05
Jan
11

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]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

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