Rachael Herman

Category: Art

At Rest (06/2012), R.Herman

At Rest, Rachael Herman (2012), oil on canvas, 500 mm x 500 mm

At first glance, one could perhaps be duped into thinking that these here limbs are just a run-of-the-mill pair of horse legs, and yes, to a great extent, they are. However, what struck me as unique (the horse is in fact called ‘Unique’. See what I did there…) about these particular equine appendages is the stance in which they are positioned – a rather dainty ‘quatrieme devant’ in fact – so much so I simply had to recapture the moment in oils.

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Weston (05/2012), R.Herman

Weston Rachael Herman (2012), oil on canvas, 800 mm x 700 mm

Please welcome my latest piece that I have been beavering away at for these past few weeks. Confined to my little bedroom, amidst the fumes of turpentine and frustration, I am happy to say that I have finally finished this study of Cat’s fabulous horse, Unique. It does appear to be devoid of a rider (soz Cat), as I wanted to portray the beautiful creature trotting about her meadow freely, as nature intended, or something like that. (Basically, I acted out of cowardice, as I was too scared to paint not only a horse, but a person atop the horse, as painting a horsey alone is a mighty challenge in itself!)

As far as the technical aspects of the piece are concerned, I was going for a more impressionistic approach – you know, all Monet and such. A prime example of this is demonstrated by the trees in the left of the scene, which accounts for there being less focus on form and more on colour and the interplay of light. This is a style I am thus far unfamiliar with in my own practise, hence why it probably looks terrible, but hey, I’ll put that one down to experience I guess… As far as the horse is concerned, I tackled that in my usual ‘blend the colours like there’s no tomorow’ approach – a failsafe when faced with one of those difficult equine shapes.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

Rach.

Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (1957), Judy Cassab

Hello there bloggers, I’ve missed you. So, here’s a bit of news for you artistic types who may or may not appreciate this little success story of mine: I have finally been accepted onto the Art History MA that I have spent the last twelve months working towards. Happy days! It appears that all those posts waffling on about paintings may actually come in useful. Perhaps… Anyway, now that the mood is light and the time is right, I shall proceed by introducing to you the painterly stylings of none other than Mrs Judy Cassab, whose study Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (1957) – who henceforth will be referred to as ‘Hugh’ or ‘Hughie’ for the sake of my sanity – will be the subject of this evening’s scrutiny. As usual, I will commence with a brief bio of said artist before diving head-first (or more likely bellyflopping) into discussion of the painting itself.

Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (1957), Judy Cassab, oil on canvas, 914 mm x 756 mm, courtesy of npg.org.uk

Judy Cassab, born Judit Kaszab, was received into 1920’s Vienna to Hungarian parents. Now upon reading this, I was consequently certain that there had been a vital error in Wikipedia‘s information, as Cassab had been labelled as an Australian artist. How hilarious, I thought, that they have confused Austria with Australia. Bless their little encyclopedic socks. However, after further research (the National Portrait Gallery website) into this apparent geographical misdemeanour, I have in fact discovered that I had been a tad hasty in my mockery of our favourite online information station, and for that I must apologise. It seems that Judy emigrated to Australia in 1951, after studying painting in Hungary, to make a name for herself as a portraitist. During her stint Down-Under she held over fifty solo exhibitions, debuting at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney in 1953, and was recipient of several awards, including the prestigious Archibald prize (she won that twice, as you do).

In 1957 Judy was to paint the portrait that eventually made its way to London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1972 and, probably her greatest achievement to date, onto my little blog here another 30 years later ;-). The sitter, Hughie, was a British Labour politician, whose role within his party ranged from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Leader of the Opposition (1955 until his death in 1963). It is apparent that he was a popular political protagonist, even regarded by some as “the best Prime Minister we never had”. His untimely death put paid to his ever becoming Prime Minister though, as I mentioned earlier he never saw past the year 1963 due to the tragically abrupt onset of autoimmune disease, Lupus erythematosus, Awful stuff.

Close up of Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (1957), Judy Cassab, oil on canvas, 914 mm x 756 mm, courtesy of npg.org.uk

What strikes me most about the painting, as with most examples of portraiture come to mention it, is that heartening semblance of sincerity conveyed through the eyes of the sitter. This, in my opinion and I am sure that this is the general consensus, is a mark of a truly great portrait. To display such an obvious degree of warmth and approachability in the countenance of a political figure is naturally considered to be against the norm. In addition, the casual stance and playful tilting of the head, like that of an inquisitive puppy, team up to enforce this idea of honest charm.

