The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Nineteen

May 2008

Episode Nineteen
Listen now – 18 minutes
Transcription

The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eighteen, April 2008

Read a transcript for this podcast. In this month's episode: Go beneath the sheets to a world of colour in associate artist Alison Watt's 'Phantom'; plus a very rich lady in red, and a Dutch landscape in the wrong shade of yellow...

1. Introduction

Miranda Hinkley: Hello, I'm Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery podcast - in glorious Technicolor.

Eileen Sheikh: Catherine's pear, carnation, incarnate, sanguine, stammel, flame (an obvious one), gingerleen, murrey and peach.

Miranda Hinkley: We see shades of renaissance red with costumier Eileen Sheikh and artist Al Johnson. Plus:

Marika Spring: In fact the rather nice soft grey colour is actually the result of a pigment change in the paint.

Miranda Hinkley: So that's yellow lakes at work

Marika Spring: That's yellow lakes again, yes, that have faded.

Miranda Hinkley: The scientific team tell us about a pigment that's notoriously difficult to conserve.

2. Alison Watt Introduces her New Exhibition

Miranda Hinkley: We start though with white. 'Phantom' is an exhibition of works by the Gallery's youngest ever associate artist, Alison Watt. Her paintings are deceptively simple - large-scale images of folded white fabric, which hide as much as they reveal. And as Colin Wiggins found out, even their colour is not as straightforward as it seems...

Colin Wiggins: Alison, we're standing in the Sunley Room now, the day before your exhibition opens and it's all hanging on the walls and the pictures are glowing off their grey background. They look very very white and I know from seeing you at work in your studio you use a lot of colours in your pictures. Can you talk us through a little bit about why these pictures look white but they aren't really white?

Alison Watt: Well, it's actually quite interesting to see them in these surroundings because they look very different from the way they looked in the studio. And I think the colour, because I'm showing the work almost purely in natural light, I think the colour really comes out. And I had the chance to control the lighting in this space, but I liked the idea of allowing the natural light to go up and down because it means that the paintings are constantly changing, so you never have a fixed view of any painting and if you were to look at my palette in the studio there are actually about eight or nine colours. I mean I use cadmium red, I use sat green, I use prussian blue, burnt siena, so there are actually a lot of colours beneath the use of white paint, so it's actually quite a complicated mix to come to the colour that you're presented with.

Colin Wiggins: In fact when you look at the paintings in these conditions of light with the daylight constantly changing, you do begin to pick up on these blues and reds and greens that are in there.

Alison Watt: I think you do. I think it's the combination of the grey walls the grey is a very neutral colour. Chris Oberon, the designer, came to me before the exhibition and I knew I wanted the walls not to be white, because I thought that would be completely wrong for the paintings, and he gave me about 50 different greys to choose from. And the grey that I finally chose without realising it was Sainsbury Wing grey, so it's obviously a great colour, because it's a very soft grey, and it allows paintings to sing out which I think is really important. It's not at all over-bearing - you just become aware of the colour that's going on in the paintings, rather than the colour of the wall.

Colin Wiggins: But predominantly, even though we know that these colours, I can see from where I am now, I can see a lot of blue in that picture and even as you point out, that burnt Siena, that beautiful kind of dark yellowy tone, but the colours, the pictures are predominantly white, and what is it about white do you think that so attracts you?

Alison Watt: I mean I think your eye picks up white as the main colour as a way of simplifying it. I think it's a shorthand. I think you tend to pick up the shapes first and the colours second. I think we have very little memory of colour when we move away from a painting. But I think white paintings if that's what we choose to call them I think they allow you to project onto them. I think depending on how you're feeling will depend on how you feel about the painting.

Colin Wiggins: Do you think there's a kind of symbolism in there? I mean white is traditionally associated with purity and innocence in Old Master paintings.

Alison Watt: I think white is associated with so many things. I mean it's associated with innocence it also has religious connotations of the shroud. But there are so many different meanings to white, I think depending on who you are you will attach a different meaning to that colour and depending on your background.

Colin Wiggins: People have come into this room and although of course it's unashamedly a secular exhibition, many people have remarked on the fact they get a sense of the sacred looking at your pictures. Does that surprise you?

Alison Watt: Well, there's something about, there's something I like about this space, because it feels quite separate from what's going on outside. You know, you're not aware of, It's a space to be quiet in, and it's a space I think to contemplate, so I think that's possibly where the non-secular connotations are coming in. You know it's a place you actually want to just sit down and be and think. And I think that's a good thing for the paintings.  

