Rachael Herman

Tag: Figurative

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.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Painter At The Court Of Milan (1482 – 1499)

The exhibition that had been 5 years in the making; comprised of over 90 pieces, borrowed from 30 separate institutions and collections in over 21 different cities worldwide. Who’d’ve thought it would take this much doing to get this amount of Leo’s artwork together in one room? (And that’s not even all of it). Being a massive fan of the big man, I decided to pop along and have a look for myself (courtesy of the generous yet unsuspecting boyf)…

Skipping up the famous front steps of the National Gallery – with ticket in cold, clammy hand – it was only feverish anticipation that was running through my mind for an exhibition I had been waiting for what seemed like a decade to finally see. Having been kindly bought a ticket, I was confident that nothing could get in between me and my precious Madonna of the Rocks (Paris version, of course), however, it so transpired that I had misjudged this somewhat. Not only did it take us a good ten minutes to reach our supposed goal – involving careful negotiation of the heavily-coated, typically slow-moving tourists, interspersed with a frantic exchange of whispered directions from me to the boyf – but once we had reached it, it was only to be met by a kind-but-tired-faced guard who regretted to inform us that we were in fact in the wrong place. Where we needed to be meant retracing our steps back into the claustrophobic main gallery, before taking a few lefts, a few rights, some stairs and you’re there. Simple.

15 miles below the surface later and we had made it to da Vinci’s underground extravaganza. First impressions were pretty good and perhaps enhanced by the fact that we were able to breeze past the queues of fools who forgot to pre-book – also making up for the initial confusion of finding our way. The information leaflet told us that the exhibition itself comprised mainly of da Vinci’s work completed during his time as the court painter of Ludovico Sforza – the ruler of Milan – spanning from 1482 to 1499. Venturing in, we were enlightened as to exactly how much work that was. Reams of buff-coloured pages taken from his famous sketch-books paved the way through the semi-darkness – perfect conditions for viewing such delicately handsome artwork – pausing only for something grander and more colourful, those majestic paintings of his. I won’t spend my time nattering about each individual painting and sketch, as that is what the guide book is for – and frankly, you probably couldn’t care less – however I will provide a small lowdown on what I would consider to be the top three pieces.

At number three we have Saint Jerome (1488-1490), which provides that all important insight into the painting process of Mr da Vinci. The unfinished picture not only shows the master’s first laid darkened shadowy areas, but the beginnings of the desperation depicted in the penitant expression on the face of the Saint, sufficiently haunting the viewer even in its incomplete state. In addition, the physical contact that our subject has with the rocky setting makes direct reference to da Vinci’s obsession with nature and the way that it is so clearly mirrored in humanity. (For more information see Oxford World’s Classics, Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks.)

Lady with an Ermine (1489 – 1490) came in at a close second. Here the immortalised-in-oil sixteen year-old, Cecelia Gallerani – a favourite mistress of the Duke of Milan himself, Ludovico – is seen to be clutching a pristine, white ermine. One can only marvel at the way Leonardo manages to nothing more than excel in his efforts to interpret the true innocence and exquisiteness of youth, using his famous sfumato technique. Slightly more in depth dissection of this piece can be found at, you guessed it, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_with_an_Ermine

My favourite piece, though, had to be, The Burlington House Cartoon (1499-1500). This softly captivating charcoal and chalk sketch was a major source of inspiration for me during my Sixth Form years, where my foray into portraiture really began. Again, the sfumato technique so often employed by da Vinci undoubtedly leaps to the fore. There is veracious beauty to be found amongst the burnt charcoal, smokey sepia and ochre tones; the fluid movement of the drapery and the tender thoughtfulness of the composition – altogether portraying perfectly the unyielding bond shared between mother and child.

Disregarding the fervent jostling for position one was required to take part in in order to see the masterpieces on show – one would assume that the idea of the ticketing system would allow for more than a glimpse of the corner of a caption for a painting – the exhibition was well worth a visit. The sheer quantity of Leonardo’s sketches alone is enough inspiration to shake any complacent artist out of their stupor, not to mention the blindingly brilliant skill he had for capturing the very essence of the human form. I, for one, now vow to paint more and procrastinate less.

Paintings of Anna Shukeylo

This morning I happily stumbled upon this series of beautiful figurative studies by Russian artist Anna Shukeylo. Her marriage of expressive strokes and clever composition provide one with an thoughtful insight into human interaction – which can appear, at times, overwhelmingly blatant or otherwise reflected through quiet gesture.

An inspiring way to start the day in any case!

Paintings of Anna Shukeylo.

Portraiture

A collection of portraits spanning from the A-level years to the present, taking my inspiration from the Renaissance painters, in particular, the great Raphael.

Jonathan, acrylic on canvas, 45cm x 30cm
Terence – senior, graphite pencil on cartridge paper, 10cm x 7.5cm
Terence, oil on MDF board, 20cm x 20cm
Cheryl, acrylic on canvas, 50cm x 30cm
Annie, oil on canvas, 80cm x 80cm
Jonathan, acrylic on canvas, 60cm x 40cm