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Thursday, 17 March 2016

Self-portraits through the ages

We take a look at some self-portraits by much-loved artists working in Britain through the ages, including William Hogarth and Vanessa Bell:

Self-portraiture is a richly diverse, enigmatic genre that has particular poignancy in the history of art, documenting the rare moment when the artist enjoys a unique sense of freedom as both subject and creator.

Artists have recreated their own image since the Middle Ages; a time when self scrutiny and personal salvation were of great importance. During the Renaissance, the humanist emphasis on the individual coincided with the elevated status of the artist. The discovery of oil painting allowed artists to develop techniques that revolutionised painting. As an intimate form of self-expression, personal legacy and public self-advertisement, the self-portrait raises complex issues of identity, politics, social status and artistic skill. 

'Self-portrait', Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1685 © The National Gallery, London
Born in Germany and trained as an artist in Amerstam and Italy, Sir Godfrey Kneller later established himself as a leading portrait artist in England. After settling here in 1676, he was introducted to Court circles by the Duke of Monmouth and later appointed as principle painter to the Crown by Charles II. This powerful self-portrait gives us an idea of why his portraits were considered amongst the best produced in Europe at the time. 

'Self-portrait', Allan Ramsay, c.1737-39 © The National Gallery, London
 'He (Allan Ramsay) and Mr Reynolds...our favourite painters, and two of the very best we ever had' - Horace Walpole.

Born in Edinburgh, Allan Ramsay later studied in London, Rome and Naples and was appointed as painter to George III. It is believed that this early self-portrait was produced in Italy where Ramsay completed his artistic training and shows the influence of the Italian baroque. 

Ramsay depicts himself wearing a white neck-band and shirt ruffle made from rich velvet drapery. It is believed that a copy of the portrait was framed as a pendant, painted at the time of Ramsay's marriage to his first wife in 1739. 

'Self-portrait', William Hogarth c. 1757 © The National Gallery, London
In this self-portrait, William Hogarth depicts himself painting Thalia, the Muse of Comedy. Ramsay sits in a large mahogany armchair, wearing an open white shirt, green velvet coat, stockings and brown breeches. He holds a palette knife and brushes and contemplates the white outline of Thalia, who holds a book under her right arm and mask in her left hand. 

'Self-portrait', Vanessa Bell c. 1958. The Charleston Trust © BBC Your Paintings
Vanessa Bell was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, alongside her husband Clive Bell and sister Virginia Woolf. Bell's early work conformed to the conventional traditions of the New English Art Club, but was later influenced by the first Post-Impressionism exhibition that took place in 1910 and the progressive ideas of Roger Fry, which surfaced in a stripped back, simplified style of painting defined by bold outlines and non-descriptive colour. 

The first Post-Impressionist exhibition included works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisee and Picasso, which gave Bell a 'sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself, which were absolutely overwhelming.'

After the First World War, Bell, similarly to other artists of her generation, returned to a more naturalistic style. Bell maintained a lifelong passion for simplified decorative patterns and colour that originated in the creative collaboration of the Omega Workships. This was later reflected in the interiors of Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse that she shared with her husband, as well as her distinctive book-jacket designs for the Hogarth Press. 

This self-portrait was painted when Bell was nearly 80 and hangs in the garden room at Charleston. Bell's portraits have often been subject to biographical readings that connect them to the death of her sister Virginia and eldest son Julian Bell. However, if we re-contextualise works such as this self-portrait, we see a lively and forceful artist who paints as a challenging act of self-expression.  

Friday, 4 March 2016

Delacroix's portraits

To coincide with 'Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' that has recently opened at the National Gallery, we take a look at a selection of Delacroix's portraits. As both an exponent of the Grand Style and celebrated as one of the first modern masters, the exhibition pays homage to Delacroix's widespread artistic legacy. Delacroix is acknowledged as the champion of Romanticisim and was much admired by avant-garde painters in Paris including Courbet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse. 

'The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye' - Eugène Delacroix

A painter of 'the invisible, the impalpable, reverie, the nerves, the soul; and this he did without any means other than contour and colour' - Charles Baudelaire

'We all paint in Delacroix's language' - Paul Cezanne

Eugène Delacroix, 'Self-portrait', about 1837 © RMN Grand-Palais (musée du Louvre)/Jean-Gillies Berizzi
Delacroix's strong jaw, intense stare, glossy black hair and sophisticated appearance, accompanied by a sense of antipathy, marks this self-portrait as archetypally Romantic and visually exemplifies why Delacroix was named 'the tiger' by Charles Baudelaire. 

Eugène Delacroix, 'Young orphan Girl in the Cemetery', 1824 © Musée du Louvre)/A. Dequier - M. Bard
This early work by Delacroix was for a long time believed to be a preparatory piece for the 'Massacre at Chios.' The young girl is clearly defined against the more hazy background of the sky and forlorn cemetery. She gazes beyond the frame and her dark-ringed eyes suggest a sense of sadness and solitude that is enhanced by the dark colours and sombre landscape. 

Eugène Delacroix, 'Head of a Woman', 1822 ©The Athenaeum
This painting is also referred to as 'A Mad Woman' and reflects a prevailing curiosity in abnormal states of mind that greatly interested artists such as Delacroix and Gericault, who pitched themselves against Enlightenment rationality. There was a common belief at the time that physical appearance gave an insight into character, especially in the case of madness and death. 

Eugène Delacroix, 'Louis-Auguste Schwiter', 1826-30 © The National Gallery, London
This portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter, who was himself a landscape and portrait painter, was begun when Delacroix returned to France in 1826 after a period in England. Rejected by the Salon in 1827, Delacroix made alterations to the work and it was later completed in 1830. It is possible that the portrait was influenced by the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was the subject of an essay written by Delacroix in 1829. 

Eugène Delacroix, 'Portrait Frederic Villot' c. 1832 © The National Gallery, Prague
This intimate portrait of Marie-Joseph Frederic Villot reflects his good friendship with Delacroix. He was also an engraver and art historian who acted as paintings curator of the Louvre from 1848 -1861.