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Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

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art

The Lost Velazquez: Charles I, King & Collector.

… lost portrait of a king …

One of the most alluring images in the Charles I, King & Collector exhibition is the informal portrait of Philip IV by Velasquez. Charles never owned the picture – so why did the curators include it?

Dallas Philip IV

In 1623, when Prince Charles was 22, he was betrothed to the King of Spain’s sister. Negotiations over this alliance had begun to drag so Charles seized the initiative and travelled to Spain to win the Infanta over. The whole mission was a bit of an embarrassing disaster because diplomacy is never that simple but his informal embassy was the springboard for Charles’ passion for art collecting.

It was a court of young men. In 1623 King Philip IV was 18 and had already been king for two years. He entertains the older Charles for months in Madrid and even gives him a Titian to take home (Charles V with a Dog, 1533). In this same year, Velazquez who was only 24, is ordered to the city to try out as the new Court Painter. It is probable that he painted this quick and informal portrait of Philip to secure his position – and a close, successful relationship began between monarch and painter which lasted until Velazquez‘s death.

Intriguingly Velazquez also painted a portrait of Charles during this year. The closest image we have to what it may have looked like is this portrait from the studio of the Dutch painter, Daniel Mytens.  A fine work – but no Velazquez.

King Charles Prince Charles

Daniel Mytens was the principle painter at the Stuart court from the early 1620s to the mid 1630s. This portrait is a contemporary replica, probably painted in Mytens’ studio, as it was one of his most important early commissions.  It shows Charles I before he became King in 1625.*

How exciting would it be if the original Velazquez was discovered! A young man – on the brink of kingship – by one of the finest painters of the 17th century. In the 19th century, one man became obsessed with the idea that he had found it. His fascinating story is told by Laura Cumming in The Vanishing Man: In pursuit of Velazquez It wasn’t. Here’s a link to her article about it.

Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018. With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40.  A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.

Philip IV c.1623-24 (Meadows Museum, Dallas) Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

Charles I (when Prince of Wales) 1620s (Unknown) Contemporary copy after Daniel Mytens (c.1590–1647/48)

* Details from Philip Mould Fine Paintings.

 

 

 

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Neither Virgin nor Venus. Five Outstanding Women from Charles I, King & Collector.

… neither Virgin nor Venus …

Among all the Royal portraits and big dramatic pieces in this outstanding exhibition, there are some extremely fine images of women. The Academy rooms are teeming with spectators and the show has 140 works of art on view, so it pays to have an idea of what you are looking for. Here are five I wouldn’t want anyone to miss …

My advice would be to ignore the crowded first couple of rooms and make straight for Gallery VIII which holds pictures from “The Queen’s House” and take a look at this Head of a Woman (c.1630-35) by Orazio Gentileschi. It’s such an arresting work combining beauty and determination in a very penetrating stare – as her former owner said: “She’s no extra!” The painting sold to a private buyer in January 2018 for $1.8 million and there’s a brief Sotheby’s video about her here.

gentileschi royal collection

Then turn around and, diagonally opposite in the same room, is a painting by Orazio‘s daughter’s Artemisia Gentileschi called Allegory of Painting (c.1638-39). Artemisia joined her father and her brothers in London in 1638. Charles and Henrietta already owned at least three of Artemisia‘s paintings by then and she found steady employment here. Some suggest this is a self portrait though it is not listed as such in Court inventories and is perhaps instead a younger, more idealised version of her 46 year old self.  It is probably more a declaration of her remarkable status: as a practising and successful female artist at this time – an image of a working painter not a fanciful allegory.

allegory artist

Travelling back a hundred years to the court of Henry VIII, the next picture is a portrait of Anne Cresacre ( c.1526-27) by Hans Holbein. This piece of fragile wonderfulness can be found in the next room along, Gallery IX, “The Whitehall Cabinet.” Charles’ Cabinet in Whitehall Palace was a private space decorated with more personal items from his collection; the core of which he inherited from his older brother, Henry, including these a set of drawings by Holbein. These sketches were made for a large group portrait of Thomas More‘s family – since lost. Anne was a ward of More’s and became his daughter-in-law around this time. The exquisite delicacy of this chalk drawing is truly arresting. It might just be me … but there’s a resemblance to the actor Louise Brealey who played Molly Hooper in Sherlock in the slight frown about her lips.

429px-Anne_Cresacre_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

The next work executed about the same time but leagues apart in tone and handling. If there’s a Bronzino in a gallery I’m in front of it. The work is in “The Italian Renaissance” Gallery V and its understated elegance could be overlooked as there are Titians in the same room. There is some debate over whether Portrait of a Women in Green (c.1530-32) is actually a Bronzino or possibly a del Piombo or a Sarto. I have my doubts too – it’s not quite good enough but …. it could be a youthful work. Her direct gaze is typical of Bronzino’s portraits and she is an arresting example of a confident and self assured Renaissance woman.

