Archive for January 5th, 2011


NGV Old Master Portraits: Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Bernini, Batoni

NGV - Van Dyck - Countess of SouthamptonMonday, 3 January 2011

NGV Old Master Portraits: Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Bernini, Batoni

Among the treasures of the National Gallery of Victoria are a number of remarkable Old Master Portraits. The Gallery’s collection policy did not favour portraits over other genres. Rather, it acquired representative portraits by those artists who were renowned and acknowledged specialist of the genre, and who were able to transcend the limitations of a mere likeness to create a work of art of universal appeal.

A number of portraits are rightfully considered masterpieces, and given the amount of literature that has been written on these works already, it is unnecessary to tire out the muse. It would suffice to mention albeit briefly the breath-taking portrait by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of Rachel, Countess of Southampton, floating on a cloud, with her hand resting on a glass sphere, her foot on a skull, with a drapery fold of her dress romantically flapping in the wind. Another remarkable work in the same category and of equal stature is Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) portrait of an unknown man, reputedly one of the last paintings by the artist. The work is dominated by the sober black of the sitter’s dress and the subdued tones of browns and reds in the background. A strong light source illuminates the face of the sitter, which is framed with a mane of white hair; his lively, penetrating eyes inquisitively gaze at the viewer.

NGV - Bernini - Cardinal de RichelieuThe National Gallery also must be proud to have a bronze version of the magnificent bust by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1589-1680) of Cardinal de Richelieu, of c.1640-41, the marble original of which is at the Louvre in Paris. Bernini is one of the most important sculptors of the Italian Baroque, best known for his multi-figure marble fountains which adorn Rome’s main squares, rising upwards in an unbroken spiral movement. He was also renowned for his marble portrait sculpture, and counted Pope Urban VIII among his most important patrons. The Pope is believed to have been behind the commission of Cardinal de Richelieu’s portrait (1585-1642). Richelieu was the chief minister of King Louis XIII of France and one of the most important and influential figures in French society and politics at the time. As the cardinal was unwilling to travel to Rome to sit to the sculptor, renowned painter Philippe de Champaigne was commissioned to execute a triple portrait of the Cardinal full face, in profile, and in a three quarter turn, which was sent to Rome, and on which Bernini based his portrait bust (de Champaigne’s portrait is preserved today at the National Portrait Gallery in London). Bernini expertly models the Cardinal’s distinctive face; effectively sculpts the folds of his clothing, and faithfully reproduces the Order of Saint-Espit on his chest.

NGV - Batoni - Sir Sampson Gideon and CompanionAnother important portrait which is infinitely worth mentioning is Pompeo Girolamo Batoni’s (1708-1787) Sir Sampson Gideon with an Unknown Companion, of 1767. Batoni’s career is remarkable not only for the number of outstanding paintings on religious, historical, and mythological subject matter, which encapsulate the spirit of the Italian baroque with the elements of Continental rococo, or the brilliant portraits of Popes, monarchs, and European aristocrats of the era, but also for the fact that he left one of the most complete iconographic records of British aristocracy and upper classes… without having ever set foot in England! His celebrity status was such that English aristocrats travelling to Italy on the Grand Tour considered their journey incomplete without a visit to Batoni’s studio and the obligatory sitting for a portrait from the hand of the great Italian master.

The portrait in the National Gallery’s collection illustrates this tradition. Two upper-class gentlemen in brightly-coloured suits decorated with rich embroidery, wearing powdered wigs and sporting diamond-encrusted buckles on their shoes, are placed within a palatial interior and situated between the bust of Minevra on the table and the ruins of an ancient temple in the background, both indicative of the objects the British flocked to Italy to see on the Grand Tour. The young Sir Gideon shows his companion a portrait miniature of a lady, presumably of his betrothed in the distant homeland. The little dog on the left hand side, raising its head and paw in the direction of the miniature doubtlessly represents the male desire and the imminent nuptials of the main protagonist of the picture.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]


National Gallery of Victoria – European Old Masters [Part II]

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Towards Regency RoomsSunday, 2 January 2011

National Gallery of Victoria – European Old Masters [Part II]

The collection of the Old European Masters at the National Gallery of Victoria is excellently displayed through the several levels of the building, starting with Egyptian and Greco-Roman art on the ground floor; and moving onto the late Medieval and early Renaissance art on the mezzanine level. The bulk of the collection is displayed more or less chronologically anti-clockwise on the second level, beginning on the right-hand-side with the Dutch and Flemish art of the 16th to 18th centuries; followed by large-scale Italian and French art from the 17th to 18th Centuries, with 18th-Century British art displayed in-between. Smaller pieces of 18th Century British and French art are interspersed with displays of ceramics and glass; and there is also a small gallery of 16th to 18th Century Italian and Spanish art in a glass-lined tower on the second level in the middle of the former Myer Court. A narrow gallery over the Great Hall leads past the Robert Wilson collection of 18th and 19th Century porcelain and glass towards the Regency, Victorian, and Pre-Raphaelite rooms on the left-hand-side of the building.

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Portrait GalleryThe collection is therefore displayed more or less in a chronological order and is roughly divided into smaller groupings by national schools. Some incongruities within the installation do exist. For example, a visitor to the 17th Century Dutch galleries is greeted by a small display of 19th Century British and French art (including George Stubbs and Gustave Doré); the Dutch Collection has been further divided, with a number of portraits removed into the glass tower, which was formerly dedicated to Italian and Spanish art; and the Cornelius de Vos portrait, which was acquired a year or so ago with so much pomp and ceremony has now been rehung in the fashion and textile section where it is virtually invisible due to the low lighting and most appalling reflections from the entrance door.

