24 hours in…Sumptuous Siena with AHA alum Frankie Dytor

Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!

The famous Campo: night time haunt of young revellers



The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.

Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra

This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.


The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The  font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.

The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself.  The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains.  The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body.  The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.

Words can only do injustice to the beauty of the crypt

Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto

In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will  soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.

Dine in Italian rustic style


Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8

The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners  at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.


Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.

Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51

This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.

Munch and enjoy a spectacular view from the Piazza del Mercato

And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.


Tumblr and the New Generation – Frankie Dytor takes a look into our ‘period eye’

Visual culture in the twenty-first century is profoundly different to anything that has ever gone before it. This may seem like an obvious statement – everyone, of course, is aware of the effect that new technologies have had on our perception of art. But do we really understand the influence this has had on the nature of our ‘period’ eye, as Baxandall would say?


According to Baxandall, in order to best comprehend and analyse a piece of art we must understand the cultural conditions from which it was produced. (This theory, as many of you will know, he applied most famously perhaps to Renaissance Florence). It is, of course, extremely difficult – perhaps even impossible – to develop a true and unbiased understanding our own period eye.  This blog post – rather fearlessly then – is a small attempt to do just that!

Tumblr: shaping our generation's aesthetic?


To propose the media site tumblr as a source for shaping our culture’s period eye is maybe an exaggeration. After all, how many people does it really reach? Can we claim that it really has any effect on the production of art? Well, tumblr has an estimated 216.3 million viewers each month, with currently 108.9 million blogs and counting. Granted, this is a tiny percentage of the Western world. But it seems that those who use tumblr are generally more likely to be involved in artistic processes.

When something is treated in nail art, you know it must be popular

Firstly, it provides a platform in which budding new artists can showcase their art. There are an abundance of blogs which either belong to a specific artist, or, as is the unique nature of tumblr, display an assortment of the art that one person – artist or layman – enjoys. The effect of this is many fold. Primarily, it means that even those who do not specifically create or commission art are now being involved in the art ‘market’, if not in a commercial sense then certainly in terms of contemporary taste and sensibility. We are all aware of the profound influence of the media on young minds in shaping issues such as body image and sensationalism, but have we ever considered its effect on the aesthetic of today? Such bloggers have a huge power in shaping taste, particularly if we consider the susceptible nature of tumblr’s main demographic:teens and those in their early twenties. Its potential here is precisely why Yahoo deemed it worthy of a $1.1 billion investment.


Because anyone can reblog an image, tumblr may be seen as an ultimately democratic site which strips away the elitism so often attached to art. Even a thirteen year old from a small village in the countryside may become part of a cutting-edge art circle. But perhaps this carries many inherent dangers; do we want this to be the case? Is art in a sense degraded through such mass proliferation?

Maybe bloggers are the new Academicians...

Maybe the reverence and sanctity of art is slowly being degraded by mass culture. But is that really such a problem? Prints have been in circulation since the fifteenth century, although they in some sense only proved to re-enforce the distinction between art for the masses and ‘high’ art. Sites like tumblr treat both equally, and it is the viewer’s individual taste, rather than their  economic means, that determines whether they want it to be included as part of their own unique artistic profile.


Tumblr ultimately serves as an example of the changing way in which we may perceive art in an age where politics, art, food, fashion and more are regularly placed side by side.  Multi-media now encourages the world to engage with ‘high art’ on a day-to-day basis, rather than placing it on a pedestal. At the same time, Tumblr encourages all things to be viewed as potentially containing artistic significance. And for that, in my mind at least, it is hugely important.

Fancy entering into the world of tumblr? A few favourites……









And the most bizarre of them all….



Embrace the winter mood with these wintry paintings – by Faith Whitehouse

Here are four of my favourite representations of winter:

Casper David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ 1818

When I first saw Freidrich’s landscape paintings, I was struck by their dramatic and epic romance. His style is wonderfully represented in his 1818 painting ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, in which an isolated man with his back to the viewer, contemplates the enormity of nature before him. Here, nature dominates the canvas in all its wintery glory.

Fancisco Goya, ‘The Snowstorm’ 1786

During my A-level Art History course, I was frequently shown Goya’s twisted, weird and sometimes emotional paintings, so it came as a shock to me when I came across this winter scene. Painted shortly after he became the King’s artist in residence, ‘The Snowstorm’ depicts a small group of travellers trudging through the snow; perhaps a snapshot of poverty  to encourage his rich patrons to spare a thought about the poor.

