commission portrait artist logo

Friday, 31 July 2015

Round-up of our favourite paintings in London and Paris

From masterpieces by the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Battista Moroni to French Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte, our Gallery Manager Rosie picks a selection of her favourite paintings:

Jan Van Eyck, 'The Arnolfini Portrait', 1434 © The National Gallery, London
This iconic double portrait depicts Giovannni 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.' 

Giovanni  Battista Moroni,  'The Tailor', 1565-70 © The National Gallery, London

Giovanni Battista Moroni was one of the greatest portraitists of 16th century Italy, widely respected for his skilful depiction of exact likeness and psychological depth. 
Peter Paul Rubens, 'A Lion Hunt'. 1614-15 © The National Gallery, London
This violent grisaille sketch takes visual inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci's fresco of 'The Battle of Anghiari', which was destroyed in 1557. Eastern hunters on horseback attempt to fight off a lion who attemots to drag one of them to the ground. Another figure is shown killing a lion and there is a corpse beneath the horses. 
Rembrandt van Rijn, 'Recumbent Lion facing Right', 1660-65 © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt  favoured drawing what he saw around him, unlike other artists who relied on paintings by predecessors. At the age of 46, Rembrandt saw a real lion in Amsterdam, which he sketched directly, capturing its powerful anatomy with impressive accuracy. 
John Constable, 'The Hay Wain', 1821 © The National Gallery, London
This famous painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821, but failed to attract a buyer. However, when it was shown in France, Constable was awarded a Gold medal by Charles X. The painting depicts a horse-drawn cart in the foreground, a cottage rented by farmer Willy Lott on the left and in the distance, a meadow with a group of haymakers at work. This was one of the many en plein air sketches that Constable created of the traditional Suffolk countryside, which he then used to make full-size preparatory oil sketches back in his studio in London. 

Gustav Caillebotte, 'The Floor Scrapers', 1875 © Musee D'Orsay, Paris
This realist painting was revolutionary in subject as it was one of the first representations of the urban proletariat. City workers had been rarely painted in comparison to peasants or countryfolk depicted by artists such as Millet or Courbet. Caillebotte was academically trained under Bonnat, which is evident in the high viewpoint, alignment of the floorboards and nude torsos. In 1875, the painting was rejected by the Jury at the Salon, who were shocked by its 'vulgar subject matter.' Caillebotte used his academic training in order to explore the contemporary world in a groundbreaking way. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015


Henri Matisse, 'Woman with a Hat', 1905 © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
'With colour one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.' - Henri Matisse. 

'The nastiest smear of paint I have ever seen.'- Leo Stein. 

This vibrant portrait depicts Matisse's wife, Amelie in an elaborate outfit favoured by the French bourgeoisie; she is wearing a long glove and sophisticated hat. First exhibited at the 1905 Salon d'Automne in Paris, the painting was heavily criticised by contemporaries who were shocked by the non-naturalistic use of colour inspired by Paul Signac's use of complementary colour as well as the loose, 'unfinished' brushwork. Interestingly, the work encapsulates Matisse's rejection of the idea that art had to imitate the appearance of nature. The work identifies a shift in his individual style and the artist's use of colour is purely expressive; when asked about his wife's dress, Matisse allegedly replied that it was 'Black, of course.' 

This painting became a seminal example of Fauvism, a controversial movement that became closely associated with the artists who displayed their work in the central gallery of the Grand Palais in Paris. The movement had its roots in the symbolic use of colour practiced by Paul Gauguin and was characterised by strong hues and a flattening of spatial depth, which marked a break from the more representational use of colour that defined Impressionism. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2015


Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' is an icon of modern art and one of the world's most recognisable paintings.

Edvard Munch, 'The Scream', 1893, National Museum of Art and Design, Oslo. Photo credit: Nasjonalmuseet/Borre Hostland

'I was walking along the road with two friends - then the sun went down - the sky suddenly turned to blood and I felt a great scream in nature'- Edvard Munch.