 Moving on from the head to the shoulders, knees and toes (minus the toes), and in particular to Hugh’s relaxed downward pointing left hand contrasted with the firmness of his right, we can see a body abundant in symbolism. Taking a closer look at the aforementioned hands, we can read a man with two sides to his personality: a relaxed and casual left accompanied by a steadfast and controlled right. Furthermore, the composition of the hands, with the left being higher than the right (left hand denoting left-wing), could indicate Hugh’s political standpoint as he was viewed to be on the liberal end of Labour. His cross-legged seating arrangement is indicative of a preference for privacy; a closed-off awkwardness in being under the careful scrutiny of the portrait artist. More discomfort is present in the aslant positioning of the body, no doubt due to the unorthodox way the subject is seated on the chair, and again in the tie laying catawampus across the abdomen.

If we next turn our attention to the background of the piece, we can see that Cassab’s choice of yellow could again be interpreted as a nod to Liberalism. Likewise yellow, the shade of positivity and springtime, has a darker side to it: bearing both the burdens of illness (think jaundice, and decay) and yellow-bellied cowardice. In the case of Hugh Gaitskell, however, I believe the former to be true as opposed to the latter, mainly due to his popularity within the political realm. The other prominent colour featured is green, which in my mind equals prosperity when talking affairs of the state, and thus nods to Hugh’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is interesting to note, on the subject of colour symbolism and its reference to political preference, that there is no direct nod to the Labour party, ie. there is no real visible use of red in the painting. Strange.

Clara Serena Rubens (1618), Peter Paul Rubens, oil on canvas, 370mm x 270mm, courtesy of wikipaintings.org

In summary I think it is fair to say that Cassab’s understanding of colour is enviable. All she needs is the mere hint of a brushstroke in a particular shade and she has constructed a perfectly formed hand. It’s sickening. Each piece is alive with colour and movement, with every stroke placed only under the utmost care and consideration. For some reason Cassab’s style reminds me of a piece by 16th century Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens. The one I am talking about is what I would class as his most well known portrait, and it is the study of his then five-year-old daughter, Clara Serena, pictured above. Perhaps it is the similar expression on their faces; the twitch of a smile playing about their lips and the genuine innocence in their eyes, together adding to the whole child-like demeanour present in both subjects. Or, more than likely, it is the same attentive manner in which the sitters have been painted. As far as my own work is concerned, I hope to embrace this dynamic way of painting and to place more importance in the composition of the face and body, as this is very revealing when it comes to audience interpretation.

Thanks for listening.

Sheringham Park, Norfolk (12/05/2012)

Nostalgic views of the North Sea, sun-soaked Rhododendrons, mysterious monuments, and Bluebell-dappled woodland: all hallmarks of a splendid afternoon spent at what some would debate to be Norfolk’s finest picnic destination, Sheringham Park.

Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian: The Norwich Edition

Being somebody who is paid to teach children the very basics in literacy – with the most recent focus aptly being on those darned VCV words – AND something of a Renaissance-worshipper, the fact that I have been calling today’s featured artist ‘T-ee-tian’ – as opposed to the phonetically correct ‘T-i-tian’ – is no less than mortifying. I can only beg for your forgiveness and ask that you take me seriously for the rest of the impending spiel.

Norwich has undoubtedly upped its game in terms of artistic offerings. I mean a Titian, in sleepy, backward Norfolk – the communication black hole of the UK – amazing. (How did they physically organise this when the mobile phone reception and broadband connections are practically pre-historic?! ) But then, let’s be honest with ourselves, what else can one expect from the self-professed ‘Fine City’; the Venice of England? The painting itself, Diana and Actaeon was kindly on loan from the prestigious National Gallery, London to the more humble setting of the Castle Museum, Norwich. The Castle Museum is much loved by all in Norfolk, being a favourite destination for school trips, therefore the news of Titian’s attraction being temporarily housed inside those medieval walls filled me with unbridled happiness. I simply had to take a peak…

Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

Determined to leave the masterpiece until last, I busied myself with the exhibition filler, which firstly provided a bit of background for Titian’s work; and secondly supplied alternative interpretations of Ovid’s great Metamorphoses. One of these alternatives was London-based photographer, Tom Hunter‘s recreation of the mythical scene, featuring a scantily clad Kim Cattrall. Classic Cattrall. Now I’m not really one for casual nudity but I must admit, however, that I did find the comparison between the attenuated figures of Hunter’s recent piece juxtaposed with the voluptuous forms of Titian’s age thoroughly engaging. A stark look at how the attitude towards beauty has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last 500 years.