Abraham Hondius, ‘Frozen Thames’ 1677

Between the sixteenth century and nineteenth century, London experienced many cold spells, even causing the Thames to freeze over. In this painting the artist captures that extraordinary event.

Piet Mondrian, ‘The Grey Tree’ 1911

One of Mondrian’s earliest paintings and part of his ‘tree’ series. The painting is a contrast to his modern, colourful pieces. The feel of icey winter consumes the canvas with its spindly branches that twist over each other. The tree is dark and feels bleak; a truly chilling winter painting.



The Body in Art: Latest exhibition to open at The Herbert Art Gallery

Throughout art history, the body has been manipulated, idealized and explored by artists. There is a fascination as to the way it works, how one unified form can come in so many shapes, both beautiful and ugly. I found I was no stranger to this fascination after going to see the latest exhibition to open at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, which combines a range of artist’s studies of the human form. The exhibition’s focal inspiration is the story of Pygmalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of an artist who sculpted a woman in ivory who was so beautiful that he fell in love with her and asked Venus to breathe life into the work.

Pygmalion - Edward Burne-Jones 1878

This story opens up complicated ideas about the relationship between the artist and their work and the exhibition brilliantly elaborates on this idea. Can an artist create something so perfect that we mistake it for reality? Should art depict total reality, or seek to rise above human imperfection? Portrayals of the body are used to remember, study and document the delicate and complex way our forms work. For this particular exhibition, although the area where it is held is small, the arrangement of space, and progression of works means the viewer is taken through the narrative of the body. Traditionally, the creation of the “ideal” body was seen as one of the highest achievements an artist can strive for and much of the art of Classical and Renaissance Periods sought to show the strength, agility and idealized perfection of the body. Indeed, the show’s earliest work by Durer is a print of the strong, overly muscled Hercules.


Hercules at the Crossroads - Albrecht Durer 1498

While these versions of perfection are of course beautiful, I found that the most striking and interesting study of the body was when the artist made no effort to hide the flaws of their subject. We see idealized Venues and luminous nudes in so much of the art of Western culture, but as you wandered through the history of the exhibition, the focus moves away from this archetypal form to real studies of blemished body. Perhaps the reasons this exhibition inspires such interest is the fact that it does not simply use the beauty from the Pygmalion story, but gives us, who are indeed imperfect bodies, a relatable experience. This is why the piece I found most striking from the exhibition, and I encourage you to look out for it, if you happen to visit, is Freud’s Woman with an Arm Tattoo, the latest work in the collection.

Woman with an Arm Tattoo 1996 by Lucian Freud 1922-2011

This image, drawn in black ink, is pretty hideous. There is no effort to flatter the sitter, with her bulging arms and way her hand is almost lost in her greasy hair in her despairing pose. She is no beauty. But the drawing is so unusual that I found it led me to question the traditional way I have regarded the body in art before.

The exhibition also includes works from Ford Maddox Brown, Francis Bacon, Gillian Wearing and a variety of others and each present new and dynamic ideas. It is running until the 31st April and I would highly recommend you pop in and have a wander around if you get the chance.

Lily Cole by Gillian Wearing 2009


Secession and the City: Portraits in Vienna 1900, by Lucy Speelman

Vienna 1900 – the result of revolution.  As an imperial capital of Austria-Hungary, the city was politically and socially volatile to its core.  It was an avant-garde powerhouse of creativity and radical ideas about taste, aesthetics and multiculturalism.  But just beneath this facade of modernity, the age-old insecurities about social status and national identity still thrived.  Prior to 1900, the city’s liberal climate had attracted immigrants from across the whole Empire, many of whom became successful, wealthy and cultured members of the middle classes.  These citizens were the ‘New Viennese’.  But the liberalism that had drawn them to Vienna was short-lived.

Nationalism, conservatism and anti-Semitism increased with the foundation of the Austrian Christian Social Party under Karl Lueger, who was then elected mayor of Vienna in 1897.  The diversity that previously had been embraced was suddenly rejected, and the newly established middle classes had somehow to prove themselves and defend their position.


