Despite everything that’s happened, over the last year I’ve been able to research, write and publish here over 350 articles about paintings and art. In today’s and tomorrow’s articles, I’m going to take a brisk walk through a small selection of those, and show some of my favourite paintings from among them. I hope that this gives you a chance to catch up with any that you’ve missed, and others which you’d like to view again before we hurtle into another New Year.
Last January, I moved away from more familiar territory to look at the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani, who died so tragically young a century ago. Among them is this truly haunting image of his lover, the young and beautiful art student Jeanne Hébuterne, who died by her own hand shortly after Modigliani’s death.
A little later in the year, I commemorated another death, of the American artist Benjamin West. Although much out of fashion now, and with a career which was blighted by bad fortune, West at his best was a superb painter. He had deserved success with some of his religious works, including Isaac’s Servant Tying the Bracelet on Rebecca’s Arm, from 1775.
This shows a moment from the story of Eliezer of Damascus, a servant to Abraham and his son Isaac, who identified Rebecca as the bride for Isaac. Eliezer was sent with ten camels on a mission to find the bride as the woman who offered to draw water for him and for his camels to drink. Having found her at a well, Eliezer gave her two golden bracelets and a nose ring, tokens which marked her as Isaac’s intended wife. With just the two main figures, West is able to tell the story clearly, with his excellent depiction of a sour-faced camel lending a touch of wry humour.
The major anniversary last year was, of course, five centuries since the death of Raphael.
Of all Raphael’s tondo Madonnas, it’s his Madonna della Sedia (Madonna of the Chair) from 1513-14 which is my favourite. It shows a thoroughly real and natural mother with two infants, every surface texture rendered as in life.
Soon after Raphael had arrived in Rome in late 1508, the Pope set him to work on a series of rooms in the Vatican Palace now known after Raphael, his stanze. The first of these contains large frescoes which are among the finest of the Renaissance, in particular The School of Athens.
An assorted collection of Greek philosophers, together with a few extras, are chatting, teaching, and generally loafing about in an impressive building of grand classical style which is an extended fantasy based on Bramante’s contemporary architecture. Although there’s no coherent narrative to this painting, it contains numerous diverting scenes in which the viewer is challenged to recognise the participants.
Through the first quarter of the year, I completed my long series of articles which summarise the story of Orlando Furioso, showing paintings and illustrations of many of its scenes.
One of the most exciting passages concerns the rescue of the epic’s heroine, Angelica, from the jaws of a sea orc, by one of its male leads, Ruggiero. Ariosto borrowed this from the classical myth of Perseus and Andromeda, but changed many of the details.
At first sight, JAD Ingres’ Roger Rescuing Angelica which he painted in 1819 could be mistaken for the myth, which has been even more popular among painters. One obvious problem here is that Ruggiero isn’t flying on winged sandals, or riding Pegasus, but astride a hippogriff. In the end, he’s unable to wound it, so slips a magic ring onto Angelica’s finger and uses a magic shield to render the orc unconscious. The pair then fly off to Brittany.
Another longstanding project during the year has been collecting and studying the work of painters associated with Symbolism, which seem sadly under-documented.
Among several wonderful artists who returned positive is Frances Hodgkins, a New Zealander who painted for much of her career in Britain. Among her paintings, my favourite is Purbeck Courtyard, Morning, from 1944. Although known as the Isle of Purbeck, this part of the English Channel coast of Dorset is actually a peninsula. Here she shows the small yard behind tight-packed buildings, glowing red in the morning sunlight. In the centre foreground is a large cat basking in the sun.
Carlos Schwabe’s paintings are more overtly Symbolist. He developed the theme of the Grim Reaper in this watercolour of Death of the Gravedigger from 1900. An old gravedigger is seen deep in his own work, on a snowy winter’s day. Squatting beside that grave is the female figure of Death, holding in her right hand a small oil lamp emitting an unnatural green light. She looks languidly down at the gravedigger, and he looks up at her in fear. The long barren twigs of a weeping willow form a curtain which echoes the curves of her wings.
Many of the Symbolists were Russian painters. Among them, I particularly enjoyed Mikhail Vrubel’s works. His Pan, from 1899, is of course derived from classical myth, through retelling in Russian folk tales. He clutches his ‘pan pipes’, partly dressed in animal skins, as a waning crescent moon hangs just above the horizon. His left hand is marvellously hoary and aged.
One topic which I examined in some detail is the relationship between painters and those who support and pay them, patrons, dealers and others. There have been patrons who have almost guided the brush of the artists that they commission, and there are plenty of stories which turn out not to be entirely true.
For me, one of the greatest revelations when researching those articles was the discovery of the Italian collector who taught Nicolas Poussin classical myths. Dal Pozzi also commissioned Poussin’s magnificent Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651). Here the classical tragedy of the deaths of the lovers is being played out against one of Poussin’s most exciting landscapes. The lioness from that story has escaped into the middle ground and is attacking a horse, as everyone else is fleeing from the imminent thunderstorm.
Perhaps my most popular series of the year has been our weekly look at classical deities. Even the experts can get confused and disagree over which is depicted in some paintings.
Among my favourites here is John Singer Sargent’s large masterpiece Orestes Pursued by the Furies, which he painted between 1922 and 1925, just prior to his death. Over its 100 square feet of canvas, it shows a young and naked Orestes cowering under the attacks of the Furies, as he tries to run from them. The swarm of no less than a dozen fearsome Furies have daemonic mask-like faces, blond hair swept back, and hold out burning brands and fistfuls of small snakes.
Sargent has gilded the flames on the brands, which makes them shine proud, just like fire. The isolated woman who stands in Orestes’ way is no Fury, though: she wears a gilded crown, and with the clean incision of a stab wound above her left breast can only be his mother, Clytemnestra. Sargent shows a profusion of arms, eight of them clutching snakes and thrust in Orestes’ direction. This is surely one of the greatest narrative paintings of the twentieth century.