As far as the background on the work was concerned, we were fed with the details on Titian and also the original poem that the piece had been derived from. For the benefit of those not so well-aquainted with the Roman poet, Ovid, I shall give a brief rundown of events. During a usual day’s hunt, Actaeon (just your everyday Roman chap) happened to stray from his hunting party. In doing so he stumbled across the secret bathing place of Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, a most unfortuitous mishap. Now Diana, aka Artemis, did not take too kindly to this intrusion; so much so that she bestowed a wonderful punishment upon dear Actaeon, one that would involve his transformation into a splendid stag if he ever spoke again. For a huntsman, you can imagine that this would be quite inconvenient: the hunter taking the place of the hunted. Another lesson learnt for all of us there, courtesy of those barmy – almost wrote balmy there, whoops – Greeks. Saying that, the only lesson I can see here is that either Diana/Artemis was what some would call an ugly beast, therefore was inspired by humiliation to punish Actaeon; or more likely, Actaeon was not worthy to cast his eyes upon a beauty so divine, so pure that if he ever spoke of this encounter to anyone, it would be the last thing he ever did. Except for safety’s sake, Artemis extended the silence to any word that he spoke about anything, you know, just in case.

One of Actaeon’s hounds that would later turn on him, Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

Once I had had my fill of the pre-painting palaver, I finally (and tentatively, for there was an oddly tense atmosphere surrounding the painting) sidled up next to an elderly lady who appeared to be the guardian of the painting. She was a heavily-cloaked creature whose nose was hovering mere inches away from the 450 year-old surface – as if sharing in a whispered secret from the oils themselves. Seeking to imitate this apparently satisfying method of painting perusal, I too peeked and craned as far as my little neck could manage from the spot I’d rooted myself to, near the left corner of the piece (I wasn’t as brave as the aforementioned dear in strolling casually in front of the painting, perhaps due to the bench of judging eyes behind me, regardless of how captivating the moue of Diana happened to be).

The painting itself was every bit as beautiful as I’d hoped. The highly saturated colours and angelic forms, painted with the utmost of grace and ease, are just two of the trademarks typical of the Venetian legend. Looking more closely at the colours present in the piece, we will notice that red is certainly one of the predominant shades, linking both protagonist and antagonist. We can interpret this to thus signify the impending bloodshed of Actaeon, as a result of his transgression against the divine lady.  Next we turn to the periwinkle enshrouding one of the nymphs which, reflecting the true blue of the sky, we can interpret as a clear representation of the purity and femininity present within a crowd as chaste as this. These blue hues, paired with the crimson, present quite a startling contrast against the neutrality of the earthy sepia and ochre.

Close-up of nymph, Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

One aspect of the piece I personally deem to be the most interesting is the inclusion of the black female tending to Diana, hastily tugging at the cloth to ensure the goddess regains her modesty due to being uncovered. One wonders why Titian made the decision to paint the female attendant amongst Diana’s naiad-like aides, and the resultant significance this had on the Renaissance world. This calls for a separate essay methinks… In addition, the interaction between the pup yapping furiously at the heels of Diana and the haggard hound belonging to Actaeon provides a great paradigm of hostility and affront: the overall themes of the piece.

Close-up of Diana and female attendant, Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

On the whole, it was a great privilege to be able to view a genuine piece of Renaissance mastery, and at somewhere so close to home. But to the neatly placed comments book, inviting us to simper a grateful thanks for our stay at Hotel Titian, I must say no thank you. It’s true that the Castle Museum should be applauded for their efforts in managing to eke an entire exhibition out of this one great painting, however, I do not wish to kiss their medieval bottoms over it. Maybe that’s a bit harsh… One thing that did make me chuckle, though, were the twenty people clinging to the only seat in the room – as if walking around such a small exhibition required this agent of respite – appearing  as an island of middle-age pretenders amongst a sea of Renaissance finery.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1840), Richard Rothwell

Here we are again, folks; another weekend, another long and boring post about a painting. Ah, I’m only kidding, I promise this one will be shorter! Today I will be guiding you in the way of Dublin Society School graduate and Royal Hiberian Academy member, Richard Rothwell. His works consist primarily of portraiture and genre pictures, but the work I will be focussing on is his study of novelist Mary Shelley, which can be viewed below. As usual I will provide you with a little background on the subject, followed by an analysis of technique, content, context and relevance to myself. All very lovely.