Miranda Hinkley: Alison Watt talking to Colin Wiggins. If you'd like to see the paintings for yourself, come along to the Gallery. 'Phantom' is free and open until June. And you might also like to know that a special season of films chosen by Alison runs throughout April and May. Highlights include the 50s classic Night of the Hunter and full details can be found on our website: www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

3. An Introduction to Moroni's 'Lady in Red'

Miranda Hinkley: Next up: A woman poses for her portrait. She has jewels in her hair and an exquisite satin dress - the striking colour of which will ensure she's still turning heads over four centuries later. We asked costumier Eileen Sheikh and artist Al Johnson to tell us just what's so special about Moroni's 'Lady in Red'.

Eileen Sheikh: My name's Eileen Sheikh and I'm a costumier.

Al Johnson: My name's Al Johnson and I'm a sculptor and a lecturer at the National Gallery.

Eileen Sheikh: The Moroni portrait of a woman, or 'A Lady in Red' as she's known, is quite extraordinary because it's an extremely high fashion that she's wearing. And you can really see that from the actual colour that she's wearing which is a deep rose pink with an underlay skirt of yellow gold and a red shot colour through that gold and it's probably a woven textile. So it's highly likely to be real gold thread within the underskirt and also the bodice which is just revealed at her neckline. The colour of the fabric is a pink rose with a gold coming through it - it's the most extraordinary orangy, pinky silk. The colour is probably cochineal because this was a new dye at the time made out of the bodies of cochineal insects and was imported from the New World so from South America. And that was only discovered in the 1540s, so you would have been a very high standing person to actually wear these kind of pinks and reds. 

Al Johnson: The material is extremely sumptuous. It's intended to be warm as well as beautiful. The sleeves have got tiny tufts of white silk pulled  through - this was an effort to show I think that this lady had at least three layers of cloth, all different kinds of cloth to show her extreme wealth.

Eileen Sheikh: In the Renaissance period you would have been able to obtain a vast range of fabrics dyed in various shades of red. Different reds produced by the Kermes insect - you get anything from a very vivid dark red, a scarlet or a cardinal red, right the way through to something that's called maiden's blush, which would have been a very pale pink. In between, different names that appear in literature of the period describing reds: catherine's pear, carnation, incarnate, sanguine, stammel, flame (an obvious one), gingerleen, murrey and peach. But other colours are also described in the same way, so a very vivid one is goose turd green, which I think we can all imagine what that might look like.

Al Johnson: Red is such a heavily symbolic colour. I think that's partly why it interests me. References of course to blood and it's a visceral colour, it's the colour of the internal form of the body. It has references to war and destruction - it's a masculine colour and in Christian iconography it's the colour of the crucifixion, the colour of the martyrs. So there are all these kind of very male, very dominant references to red. But what interests me I suppose is it's paradoxical nature - that it's also the colour of sexuality - the colour of lipstick and lingerie - so it's also a female colour.

Eileen Sheikh: Dying fabric using the Kermes insect or the Cochineal insect can be done in various different ways and actually to produce the different hues that you require, so either the very deep blueish, purply pinks, or the really deep reds, or the very pale pinks. You might well have started by crushing the insects themselves and crushing the bodies to actually produce a dye in a little bag that you would then put into a dye bath. And dyeing thick satin needed great care and attention to make sure that none of the fabric was exposed to light while it's in the dye bath. The fabric has to be completely submerged all the time to get an even tone. The dye must be perfectly suffused all the way through the liquid to make sure that there are no patches of darkness or almost a sort of tie-die effect that can happen if you've got a large amount of fabric in one dye bath. And so these dyers were incredibly experienced, incredibly scientific in the way that they produced their fabrics, and those would have all been in Venice where still the best silks come out of that area.

Al Johnson: I work with paradox in the sculpture I make because I make work that's very often about ideas that are quite big or quite difficult to encompass. And red I've used extensively because it has this paradoxical nature and so I feel it reflects the kind of paradox that I'm trying to uncover or explore in a piece of work. I've been working on a series of sculptures about women and the military. The paradox seems to me that we don't regard women as being aggressive or militaristic, so I wanted to try and explore that so I used red because it has these masculine qualities, but at the same time, these feminine sexual qualities. The series of works started by making a series of weapons.  I made wooden dummies based on First and Second World War guns and contemporary military issue and then they were covered initially in red satin, and I felt that the sumptuousness and the sexiness, the sensuality of the satin, undermined the objects, so that you had something that appeared to be a weapon and yet it was undermined by the material from which it was made.

