against a yellow background, signed ‘Vincent’. So what gives the picture its power? Why is it so popular? Continue reading

Velazquez – Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver




Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver: Diego Velázquez: about 1631-2

This splendid figure, resplendent in a formal costume embroidered with silver thread, is Philip IV of Spain – ruler of an empire that, even though it was in decline, spanned the globe; it was the first empire of which it was said the sun never set.

Hanging on a chain around his neck we can see the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece, one of Catholic Europe’s highest orders of chivalry. His hands are gloved, and one is on his sword, the other holding a letter of some sort. The stiff collar he wears is called a golilla, which was invented by Philip himself and, not surprisingly, it became the height of fashion in the Spanish court.

Velazquez has captured a king sure of his power – an absolute monarch for whom image and formality were immensely important. He was said to be so impassive that he resembled a statue, and that he was only ever seen to laugh three times in his public life. Continue reading

Claude – Seaport with the Embarkation of St Ursula



Seaport with the embarkation of St Ursula: Claude: 1641

 We’re looking at an imaginary landscape, at a place that doesn’t exist. Some of the buildings are based on real buildings, but they’re being used here almost like set decoration, to provide a perfect composition.

The sun is just rising and bathes the scene in a wonderful early morning light., and the eye is led to the centre of the picture by the brightness of the sun and the lines of buildings on the left and of the ships on the right.

From the temple on the left come dozens of women, some with children, some carrying bows and arrows, and they are coming down the steps to get onto these small boats which will take them out to the ships in the harbour. In the foreground a group of sailors are loading up luggage, again to transfer it to the sailing ships. Continue reading

Raphael – Portrait of Pope Julius II



Raphael: Portrait of Pope Julius II: 1511

Here we’re looking at Pope Julius seated in a chair that is decorated with carvings of acorns. The painting has only three main colours – red, green and white – and a very plain background that puts all the attention on the sitter. He isn’t looking at us, but appears deep in thought, and, unusually for papal portraits, he is bearded.

In fact, if you had seen this picture for the first time in 1511 you might have been shocked. Until then portraits of popes had been idealised, typically kneeling in profile or square on, but this attempts to be a realistic portrayal. It’s from the period known as the high renaissance when artists aimed to capture the character of the sitter and represent some of their inner emotions. Look at how expressive his hands are – one is loosely holding a handkerchief, the other seems to be gripping the chair. Vasari said of this picture that it was so true to life it caused those who saw it “to tremble as if it was the living man himself”. This is a trendsetting piece of art as it established a style for ‘intimate’ papal portraits that was to last for over 200 years. It is believed that Raphael painted up to nine versions of the portrait – but this is now thought to be the ‘prime’ version and that the others are copies of this. Continue reading

Van Eyck – The Arnolfini Portrait



Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Portrait: 1434

While Uccello was experimenting with perspective in Italy, over in the Netherlands Van Eyck was surpassing him. We’re looking into a room, we can see the depth of it, with the lines of the floorboards leading us into the picture. The mirror reflects the room back at us, and Van Eyck uses light and shade to create the illusion of the figures and the objects being in three dimensions. It is a domestic scene – it appears to be a moment of real life with these two people and the objects that they own that has been captured for us.

A couple of other innovative features – it is a portrait, a new type of painting where individuals would commission a picture of themselves; and it’s the first we’ve seen today that uses oil paints rather than egg tempera. Oils dry more slowly and allow more subtle and deeper colours, and much greater detail; Van Eyck would build up thin layers of paint to distinguish the various textures and surfaces. On the woman’s green dress, you can virtually feel the weight and richness of the fabric, and on the dog you can see the individual hairs.

So who are we looking at, and what does this represent? Continue reading

Unknown artist – The Wilton Diptych



The Wilton Diptych: about 1395-1399

The previous picture was one of the earliest signed works in the National Gallery, in contrast the artist here is unknown – although we can see that they were someone of immense talent and craftsmanship. Look at the fine patterns in the gold background on the left hand side for example, or the exquisite detail in the angels’ wings and crowns of flowers. It’s painted on wooden panels using egg tempera – a type of paint that dries really quickly which makes it difficult to get gradations of colour, so the blues of the angels’ robes again show the artist’s skill.

A diptych is a painting in two parts, hinged so that it closes like a book. We’re looking at the inside of the ‘book’ here and can see that even after 600 years these images are wonderfully preserved and alive.

Continue reading