A Man seated reading at a Table in a Lofty Room
Around 1628-30 by a follower of Rembrandt
The National Gallery
Until recently it was thought that this painting was in fact by Rembrandt, from his early years in Leiden, The Netherlands where he grew up with the region’s characteristic style of painting. However, the style is thought to be too heavy-handed, despite the likeness in detail and use of dramatic lighting, and has been attributed to most probably one of his followers or even contemporaries. We can see from postcard three, one of his drawings, the detail and time Rembrandt took over his work; this painting’s window, with the detail of its leaded panes, are softer in line than his characteristic clarity. Nonetheless, this is a triumphant painting that draws in the eye through its composition of extremes – light, perhaps the most beautifully emphatic tool in painting, is truly taken advantage of. The shadowy and obscuring darkness takes forefront in the composition opposed to the more usual background of shadow; it curls up and round the lit focal-point like smoke gradually drowning a room. The distance does not fade out but comes into being, as light is drawn from the back of this painting. It is an interesting juxtaposition of space and our sense of three-dimensionality, the darkness almost creating a window of literal and symbolic uncertainty that we must look through. Yet, despite this obscuring, the painting is calm, the darkness proving not terrifying but an impactful contrast to the beautiful quality of light that falls through the window. The light is pale yet warm; thin yet powerful, possessing an illumination that is as subtle as it is suggestively mystic. The painter has clearly captured the illusionary influence light can have on its subject. The simplistic beauty of reflection and shadow is caught in the patterns cast upon the wall; they appear awesome against the small silhouette of a man in his cap, quietly reading.
The Three Graces
c1625-8 by Peter Paul Rubens
Dulwich Picture Gallery
The Three Graces was painted some ten years before Rubens’ full colour painting that rests in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Though the compositions are essentially different, the voluptuous figures remain the same; naked and fleshy they stand in three, adjoined by touch or the winding of their seductive scarves. Yet, for all the similarities, this painting possesses a lightness that the other doesn’t. The figures refuse to stand so solidly as they do in the later work; they move with an ease and playfulness that allows them to appear as light and enticing as the scarves they dance with. Their bodies are slippery and voluptuous, but slender in their light-hearted joviality. Obviously this delicacy in appearance is easier to achieve with the medium of this painting, the wonderfully expressive oil sketch – a fluid articulation of inky soft lines with the watery marbling of the sky. This earthy coloured background of movement allows the ghostly white marble of the graces’ bodies to stand out; they are illuminated among their shadowy surroundings. This subtlety is far more effective than the oppressively bright blue of the later painting’s sky with the unnaturally gold-tinged illumination of the bodies. Here the movement of the graces is echoed in the landscape; their motion drawn in the fluidity of the lines in the earth beneath them and in the dilutions of the veined sky. These are truly Gods, enticing with animation and tied to the earth that is made to serve to them.
Rinaldo and Armida
c1625 by Nicolas Poussin
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Poussin takes his subjects from an epic poem by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, which tells tales of the Christian crusades. Armida, an enemy of the Christian army and witch, enters the camp in order to kill Rinaldo, the Christian’s greatest knight. But of course she falls in love with him, and they become infatuated with one another on the magical island she takes him to. Poussin’s characteristic colouration is perfect for this portrayal of Romantic hiding; lovers leaving others behind, seeing their world temporarily through rose-tinted glasses, or in this case golden ones. Poussin’s wonderfully warm haze has again, as in postcard eighty-five, glazed over the painting, brilliant orange burning from expansive skies glowing on milky skin. Dramatically, light is cast upon Armida’s face, her expansive bust in shadow, as she tenderly, her face full of concern, draws curls from Rinaldo’s face. The emotion Poussin draws from the characters is clear, showing Armida’s softening countenance as she falls in love; Rinaldo laying down, his weapons cast aside, as he succumbs. Yet for all their supposed passion the picture is touchingly quiet, both faces have a serenity about them. Perhaps the moment Poussin decides to portray is in fact the striking of love’s arrow itself. She has come to kill him, dagger in hand, while he sleeps but is stopped, transfixed by his beauty; he in turn is, as of yet, blissfully unaware of what is about to befall him, the love that will alter his allegiance. Poussin succeeds in capturing love in his delicately precise, subtly matt, painting style.