Miranda Hinkley: Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson talking about a much-loved treasure of the Gallery's permanent collection:Moroni's 'Portrait of a Lady, or Lady in Red'.

4. The Conservation Team at Work on Cuyp's 'A Distant View of Dordrecht'

Miranda Hinkley: Our final visit this month takes us to the conservation studios in the Gallery's attic. Housed beneath a glass ceiling that provides optimal light for their detailed work, the science and conservation teams rescue damaged and deteriorating paintings. As part of that role, they study how colours change over time, including a pigment that - as I found out - is notorious for aging badly: yellow lakes.

I've come up to the conservation studios to have a look at a painting that's being worked on at the moment by Albert Cuyp, 'A Distant View of Dordrecht'. It has a view across some fields and in the foreground are some cows and some milkmaids and it's quite a lovely rural scene. How long has it been with you now?

Larry Keith: I'm not really sure - probably about getting on to a year I think because we work on a variety of different pictures at once, so it's not only that picture. But there was quite an extensive amount of work to do thinking about what was going on and doing a lot of analytical work together with the scientific department, which helped us proceed, so it was slow progress, I think, for the cleaning.

Miranda Hinkley: And it seems that one of the problems with this painting was in fact his use of yellow?

Marika Spring: That's correct, yes, all the greens are painted in so called 'mixed greens' which means they've used a yellow pigment mixed with a blue pigment to make the green and particularly in the darker greens, the artist has used a pigment called yellow lake. And yellow lake is made using a plant dye stuff. The most common one in the 17th century was a plant called weld, but the trouble with plant dye stuffs is that they're very vulnerable to fading and that's what's happened in this painting. And when we took a sample from the foreground landscape and looked at it in cross-section, perpendicular to the surface of the paint layers, we could see that the top portion of the paint had faded and turned white and that has the effect of creating a sort of misty veil over the foreground landscape.

Miranda Hinkley: Is this issue with yellow lakes a particular feature of Cuyp's work?

Marika Spring: It was a very common way of achieving green in the 17th century and he's not the only artist whose paintings suffer this type of deterioration. But a lot of artists mixed other pigments in as well, which has meant that their paintings haven't suffered quite so badly. But it is a very characteristic paint defect for paintings by Cuyp, that's for sure.

Miranda Hinkley: But the overall effect is of this really beautiful mustardy yellow and a very kind of crackly paint surface. What is this actually an image of?

Marika Spring: This is a very high-magnification detail of the lower right foreground of the painting and here we can see patches of yellow brown varnish that are left on the surface of the paint. In fact, the rather nice soft grey colour is actually the result of a pigment change in the paint.

Miranda Hinkley: So that's yellow lakes at work

Marika Spring: Yes, that's yellow lakes again yes, that are faded.

Miranda Hinkley: So what will be your next step in terms of returning the picture to its former glory?

Larry Keith: Well after the structural treatment has been done - repairs to the canvas itself - the picture will be revarnished and then we'll start to fill in any losses with the filler to bring it up to the same surface level. And then we'll do a retouching using not necessarily identical pigments, but certainly the same kind of layer structures if there's a grey, and then a brown, and then a translucent yellow in the original for example, we would repeat the same kind of structure to get the same optical effects, with the intention of making our retouching as difficult to see as possible. That being said, with the understanding that you can always see it very readily with ultra-violet light and the fact that we also document everything in every stage of the treatment so there's no intention to deceive in a fundamental way but simply to make the picture read as harmoniously as possible when it goes back on the wall.

5. Sign Off

Miranda Hinkley: Thanks to Larry Keith and Marika Spring. That's it for this episode- don't forget the Gallery is free and open from 10am till 6pm daily, and 10am till 9pm on Wednesdays. Join us again next month for all the latest news. Until then, goodbye!

 

In the May 2008 podcast, Nicholas Penny on returning to the Gallery as Director, Rachel Ruysch’s celebrated blooms, and a house where art meets science.

Transcript

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. Coming up: author and historian Jenny Uglow on Joseph Wright 'of Derby’s passion for science. And:

Betsy Wieseman: And on her death in 1750 there was an entire volume of verses written by various poets throughout the Netherlands, lauding her and praising her paintings, which I think was really unique.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Curator Betsy Wieseman joins the chorus of praise for the extraordinary, and little-known Dutch artist, Rachel Ruysch.


