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Saturday, 20 June 2015

Our pick of iconic portraits to see in London this summer

Inspired by the fantastic exhibitions dedicated to portraiture that we have enjoyed this year so far, including Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery, Self at Turner Contemporary and the BP Portrait Award, an annual favourite that is currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery, here is our round-up of the much-loved portraits that London’s galleries have on offer:

‘Self-portrait with two circles’, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Kenwood House.

‘Self-portrait with two circles’, Rembrandt Van Rijn, c.1665-9 © English Heritage

Considered one of the world's greatest masterpieces and Rembrandt's definitive self-portrait, this powerful painting depicts the artist in his later life, in a meditative space, weighed down by artistic knowledge and melancholy. Following the death of his wife Saskia and three of their children, Rembrandt became bankrupt. In 1663, his mistress Hendrickje also died. Noticeably more solemn than his earlier self-portraits, Rembrandt depicts himself alone and impoverished in his studio, wearing a fur-trimmed gown and white linen cap, holding the tools of his trade that symbolise his unwavering creativity- a palette, brushes and mahlstick. The two circles drawn on the wall behind him are enigmatic, what do they represent? A sketch for a map of the world? Or an allusion to the first drawing made with a stick in sand? 

‘The Arnolfini Portrait', Jan Van Eyck, The National Gallery. 

‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, Jan Van Eyck, 1434, © The National Gallery, London

This portrait depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a member of a merchant family from Lucca, and his wife in a luxurious interior. It has been suggested that Giovanni’s wife is pregnant, although her full-skirted dress conforms to contemporary fashion. Van Eyck has playfully inscribed the painting with an ornate Latin signature that reads, ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.’ The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway and it is often assumed that one may be Van Eyck himself, who raises his hand in greeting. Van Eyck’s preoccupation with the effects of light is evident in his subtle depiction of the glistening brass chandelier. 

‘The Ambassadors’, Hans Holbein the Younger, The National Gallery.

‘The Ambassadors, ‘ Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, © The National Gallery, London

This double portrait depicts Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England in 1533 and his friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur and ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. These wealthy and accomplished young men are surrounded by books and instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time, including a celestial globe, sundial, lute, a case of flutes and hymn book. Certain details in the painting can also be seen as religious symbols, such as the broken lute string, possibly referencing religious tumult and the Lutheran hymn book, which may be an appeal for Christian harmony. In the foreground is a distorted image of a skill – a memento mori and mark of mortality. 

‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I ‘, Anthony Van Dyck, The National Gallery.

‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I ‘, Anthony Van Dyck, c.1637, © The National Gallery, London  

Van Dyck became King Charles’s court painter in 1632, following his succession to the throne as King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1625. Van Dyck’s portraits of the King affirm his belief in his divine right to govern. Charles I is depicted wearing a medallion of a Garter Sovereign, dressed in armour and holding a commander’s baton. The majestic horse, opulent saddlecloth and page boy holding a helmet reinforce the King’s elegance. This painting was created not long before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, which led to the King’s execution in 1649. 

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, Thomas Gainsborough, The National Gallery. 

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750, © The National Gallery, London

This double portrait is considered one of Gainsborough’s early masterpieces, painted soon after the marriage of Robert Andrews of the Auberies and Frances Carter of Ballingdon House, near Sudbury. Both were from landowning families and it is believed that their fathers negotiated their marriage to consolidate their estates.

Mr and Mrs Andrews are depicted in a landscape that evokes Robert Andrew’s estate and the painting fits the convention of the conversation piece – a small-scale portrait that depicts two or more people outdoors. Mr Andrews holds a gun under his arm and his wife sits on an elegant Rococo style bench.  It is assumed that Mrs Andrews’s unfinished lap signifies a future pregnancy – their eldest son was born the following year. The dominance of the landscape emphasises Gainsborough’s skillful naturalism and particularly his depiction of the changing weather. 