The Saltonstall Family
c1640 by David Des Granges
In an England obsessed with portraiture, particularly among the upper classes, a portrait on the deathbed was not unusual, especially if the person in question was someone worth remembering. What is interesting about this painting is it not only captures the death, but also what is left behind. The painting shows Sir Richard Saltonstall looking upon his dead wife, holding the hands of their children, while his new wife and baby sit across the room. This strange depiction of family relations is oddly touching, a tender letting go of one string of life, while embracing and looking to the new. Both wives are dressed in chilling white, pure and almost idol like, though of course it is only the first whose skin mirrors this ghostly colouring, her pale face melting into the linen that shrouds her; she is a frozen presence, the second wife’s pallor glows in comparison. These pale figures sharply contrast to the deep, rich and luxurious crimson that flows, blood like, throughout the painting, warm in the clothes of the children and velvet cloaking the death bed. It is this red and white that dominates the composition, the pulse of life and the cold of death, the forces behind this intriguing painting.
c1616 by Guido Reni
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Looking at the Spanish realism of The Sacred Made Real exhibition, one is drawn to remember the multitude of realist religious paintings. So many of the schools were meticulous in their depictions, determined to capture the Romanesque or Grecian sculpted body in paint and, more often than not, these techniques were particularly applied to Christ and other religious figures. Capturing Saint Sebastian is Reni, an Italian Baroque painter of the same century, using similar techniques as the Spanish. Like Ribalta’s and Zurbarán’s paintings (postcard seventy-five & eighty-nine), contrast here is emphasised with the centrally lit figure and darkly consuming background. No distraction is given, all focus is to be on the Saint and his state of pain; though emotion is not as convincing, or indeed as captivating, as the Spanish painters, who seemed to portray a genuine empathy with their figures’ state of mind. Reni’s Saint is distinctly Italian, from his Roman nose and jaw line to the rippling torso; what has been inspired by the ancient traditions of the statue has been translated, though perhaps what is beautiful is less believable, as his figure appears frozen and unreal. This is not to denounce Reni’s work, which is incredibly dramatic in composition and the painting flawless, but we are more aware of its idolisation, of the status of a Saint.
Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy
about 1640 by Francisco de Zurbarán
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona
Part of the National Gallery’s The Sacred Made Real exhibition, Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy was one of two similar paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán that hung adjacent to one another. Both of these largely dominating portraits feature their subjects standing half in shadow; figures strangely materialising from the darkness that lies densely behind them. This ghost-like, darkly imposing, presence is encouraged by the dimly-lit room they hung in; almost blending into the dark walls, the figures appeared to emerge from the black impressively, hyper-real in their execution. For it is their style that makes them so distinctive, a clinically accurate depiction, sharply contrasting to the black void behind. So realist is this way of painting, it appears to be almost before its time, so undistracted are the portraits on the simplicity of their background. Saint Francis himself is beautifully portrayed; standing perfectly still, no part of his body betraying movement, he is frozen in prayer, in ecstasy, eyes looking up to Heaven. Although half his face is absorbed into shadow, his expression is perfectly conveyed; lips slightly parted, it is one of absorbed wonderment, sobered with concentration. Folds of his simple cloaking, bright in a warmth of earthy brown in light and dark in deeply cast shadow, give a dramatic quality to his stature; his rope gently hanging, reminding of his dedication. If you missed Zurbarán in London, follow him to Barcelona.
The Triumph of David
c1630 by Nicolas Poussin
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Poussin crops up throughout the central hall of Dulwich Picture Gallery; easily decipherable in the grandly clustered walls, his paintings draw viewers’ eyes in with their distinctive style. What is most instantly recognisable is the colours Poussin consistently draws upon, which are made obvious in these crowded walls, as he hangs amongst his brighter contemporaries. Refusing to rely on pinks or blues Poussin’s pallet is of the earth, drawing its intensity from heat and dust in musty yellow and terracotta. The paintings exhale the atmosphere of antique warmth, ancient scenes remembered among the pillars of ancient times; Biblical stories acted out in the hot imagination of an idealism of times passed. The painting grounds itself in its colouration; the warmth of light and dust of the city give an atmosphere that can almost be felt or touched. The costumes betray the seventeenth-century; the white-capped maid’s dress that cascades down to the Grecian gods in gentlemen’s togas, while the children that surround her sit as cherubs or Italian putti, all rosy rounded limbs with auburn curls. If you do visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery pay Pouissin a visit.