Nicholas Penny

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): When the subject of our first interview visited the National Gallery as a boy, he had no idea he’d one day be responsible for the pictures hanging on its walls. He joined the Gallery’s staff in 1990 as Clore Curator of Renaissance painting and, after a stint in Washington, returned in December of last year. Leah Kharibian went to meet Dr Nicholas Penny – the new Director of the National Gallery.

Nicholas Penny: I was taken to the Gallery by my parents. I remember my father, who was a barrister, and so of course therefore worked in London… I used to come up to London and he took me to the Gallery. I don’t think he specially liked pictures, but like a lot of parents he liked the idea that his children might like them more than he did. I remember he also used to send me postcards – this is a bit embarrassing actually – at my preparatory school of the pictures that I particularly liked. But since they were almost always of nude figures it caused merriment among the other boys. And I remember especially I was very, very attracted then by Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’. It is a rather fascinating picture but I was…

Leah Kharibian: What was it though… what was it that grabbed you?

Nicholas Penny: I don’t know, but I used to draw it again and again and again. I liked the sort of, the mixing of the limbs, which actually is a slight weakness of the picture in a way, but rhythmically it is a rather wonderful aspect of the painting. But anyway, I loved that but I remember that the teachers at the school were very worried by this fascination I had with Botticelli’s line – I think they probably thought there was something a bit kinky about that – but anyway, he sent me postcards and so I used to come to the National Gallery quite a lot.

And I also remember when I was a teenager, I used to come and I bought the National Gallery catalogues which, if I remember rightly, cost two and six, or less in fact. These great scholarly catalogues… I was fascinated by the amount of information they contain, much of which meant nothing to me… I didn’t really understand much of the discussion of provenance and all these learned footnotes. But I was fascinated that you could learn things about the pictures that you could tell your school friends and they’d be absolutely amazed.

Leah Kharibian: And when you joined the staff in 1990 – that’s nearly 18 years ago now – how was the Gallery different then, do you think?

Nicholas Penny: Well, the Gallery was in a state of transition to put it very mildly. I mean you could actually feel as well as see some of the older and stiffer parts of the Gallery falling away as it entered into a completely new life, and in particular of course the Sainsbury Wing was actually sprouting up next door, so it was a very exciting time.

Leah Kharibian: And I suppose the Sainsbury Wing also started off a tradition of temporary exhibitions here at the National Gallery, which hadn’t really quite been there in the same way before, had they?

Nicholas Penny: This was the time when the exhibition programme in the National Gallery was expanding greatly. This was the first time that we’d had an exhibition space for larger loan exhibitions. The best type of exhibitions as far as I’m concerned, for the National Gallery, are ones where people… which have some impact on the permanent collection. I mean for example the ‘Batoni’ exhibition at the moment, it includes our own Batonis, but it also includes 18th-century portraits of a kind that we have by all sorts of other artists and it affects the way that you see those elsewhere in the Gallery. So that by putting on exhibitions in the National Gallery, the curators aren’t just providing a sort of extra treat, they’re actually changing the way that you think of the permanent collection here.

Leah Kharibian: But what I’m finding really fascinating is that you’re talking about the Gallery as a home, and a home that you’ve had since a child. And I feel exactly the same way, and I think nearly everybody who visits the Gallery regularly, even people who are maybe at a great distance, feel very particular about the National Gallery – that it does have this feeling of being a home, either a spiritual or a physical refuge, but a home… it does have that, I don’t know, that personality, that particularity about it that perhaps other institutions don’t share.
 
Nicholas Penny: I think that’s completely right and that’s why the National Gallery has often got into trouble in the past as well because people don’t like changes in their home. People like me who are curators or even more when they’re directors of the National Gallery have this responsibility – they’re actually looking after something that belongs to everyone else.

And, you know, this extends to almost everything. I mean, the feeling about the fig trees growing up on the outside of the National Gallery... I mean, they’re not even in the National Gallery, but if you try to cut down the fig trees… I sometimes wonder also whether people would be disturbed if there were fewer pigeons, which I personally wouldn’t think would be a very good thing, and they cause a tremendous amount of nuisance… even the pigeons are much beloved. So you have to be very, very careful in the National Gallery. If people are so worried about the pigeons and the figs outside just imagine how strongly they feel about the Botticellis and the Titians.

Leah Kharibian: In a few years time… I mean, you’ve only relatively recently become Director, but in a few years time, what are you hoping that people will have in mind when they think of the National Gallery? I mean, I’m hoping it won’t just be fig trees and pigeons, but what do you hope they’ll be thinking of?