'Portrait of an Unidentified Seated Girl in a White Satin Dress', Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1839

The New Viennese turned to portraiture, in a city where modern art was flourishing.  The National Gallery’s Facing the Modern exhibition addresses these political twists and turns very effectively.  It illustrates how the ambitious middle classes reacted against anti-liberalism using portraiture and theatricality as tools to assert themselves, and how their social instability resulted in a sense of alienation that permeated their whole world.  The first room, titled ‘The Old Viennese’, highlights the significance of the Miethke Gallery’s 1905 exhibition of portraits from the first half of the 19th century.  These portraits were intended to anchor the present to the past; to identify a lineage between the new and old that would pacify the middle classes’ anxieties about their social standing.  The stylistic traits of the works, based on the Biedermeier tradition, also provide an effective point of comparison for the later Secession works.

'Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl', Gustav Klimt, 1917-18
'Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder', Egon Schiele, 1912

The Secessionists took their name from the verb ‘to secede’, meaning ‘to withdraw’.  Like the Impressionists, they rejected the strict values of the academies and embraced the avant-garde, the different and the modern.  The portraits exhibited in this exhibition displayed the vitality and powerful expressivity of the Secessionist painters.  The ‘Big 3’ were represented (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka) in haunting and stunning works like Klimt’s unfinished Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl and Schiele’s expressive and immediate Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder, but there were also some real gems to be found in some of the lesser known artists.  Isidor Kauffman’s Young Rabbi from N. is a poignant statement about what it meant to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic political climate.  This beautiful portrait defends Judaism and its place in Vienna, yet proudly owns its differences.

'Young Rabbi from N.', Isidor Kaufmann, c.1910

The second room reflected the reformed face of domestic values and what constitutes a family portrait; Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality posed serious questions for family life.  The portraits on display here demonstrated a sense of vulnerability, and once again, anxiety.  Schiele’s unsettling work The Family (Self Portrait) from 1918 shows how much family portraits had changed since the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, for example.  Another room focused on the self-portrait and how self-definition was paramount, and another on women artists and their position within the artistic infrastructure.  Broncia Koller’s Nude Portrait of Marietta from 1907 represents a model as both a studio nude and a portrait, and is strikingly beautiful in its sophisticated simplicity.

'Nude Portrait of Marietta', Broncia Koller, 1907

The penultimate space was dedicated to death and Vienna’s morbid fascinations.  Posthumous and deathbed portraiture were very popular (as were death masks), and while this may seem rather pessimistic to current viewers, these works were often celebratory a well as commemorative.  The idea of the ‘beautiful corpse’ (schöne Leich) embodies this juxtaposition of beauty and dignity in life with beauty after death.  Klimt’s portrait of Ria Munk on her Deathbed (1912) is a perfect example of this kind of celebration.  Her head resting on a pillow, surrounded by flowers, the young woman could be mistaken for a literary maiden asleep, vulnerable yet beautiful, rather than the tragic reality of a young woman who shot herself in the heart.

'Ria Munk on her Deathbed', Gustav Klimt, 1912

Despite scathing reviews from the Guardian, in my opinion Gemma Blackshaw curated a show which informatively and enjoyably combined the old with the new and demonstrates the expressive power of the portrait.  Having just returned from Vienna myself, I can testify to its current magnificence and beauty.  Sadly, much of it is a reconstruction, having been torn apart by war.  But seeing this exhibition before I arrived helped me to imagine what an incredibly diverse and complex climate had occupied the city about a century ago; a radical age of theatricality, wonder, constant change and most importantly, anxiety.

'Portrait of a Lady in Black', Gustav Klimt, c.1894


With thanks to the National Gallery.  For more information, please see their website and the exhibition catalogue.

‘Laura Knight: Portraits’: thoughts on her recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, by Lucy Speelman


Volume after volume of academic rhetoric is devoted solely to the role of women in the arts and in their history.  I suspect it will continue to be such a hotly debated topic for many years to come, and I think it is unfortunate that so many artistic careers are overshadowed by the issue of gender, and that many works by female artists cannot be extricated from associations with feminism, whatever the artist’s intentions.  One of the first facts that I learnt about Laura Knight was that she was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy.  This is of course highly commendable, considering that the art establishment was so male-dominated.  But for me, her pioneering status is unrelated to her gender.  What I find extraordinary about her is the way that no subject was too trivial or uninteresting to her; no figure was too unimportant or too much of an outsider.  She never limited herself: her works display a huge variety of subject matter, all united by one theme – portraiture.  From gypsies to clowns, dancers to playwrights: each sitter was accorded the same amount of effort and significance.  This exhibition did its best to display each significant part of her oeuvre, and while it was small in size, it succeeded in presenting an impressive cross-section of this wonderful artist’s extensive career.


