Rachael Herman

Tag: Leonardo da Vinci

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.

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.