Posted by: annmucc | February 19, 2011

A Tour of the National Gallery

Last year, thanks to Michael’s parents, I attended a course at the National Gallery on Styles in Painting. Later on in the year I also visited the exhibition Close Examinations: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. However, I have never actually spent time in the gallery looking at what is on display there. So when I was supposed to be showing my friend around London today, and the weather was quite bad, I thought that the suggestion to go to the National gallery and follow one of their guided tours would be a good compromise for all.

As the tour guide succinctly explained to us at the start, it is impossible to look at all the paintings on display properly in one year, let alone in one hour. So he took us around a few of the paintings on display which gave a brief overview of the major art movements of the time the National Gallery collection covers (i.e. Western European paintings from the 13th to the 19th centuries).

The first painting we stopped in front was The Martrydom of Saint Sebastian by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. Completed in 1475, as a commission for the Pucci family, as most of the paintings from this time, it was not made by just one artist, but by a workshop. In fact, for this piece, besides the hand of the two main artist, the Pollaiuolo brothers, the hand of at least another two can be identified. The hand of the two brothers can also be distinguished quite clearly from their ability to paint life-like figures. It is quite clear that the four figures at the bottom have been painted by one of the brothers, while the central figure is by another due to its much less defined composition,

Next we stopped in front of two paintings which treated the same subject – The Agony in the Garden – and were quite alike: Giovanni Bellini‘s(below), and Mantegna‘s (bottom). The two paintings are alike in showing the three apostles at the bottom of the image, and Jesus much higher up. Both also have a city. However, while Bellini’s is quite a small city and resembles more what was around when Bellini was alive, Mantegna’s is much grander, and also has a Colosseum. Mantegna in fact is known for his interest in the ‘antique‘ i.e. trying to imitate what things would have really looked like. In this case this city is inspired from what Rome looked like, and hence what he believed a city in those times would have looked like. The likeness of the two paintings however is curious, but can be explained by the fact that both had access to Giovanni Bellini’s father’s drawing book where he noted down his ideas for compositions: Bellini as he was his son, and Mantegna as he married Bellini’s sister!

Due to the very recent discoveries about Caravaggio’s life, it was appropriate that one of his paintings – The Supper at Emmaus – was included in the tour. With Caravaggio having his only signed painting in Malta, he features quite heavily in Maltese art lessons, particularly his style known as chiaroscuro (i.e. light and shadow). Although the guide of course mentioned this, he also pointed out a few inconsistencies in the painting and gave a possible explanation for these. E.g., the back hand of the man on the right is bigger than the front hand, though this would defy the principles of perspective. Nevertheless, if this wasn’t so, we probably would have missed the fact that the man is showing Jesus that he saw him being crucified. Also, the perspective of the table is not quite right: you very clearly see both the top and the side of the table. The light also falls on Jesus’s face, when it should have hit the innkeeper’s face instead. It was enlightening to hear these comments and explanations, as I’ve always learnt that Caravaggio painted in a very realistic style and never really questioned that.

The fourth stop was in front of Rubens’ Peace and War. Looking at the picture I can understand why people who came after thought that the picture looks vulgar. However, as with most such paintings, I am always impressed by the allegorical and mythological connotations occurring in the background. Without someone explaining such things to me I would quite definitely miss out on all these finer nuances such paintings tell us. I also appreciated the composition in that dividing the painting diagonally from top left to bottom right, the bottom left hand side represents peace and wealth, while the top right hand corner represents war and all the negatives that causes; in one painting both sides of the coin are clearly represented.

The final stop was in front of the fourth picture in Hogarth‘s Marriage a-la Mode series. As with the previous painting, understanding the nuances behind specific aspects of the composition was highly enlightening. These included the fact that antiques are put on display to try to show that the countess is now from old money (her father is actually a merchant – new money – but she married a viscount, so wants to show she is now old money hence not to be looked down on), but she forgot to remove the lot numbers from the items!

The paintings we saw during the tour were definitely the work of very talented people. However, I think, the star of this tour was definitely the tour guide, Leslie Primo. His way with words made sure that we could quite easily grasp the concepts he was describing – this is not a talent I have found in abundance in art historians I must admit! Also, he didn’t limit his explanation to what we were seeing, but also gave us an insight into the context of the images, and why we are seeing what we are seeing in that painting and maybe not in another. All in all a superb tour by the guide! So thank you Leslie, and I hope that if (when!) I repeat this tour again, I will have the pleasure of being introduced to other gems in this collection.


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