'Self Portrait', 1913, National Portrait Gallery, London


The first work visitors were presented with was her 1913 Self Portrait.  Controversial and criticised at its time of creation, this work is pioneering in the sense that it makes a bold statement about the equality of male and female artists.  Women had been painting themselves in conventional poses and smart dress for a long time already, but there stands Laura Knight with her back to the viewer, wearing fairly ‘ordinary’ clothes, in the process of painting a nude model (which was completely taboo for women artists).  The work seems to be a striking image of her life and ambition, reduced into one breathtaking painting.  Her bold use of colour is also seen in Rose and Gold (1914).  She once famously stated that “an ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world”, and this work is a perfect example of that sentiment.  Her startling brushstrokes and bright hues create a scene full of vibrancy and joy that perfectly embodies her passion for life.


'Rose and Gold', 1914


In 1919, Laura and her husband Harold moved to London, where Laura spent time backstage observing and painting Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and then actresses in Drury Lane and the Regent Theatre. She considered women performers to be her ‘fellow workers’ within the arts, and like Degas, she focused not on the polished grandeur of performance, but on the private intimacy of preparation and dressing rooms.  This theme of performers ‘off-duty’ and behind the scenes is continued in her paintings of circus performers, such as Three Clowns (1930).  By immersing herself in their daily routines, she gained a deeper understanding of their lives as travelling performers, and as a result her circus and gypsy works are full of colour and character.


'Three Clowns', 1930, Leicester Arts and Museums Service


Laura’s trip to Baltimore, Maryland in 1926 produced a skilled series of drawings of patients in the racially segregated wards of Johns Hopkins Memorial Hospital.  The drawings are closely cropped and reveal little about the identity or character of the subject, but are very intriguing and somehow haunting.  The wide-eyed child in The Piccaninny (1927) is particularly striking.  The group of drawings formed a quiet corner of the colourful first room of the exhibition, and the two styles contrast well.


'The Piccaninny', 1927, private collection


War presented Laura with a challenge.  Employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee, her artistic autonomy (particularly her choice of subject) was suddenly limited.  However, the result is overwhelmingly successful.  Only about 13% of WAAC artists were female, and they were usually steered towards depicting more domestic subjects, like nursing and food centres.  Take-Off (1943) is a stirring combination of vibrant colour and dramatic lighting that creates an incredibly striking work of action and intensity.


'Take-Off', 1943, Imperial War Museum, London


Her images of women at work promote and celebrate their position during the war, just as they were intended to.  Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring has grown to be an iconic image of the British women’s war effort.  It is dynamic, detailed and impressive, and perfectly fulfils the WAAC’s desire for a female factory worker role model.  The Nuremberg Trial, however, is an extraordinary work that shows the darker side of the war, the side of devastation and destruction that cannot be reduced or censored, and it contrasts well with the somewhat sterilised or idealised images of factory workers.


'Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring', 1943, Imperial War Museum, London

In my opinion, Laura Knight was an extraordinary woman, and this exhibition gave me a sense of the eccentricity and adventure that was her existence.  It was successful in showing that her work contains the same expressive vitality and dynamic spirit as she did as she made her inquisitive journey through life.


'The Nuremberg Trial', 1946, Imperial War Museum, London


For more information, please visit the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

Flesh and Bone: Moore and Bacon at the Ashmolean by AHA Alum Frankie Dytor

Bacon and Moore are displayed side by side for the first time at the Ashmolean

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore are hefty subjects for an exhibition. Both giants of modern Art in their own right, the combination was a promising one. But other than a shared era, could any more but tentatives links be drawn between the two? Such were my feelings on walking through the balcony corridor to the exhibition. The introductory posters did little to dispel these fears, highlighting Bacon’s lack of training in comparison to Moore’s academic credentials.

The first point of comparison given was the shared influence of Michelangelo. But what they drew from the Renaissance master is clearly very different. For Bacon, it was in the beauty of the male form, ever edged with the thrill of homoeroticism. For Moore however, it was in the treatment of material. In an interview with David Sylvester (the exhibition has a board of every newspaper clipping or article in which a comparison between the titular artists is made) he is quoted as saying “[Michelangelo] used a contrast between a highly finished part and a part that is not so finished, and this is something one likes”. Whilst not a particularly insightful comment onto Michelangelo’s work, is it nonetheless useful for establishing the key areas that Moore drew from.