57dd7149f6dd4a588560d207b212e009

The final painting in my selection is the Rembrandt. Again in any other exhibition, a work of this quality would be centre stage but again she is in a corner of Gallery IV, “The Northern Renaissance” and could easily be over looked. This Portrait of an Old Woman (c. 1627-29) is also called The Artist’s Mother as Rembrandt often used his mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, as a model at the beginning of his career. The painting is not a portrait but a tronie (a generic term for ‘face’). Such tronies move beyond imitation and become imaginative exercises using carefully chosen costume and dramatic illumination – a cross between a portrait and a historical painting. I was fascinated by the interplay between the lines on her face with the gorgeous lace and fabric detail, both picked out with a warm Northern European light. It is an amazing painting.

rembrandt portrait royal collection

So there you are: my top five paintings of women from Charles I, King and Collector. Which paintings caught your eye?

Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018.

With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40.  A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.

Head of a Woman c.1630-35 (Private Collection)  Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639)

Allegory of Painting c.1638-39 (Royal Collection) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3)

Anne Cresacre c.1526-27 (Royal Collection) Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

Portrait of a Women in Green c.1530-32 (Royal Collection) Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)

Portrait of an Old Woman c. 1627-29 (Royal Collection) Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Captain Gilbert Heathcote : William Owen

… brushstroke bravado …

Heathcliff Royal Navy Nelson

Why the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum doesn’t make more of this lush portrait, goodness only knows.

This is one of William Owen‘s finest portraits. He painted Captain Gilbert sometime between 1801-05 whilst he was in his mid-twenties and a dashing Naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars. The face is finely worked whilst the rest of the picture is a virtuoso demonstration of impressionistic paint handling. The loose brushwork of his gold braiding, epaulettes and buttons add a very glamorous swagger to the Captain.

heathcotesleeve

Born in Shropshire, William Owen was apprenticed to a coach painter and then sent to the Royal Academy School in 1791 when he was 22. Owen was a success and in 1810 he was appointed portrait painter to the Prince of Wales, later George IV;  however the prince never gave Owen a sitting and in 1813, when Owen was offered a knighthood, he declined. Whether out of exasperation or disappointment, I cannot find out.

In 1825 Owen died of accidental poisoning by an overdose of ‘Barclay’s Drops’, a heady mixture of aniseed, camphor and opium, after a chemist had mislabelled his bottles.

Portrait of Captain Gilbert Heathcote1802-5, (Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum) by William Owen (1769 – 1825).

 

 

Harry Potter: the History of Magic Exhibition : British Library

… showmanship, a dragon’s flower & curious composite creatures …
harry potter philosopher's stone

A History of Magic achieves the very difficult balancing act of displaying an intriguing collection of historical artefacts alongside JK Rowling‘s notes, sketches and illustrators’ works from the books. It is incredibly difficult to present a modern, imaginary world alongside objects from a time when magic was an accepted truth. The fun and knowing humour of the former can clash horridly against the simple sincerity of the latter. I am full of admiration for the lead curator, Julian Harrison, in achieving such a thoughtful exhibition. There is so much to see here that I have chosen three of my absolute favourites to highlight.

First of all, I cannot ignore – and neither can you – the amazing Ripley Scroll (detail above) which is worth the admission fee alone. It takes its name from George Ripley, an 15th century alchemist and is an astoundingly beautiful piece of showmanship – surely the 6m long scroll was not designed to be displayed in its entirely but rather unfurled slowly before some marvelling initiate? The fantastical detail and mysterious verses are a delight. There is no clear evidence that George actually designed the scroll but it is named after him because the work includes verse associated with the alchemist. There are actually about 23 copies in existence – all variations on a lost 15th century original. 

dragon arum thornton temple of floraThe second highlight for me was this magnificently doom laden portrait of the black Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) from Robert John Thornton‘s The Temple of Flora, 1799 – 1807. This Flora is the third part of a larger work entitled: New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus and the accompanying text is rather passionate and hot under the collar about this wonderful plant. It includes lines from Frances Arabella Rowden‘s A Poetical introduction to the study of botany : “So Vice allures with Virtue’s pleasing song, / And Charms her victims with a Siren’s tongue.” Thornton attempted to produce the most impressive botanical book ever; unfortunately lack of buyers meant the whole thing nearly bankrupted him.

But my absolute favourite in the exhibition is something much more personal and delightful which could very easily be missed because it is next to the show stopping dried Mermaid (actually a pairing of a monkey and a fish).

The object is a “Game Book“. It’s a C17th game of consequences where a series of flaps overlay a wonderful collection of mythical and real beasts: siren, manticore, lion, etc. to create composite creatures. With its wobbly handwriting and charming illustrations, the curators suggest it was made as a love token. One of the drawings is of a smart gentleman wearing a large ruff with cloak thrown over one shoulder – it would please me very much if this was a self portrait designed to woo his admiring lover …

mermaid siren syren

The show is a delight and I would suggest a couple of hours to look round and negotiate the crowded rooms.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at The British Library runs until 28 February 2018. Alas – all the tickets have now been sold. It will re-open in New York in October 2018.