Shelley, despite having achieved such literary acclaim by the tender age of twenty three with her magnum opus, Frankenstein, had a woefully tragic life. She outlived three of her four children and her husband, poet-cum-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, before finally facing her own mortality in the guise of a brain tumour, aged an equally tender fifty one – this is one woman who knew pain and knew it intimately. Upon reading her lengthy biography on that fine site Wikipedia, I will admit I was close to tears. I’m serious, this extract from her despairing husband’s notebook after the death of their third child is so agonisingly heart-felt it hurts:

‘My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And left me in this dreary world alone?

Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road

That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.

For thine own sake I cannot follow thee

Do thou return for mine.’

After that dreary introduction, we’ll get down to the artwork itself. The painting above was completed by Rothwell in 1840, a year after Mary started suffering from symptoms of what was later discovered to be a brain tumour. Although those fresh, rosy apple cheeks of hers hint at youthful beauty; the haunted pallor, complemented by mournful, sunken eyes, serve as the testimony of a woman forced to live under the curse of perpetual mourning, and following that, personal affliction. This is perhaps reinforced in the way that Mary is holding herself, which appears to be quite awkward; her right shoulder hunched above her left forcing her to hold her head and neck in a somewhat serpentine ‘S’ shape. Not an unattractive woman, her slight, birdlike features – the gently pointed nose and swan-like neck – emerge from the gloom as if a rare and exquisite nocturnal creature. The overall eerie feel of the piece does bare resemblance to the literary stylings of the subject, whose repertoire includes gothic tales of dark, experimental science and apocalyptic sci-fi.

When addressing the colouring of the painting, it is easy to first notice the predominant black appeal of the outfit – undoubtedly referencing the succession of unbearable losses that Mary has had to endure – as well as the humility of the muted surroundings; presenting themselves to the audience under no pretence of opulence or grandeur – perhaps signifying the poverty of her latter years. The dark russet waist-band again signifies sorrow and seriousness, and being an autumnal colour, the subsequent ‘autumn years’ of the sitter. The flame red and vermillion tones of the chair could signify her political seat -one of Romanticism and Liberalism -as Mary was well-known for presenting her political views across in her writing.

Rothwell’s style creates an expressive yet careful rendition of the human form, with hints of Classicism (in the study of the face) and the burgeoning influence of Romanticism (shown through Rothwell’s choice of subject – a major player, not only in Gothic, but also in Romantic literature), which was starting to gain a strong hold over the arts at the time. This is particularly true if one views Mary as the heroic figure: an intelligent and strong female overcoming the trials of a tragic life in order to emerge triumphant as a literary genius. Or something like that. Where tremendous care appears to have been taken in the portrayal of Mary’s delicate face, half of that care is evident in the representation of her attire. Prime example being the joining of the flesh with the dress, where we can see a rather faltered marriage of paint with canvas, and no matter how firm I set my mind against it, my eye inevitably strays over to and pauses at this artistic misdemeanour. And now yours will too. Sorry.

If I am to learn anything from Rothwell’s approach to painting, it would be how he uses colour and earnest facial expressions to evoke a sympathetic and sincere atmosphere about his subject, thus causing the viewer to feel warmly and gently beckoned into the company of his sitter. Well, that’s what I think anyway.

Gertrude Elizabeth (née Blood), Lady Colin Campbell (1897), Giovanni Boldini

Please forgive my mal-attentiveness, dear reader, for I appear to have forsaken you in favour of Easter holiday pursuits. Fear not though, for Easter – and thus my shameful neglect of you – is drawing to a close. To account for my bad manners, I will resume my analytical-bumblings-that-are-an-excuse-for-Art History with a sneak peak at what Mister Giovanni Boldini has had to offer the art world.

Boldini originally caught my eye whilst I was strolling around none other than the National Portrait Gallery, with his rather seductive painting of that saucy minx, Gerty Campbell. Throwing off the shackles of restraint, with regards to anatomic representation, Boldini put to good use his somewhat flamboyant style when representing this fine fille. As the picture shows, Gertrude appears to be a voluptuous and opulent woman; clothed from head to foot in striking black; reclining luxuriously on a chaise longue, all the while making come-hither eyes at the viewer. Oh the marvellous life of the rich.

