Study Day: European Paintings Before 1900

This study day, which focused on European paintings before 1900, took place at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle on 15 March 2011. The day was organised by the North East Museums Hub as part of the Subject Specialist Network.

The study day was the first network event to take place outside the National Gallery and was much appreciated by the delegates who came from institutions not only in the North East and Yorkshire but also Scotland, Wales and other parts of the UK.

It provided an opportunity to hear more about activities in the North East and allowed a visit to the ‘John Martin: Heaven & Hell’ exhibition on show at the Laing Art Gallery.

Programme: morning

John Martin, ‘Heaven & Hell’ exhibition
Julie Milne, Curator, The Laing Art Gallery

This talk explored the exhibition, ‘John Martin: Heaven & Hell’, which was first displayed at the Laing Art Gallery as part of the ‘Great British Art Debate’. Julie Milne discussed the life and work of John Martin (1789–1854), who was born in Northumberland into a poor family but moved to London at 17 to pursue a career. She described how Martin’s dramatic paintings of classical and biblical subjects attracted large audiences, despite a mixed reception from critics.

The talk examined the connection between Martin’s dramatic paintings and 19th-century London’s taste for spectacle; the influence of his painting ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ on the early Hollywood film ‘Intolerance’; and the Laing Art Gallery’s attempt to recapture the theatrical atmosphere of Martin’s paintings in their exhibition.

The National Gallery: The Making of an Exhibition – ‘The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600–1700’
Xavier Bray, Chief Curator, Dulwich Picture Gallery; formerly Assistant Curator of 17th-  and 18th- Century Paintings, The National Gallery, London

This talk explored the staging of the National Gallery exhibition, 'The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600–1700'. Curator Xavier Bray explored how the exhibition attracted wide audiences, attracting almost 100,000 in London (four times the original estimate), 80,000 in Washington and 40,000 at a smaller version of the exhibition in Valladolid, Spain.

Bray explained that the exhibition aimed to show the relationship between painting and sculpture and the influence of each art form on the other. He described the three-year process of planning the exhibition – including a period spent in Spain funded by a Getty research grant – and the challenge of acquiring sculptures when many relevant works were still in use by churches. The importance of installation design and lighting, the latter emphasising the shadows on the wall, was discussed.  The talk also explored some of the issues raised by the dramatic exhibition poster. 

Francisco de Zurbáran and the paintings at Bishop Auckland
Elizabeth Conran, art scholar; formerly Curator, The Bowes Museum

This talk explored the life of Francisco de Zurbáran, the leading painter in Seville in the 1630s and '40s. Elizabeth Conran discussed his art and outlined its political and religious background. She placed his career in the context of the Hapsburg empire; Spain’s economic ties to America; and the fervent Catholicism of Zubáran’s time. The talk examined Zubáran’s commissions from the Americas and the role played by his workshop, and speculated on the provenance of a collection of his paintings at Bishop Auckland, suggesting that the poses and elaborate costumes in Zubáran’s 13 paintings of the family of Jacob may allude to a religious procession.

Next: Programme: afternoon

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