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]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2011


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