Now that you have been tugged away from her penetrative stare, I will commence by providing a little bit of background on our rather glamorous subject. On May 3rd 1857 the proud parents, Edmund Maghlin and Mary Amy, welcomed their unfortunately christened child, Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, into the world. The youngest of three, Gertrude grew up with her siblings on the family estate in the picturesque County Clare, south-west Ireland. It was at the tender age of twenty-three that she met her soon-to-be hubby, Lord Colin Campbell whilst on a social visit to Scotland in the October of 1880. Ten months later, no sooner had she become Lady Colin Campbell, was our Gerty to discover that her beloved was of a particularly sickly disposition, sporting what some have later said to have been a bad case of syphilis. Nice one Col. Once the beautiful Lady had been enlightened to the infection she was now playing host to, it is needless to say that divorce was the consequence – although this was not fully processed until five years after the wedding, during which time Lord Colin accused his wife of four separate bouts of extra-marital relations. Can you wonder at it though, knowing what he had lured the poor lass into?!

The newly single Gertrude Blood next turned her attention to, and subsequently became a dab hand at, journalism. Despite her peers deeming her as quick-witted, intelligent, beautiful and athletic; she was to remain constantly under the looming shadow of the messy divorce trial and shameful allegations that were a result of her troubled marriage. In 1886, Gertrude’s potential as a worthy subject for painting first became recognised when she was requested to pose for James Abbott McNeill Whistler in the portrait Harmony in White and Ivory: Portrait of Lady Colin Campbell – this was one in a series of paintings depicting beautiful women in the varying neutral tones of white. However, due to unknown circumstances, this study is no longer with us. Eleven years on from this and we find ourselves face to face with Giovanni Boldini’s above tribute to the then forty-year-old gentlewoman.

With that hefty back story now firmly behind us, we can start to look at the actual artwork. Composition-wise, it is of a fairly simple structure, with the figure cutting a rather pleasant ‘S’ shape from top to base of the canvas; both suitably enticing and seductive. One thing that initially catches the eye is the positioning of the legs. They are not what one would expect to look like in a painting of a woman, as they are slightly apart. There is still a hint of delicacy and reserve, however, but more so a nod to the masculinity and power attributed, no doubt, from her sporting pursuits and noteworthy career.

Moving on to the threads of dear Gerty, we can see that she is very much a champion of the LBD (‘L’ being ‘large’ in this case, as opposed to ‘little’), complete with plunging neckline (showing us that, even at forty, she has still ‘got it’) and spray of flowers (expressing, ‘Yes, I may be a strong female, but I still have a hint of dainty damsel about me and a taste for the pretty things.’) – Below is another example of Boldini’s work, entitled Profile of a Young Woman (date unknown), featuring the trademark petit bouquet and crisp, graceful clothing – But yes, back to the dress; in all its sombre Morticia Adams-esque extravagance there is definitely a high degree of classical beauty about it. Notice the folding of the drapery in all its splendour, tumbling gently down those statuesquely long legs of hers. Team that with the simple gold bangles encircling each wrist and we have ourselves quite the Grecian goddess; one that even Titian would have been honoured to represent.

When faced with a portrait featuring predominantly funereal colours, it is easy for one to cling to the notion that the subject is steeped in tragedy. It is true that Gertrude was essentially given a death sentence by her generous husband, therefore one could easily put two and two together in order to describe her post marital life as one waiting to die from a then increasingly painful and ultimately fatal disease. But, in terms of what Boldini was trying to show in his piece, I don’t believe this to be the case. Arguably her most successful days, and consequently happiest, were those spent after her divorce; the post-Colin days being more of an awakening than a quietening. A more plausible theory, perhaps, would be that the colour black relates instead to the authority she commanded as a result of her individual achievements – think black-belt in Karate, the highest possible honour.

Boldini’s typical painting style is an multifaceted one, consisting of a myriad expressive brushstrokes, centring on a carefully illustrated face; the porcelain colouring of the skin contrasting sharply with the darkened tones of the attire; the dainty head perched atop an exuberantly painted body – see how the proportions are slightly mismatched in his study of Gertrude. I really love the overall energetic feel of the paintings, one which has the viewer swept up in a whirlwind of glamour and femininity. The focus is then gently settled onto the facial expression: the piercing yet flirtatious gaze of the lady, complete with a knowing smirk playing about those pert lips. InGertrude Elizabeth, the former suggests a reference to her inquisitiveness as an interviewer; the latter to her famous lightening sharp wit.

All in all, we have a superbly interesting lady immortalised by an equally superb man: a man who clearly has a talent for portraying women in a way that demonstrates excellent reverence and understanding.