‘Study of Mme Gautreau’, John Singer Sargent, Tate Britain. 

‘Study of Mme Gautreau’, John Singer Sargent, c. 1884, Tate Britain, © Tate

The finished version of this iconic portrait, which depicts Parisian socialist Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, Madame X, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but the full-size sketch is on display at Tate Britain. Madame X was the American wife of a French banker living in Paris. When the painting was shown at the 1884 Salon in Paris, Madame X’s unconventional pose and dress, which highlights her sharp profile and exposed shoulders, was deemed provocative and caused public outcry. Her mother requested that the painting was removed from the exhibition and its controversy was so damaging to Sargent’s reputation that he relocated to Britain.

‘Self- portrait with Bandaged Ear’, Vincent Van Gogh, Courtauld Gallery.

‘Self- portrait with Bandaged Ear’, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery

What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest in my profession – is the portrait, the modern portrait. I seek it by way of colour, and am certainly not alone in seeking it this way…I would like to do portraits which would look like apparitions to people a century later. So I don’t try to do us by photographic resemblance but by our passionate expressions.’

‘I always feel confidence when doing portraits, knowing that that work is much more serious – that’s perhaps not the word- but rather is the thing that enables me to cultivate what’s best and most serious in me.’  

Van Gogh was a prolific portraitist and this seminal self-portrait was painted shortly after he returned home from hospital while living in Arles. Arles was home to his 'studio of the south', where he was joined by fellow painter Paul Gauguin. This turbulent relationship resulted in Van Gogh famously mutilating his ear and marked the end of his aspiration to create a society of like-minded artists. 

The self-portrait is particularly poignant in the history of art, illustrating the unique moment when the artist enjoys a rare sense of freedom a both subject and creator. Despite wearing an overcoat and hat, Van Gogh depicts himself in his studio. His somber facial expression and prominent bandage emphasise the significance of his injury and his acute awareness of his status as an artist. On the left is a blank canvas, an ambiguous symbol of either creative lack or artistic potential. The Japanese print on the right, which resembles an actual print that Van Gogh owned by Sato Torakiyo, highlights the important influence of Japanese art; similarly to Arles, Japan was an exotic place of escape in Van Gogh's imagination and this self-portrait encapsulates the two places. 

‘Girl with a White Dog’, Lucian Freud, Tate Britain. 
'Girl with a White Dog', Lucien Freud, 1950-1 © Tate
This portrait depicts Freud's first wife when she was pregnant. The linear style of the painting demonstrates the influence of nineteenth century French neoclassical painter, Ingres. This, combined with the psychological loneliness that pervades Freud's early work, led critic Herbert Read to label him as the 'Ingres of Existentialism.' The concept that human existence is both spiritually and physically painful was also shared by contemporaries including Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti.

‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’, David Hockney, Tate Britain.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’, 1970- 1, © David Hockney

This painting forms part of a series of large double portraits which Hockney started in 1968. Working from both photographs and life, the sitters are depicted in their homes. Hockney described the painting as one of his most naturalistic works. Although it is in part realistic, the style is also simplified; there is minimal detail and the composition has been flattened.

Placed either side of a large open window, ‘Mr and Mrs Clark’ are the dress designer Ozzie Clark and fabric designer Celia Birtwell. They married in 1969 and Hockney painted them in their flat in Notting Hill Gate. They are shown in their bedroom because Hockney liked the light. Hockney stated that his aim was to ‘achieve…the presence of two people in this room.’  Hockney faced the technical problem of achieving a balance between daylight and relative shade. Ozzie’s relaxed pose contrasts to Celia’s upright position. On her side of the composition is a vase of lilies, historically a symbol of purity. The cat that sits on Ozzie’s lap also holds symbolic value, signifying somebody who is indifferent to rules. This symbolism makes an interesting allusion to The Arnolfini Portrait, in which a dog at the couple’s feet exemplifies fidelity. 

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