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Regency RoomAbout ten or fifteen years ago, several international collections have attempted to replace chronological displays with thematic ones. We see echoes of it attempted sporadically within the National Gallery, too, where flower still lives by Dutch, French, and British artists have been grouped in the Dutch galleries or a small selection of portraits by Italian, Spanish, and (for some reasons) Dutch artists have been placed in the glass tower. Further examples involving landscapes or architectural interiors can also be cited, but the exercise does not seem to have been carried out with the full force of conviction, and the display continues to vacillate between the two curatorial modes.

The display of the permanent collection is not static, and changes roughly every six months to accommodate for works which departed the gallery’s walls for external or in-house exhibitions or for the recent additions to the collection. For example, the newly-acquired portraits of the Earl and Countess of Stradbroke by Sir William Beechey are the focal point of the Regency Room. The Victorian Room has been changed also, and rehung Salon-style, literally floor-to-ceiling, recreating the look and feel of not only how the art was displayed at the famous exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London or the Salon in Paris throughout the 18th and 19th century, but also how works of art were displayed in public and some of the most famous private art collections of the time.

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Victorian RoomWall plaques have been removed, and a gallery visitor is given instead a giant placard, which illustrates and lists all the works. While looking at this immense display, one has to be reminded that when most of these works were acquired by the National Gallery in the nineteenth century, these were indeed works of “contemporary art”, representing the major artistic and aesthetic trends of the mid-to-late 19th Century in Britain as well as on the Continent.

It is also within this room, that a visitor can see works by such non-British artists as Frenchmen Bastien-Lepage, Henner, and Meissonier (while works by Daumier, Delacroix, Ingres, and Millet are also present, these are all but minor works); Belgian Ary Scheffer; Swiss Arnold Böcklin; Czech Wenceslas Brozik; Norwegian Hans Gude; Greek Nicholas Gysis; Hungarian Paul Joanowitch; Austrian Guillaume Koller; German Bernhard Plockhorst; and the celebrated piece Anguish by Danish Augustus Schenk.

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Victorian Room[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]


National Gallery of Victoria – European Old Masters [Part I]

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation ViewSaturday, 1 January 2011

National Gallery of Victoria – European Old Masters [Part I]

With the Australian commercial art world in a state of slumber until late January / early February, those in a need of an art fix can always head to the public galleries. It almost became a tradition for me to begin every year with a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria.

The gallery was founded nearly 150 years ago for the edification and education of the colonial public, and was originally housed in the same building in Swanston Street, at the northern end of the city, as the State Library, National Museum, and National Art School of Victoria. It eventually moved out to its own premises just south of the CBD in St Kilda Road in 1968. The Australian collection acquired its own premises diagonally across the Yarra River in Federation Square in 2002.

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - 18th Century British ArtThe generous bequest from Alfred Felton in 1905 made the National Gallery of Victoria for a certain period of time one of the major players on the international art market. It especially helped the collection to grow between the two wars and during the economic depression, when it was able to buy with confidence and virtually unopposed important works coming out from the collections of the impoverished aristocracy and industrial magnates.

The National Gallery’s advisors were predominantly British, and its buying was likewise predominantly limited to the artworks that came up on the British art market. Therefore its collection of the Old Masters (i.e. artists working prior to the late 19th century) parallels the tastes and collecting trends that were prevalent on the shores of Albion from the 1850s onwards.

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - 17-18th Century Dutch ArtAs the result, the National Gallery of Victoria has a most splendid collection of British masters (Beechey, Constable, van Dyck (from his British period), Etty, Fuseli, Gainsborough, Hoppner, Kneller, Landseer, Raeburn, Ramsey, Reynolds, Romney, Stubbs, Turner, Wright of Derby, Zoffany, etc). The strength and diversity of its 16th to 18th century Dutch and Flemish collections reflect Britain’s perennial infatuation with those schools (ter Borch, Brueghel, van Eyck (school), Hobbema, Hondecoeter, Jordaens, de Keyser, Rembrandt, Rubens, Ruisdael, Steen, Teniers, de Vries, Wouwerman, etc). The almost obligatory “Grand Tours” of Europe by the British aristocracy and upper-middle-class collectors resulted in the development of a taste for Italian masters, who are also gloriously and prolifically represented in the collection (Batoni, Bellotto, Bernini, Canaletto, Carraci, Giordano, Guardi, Ricci (now believed to be a Tiepolo), Strozzi, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Veronese, etc).

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Medieval & Early RenaissanceThe appreciation of French and Spanish schools was a later development on the British Isles, and as the result the National Gallery has a relatively meagre representation of those schools (Spaniards are limited to a very poor El Greco, Mor, and Murillo of questionable authenticity; French ‘Old Masters’ are represented by Boucher, Claude Lorraine, Largilliere, Perronneau, Poussin, Rigaud, and a copy of a Watteau, although the holdings of French art picks up significantly with the nineteenth century, of which later). Likewise, Continental artists working in countries other than those of North-Western Europe or Italy are virtually absent from this collection (and are in fact limited to a few Russian icons; a couple of works by the Swede Roslin, and by the early Germans Cranach and Memling).

National Gallery of Victoria - Installation View - Italian ArtNevertheless, the works by the above-listed ‘household name’ artists are quite impressive; many of them are represented by a ‘signature’ piece from an important period of their career. As such, the display of the permanent collection of the European Old Masters at the National Gallery of Victoria is always worth a visit to remind one of the veritable treasures contained within (as well as a welcome escape into an air-conditioned comfort from Melbourne’s unpredictable summer weather).

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2011
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