Monet – The Gare St Lazare



Claude Monet: The Gare St Lazare: 1877

This picture is an urban Parisian scene rather than a rural view, but it is as much a landscape as Constable’s idyllic Suffolk countryside. Instead of the trees we see lampposts which lead the eye into the background. The sky is the roof of the engine shed, the clouds those of steam and smoke from the trains, and the people are reduced to anonymous shapes, without detail.

What Monet was trying to do was capture real life in the moment, a style known as “en plein air”. It was inspired by the new art of photography and ‘snapshots’ and made possible by technical advances – portable easels, small pre-stretched canvases and pre-mixed paints in tubes – that meant artists could work anywhere, painting what they saw before them rather than recreating the images in their studios. Although Monet did finish off or rework some of his paintings in his studio, what comes through from his Gare St Lazare series is this immediacy, with a very thick covering of paint and with the brushstrokes clearly visible. Continue reading “Monet – The Gare St Lazare”

Constable – Stratford Mill



John Constable: Stratford Mill: 1820

We think of Constable’s landscapes as classic images of the English countryside, almost ‘chocolate boxy’ they’ve been reproduced so often, but when they were painted they were thought of as radical and daring, every bit as innovative and untraditional as Turner.

This is Stratford Mill, one of six major paintings by Constable that show scenes from the River Stour in Suffolk, the most famous of which is probably the Hay Wain.

It’s a country scene. In the foreground there is an older man and a couple of children fishing, their rods leading our eye to the barge which is moored by the side of the river. That then leads us to a gate on the far side of the bank, and to the right of that through a gap in the trees we can see a house in the distance. Over on the left of the picture is Stratford Mill itself, the water gleaming on the mill wheel as it turns, and behind this a man has stopped his horse by the river for it to have a drink. Continue reading “Constable – Stratford Mill”

Drouais – Madame de Pompadour at her tambour frame



Francois-Hubert Drouais: Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame: 1763-4

This is Madame de Pompadour. Erstwhile mistress to Louis XV of France – renowned beauty, wit and patron of the arts.

The heavy silk curtain swirls around and its line is taken up in the rich white silk of her gown. Madame de Pompadour always had a keen eye for how she was presented, and the objects in this picture have been chosen to show her as a cultured and intelligent woman. There’s a mandolin on the floor on the right leaning against an artist’s portfolio – stressing her love of music and art; the books in the bookcase show her to be well read. She’s at work on a tambour screen – a type of embroidery – and looks almost matronly.

This representation of domesticity was a definite decision on her part, as she was probably the most powerful woman in France at this time. As well as being the King’s mistress she exercised a great deal of influence, with a big say in Royal patronage as well as in domestic and international policy. Continue reading “Drouais – Madame de Pompadour at her tambour frame”

Van Dyck – Equestrian Portrait of Charles I



Anthony van Dyck: Equestrian Portrait of Charles I: 1637-8

The first thing that strikes you about this painting is the sheer size of it – it’s 12′ by 9′ (that’s over three and a half metres tall by nearly 3 metres wide). It was done to impress – you would have seen this at the end of a long gallery, dominating the space – and the horizon line is at the level of the horse’s stirrup, which means we’re looking up at the King.

This is Charles I. He’s wearing armour – made at the Royal Armouries at Greenwich – and mounted on a huge horse. He’s carrying a baton, the traditional symbol of military command (think of Niccolo da Tolentino in the Uccello painting) and his servant on the right is about to hand the king a plumed helmet. Around his neck is a locket bearing the image of George and the Dragon, which identifies him as a Knight of the Order of the Garter. (Inside the locket was a portrait of his wife.) This then is the monarch as warrior king, effortlessly controlling his mount (and for that, read the nation), his eyes focussing on the future.

Continue reading “Van Dyck – Equestrian Portrait of Charles I”

Rembrandt – the Woman taken in Adultery



Rembrandt: The Woman Taken in Adultery: 1644

This is a religious painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn. It’s one of the foundation acquisitions of the Gallery, being part of the Angerstein collection that formed the basis of the National Gallery in 1824.

We see a scene taking place in a small part of a much larger canvas. A group of figures are picked out by a shaft of light, the central one being a woman in white, kneeling and tearful, her veil being lifted – a considerable insult to her – by an older man who is presenting the woman to Christ, the tall, simply dressed man standing at the top of the flight of stairs. Behind this group the building soars upwards with, on the right, what seems like a huge gold structure. Continue reading “Rembrandt – the Woman taken in Adultery”

Turner – the Fighting Temeraire



J M W Turner: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up: 1838

We see a magnificent sailing ship – brilliant white and gold, almost like a ghost ship – being towed by a small steam tugboat with smoke and flame pouring from its funnel. It’s sunset, with a fiery red sky reflected in the water, and a pale new moon rising in the top left hand corner.

This is the Temeraire, a ship that had fought as part of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, being towed to the docks at Rotherhithe on the Thames to be broken up.

Turner had witnessed this event one day when he was out on an excursion on the river, but his representation of it here has a great deal of artistic licence.

First, the Temeraire was by then just a hulk, stripped of her mast and everything of value. Turner has painted it as if it had just left Trafalgar, with the detail so fine you can make out individual windows and the ropes of the rigging. Second, the ship was being towed upriver, from east to west, so the sunset would not have been behind her.. Continue reading “Turner – the Fighting Temeraire”

Holbein – The Ambassadors



Hans Holbein: The Ambassadors: 1533

This is a picture full of meanings – some obvious, some hidden. We can see two gentlemen; on the left is Jean de Dintville, whom the French King had sent on a diplomatic mission to the court of Henry VIII. It was de Dintville who commissioned this painting to mark the visit to London of his friend Georges de Selves – the man on the right – in 1533.

Between them are a couple of shelves with all manner of objects on them – globes, musical and scientific instruments, books. And on the floor is a curious black and white “smudge”, that doesn’t seem to belong to the painting at all. Continue reading “Holbein – The Ambassadors”

Botticelli – Venus and Mars



Sandro Botticelli: Venus and Mars: about 1480-90

We’re back across the Alps to Florence for this painting, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. Venus, the god of Love, reclines on a red cushion watching her lover Mars, the god of War, as he sleeps on a pink blanket.

And it’s a deep, deep sleep. Not even one of the satyrs, the mischievous half child, half goat creatures, blowing a conch in his ear can wake him.

I think we can guess what’s just been taking place, and if you want any more hints, look at the satyrs carrying off Mars’s lance – pick the Freud out of that. But Botticelli is also making a broader point about love conquering all – make love, not war if you like. Mars is literally disarmed after the act of love, his armour, helmet and weapons carried away while he sleeps. Continue reading “Botticelli – Venus and Mars”

Margarito d’Arezzo – The Virgin and Child Enthroned

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes

 Margarito d’Arezzo – The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes. About 1263-64

This is one of the earliest pictures in the National Gallery, dating as it does from the later part of the 13th century. We can see the Virgin Mary seated on a throne decorated with lions’ heads, and Christ enthroned in the lap of Mary. They’re both within an oval shape, called a Mandorla, which represents the heavenly realm, and which also contains a couple of angels swinging incense burners. Around it are the symbols of the four evangelists – Matthew the angel, John the eagle, Mark the lion and Luke the bull. We then have eight panels in the earthly realm that contain scenes from the lives of various saints.

Continue reading “Margarito d’Arezzo – The Virgin and Child Enthroned”

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 “Van Gogh – Sunflowers”