'We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart.'- Edvard Munch.

Munch created four versions of the same scene in different media, depicting an isolated figure with an agonised expression set against a tumultous blood orange sky. Munch's expressive use of colour, dramatic diagonals and flowing lines visually illustrates his modern existential angst. Our eye is drawn to the ambiguous and distrubing central figure; its hands are held to its head and its mouth is wide open in a silent scream that is reinforced in the undulating movement of the landscape. 

Munch's landscape is radically simplified yet remains recognisable, depicting the Kristiania Fjord seen from Ekeberg. He also includes strolling figures who are widely believed to be two of Munch's friends. First exhibited in 1893, the painting formed part of 'The Frieze of Life', which was an ambitious series that explored Munch's preoccupation with sexuality and mortality. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Nicky Philipps on BBC art series 'Fake or Fortune'

Pierre Auguste Renoir, 'Boats on the Seine at Argenteuil'
The latest epidsode of 'Fake or Fortune' presented by Fiona Bruce and international art dealer Philip Mould investigated 'Boats on the Seine at Argenteuil', a work that royal portrait painter Nicky Philipps and her family believe to be painted by much-loved French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir. The painting hangs in Picton Castle, Nicky's ancestral home in Pembrokeshire and is potentially worth £300,000. The programme sheds light on an iconic friendship between two masters of French Impressionism, Renoir and Monet as well as the political rivalry of the art world today. 

The painting remains at the centre of a battle between Bernheim-Jeune and the Wildenstein Institute in Paris. Bernheim-Jeune lists that the work is by Renoir in their official catalogue, yet its rival the Wildenstein Institute rejects this, based on its poor quality, that it is unsigned (despite the fact that Renoir often did not sign his en plein air studies) and that there is no written evidence that Monet received the work from Renoir. Monet met close friend and fellow Impressionist Renoir when he was an art student in the early 1860s and they often painted alongside eachother in the 1870s. 

For example, their depictions of La Grenouillere, which was a popular spot on the Seine for daytrippers to enjoy swimming and a spot of dancing, were painted on the same day. The two versions of the same scene reveal their different approaches in terms of composition and palette. Renoir often paid more attention to figures, whereas Monet's figures are more incidental, which emphasises his preoccupation with the landscape.

Research suggests that Monet made a sketch of the same scene as the painting that hangs in Picton Castle , named 'Voilier au Petit-Gennevilliers.' Interestingly, Renoir's work can thus be seen as a companion piece to Monet's and gives us a fascinating insight into their close artistic relationship. 

Monet La Grenouillére
Claude Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869
Renoir La Grenouillere
Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillere, 1869
Nicky recounts her family story that the scene was painted by Renoir and subsequently given to Monet. In 1937, Nicky's great grandparents Lord and Lady Milford travelled with their daughter and Nicky's great aunt Gwen to Giverny, where Monet painted his seminal water lillies series and lived until his death in 1926. Gwen and her parents met Monet's stepdaughter Blanche, who was in charge of the estate following Monet's death. Nicky says that 'my family has been told how (the Milfords) discussed with Blanche Monet buying a scene of the River Seine, which Renoir had done about 70 years earlier and which he then gave to his friend Monet.' Blanche told Lord Milford that the painting was by Renoir and agreed to sell the work for £1,250 through Bernheim-Jeune and the London-based dealer Arthur Tooth.

This evidence is furthered by scientific analysis that shows that the pigments used match those Renoir painted with during the 1870s. In addition, a scan revealed a hidden art supplier's stamp on the painting that was only used between 1871-1879.