Self Portrait (1691), Michael Dahl

Browsing Michael Dahl’s back catalogue feels, for some reason, like one is gazing upon an identity parade of caricatures. This has ultimately lead to the conclusion that either Dahl was not the most flattering of painters, or that his subjects were simply just plain butters. We may never know. Repugnancy aside, I would instead like to focus on one of Dahl’s more easy-on-the-eye paintings, which resides at – you’ve guessed it – the National Portrait Gallery. The piece I am talking about is a self portrait of Mr Dahl himself and, rather surprisingly, isn’t hideously ugly. What initially drew me to the study was not the unusually flattering style of the painting, however, but its uncanny resemblance to The Young Ones comedian, Rik Mayall – funnily enough… (As an aside, the boyf maintains strongly that this is untrue and that in fact there is a striking similarity between Michael Dahl and Mamma Mia actor, Dominic Cooper . The silly fool, it looks nothing like him.) So without further ado, here is the painting itself for you to come to the correct conclusion:

Yes, I know what you are thinking: what on earth is Rik Mayall doing in a 17th Century painting? This likeness is astounding! Well worry not, little reader, I shall explain everything… (disclaimer: explanation does not actually contain any information about the funny man. Idiot.)

Born Mikael Dahl (that’s Swedish for Michael Dahl) on 29th September, 1659 in the city of Stokholm, Sweden, Dahl was educated and trained in the ways of the painter by Baroque artist David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl.  Twenty three years later, Dahl left Stokholm for the English capital, where he produced most of his work under the patronage of folks such as Queen Anne and Tory family, the Harleys. During this time Dahl only had one major rival: fellow portrait painter, Godfrey Kneller.

This particular painting of Dahl was completed in 1691 when the artist was thirty two years old. A suitably handsome man, as I’m sure you’ll agree, the charming Michael can be seen dressed in what appears to be a rather pleasant fern-green velvet jacket, with a dark aubergine and navy cloak draped around him. Now the green to me alludes to youth and inexperience, suggesting that Dahl perhaps views himself as something of a new-guy-on-the-block. The purple tones, on the other hand, could refer to his work in the royal courts at a fairly young age.

Next on the agenda would be to take a closer look at the composition, hand gestures and facial expression of our figure. As you can see two thirds of the painting comprises of the artist himself, whilst the remaining third contains what one can only assume to be an example of his own work, complete with tools of the trade positioned precariously adjacent to it. The positioning of the body directs the gaze onto said artwork and tools, which, combined with those blatant hand gestures, give the impression that the artist is potentially dissatisfied with the recognition – or lack thereof – he has been experiencing with regards to his artistic prowess, and consequently feels obliged to express this malcontent through his medium of expertise. I am almost willing myself to interpret the look upon the poor man’s face to be one of impatient disdain, as if to say, ‘Yes, I am an artist. I have painted for royalty at such a young age. Well done for noticing…’ But then again, I do have an unhealthy penchant for sarcasm. In all seriousness though, what  fascinates me is how different the style is of this piece is when compared with an example of one of his commissions, such as the one below entitled, The Flesher Family (1734):

What a motley crew. Especially that middle one… W.O.W. Not pretty, not pretty at all. In all honesty, I cannot imagine a single family that would be happy to pay for a piece of art that depicts their offspring as featuring heavily in the nose department, but there we go. Perhaps beak = bucks, or something like that.

Another variation between the style of his commissions and Dahl’s own self portrait is that the tones of the latter are far more stripped back and muted than those of the former, evoking, what I believe to be, a more empathetic reading of the piece. The viewer is more inclined to want to take on the gaze of an unassumingly handsome artisan, rather than of the gaudy-yet-sickly, elongated faces of aristocracy. Perhaps this was Dahl’s way of ‘sticking-it-to-the-man’, a constant bitterness toward a dependancy on patronage. The echoes of the Renaissance are doubly at play here in the way that Dahl painted his own face with such due care and attention to tradition, mimicking those Antiquity-loving 15th century artists of the south; as well as cleverly drawing the audience member’s attention to the stone sculpture in the archway, which, to me, pays additional homage to that Golden Age of Classical art.

To close, I would like to simply say that if I ever decide to paint others and myself for a living, I only hope that I would have the Michael Dahl-esque sense of humour to paint myself as beautiful and everyone else as gawky, waxy-looking freaks. Ha.

