It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back. One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London. So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls. It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them. In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.
Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889
One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist. Two Crabs one of these. The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January 1889. It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’. The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws. The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image. This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home. The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles. Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this. His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital. It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.
As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23
And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology. Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her. Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies. It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image. The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet. It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee. Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is. Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life. The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers. This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies. Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s. His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot. Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement. The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing. The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display. However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation. An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation. The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.
Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884
This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it. I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery. Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye. He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works. Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light. But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings. Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground. It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom. The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority. While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future. He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy. He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.
Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.
Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series. I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.