The Portraiture Of Van Dyck –

First published in March 23rd 2016

Van Dyck revolutionised the portraiture of northern Europe and it is this achievement that forms the basis of a comprehensive and enticing display at The Frick Collection, New York.

Van Dyck represents the pinnacle of late 17th century portraiture for many art collectors. Apprenticed from a young age to the mighty Rubens in Antwerp, Van Dyck forged his own immensely successful career first in Italy — most notably among the gentry of Genoa, then of Palermo, Sicily — then under the patronage of Charles I of England.

Emerging from the distinctively fleshy, loose workshop style of Rubens, Van Dyck effectively revolutionised the portraiture of northern Europe with a tauter style that presented sitters in the height of sophistication; making unprecedented use of the full-length format, they gaze down at the viewer in a position that is simultaneously intimate and authoritative. Van Dyck made the image of Charles I, who was short in stature, both humane and powerful.

It is little wonder then that Van Dyck’s portraits are highly prized by collectors of Old Masters. For example, Billionaire founder David Leppan’s collection features Van Dyck’s depiction of Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, and Filippo Spinola, 2nd Marquis of Los Balbases, Spain. This is the only British collection to feature two such full-length portraits on the same wall outside the Wallace Collection and Buckingham Palace. With great dynamism, these figures of the aristocracy seem to fill the pictorial space with impressive presence and a stylishness that would have had enormous impact on their audiences.

Also in Leppan’s collection is a small, seemingly innocuous cropped study of a hand emerging from outside the frame, pressing the shoulder of a black man, whose face is upturned towards its unseen owner, bought from Christie’s in 2011. This takes on greater significance when related to Van Dyck’s portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, a member of the French court under Louis XIII, now in Kenwood House, London. For it is her hand on this man’s shoulder; the image directly mirrors a small section of the final portrait’s composition, and its existence presents another dimension to our understanding of Van Dyck’s working methods and studio. Fully worked up — as in not left in sketch or unfinished form — it is thus most likely a copy of a section made by a studio member as an aid to his apprenticeship under the workshop master.

A similar principle is at work in the Frick Collection of New York City’s exhibition ‘Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture’. Henry Frick’s immaculate taste led to his purchase of eight Van Dyck portraits, which form the basis of this, the largest and most comprehensive display in living memory of examples from major collections around the world. Complementing this overwhelming array of some of his most powerfully rendered figures is an equally comprehensive selection of supporting drawings, etchings and sketches, each giving invaluable insight into Van Dyck’s practice. Off the bat, preliminary sketches alone in brown pen and ink, occasionally highlighted with chalk, display an exceptional draughtsmanship that is loose and expressive, effectively bridging the gap between his tutor Rubens’s signature brushwork and his own tighter rendering. Portrait Study of a Commander on Horseback from the British Museum (circa 1621) from his late Italianate period is flamboyant, yet capturing maximum depth and tone using a minimal touch.

Differing mediums alone illustrate varying purposes for his portraits: a miniature sketch of Antwerp politician and cultural figure Nicolaas Rockox depicts the visage in grisaille (or grey tones only) against a classical niche, while its adjacent preliminary drawing has rapidity in its pencil marks, showing it to be the initial sketch from life. The subtle differences in expression between the two versions are minute, yet with extraordinary impact on their overall effect and, crucially, the sitter’s conveyed character. Adjacent again is an engraved version, laterally inversed and rendered in sharp, crisp ink lines due to this particular method. The crispness of the engraved line, combined with its ease of duplication, indicates this portrait was more likely to have been intended for multiple reproductions; a means of mass communication favoured by such political figures.