'Travels with my paintbox' opens at Fine Art Commissions in October and will showcase a series of landscapes by Nicky that illustrate her travels from Patagonia to Jaipur. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015


Next in our 'picture this series,' we focus on two iconic depictions of Pope Innocent X by Spanish master Diego Velazquez and British artist Francis Bacon:

Diego Velazquez, Portrait of Innocent X, 1650
Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953 
© ARS, Photo credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines
Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X is considered a masterpiece of 17th century portraiture. Giovanni Battista Pamphili was Pope from 1644 to 1655 and at the time that this portrait was painted the papacy had shifted its alliances away from France and towards the Spanish Habsburg. His papal reign was marred by tumult and accusations of impropriety; the pope attacked the Barberini for ‘misappropriation of public moneys’, offended France to the point of invasion, supported Venice against the Turks and refused to acknowledge the succession of Portugal in 1640. Contemporary accounts also allude to depraved behaviour with the wife of his late brother, Olimpia Maidalchini, who was said to manipulate the Pope's political decisions.

By painting the Pope, Velazquez entered an esteemed lineage of papal painters including the Italian Renaissance masters Raphael and Titian, who served as an important sources of inspiration in terms of both realism, light and psychological depth. The portrait is characterised by free, loose brushwork that would later inspire the Impressionists.

Francis Bacon’s depiction of Pope Innocent X is unsettling and undermines the authoritative power and poise envisaged by Velazquez. Our eye is drawn to the screaming mouth, a disturbing feature that alludes to existential agony. It also refers to the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of the silent film Battleship Potemkin, in which a nurse cries out as she is shot through her eyeglasses. 

The pope sits within a strange, enclosed space made up of horizontal and vertical yellow lines, isolated from any narrative context. This suggests the importance of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the notions of human vulnerability and the loss of faith discussed in his influential book The Birth of Tragedy. The vertical and diagonal brushstrokes that cover the canvas give a sense of movement and the blurred effect emphasises the impression that the Pope is falling through space. His powerful status in Velazquez’s portrait may have held contemporary resonance for Bacon in relation to Fascist propaganda photography. In later reworkings of the papal theme, Bacon included visual references to the controversial Pope Pius XII, who was believed by some to have appeased the Nazis. 

Monday, 6 July 2015


Gustav Klimt painted several Viennese bourgeoisie women, including art lover, patron and close friend Adele Bloch-Bauer:

Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, Oil, Silver and Gold on Canvas, 1907 © Neue Galerie, New York
Commissioned by wealthy industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, this is one of two enigmatic portraits of his wife Adele painted by Klimt. The painting took three years to complete and Klimt did several preliminary drawings that date from 1903. Klimt was the first president of the Vienna Secession, which broke away from the traditional methods of painting espoused by the art establishment and advocated the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or a 'a total work of art', which removed the boundaries between differing art forms.

This painting epitomises Klimt's ‘Golden Style’, evident in the rich ornamental detail and sumptuous patchwork of ornaments where Mycenean gold blends with Byzantium. The portrait shows an interesting mix of naturalism, seen in Adele's interlaced hands and face as well as the influence of Egyptian art, visible in the decorative style of her dress, the chair and gold background. The dense use of ovoids, eyes, spirals, triangles and squares act as both ornamental motifs and erotic symbols. Adele’s status is ambiguous; she resembles both a decadent, threatening femme fatale and a religious idol, enshrined and captured for eternity in a casing of precious metals. 

Friday, 3 July 2015


Widely referred to as the 'Dutch Mona Lisa', Johannes Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' is one of the world's most recognisable yet engimatic works, largely because the identity of the model remains unknown. This has stimulated long debated, unaswered questions - its appeal lies firmly in the portrait's mysterious circumstances. Who is she? What was she thinking? What was her relationship with Vermeer? 

Johannes Vermeer, 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', 1665 © Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
Although this portrait depicts a live model, her identity remains subject to debate and suggestions have included Vermeer's eldest daughter Maria. Exotic details such as the skilfully rendered blue turban, large pearl earring and her idealised features mark the painting as a tronie- a Dutch subcategory of portraiture popularised by Rembrandt

Pearls appear in eight paintings by Vermeer and as no real pearl of the size in this portrait has been documented, it is likely that either the sitter wore a glass drop varnished to resemble a pearl or that it is a figment of the artist's imagination. Vermeer's signature use of ultramarine is accompanied by the Dutch custom of a dark background. He used a green ochre tone as the undercoat, which enhances the vibrancy of the colours and a thinly applied final layer of paint that gives a sense of movement as light falls on the model's clothing. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015


Continuing with our 'picture this' series on quintessential portraits by renowned artists including Diego Velazquez, Johannes Vermeer, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse, here we take a look at John Singer Sargent's celebrated portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw:

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, John Singer Sargent:

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, John Singer Sargent 1892 © National Galleries of Scotland

'The Van Dyck of our times'- Auguste Rodin. 