Nicholas Penny: Well, I hope that they’ll feel – this seems ridiculous, but it relates to what I’ve been saying – I hope that they’ll feel that it’s both a place where they can always go and see something new and a place where they can always go and refresh themselves at some source that they are familiar with, that they’ve known already. And that seems to me… if people can have those two feelings about the Gallery, I also want people to feel that it’s their own and that’s why I think it’s also really important that they feel it’s something which is growing. I just feel that it means more to people if they know that it is actually changing because not only new things are arriving there, but great new things are arriving there.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian talking to our new Director, Nick Penny. If you’d like to visit the exhibition he mentioned there are just a few more weeks until ‘Pompeo Batoni’ closes on 18 May. Tickets are available at the Gallery, or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.


Jenny Uglow on ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Cloning, GM crops, nuclear power – it seems as if science has never been so contentious. It’s easy to blame this ambivalence on the pace of progress and imagine it’s a modern phenomenon. But in fact it’s nothing new as a look at one of the Gallery’s most famous paintings – An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump – reveals. Author and historian Jenny Uglow told me more.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of an 18th-century painting which is a moment frozen in time. There’s a group of figures all gathered around a kitchen table, all the members of the family and in the centre is a rather enigmatic looking character with lots of white long bushy hair, who appears to be conducting some kind of experiment on a cockatoo that’s trapped in a bell jar. Jenny, what’s going on here? Who is this character in the middle?

Jenny Uglow: The man in the middle is a travelling lecturer or demonstrator. He’s demonstrating one of the exciting aspects of the demonstrator’s art, which is the air pump. And he’s got a very large glass vessel poised on a column and in the glass vessel is a bird and the bird is fluttering and near to death because from the pump down below – you can see the handle, glistening handle, next to those pistons – he’s extracted all the air from the glass, but his hand is poised just above it to let us know that if he pulled the stopcock at any moment, he could flood the glass vessel with air again and the bird would revive.

Miranda Hinkley: So this was painted by Joseph Wright 'of Derby' who… there are a number of works by him dealing with the advance of science and the industrial revolution…

Jenny Uglow: Yes, Joseph Wright grew up in Derby which was one of the main centres of the industrial Midlands. It had instrument makers, it had silk mills, and he was fascinated as a child by mechanics and he went off as a child to be apprenticed as a painter but many of his friends when he came back to Derby were experimental scientists or were industrialists so they were making very important and exciting discoveries.

Miranda Hinkley: So Wright would have understood quite well what was happening in this painting in this process.

Jenny Uglow: Yes, Wright would understand absolutely the process that he’s showing. He’d have seen demonstrators do it, but also he asked his friends for help when he didn’t understand things. So he’s not just making evocative pictures, he’s showing something that he really understands.

It’s quite technical – there are a lot of other things in the painting which are to do with pneumatics. It’s a lecture on pneumatics, how the world changes if you do remove the air – they’ve got these Magdeburg spheres here, which you put together and if you suck the air out of them they just cling to each other and you can’t separate them, and this mysterious object in the jar, which people used to think was a skull, a sort of memento mori, a reminder of death, and then people said no it’s a sheep’s bladder, and somebody very persuasively said actually it’s human lungs. And again that goes with the feeling that the painting is actually about air and the power of air because Wright was an asthmatic. It was desperately important to him the whole act of breathing and one that was very painful and mysterious and precious.

Miranda Hinkley: This sort of a scene is quite alien to us today in the sense that you don’t have wandering scientists who come and reveal the wonders of nature to you in your own home anymore. But I think there’s something here about people’s attitudes to science and kind of different feelings towards it.

Jenny Uglow: Yes, of course there is. It’s actually ever since this period that scientists have been thought of as rather dangerous, partly because the scientific endeavour, the rationalist endeavour, was associated with the philosophes in France who were behind the French Revolution. So that when the French Revolution came they actually turned on the scientists, the natural philosophers, in their midst and said – ‘well, look what that comes to’. And scientists were then, as it were, set apart – mysterious experimenters.

People always think that you’re dabbling with the secrets of nature. It’s very like the things that frighten us today, like cloning, you know, like creating alien forms of life. This is very dangerous and yet if you’re going to cure something like Wright’s own asthma, you’ve got to know about the mechanics of breathing and of air, so it’s a good thing. We want the advantages of science but we’re always a bit frightened that we’re tapping into a power that could actually hurt us.