Emma, Lady Hamilton (1785), George Romney

Here is number two in my series of posts-that-are-an-excuse-to-chat-about-artwork; hopefully it will live up to the high critical acclaim received as a result of the first… Rofling aside, the following ten or so will be in response to a recent visit I made to the National Portrait Gallery in London, which just happens to be one of my all time favourite galleries – actually, it is my all time favourite gallery – playing host to a long list of British faces since 2nd December, 1856. The primary collection contains 11,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures ranging from the 16th century to the present and, in the summer, includes the famous and highly competitive BP Portrait Award competition – a marvellous platform for any aspiring portrait artist.

Right then, on to the business of the paintings. Oh and please forgive me if you happen upon any blinding inaccuracies regarding the artist and his/her artwork. It is purely ignorance.

I discovered this beauty by George Romney whilst meandering my way through room seventeen of the Regency section. Emily, Lady Hamilton (née Hart) is her name and extra-marital relations was her game. Tut-tut. Yes, the baby-faced twenty-year-old daughter of a blacksmith you see in the picture was somewhat of a professional mistress; one lover even being that well-known man with one arm, Horatio Nelson. A face like this demands a proper introduction, don’t you think?

Born Amy Lyon to blacksmith Henry Lyon and Mary Kidd, she grew up in the Welsh village of Hawarden with only her mother for company, due to the untimely death of her father when she was only two months old. She later changed her name to Emma Hart for some reason (perhaps ‘Amy’ was associated with being poor, I dunno). Blessed with good looks and aspirations to perform, Emma had several stints working as a model, dancer and amateur actress, before securing her first mistressing gig, aged only fifteen, for Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh. Sir Harry proved to be an insensitive host, however, inspiring the transferral of her affections onto one of his more honest and honourable friends, Charles Francis Greville. It appeared to be a happy ending, apart from the fact that Emma was pregnant with the child of former lover, Harry. Whoops. She decided that the most practical solution would be to entrust the infant into the care of relatives, yet making sure to remain in regular contact.

It was whilst she was mistress to Greville that Emma met the artist, George Romney, who was inspired – if not besotted – by her charming looks, thus resulting in a glut of ‘Emma’ portraits from the fellow. This elevated Emma’s status and she soon became known as ‘that beautiful, clever and funny girl’ amongst high society. Sickening. This dream was to be shattered, however, and to cut a long story short, Greville wanted to get married so palmed off twenty-six-year old Emma onto his uncle, sixty-year-old Sir William Hamilton, whom she later married. Nice.

This is all very interesting, but what about that talk of Nelson, someone I’ve actually heard of? Well, Emma’s new hubby, William, happened to be the British Envoy so, whilst visiting Naples, they naturally welcomed in the wounded admiral with open arms. What a mistake. Nelson and Emma quickly fell for each other; became lovers (classic Emma) and had a child together. Phew. An international scandal over their heads, they returned to England to live for a few years. Once her various lovers/husbands had died/left for war, she ended her days in poverty. The End. (I thought I’d better wrap it up otherwise I’d lose you, if I haven’t already…!)

When it comes to assessing the meaning behind the piece/s in question, we need to refer back to Romney’s encounters with young Emma. They were introduced through Francis Greville, who intended to only have a few paintings commissioned of the lady for reasons close to his wallet, but subsequently George became rather struck with her, deeming Emma to be ‘the divine lady … superior to all womankind’ (Letter, 19 June 1791). Quite the complement, don’t you think? It appears that the chap became rather obsessed with Miss Hart, impelling the production of more than sixty pieces, which could be divided into four categories: life studies; allegorical and symbolic; genre scenes; and expressive sketches. The paintings above fit nicely into the life study category, making use of Romney characteristic soft, muted colours – I know I mention this all the time, but it is such a nod to the sfumato technique as employed by the Renaissance masters, da Vinci and Raphael. There are, in particular, strong Raphaelite qualities about the style in which Emma was painted; a style which prides itself on immortalising any subject into a sublime and ethereal beauty, where perfection is but a whisper away. Of course, it did help that Emma was stunningly gorgeous in the first place – there is a definite aura of porcelain doll about her.

If we look back then to assessing what exactly Romney’s designs were for these two studies, we can see that he is trying to subtly represent the various personality traits (mentioned above and here: wit, charm, grace, intelligence etc.) of the captivating individual through use of suggestive gestures and looks – the playful tilting of the head; the meaningful glance and the positioning of the hands.

