The best of 2019’s paintings and articles 1

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Farm Buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees (1780), oil on paper on cardbord, 25 x 38 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

During the last year, I have researched, written and published here over 350 articles about art and paintings. In today’s and tomorrow’s articles, I’m going to take a look back at those and show some of my favourite paintings from among them. This will hopefully give you the chance to catch up with some that you may have missed, and others which you’d like to view again before we hurtle into the New Year.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust in his Study (c 1840), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Few websites now feature much in the way of narrative painting, yet it has always been one of the major genres. I try to run at least one series at any time which works through a summary of the story or stories in major literary works, which have been extensively featured in paintings. At the start of the year, I began working through Goethe’s Faust, shown with the diabolic Mephistopheles lurking behind him in Ary Scheffer’s Faust in his Study (c 1840) above.

Goethe’s ‘Faust’: Introduction

Last year, I decided that I needed to get a better insight into the genius of the Spanish master Diego Velázquez.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618) [3], oil on canvas, 100.5 x 119.5 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.
I started with his early startlingly real bodegone, such as this Old Woman Frying Eggs, painted in 1618, before he was even twenty.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1644-48) [102], oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.
My series naturally culminates with his masterpieces Las Hilanderas (above) from nearly thirty years later, and Las Meninas (below), completed almost forty years later. Both are fascinating images whose reading remains highly controversial to this day.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.
The revolutionary paintings of Diego Velazquez

Sometimes, I stumble across painters who I thought I knew a little about, but turn into something of a revelation. This was the case with the American Joseph Stella (1877–1946).

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Tree of My Life (1919), oil on canvas, 213.4 x 193 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps known best for his Cubist-inspired paintings of Brooklyn Bridge, he also painted this large almost Surrealist fantasy, Tree of My Life, which appears to have been influenced by the extraordinary paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s filled with exotic plants and birds, and passages are densely patterned, as shown in the detail below. This was sold at auction late last year for nearly $6 million.

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Tree of My Life (detail) (1919), oil on canvas, 213.4 x 193 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This truly eclectic range of styles and themes is covered here in three articles:
A Weekend with Joseph Stella 1, to 1918
A Weekend with Joseph Stella 2, 1919-25
A Weekend with Joseph Stella 3, 1926 on

Each year I try to cover anniversaries of major painters. For anyone interested in landscape painting, this included the bicentenary of the death of the founding father of plein air painting, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819).

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Farm Buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees (1780), oil on paper on cardboard, 25 x 38 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the finest, and the best-known, of all Valenciennes’ oil sketches is this showing Farm-buildings at the Villa Farnese: the Two Poplar Trees reputedly from 1780. This shows a Renaissance villa now in the centre of the city of Rome, although here its park setting makes it look as if it is out in the country. It was built in 1506-10 for a banker, and appropriately contains superb frescoes by Raphael and others. It is now owned by the state and most is open to visitors, whilst Valenciennes’ stroke-perfect oil sketch is one of the Louvre’s treasures.

In Memoriam Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes 1 Finished paintings
In Memoriam Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes 2 Oil sketches

I also realised how little I knew of the Nabis. In a bid to become better acquainted with their art, I have looked at each of those associated with the movement in turn. What surprised me most was what each went on to paint next. In the case of Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), these include some unusual domestic interiors.

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Interior with the Back of a Woman in Red (1903), oil on canvas, 93 x 71 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Interior with the Back of a Woman in Red from 1903 develops the framing effect of multiple sets of doors, which draw the eye deeper towards the distant bedroom. The woman wearing a red dress looks away, her skirts swept back as if she has been moving towards the three steps which divide the space into foreground and background. There are tantalising glimpses of detail on the way: discarded fabric on a settee, clothing on a chair in the next room, and half of a double bed with a bedside lamp in the distance.

Paintings of Félix Vallotton: 2 Mysterious Interiors

Last year saw two major anniversaries, five hundred years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, and two centuries since the exhibition of one of the most important paintings in art history, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19).

Jean Louis Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Raft of the Medusa is a vast canvas, its figures shown life-sized, which has had huge impact on everyone who has seen it since 1819. Its account of extreme human survival appears completely authentic, and given the work that Géricault put into making it so, that’s perhaps not surprising. If you only see one painting when you visit the Louvre in Paris, make it this.

Why Géricault’s shipwreck changed the course of art 1
Why Géricault’s shipwreck changed the course of art 2

The other painting that everyone views in the Louvre is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Although I wouldn’t wish to discourage you, my series looking at his few surviving paintings hopefully conveyed the importance of his other works too.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) (c 1489-90), oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm, Czartoryskich w Krakowie, Kraków, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

This portrait of the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in whose court Leonardo rose to fame, is surely good reason to head for Kraków in Poland, where it is in the National Museum.

Giampietrino (1495–1549), copy after Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Last Supper (c 1520), oil on canvas, 298 x 770 cm, The Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Another of Leonardo’s paintings is more of a problem for the modern viewer. His original mural of The Last Supper from about 1520 is in a tragic state despite sustained and expert conservation work, but remains one of the greatest religious paintings of all time. This full-size copy of the original was painted by Giampietrino, and is now in the Royal Academy in London. The original remains in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.

In Memoriam Leonardo da Vinci: Pure Genius

In my series Medium Well Done, I looked at examples of paintings using different media and techniques. Two works which illustrate the versatility of relatively unusual media are shown below.

Autumn in the Mountains exhibited 1903 by Adrian Stokes 1854-1935
Adrian Stokes (1854–1935), Autumn in the Mountains (1903), tempera on canvas, 80.0 x 106.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1903), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In 1903, over four centuries after the zenith in the use of egg tempera, Adrian Stokes used it to great effect in this landscape of Autumn in the Mountains.

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789), The Chocolate Girl (c 1744-45), pastel on parchment, 82.5 x 52.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

By applying his pastels to a parchment ground and support rather than paper, Jean-Etienne Liotard was able to paint painstakingly detailed realist works like The Chocolate Girl (c 1744-45).

Medium Well Done starts with an introduction and terminology.