A startling and welcome inclusion is the famed oil sketch discovered by the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow team, thought to be a preparatory portrait for a now lost group portrait of The Magistrates of Brussels, under later overpainting. London-based art dealer Philip Mould, who helped secure its attribution to Van Dyck, was also responsible for the identification of David Leppan’s own Duke of Bracciano as authentic. Now in a private collection, the newly discovered Brussels oil sketch — here the only one of its kind and thus incalculably significant — demonstrates an alternative method to sketching from life in pencil; it is larger in scale, and a looseness of touch indicates that it must have been completed in relatively brief sittings.

Compare this to the unfinished portrait of a woman (circa 1640), loaned from the Speed Art Museum of Louisville, in which the visage of its sitter is fully modelled, as is a radiating amount of drapery, body, hands and background, yet the extremities remain completely unmodelled. While his sketch of the Brussels sitter is an oil sketch among surrounding bare canvas due to its preparatory purpose, in the Louisville piece the high finish of the completed areas gives an indication that the surrounding areas were intended for completion by various second hands in Van Dyck’s studio. We are given excellent insight into the division of labour among his pupils; it is this division and working practice — which parts were by the hand of the master or pupil(s) — that holds the key to correct attribution, and may be the difference in value when it comes to auction. Certainly the practice of a studio ‘working up’ a composition planned out by the master indicates his presence in composition alone: with such individual geniuses as Rubens and Van Dyck, the question of a pupil convincingly emulating the master is moot. One has only to look at another genius follower of Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, to see how differently the master’s style could be developed.

If a painting has such overwhelming evidence in its favour that Van Dyck’s hand is present in the most crucial elements, then you can comfortably add a few zeros to your guide price.

‘Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture’ is at The Frick Collection, New York, 2 March to 5 June.

Largest Exhibition of Sandro Botticelli’s Works in Britain Since 1930 –

First published in March 17th 2016

An astonishingly diverse display of interpretations by creative minds across fine art, design, fashion and the applied arts.

In ‘Botticelli Reimagined’, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum London sets itself the mammoth task of tracing the resounding influence of this iconic figure of the Italian Renaissance throughout 500 years of art and culture. What emerges is an astonishingly diverse display of interpretations by creative minds across fine art, design, fashion and the applied arts. Running through the chronology is the same recurring quest for the ideal of beauty, and how this ideal changes between societies and the ages, and will continue to change.

In the opening section, Global, Modern, Contemporary, it is a testament to the richness of the original Botticelli Birth of Venus of 1484-1486 that its reproduction by so many contemporary artists from the mid-20th century to the present take on wildly varying forms, each making entirely independent points. Far from being a visual cliché such as the over-exposed Mona Lisa, or a pastiche, it becomes a vessel through which we can examine the idea of beauty in our own times. Milan-based Tomoko Nagao imagines Venus in a mass consumerist age as a manga figure emerging from a sea of chocolate bacci on a games console instead of a shell, with an EasyJet aircraft crashing through the background.

Photographer David LaChapelle presents a blonde pneumatic model Venus amid a glittering kitsch landscape, a tactful but prominently placed glistening conch shell brings the subtle eroticism of the original to the fore, reflecting today’s over-sexualised culture. Elsewhere, Dolce & Gabbana uses the image as a fabric pattern for its Spring/Summer collection of 1993; Warhol makes abstract her cropped face in coloured prints; and Chinese artist Yin Xin’s Venus, after Botticelli gives her Asian features. Where the original is largely considered to be a universal idea of beauty, the conflicting ideas charging around in this exhibit demonstrate that the definitive concept remains elusive in our own time, yet a hotly contested one.

The inclusion of French artist Orlan dares to remind us that the quest for beauty is subjective, often against women. Famous for undergoing plastic surgery in the 1990s in The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, her modifications read like a shopping list of iconic beautiful artworks: the nose of Gérôme’s Psyche; the lips of Boucher’s Europa, Mona Lisa’s forehead, and the chin of Botticelli’s Venus. By this violent submission to the subjective gaze of others — male or female — Orlan reminds us that behind our quest for the idea of visual perfection lies a person within the objectified vessel; against the 500 years of art that precede her and beyond, it is startling how feminism is so recent a development.