Lastly, I shall explain to you just why I absolutely love the work by the hand of the infatuated George Romney. Primarily I think that, along with most human beings, I am fascinated by the notion of aesthetic perfection – the flawless, velvet skin; glossy, wide eyes; button nose and pert, berry lips – and on this, Romney delivers in abundance. There is also nothing harsh about the images, as the subject appears to melt into view from the darkness; creating a charming appearance of curiosity and coyness. I am one for using this technique in my own work, for the main reason of making the subject stand out against the background – like in Annie for example – but obviously Romney does it far better. In addition, I take great delight in following the paths of the expressive brushstrokes used in the second piece to illustrate the flowing attire worn by Emma. As a sucker for great drapery, this is somewhat of a refreshing alternative to the refined techniques of, say, da Vinci.

Overall, fantastic artist, gorgeous sitter; the dream combination for any portrait exhibition, no?

Madonna del Cardellino (1507), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)

I have got it into my little head that I would like to talk to you, kind soul who is listening, about my favourite pieces of artwork. What I intend to do is pick a piece –  from any period, in any medium and from any artist, subject to my very refined taste, naturally 😉 – and then (briefly) prattle on about its historical background; generally agreed interpretation and its relevance to my own work. I hope it proves to be of vague interest in any case…

To kick things off I have decided to take a peek at this sepic beauty by Raffaello Sanzio – Raphael to his mates – entitled, Madonna del Cardellino, which literally means Madonna of the Goldfinch. The subjects can clearly be seen as the Virgin, John the Baptist and Christ, placed in triangular formation with the central focus being on a small goldfinch: the object of interest between the two holy infants.

What is the symbolic relevance of this seemingly insignificant bird? you may chirp. Well, according to the RSPB, the humble goldfinch is one for rooting around in thorny hedgerows and thistles in order to find a nutritious seed or two. In my mind, there is an instant connection that can be formed between the habits of the goldfinch and the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:3-9. The seed that fell amongst the thistle patch was an allegory for the word of God being heard but overshadowed by the temptations of the world, likewise the seed that the goldfinch is feeding on … Hmm, where am I going with this…? Right, yes the more obvious reading of the goldfinch is that its thorny habitat is a direct nod to the humiliating crown of thorns the unbeknown infant Jesus was to later endure, heads up courtesy of Johnny boy. (Actually, He must’ve been ‘beknown’ as according to Christian belief He is God and consequently privy to the master plan, therefore the kind heads up from John wouldn’t really have been necessary, but instead a kind, cousinly gesture…).

In addition to the goldfinch, the book that is delicately held in the Virgin’s left hand provokes a certain degree of inquiry in itself. In this case it is seen to signify wisdom, thus attributing the Virgin the title of Sedes Sapientiae; the Seat of Wisdom; the Mother of God. In other words, she’s in on the whole thing; deep down, she knows how things are sadly going to pan out for her son.

The painting itself has had to undergo a fair amount of restoration in order for it to look as it does today. No doubt this has been partly down to the wear and tear that comes with the territory of a 500 year-old existence, however, the main contributing factor would have to be the fact that the building it was housed in collapsed at the end of the 16th century due to an earthquake; breaking it into seventeen pieces. The building in question was the home of Lorenzo Nasi, a friend of Raphael to whom the painting was gifted  as a wedding present. What an amazing present! Although, I don’t envy Nasi the daunting duty of having to tell Raphael that his masterpiece had just been creamed by an earthquake.

And now to the symbolism found in the colouring of the Virgin’s clothing. Here we see red, the colour of passion and love – a palpable reference to the love shared between family members, the most natural of them all being the unyielding bond between mother and child. Also, the red could connote the blood that was to be shed by Jesus, linking to the crown of thorns reference from the goldfinch. The blue denotes a sense of calm and stability – a reflection of the natural surroundings we find the Virgin in – as well as the obvious: royalty.

In terms of how this relates to my own practice, I would first like to highlight the technique employed by Raphael. Yes, he was very much influenced by the heavyweights, Michaelangelo and da Vinci – noticeably with his use of da Vinci’s sfumato method – however, there is something that one simply cannot deny Raphael and that is his representational view of beauty. This beauty is discovered in the way that he composes his figures – their playful yet exquisite interaction with one another; his understanding of the tenderness shared between mother and son – just look at how the barefoot Jesus stands gently on top of the bare foot of his mother, such a subtle form of closeness; and, most prominently, his use of graduated sepia tones that melt together to form the perfectly soft skin of his subjects. An altogether wonderful combination that I have repeatedly tried to recreate; whiling away hours blending and blending and blending again my oils in an attempt to reach skin-supremity. But alas, I have not reached it. Yet.