To my absolute horror I have recently discovered that the Courtauld Gallery will be closing on 3 September for two years. This redevelopment programme will allow for widely expanded gallery, research, and conservation facilities, and should be welcomed. However it is always galling to be deprived access to something one has become accustomed to. With less than a month left to visit, I’ve compiled some of my favourite pieces, worth seeing while you still can.
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1832-33
It would be impossible not to include this on any list of works at the Courtauld. It is one of the most enigmatic paintings of its time, and has provoked endless debate, which Manet seems to almost have cheekily invited with his inaccurate mirrors and intriguing figures. I will doubtless at some point add to the reams of writing on this, but I would suggest that, before you read too much about it, you sit down with it for a while, and see what strikes you.
Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874
Sticking in the same period, another highlight is Renoir’s La Loge. I have actually written about this work twice already on the blog (here and here), so it is a firm favourite. Whether you see it as cynical or sincere social commentary, the combination of modern brushwork and composition, with the careful capturing of character, makes it an easy work to get lost in.
Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Mette Gauguin, 1877
Gauguin is an artist I find it particularly difficult to write about. His supposed interest in underage girls, the ‘noble savage’ ideas his works often seem to exploit, and his general self-aggrandisement make it easy to paint him as a villain, and lose something of the complexity of his character, and works. I like this sculpture, which depicts his wife Mette, because it so radically subverts our expectations of him as both artist and character. This is one of only two marble works we know by Gauguin (the other depicts his son), and it is so carefully and delicately executed that it is hard to believe that it is by the artist who would alter revel in the simplicity of his style. Famed for abandoning his family and heading far away to French Polynesia, the work hints at the ambiguity behind this story, and adds a note of complexity. All-in-all it is quite unexpected, and worth a stop on your way through the galleries.
Francisco de Goya, Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra, 1798
Sticking with the theme of seeing familiar artists in a slightly different light, this portrait by Goya is the sort of work with which he earnt his living, but it hardly what he is remembered for today. From his famous painting the Third of May 1808 (my blog post on which remains ones of my most frequently read pieces) to dramatic works like Saturn devouring his Children, it is difficult to imagine that Goya once devoted his time to such an apparently tranquil subject as this. The style of the portrait reflects Goya’s in interest in the English portrait painters, such as Gainsborough, and Saavedra’s general interest in England and its fashions. Hard though it is so believe at times now, England was a world-leader in fashion and taste in this period, influencing architecture, landscape design, and modes of dress. Saavedra was Minister of Finance at the time of sitting for this, and Goya has captured something of his active mind, as he thumbs through his papers, perched on the edge of his chair, and turns a piercing gaze to offer some command or thought. It is not without that slight sense of unease Goya brings to his works though. This was one of the most respected men in Spain, but there is just a hint, perhaps in the dark background and the contrast of bright light and shadows, that suggests that all is not quite as it seems. As ever, Goya makes us think, and presents a surprisingly enigmatic image of this charismatic man.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526
It is easy to get lost in the moderns and relatively-moderns at the Courtauld, as so many of them are so great. But one mustn’t forget that they have splendid collections of earlier art. Adam and Eve is perhaps one of the more memorable of these. The composition is inspired by Durer’s print, but otherwise Cranach has made it quite his own. With that mixture of symbolism and naturalism so typical of Northern artists, he brings to life the damning moment when Eve offers Adam the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Flanked by predator and prey depicted with scientific detail of observation, harmoniously co-existing in the Garden of Eden, Cranach’s Eve looks as if she knows what she’s doing, as she places the fruit in Adam’s hand. He looks confused, scratching his head and looking at her face rather than the fateful foodstuff. Cranach emphasises this moment, that of the Original Sin. Often Adam and Eve are depicted as relatively tranquil figures, but, in line with religious practices of the time, Cranach emphasises the emotional significance of the moment. However, it is not without optimism: the vine creeping its way up the Tree of Knowledge signifies the Redemption, Christ dying on the cross to redeem Eve’s sin, and thus also the Virgin Mary as Eve’s positive equivalent. Sombre though the piece is, it is clear that the painting was created as much for visual delight as for religious instruction. Cranach’s masterful capturing of naturalistic details is wonderful to behold, and doubtless would have been as much for its original owner as it is for us.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, 1887
Finally, how could I not include this piece which serves as the banner to my whole page? This has always been a favourite of mine. It is one of numerous paintings he created of the same subject, the mountain near his home in Aix-en-Provence, where he grew-up, and then returned with his own family. He seems to have been captivated by this view across the valley to the mountain, as he returned to it again and again. You can see why, as it offers such a great opportunity for him to explore different aspects of his technique. Though he was interested in the work of the Impressionists, he looked to add a certain solidity, breaking elements down into geometric shapes. We can see this in his brushwork. Unlike the small, hurried (looking) brushstrokes of the Impressionists, he used thicker, flatter strokes to model objects. In this painting, we can see him applying these principles to a variety of objects, natural and unnatural, and to the depiction of space and depth. The finished result is a painting which captures both the appearance, and some of the experience, of the place, without resorting to laboured naturalism, or an over-excited interest in light as an end in itself. Framed by the pine, the composition leads the eye from one point of interest to another, the painting has a sense of scale and mass which is undeniably appealing, whilst still evoking the landscape it reproduces. It is interesting to compare this with his other works on the same subject, but if you can only see one, let it be this one; it perfectly encompasses Cezanne’s experimental but masterful style.
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All images credit to the Courtauld Gallery.