'A masterpiece...not only a triumph of technique but the finest example of portraiture' - The Times, 1893. 
This portrait depicts Getrude Vernon, the young wife of Andrew Noel Agney, a barrister who inherited the baronetcy and estates of Lochnaw in Galloway. Ladt Agnew's direct gaze and relaxed pose, accompanied by her shimmering satin dress, elegant lilac sash and the blue Chinese hanging (Sargent loved collecting rare furnishings) gives the painting an arresting impact. Sitting slightly askew, with her legs crossed, Lady Agnew's pose is passive. Her hand grips the edge of the chintz chair, which interestingly is the only detail that alludes to the nervous exhaustion, known as 'neurasthenia' that plagued her early years.  Yet, it is through this pose and her cool, appraising gaze that her beauty and personality is projected.

Although the painting is a 'formal' portrait, it is an intensely alive work that exemplifies Sargent's skilfull depiction of texture and light. The handling of paint is free and immediate, reinforcing his fluent mastery of the brush.  It also reveals the strong influence of French art, particularly Edouard Manet. 

The work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898 and launched Lady Agnew as a celebrated society beauty. Following this work, Sargent became associate of the Academy and received several prestigious commissions, securing his reputation as a leading portrait painter of Edwardian society. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015


Our ‘picture this’ series focuses on a variety of influential portraits, including much-loved works by Johannes Vermeer, Diego Velazquez, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent and Henri Matisse. First, we take a look at Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother:

 James Abbott McNeill Whistler:  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also called Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Oil on Canvas, 1871, © RMN- Grand Palais (Musee d'Orsay)/ Jean- Gilles Berizzi
'Art should be independent of all clap-trap, should...appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it...take the picture of my an Arrangement in Grey and Black. Now that is what it is...what can or ourhgt the public care about the identity of the portrait?' - J.M. Whistler, from The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890. 

Whistler was an American by nationality but divided his career between Paris and London. In 1856, Whistler enrolled in Charles Gleyre’s studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and two years later entered into business with Alphonse Legros and Fatin-Latour in order to ensure that his works were well spread. 

Fatin-Latour placed Whistler in the centre of his painting Homage to Delacroix. He is accompanied by Manet and Baudelaire and was thus firmly established as a member of the Parisian avant-garde. He was also closely associated with Gustav Courbet, who for a short while considered Whistler his pupil. 

Whistler's portrait of his mother alludes to the realistic aesthetic of his early practice. Yet interestingly, like several other paintings such as Symphony in White, this portrait has a double title that emphasises his strong preoccupation with style over subject matter and the musical notion of harmony that dominated his later practice. 

The stark and unsentimental portrayal of his mother was perceived as radical by contemporaries.

In 1884, a Parisian critic wrote that ‘it was disturbing, mysterious, of a different colour from those we are accustomed to seeing. Also the canvas was scarcely covered, its grain almost invisible; the compatibility of the grey and the truly inky black was a joy to the eye, surprised by these unusual harmonies.’  

Many misunderstood Whistler’s artistic goals, searching for sentimentality in the portrait rather than appreciating his primary aesthetic purpose to arrange line and colour in an appealing way. 

The psychological shrewdness and austere nature of the painting is effectively reinforced by the intentionally simplified composition. The strong linearity, simplification of form and narrow range of neutral tones demonstrates Whistler’s interest in prints, which is alluded to in the View of the Thames that hangs on the wall behind his mother.