It is possible in this gallery to follow the course of Western Art from Early Italian painting to Impressionism without leaving the building. This is quite useful in winter in cold, wet London! A grey day is transformed by the gleamingly dense colours of the Italian and Northern artists. We can lose ourselves in the far reaching landscapes of the Dutch masters and have our souls lifted by the bright, free colours of the Impressionists. Through a lecture or a visit, the National Gallery has something for everyone and every painting has a story to tell.
There are no more than a handful of paintings in the gallery in their original frames, which demands the question of just how these paintings would have looked to the patron who commissioned them. Attempting to see these works through the eyes of the viewer of the time is impossible, of course, but asking the question of why, where and for what purpose they were created gives us a greater understanding of each picture.
Angels are always useful friends to have and the Verrocchio picture ‘Tobias and the Angel’ has a beautiful story attached to it. Tobias was almost eaten by a big fish – although possibly given the geographic location it is more likely to have been a crocodile – but either way, he was obviously in some danger.
The Archangel Raphael – a Saint who accompanied travellers – swoops down and saves him. Tobias’s father who had lost his eyesight was saved from blindness into the bargain when Raphael told Tobias to keep the gall of the fish and place it in the gold box he can be seen holding. He told Tobias to smear the gall of the gutted fish across his father’s eyes and he will able to see again. There is actually a medical basis for this idea which was used in times gone by in India. By the way, have you noticed the size of the fish that nearly ate Tobias? Verrocchio could hardly give over his whole canvas to something that big and so the fish has become nothing more than a tiddler, which allows the focus to be placed on Raphael and Tobias. Isn’t art wonderful?
Verrocchio’s workshop reads like a who’s who of artists and the fish and the dog in this picture have both been attributed at various times to the hand of Leonardo, a young student of Verrocchio’s who was just 20 years old.
And so, beginning in the Sainsbury wing, we can see the works of Duccio, Giotto and many other masters from the history of art – principally religious paintings at this time. The balance will change to more secular commissioned as we work towards the present.
By focusing on the requirements placed on artists in their own time, it is possible to work through the history of art using 16th, 17th and 18th century examples. Mr & Mrs Andrew for example. (above) Doesn’t she look sad? Only around 16 years old, newly married and surrounded by the land that in a large part she brought to the union. Who would dream today of wearing those pink slippers in a setting like this? Why are the couple set to one side? To show their land, of course, but it is often said that Gainsborough painted landscapes for pleasure and portraits for money so why not find a pose where he could have both?
The Hogarth series ‘Marriage a la Mode’ always reminds me of a Zola novel where they both get what they deserve. One family has money, one has a title and so in the first canvas a deal is done. But notice those dogs chained together beside the young couple. Hogarth is immediately warning us that this union will not have a happy ending.
And finally the 19th century and Impressionism. Madame La La the acrobat, Seurat’s ‘Bathers’ – and why you wouldn’t want to be bathing where they are – and of course Renoir and Van Gogh etc etc…..
A feast for anybody’s eyes and soul.