The next section, Rediscovery, illustrates the enormous impact Botticelli had on artists following his rediscovery in 1815 with the presentation of the Birth of Venus and Primaverain the Uffizi, Florence, after several centuries of obscurity. An explosion of drawings by Ruskin, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites slavishly copy Botticelli’s nudes, as if somehow the very dimensions are the formula for perfection. Ruskin claimed that he copied the figure of Zipporah from Botticelli’s Temptation of Moses almost as facsimile suggests an obsessive quest to capture this notion of beauty as an abstract concept, independently of the idea of woman. Conversely, Rossetti’s brooding portraits of La Donna Della Finestrapursue his personal idea of perfect beauty in the features of a model in his own time. Elsewhere, Ingres’s La Source cites the bodily pose of Botticelli’s Venus, rendered with the impossibly smooth painterly modelling that epitomises the Romantic era. Curators Mark Evans and Ana Debenedetti cite an unknown French critic who claimed that through Ingres, the spirit of Botticelli was revived.

Finally, we go further back to Botticelli in his Own Time, demonstrating that behind the compelling images that so inspired the artists earlier in the show was a supreme talent for design combined with a mind for business. Among several stunning examples of his own hand — the appearance of the Uffizi’s Pallas and the Centaur, travelling to London for the first time is a delight — are workshop pieces maintaining the consistency of his own distinctive visual style. This is evident in several tondos featuring the Holy Family, tweaked in composition to fit the difficult circular tondo shape, and it is a rare treat to see so many in one place.

To close, we return to the iconic Venus, shown isolated, monumental, in two versions from Turin and Berlin respectively. Presented so simply, we see the “endless adaptability” of this composition, and are reminded of the many versions interpreted throughout 500 years by subsequent ideals of beauty and perfection, and the contentious issues this entails. It seems the pursuit of the elusive concept of beauty is a fundamental primal drive in our need to create visual art.

‘Botticelli Reimagined’ will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 3 July 2016.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy review – City AM

First published on 28th Jan 2016

At the turn of the century the concept of the modern garden – a tended, cultivated individual plot to be enjoyed as a respite from urban life – increased in popularity throughout Europe and the US, with fervent intellectual interest in botany.

The Royal Academy captures the artistic reaction to this in its show Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which explores how the modern garden influenced the development of art from the early 1860s to the 1920s.

The impressionist movement is key, and most will recognise the much-loved water lilies of Monet adorning the show’s promotional material. But what emerges is an exhibition infinitely richer and more rewarding than a simple collection of pretty pictures.

The paintings assembled are overwhelmingly riotous in colour, full of fizzing life, all ingeniously arranged to create the illusion of a garden in full bloom. Through this the RA cleverly demonstrates just how much of an impact the garden had on painters during this time.

Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911. Source: Royal Academy

The collection includes works by such giants as Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Sargent and Van Gogh, but a personal highlight was Joaquín Sorolla’s 1911 portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany (pictured below), surrounded by the huge swirling purple, yellow and white flowers of Tiffany’s Long Island home.

One surprising room, amusingly entitled Avant-Gardens, explores the influence these patches of greenery had on other artistic movements. Here the likes of Kandinsky and Emile Nolde interpret the subject matter in heavily abstracted, primary colours of great intensity.

Also surprising is Gustav Klimt’s Cottage Garden, painted in muted reds and greens, contrasting with his more famous glittering and gilded works.

The show is a triumph: an excellent idea, executed with imagination and flair, presenting material that moves far beyond the boundaries of impressionism.

All of this, however, won’t prepare you for the impact of the final room: here, the panels of Monet’s monumental triptych Water Lilies (Agapanthus) have been reassembled from the Cleveland Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri.

A culmination of his iconic works made at his garden at Giverny, they represent a profound response to the traumas of the First World War. It’s an exhilarating display, and a jewel in the crown.