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Thursday, 20 August 2015

HIGHLIGHTS: Artemisia Gentileschi in the Royal Collection, London

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
This cultivated work, entitled 'Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting' (c.1638-9), is one of only a few surviving self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi. In this instance, she playfully depicts herself as the female personification of painting. Gentileschi cleverly combines self-portraiture and allegory in a single image, which has its precedent in works such as a portrait medal by Felice Antonio Casoni that honours Cremonese painter Lavinia Fontana. It is believed that Gentileschi completed the portrait in England, after she was invited to visit in 1638 by King Charles I. 

This allegorical work embodies the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, which was a widely used handbook that described painting as a 'beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishellleved, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ''imitation.''

Gentileschi is leaning over a stone slab used to grind pigments, wearing a brown apron over her green dress and holding the tools of her trade - a brush and palette. It is possible that the brown area behind Gentileschi is a blank canvas. Areas of the ground remain exposed, suggesting shadow, which is skilfully rendered in the white edge of her rolled up sleeve as it meets the dark shadow of the exposed ground. Gentileschi has tactfully depicted herself in the act of painting and her pose suggests that she may have positioned herself in between facing mirrors. 

Gentileschi's remarkable and unusual status as a female artist strengthened her appeal for collectors, including antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo and this compelling portrait enriched the concept of the elevated status of the artist. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

HIGHLIGHTS: Frans Hals at The Wallace Collection, London

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals, 1624  ©The Wallace Collection, London
In this lively half-length portrait, an unknown sitter is depicted close to the picture plane against a plain, grey background. By the time the painting was completed, Hals had painted several portraits as well as a group portrait of a civic militia company. This work is considered Hals's most famous piece, exhibiting the skillful way he animates his subjects. The sitter has his hand on hip, which euxdes a self-confidence that characterises several of Hals's portraits as well as giving the painting more depth. Painted with both fine and broader brushwork, the painting is unique in the artist's oeuvre for its vibrant colour; the sitter wears an exuberant doublet covered with fanciful motifs and a striking gilded pommel is discernable at his elbow. 

The purpose of the portrait has never been fully established, although it is believed that the man's costume may provide us with useful clues. The motifs on his doublet, which are embroidered in gold, red and white thread, include arrows, lovers' knots and a flaming cornucopiae - all symbolic of the pleasures and sorrow of love. As connotations of courtship, it is possible that the work functions as a betrothal portrait, yet no companion piece has been found. The  motif of the Caduceus, an attribute of the Roman God Mercury, has also led art historians to believe that this alludes to commerce and thus that the work depicts the wealthy textile merchant Tieleman Roosterman, 

In 1865, the painting was at the centre of a bidding war at a Paris auction between 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild, acquired by the former for the wealthy sum of 51,000 francs. In 1888, it was given the title 'The Laughing Cavalier' when exhibited at the Royal Academy, which emphasises the conviviliaty of the portrait. This is reinforced by the low, commanding viewpoint and the sitter's pompous pose, upturned moustache and shining eyes. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

HIGHLIGHTS: Goya and Gainsborough at the Courtauld Gallery, London

The 18th century permanent collection at the Courtauld Gallery houses magnificent examples of English portraiture, including the only full-length portrait by Francisco Goya in Britain and Thomas Gainsborough's enthralling and affectionate painting of his wife Margaret:

Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra
Francisco de Goya, Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra, 1798 The Courtauld Gallery, London
Goya's painting of Spanish politician Francisco de Saavedra was part of a double commission; the artist also painted Saavedra's close friend and ally Gaspar de Jovellanos. Both men were appointed to the two highest political offices in Spain: Minister of Finance and Minister of State. 

Saavedra sits facing the right, on a round-backed chair. Well-known for his sincerity, Saavedra seems poised as if to leave his paper-strewn desk. It is possible that the portrait's simple background shows Goya's knowledge of 18th century English portraiture, while also acknowledging Saavedra's wellordered and 'English' household. 
Portrait of Margaret Gainsborough, c.1779, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Margaret Burr married Gainsborough at the young age of 18 and it is believed that this portrait celebrates her 50th birthday. The intimacy of this painting is shown in Margaret's frontal pose, direct gaze and subtle smile. Margaret wears a mantle lined with black lace, which is draped over her head and shoulders. It is formed from an energetic swirl of brush-strokes that begin around her head and continue in the positioning of her hands. 

Gainsborough's rhythmic brushwork became increasingly evident towards the latter part of his career. He also experimented with the effects of transparency and light. This is visible in the strong silhouette of Margaret's mantle, which is illuminated by the light source behind her left side. This reflects Gainsborough's experiments with the contemporary fashion of painting transparent images on glass, which when lit from behind by candlelight could produce a luminous and dynamic light.