To get a flavour of the exhibition you can always buy the official book of the exhibition from the British Library shop – informative and with good illustrations. Harry Potter: A History of Magic £25.00 (reduced from £30). Bloomsbury Publishing. Hardback. October 2017. Also available as an ebook. There’s also a BBC documentary about the exhibition that you can buy on DVD. For further details check out the Pottermore website.

 

Berthe Morisot : Édouard Manet

… sassy, confident and alive …

berthe_morisot_by_manet

How I love this portrait of Berthe Morisot! She looks sassy, confident and alive. It was painted by her friend, colleague and perhaps lover, Edouard Manet, in 1873 when she was 32 years old.

In 1868, the year they met, Edouard was eight years old than the 27 year old Berthe and he was already married. He joked in a letter to Fantin-Latour: “The young Morisot girls are charming. It’s annoying that they are not men…they could serve the cause of painting by each marrying a member of the French Academy & sowing discord in the camp of those dotards, though that would be asking for considerable self-sacrifice.”” * She married his brother, Eugene, in 1874 .

Berthe Morisot (January 14, 1841 – March 2, 1895) was a leading pioneer of Impressionism though her work and her influence lacks the attention of her peers because of the social context of her time and also the prejudices of later art criticism. She chose to use her maiden name and exhibited regularly alongside her more famous colleagues.  In 1890, Berthe Morisot confided in a notebook: “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked, for I know I’m worth as much as they.” **

morisotphoto

In fact her story is so intriguing, Berthe has taken over this post – which I thought was going to be about the painter, Manet. (Photo, c. 1870)

Portrait of Berthe Morisot1882, (Marmottan Monet museum) by Édouard Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883)

There is a very interesting and detailed blog about Berthe and her relationship with Manet at Julie Schauer’s Artventures.

The Marmottan Monet museum’s website is http://www.marmottan.fr/

* Jeffrey Meyers: The Impresionist Quartet: The Intimate genius of Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassat.

** Review by: Therese Dolan in Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994 – Winter, 1995), pp. 40-43 – Perspectives on Morisot by Teri J. Edelstein; Berthe Morisot by Anne Higonnet; Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women by Anne Higonnet.

 

 

Quince, cabbage, melon & cucumber: Juan Sanchez Cotan

… intriguing still life … 

still life bodegón melon quince cucumber

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602, (San Diego Museum of Art) by Juan Sánchez Cotán (June 25, 1560 – September 8, 1627) was a Spanish painter, now famous for being a pioneer of a Spanish form of still life painting which is also called bodegón.

The Spanish term bodega is a pretty movable term and can mean pantry, grocery, or cellar. In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life of food often arranged on a simple stone slab or sometimes in a kitchen. The quince and cabbage here show how food was often suspended to prolong its freshness rather than, as I first wondered, some sort of curious presentation technique. The simple images in Cotan’s work are often contrasted with the more opulent Northern European paintings of silverware and fresh flowers.

Soon after this was painted Cotán entered a Carthusian monastery and many historians have linked this spare representation to his later monastic and vegetarian life. However he painted bodegónes with dead animals including this one which is exactly the same arrangement with added dead birds: Still Life with Game Fowl, 1600/03, (the Art Institute of Chicago). Admittedly, the crowded alcove is not such a pleasing image.

spanish baroque still life

Talking about the first painting, Norman Bryson writes: “Absent from Cotán’s work is any conception of nourishment …”*  I agree that the clear light and the precise almost hyper realism of the food makes it less an appetising food stuff and more, perhaps to Cotán’s eyes, a wonder of God’s creation to be scientifically examined and recorded

Bryson also suggests: “What replaces their interest as sustenance is their interest as mathematical form.”* This seemed rather far fetched to me until, on rooting around a little, I found that the gradual curve has been compared to Archimedes’ hyperbola, suggesting that this painting could perhaps be understood as a geometric meditation for an educated class. Archimedes was first translated and published by the Italian Federico Commandino in 1565. This was followed by Luca Valerio’s De Centro Gravitatis in 1604 confirming a strong contemporary interest in spherical bodies that might be related to Cotán’s still-life experiments.**

Musing on spherical mathematics certainly isn’t my idea of fun, however it did remind me of another image, an intriguing miniature painted at the slightly earlier date of c1590-5 by Nicholas Hilliard of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam).

Henry_percy_hi

Nicknamed “The Wizard Earl” because of his interest in scientific experiments and his library, here Northumberland is seen in a garden with a serious book at his side and a mathematical puzzle of a sphere and feather behind him. So perhaps fancy maths was a thing at the turn of C17th?

* Bryson, Norman (2012). Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books.

** Taken from Juan Sanchez de Cotán, Quince, Melon and Cucumber. Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson.

 

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