Miranda Hinkley: There’s something really striking about this painting. It’s not just the arrangement of the figures and the way he’s captured everyone’s thoughts so perfectly in their faces, it’s also the contrast of light and dark and the sort of light of knowledge kind of penetrating the surrounding darkness…

Jenny Uglow: It is. And if you think of it as a kind of demonstration it’s also like a bit of theatre, isn’t it. It’s like something glowing on a stage and it pulls you in. There’s… it makes you think of earlier paintings, which are actually not scientific paintings, but religious paintings, which have this glowing mystery at their heart. And in the National Gallery, there’s a little early painting where the Christ Child in the manger is actually glowing almost, exactly like this, and the faces are lit up watching him, so this is like a new miracle, this is a new way of understanding the meaning of life.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jenny Uglow talking about ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright 'of Derby'.


Ruysch’s ‘Flowers in a Vase’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer… if asked to name an artist from the Dutch Golden Age, few people would mention Rachel Ruysch, yet she’s responsible for one of the Gallery’s best loved and most beautiful still lifes. Leah Kharibian asked curator Betsy Wieseman what makes the picture, Flowers in a Vase, and its little-known painter, so special.

Betsy Wieseman: Ruysch was a unique figure in part because of her innate talent, but also because of her training and her background, which is quite interesting. Her father, Frederick Ruysch, was a professor of anatomy and botany; he was a pharmacist, a surgeon; he was the head of the Amsterdam botanical garden, and in addition to that, he owned a personal collection of anatomical specimens and natural curiosities and he called it the ‘Museaum Ruyschianum’ – his own personal museum.

Leah Kharibian: And how does that affect the picture here, do you think? I mean, we’ve… I can see that we have, standing on a ledge, a glass vase in which we have a very beautiful collection of what look like fairly common or garden flowers – I mean, flowers that you might see anywhere, but nestling in amongst them are these insects, so we’ve… what can we see here?

Betsy Wieseman: Well, there are two caterpillars that I can see. I particularly like the one right in the foreground that’s just dangling from his thread and looking to land somewhere. It’s this wonderful little suggestion of movement. There’s a grasshopper on the table that looks about ready to spring to the other side and then nestled up between the rose and the peony is a wonderful spider and an ant on the petals of the rose.

Leah Kharibian: Oh, tiny, tiny ant… oh, I can just see that. Now the flowers that she’s picked here, they do seem to be the sort of flowers that you might grow in a cottage garden. There’s honeysuckle and columbine at the top and roses and there’s a big bud of a peony on the right-hand side, and apple blossom, that’s right isn’t it? And what are these orange flowers in the middle do we think?

Betsy Wieseman: Those are lilies and then to the left of that a marigold. And then I love the viburnum that comes up between them and it’s turned away from us so that the focus is on the underside of the leaf and those wonderful crinkles of the leaf. One of Ruysch’s most beautiful characteristics is her ability to render all these different textures and her use of light and shadow to bring the flowers towards us. To really create an illusion of three dimensions within the bouquet.

Leah Kharibian: I’m right in thinking that this is quite an early piece of hers, isn’t it?

Betsy Wieseman: It is. She was probably about 20 maybe 25 when it was painted, so just after she’d completed her training. What’s fascinating about Ruysch is that she goes on to become one of the most important and successful painters of the early 18th century. She was the court painter to Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine, based in Düsseldorf. She didn’t actually live in Düsseldorf, but she would send her paintings there and she was also patronised by princes and rulers throughout Europe – so really a unique position in the early 18th century. And on her death in 1750, there was an entire volume of verses written by various poets throughout the Netherlands, lauding her and praising her paintings, which I think was really unique. The other fascinating thing was that she had quite a family life as well. She was married in her 20s to another artist – not quite so successful as she herself – and between them they had 10 children.

Leah Kharibian: 10? 10 children?

Betsy Wieseman: 10 children.

Leah Kharibian: So there’s all this extraordinary talent, and she manages 10 children as well and she lives to a ripe old age. She doesn’t sound like the picture that we have in our mind’s eye perhaps of the downtrodden female artist, I mean she seems to go against type, or is it the case that it was possible to have a career?

Betsy Wieseman: I think she was unique and I often wonder whether it was because, or in spite of the fact that she had 10 children that she became such a successful artist. Maybe her studio was her refuge!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman. You can see Ruysch’s ‘Flowers in a Vase’ for yourself at the Gallery, and if you’re planning a visit during May, you might like to know that a range of flower-themed talks and events will take place throughout the month. Many are free and you can find details at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

That’s it for this episode, but we’ll back in June with news of the National Gallery’s next big exhibition. Until then – goodbye!

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