What I had never personally noticed before the exhibition, or certainly not in such an extremity, was the grotesqueness present in so much of Moore’s work. Clearly, Bacon’s work is saturated with the grotesque. His figures are stripped of their form to become pure dripping matter. The only thing that saves them from total dissolution is the structure of the “room space“, to borrow a phrase from TJ Clarke. But Moore – he had always been the lover of smooth, curvilinear forms to me. Faced with ‘Woman‘ (1957 – 88) the polite classicism vanishes. Flesh bulges, almost to the point of oozing, but there is a horrible stillness in her mutilation – with no arms and legs she is totally trapped. The body has become master of the mind, and there is a kind of visceral elasticity to her body.

Moore's image of fertility

Brutality is, therefore, a common theme. A brief socio-historical context offers an easy answer to this – the presence of the Second World War at formative times for both of the artists. Some drawings by Moore during the air raids of the Blitz are even included. Yet there is an inescapable feeling that it cannot be so simply explained. In the shelter drawings, for example, there is an eternal quality to the figures. It is not three women huddled together, but the three fates. They almost all shrouded, personifications of some everlasting doom. Bacon’s work perhaps feels more contemporary, if only for the unremitting boldness of his colour.

Bacon's 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes' - almost abrasive in tone

How much the exhibition worked as a comparative exercise, I am not sure. Certainly, there are links to be made between the two, most evidently in their influences. The real strength of the exhibition however is the quality of works that have been chosen, particularly for Moore. The middle room, in particular, is a staggering testament to the virtuosity of the pair. It is, for me at least, British Art at its absolute best.


‘Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love and Leisure’ at the National Gallery, by Lucy Speelman

‘If music be the food of art, play on’ – Rachel Campbell Johnston, The Times

Painting is traditionally seen as an art concerned only with the visual and the aesthetic, and similarly, music is considered a solely aural medium.  This exhibition, however, attempts to prove that the two are inextricably linked, and to demonstrate how this phenomenon is evident in 17th Century Dutch art.  By including rare musical instruments, a visual link is created between these objects and those in the paintings, and viewers are also reminded that the creation of these fine, intricate instruments is an art in itself.


'Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life' by Harmen Steenwyck (National Gallery)

The first room, entitled ‘Music as attribute and allegory’ explores the connotations and symbolic significance of music when depicted in art.  Music was a popular and important theme in Dutch art, and it carried a wide range of associations.  Since there was no recorded music at the time, music was an art of performance and could be used to denote transience.  The presence of musical instruments in Harmen Steenwyck’s ‘Still Life: an Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’ symbolises human knowledge and the pleasures of the senses, but the work is dominated by a skull, an obvious symbol of death.  Frans van Mieris the Elder’s ‘Self Portrait of the Artist, with a Cittern’ demonstrates the dialogue between painting and music: since music was considered to be the more sophisticated of the two, it was often referred to in an attempt to raise the status of the sitter.  The works of the first room engage well with the works of the second, which feature musical companies and festive galleries.  The poignant contrast between instruments being played and lying still emphasizes the change in atmosphere that music can bring to a work.


'A Young Woman seated at a Virginal' by Johannes Vermeer (National Gallery)

The third and fourth rooms also form a cohesive dialogue, this time on the quantity of musicians in each work.  The works in the third room all feature ‘intimate duets’, and they explore the role of music in developing romantic relationships, and the metaphor of music as harmony.  Music provided a channel of unsupervised communication for young men and women at the time, as it was one of the only activities that did not require a chaperone.  These works contrast well with the solo musicians featured in the fourth room, who either appear lost in solitude or open to participation.  Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman seated at a Virginal’ looks out to the viewer, inviting them to join her in a duet by picking up the viola de gamba that lies suggestively in the foreground.  The inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s exquisite ‘The Music Lesson’ (Royal Collection) translates as ‘music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’, emphasizing music’s emotional power and importance.

'The Music Lesson' by Johannes Vermeer (Royal Collection)


An informative aspect of the exhibition is the focus on the technical aspects of Vermeer’s work, which gives visitors an interesting insight into his inventive methods.  Extreme close-ups provide an opportunity to see in precise detail how Vermeer achieved certain effects, like dappled sunlight on hair, or the wood-grain appearance of instruments.  Scientific examination explains how the underpainting and surface layers react, and how physical traces of Vermeer remain, in brush bristles and even a fingerprint or two. The display emphasizes the importance of close, scientific examination of artworks and opens up this area of research to the public.


The exhibition is however, not without fault.  It successfully expresses how music was an integral part of 17th Century upper class life in the Dutch Republic, but there is no coverage of music-making scenes featuring peasants and the working classes, which is a pity.  Vermeer himself completely neglected these figures in his oeuvre, but they appear frequently in works by his contemporaries, such as Jan Steen.  Visitors may also be disappointed, as I was, in the lack of works on loan from external sources.  Nicholas Penny (director of the National Gallery) did state previously that the exhibition was intended to be based around works in the gallery’s permanent collection, but I must admit I was expecting, after paying £7 (with no concession option for students), a little more bang for my buck.  The underlying intention seems to be to gain publicity and profit from the loan of the Kenwood House Vermeer.

'The Guitar Player' by Johannes Vermeer (Kenwood House, on loan to the National Gallery)


That being said, the exhibition is evocative, informative and clearly laid out.  The inclusion of live music performed by the Academy of Ancient Music is also a bonus if you visit at the right time, and the element of multimedia is quite effective and refreshing.  The exhibition presents a striking contrast between stillness and movement, between silence and sound, just as Vermeer aimed to do all those years ago.


For more information please visit the National Gallery’s website.

The Exhibition continues until 8th September

John Singer Sargent: An interior in Venice by Andy MacKay

Born in Florence in 1856 to well-off expatriate New Englanders, John Singer Sargent grew up speaking four different languages and was schooled in the great centres of European civilisation, later going on to art school in Florence, Dresden, Berlin and Paris. Whilst studying in the studio of distinguished Third Republic portraitist Carolus-Duran in Paris, Sargent quickly found his own vibrant style and soon gained several commissions for portraits-in-oil from the French aristocracy. Handsome, intelligent, well-connected and with an already assured painterly technique, the young Sargent’s career naturally began to flourish.

John Singer Sargent, Self Portrait, 1906

 Familiar with Venice from childhood, Sargent was a regular visitor to this faded watery paradise of ruins. He often extended his trips in order to stay with distant cousins, the wealthy Bostonian Curtis family who lived on the piano nobile of the 17th century Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. Painted on the eve of the new century, An Interior in Venice (1898) is a rare ‘conversation’ piece which depicts the Curtis’ in their grand drawing room. We find the middle-aged Daniel Curtis in profile, positioned as a man of the world, reading a starched folio and yet seemingly ready to leap into action at any given moment. The middle-aged Mrs Curtis (or the “Dogaressa” as Sargent always affectionately called her) sits passively, eyes dreaming reflectively toward us – but not at us; her hands joined and resting peacefully upon her needlework. Across the room, towards the background, we see Ralph Curtis and his new American bride, Lisa De Wolfe Colt. Ralph was an elegant contemporary of Sargent’s and both young men studied at the same time under Carolus-Duran in Paris. He, with his lacquered moustache, perches upon the edge of a gilt console table, one hand upon his slender right hip, his body a distorted contrapposto hinting at the dynamic potential placed here in repose. Lisa, dressed in feminine, virginal whites and creams has just poured herself a cup of tea and cuts a newly fashionable masculine silhouette with her puffed and padded shoulders.

Sargent, An interior in Venice

An Interior in Venice possesses a vast amount of deliberately dark and indistinct space within the canvas. The architectural contours of the room itself are comprehensible only because of the timeless objects which adorn it. The past exists here, unavoidably; and for only a moment the present must submit to it. The two couples are separated here, not only generationally, but symbolically too by a significant swath of carpet whose muted tones neatly balance the Baroque exaggeration of the walls and ceiling. Apparently entirely unaware of each other, the four Curtis’ are each struck by the light of the Canal which bind one to the other. Stagey and theatrical it may be, but the painting is deeply Venetian in that the ‘narrative’ is woven together by the shimmering, generous light of the canals. What we see here is an idealised moment of family quietude marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the lapping of waves against the Palazzo walls.

The Palazzo Barbaro

Few artists are lucky enough to capture the essence of their milieu, but undoubtedly Sargent did. His work is a visual complement to the novels of his contemporary Henry James, who in fact wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902) whilst staying at the Palazzo Barbaro. Sargent’s portraits are stylish fantasies, powerful near-operatic meditations on morality and decadence and clearly evoke one of the last great moments of European confidence.