Skip to main content

Episode 54

The National Gallery Podcast

In Episode Fifty Four (April 2011), Uccello and the Nazis: the life of a painting in wartime. Plus the first Impressionist show, and marriage in the 18th century.

16 min 50 sec | April 2011

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s show:

How to get yourself noticed as an artist in 1870s Paris...

And a stroll in the park with one of the Gallery’s happiest couples. 


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we begin with a visit to one of the most popular pictures in the Gallery: Uccello’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. Everyone knows the tale of the armour-clad hero who saves the damsel in distress. But as I discovered when I met up with historian Caroline Smith, the painting has another story to tell. It begins in Vienna in the late 1930s...

Caroline Smith: It was once in the collection of Count Lanckoroński and was on display at one of his residences in Vienna. The palace in Vienna displayed his vast collection of art that had been built up in the family over generations and included a number of Italian Renaissance pieces like the Uccello here.

Miranda Hinkley: So the count was living in Austria, but he was actually of Polish origin and that’s where things got sticky, because the Nazis confiscated all of the artworks belonging to foreign nationals in Austria.

Caroline Smith: Yes, any work belonging to a foreign national was potentially subject to confiscation and so after the annexation of Austria in 1938, a significant number of works from the Lanckoroński collection were confiscated: nearly 1,700 works, including the Uccello.

They were then taken from Vienna and stored in the salt mines at Altaussee and the Uccello was ultimately destined for the Hitler museum in Linz. Linz was to be the new cultural capital of the Third Reich and many of these paintings were destined for that museum. So throughout the war it was stored in the salt mines – again, hidden away.

Miranda Hinkley: So what happened after the war?

Caroline Smith: Towards the end of the war, when it became apparent that the Nazis were not going to win, the painting had another narrow escape because Hitler ordered all confiscated or looted works should be destroyed rather than fall into the hands of the allies, and this would have potentially included the Uccello.

However, an Austrian officer refused to carry out this order and so the Uccello was saved once again. And at the end of the war it was recovered by the US army and taken to one of two collecting points for works of art that had been recovered. This one was taken to Munich and here any works could be photographed and investigated and hopefully returned, and that’s what happened to the Uccello. At the end of the war, it was returned to its rightful owners, the Lanckoroński family...

Miranda Hinkley: So the count’s family managed to get it back?

Caroline Smith: Yes, they did. But then became a little worried about its safety and the safety of other things in the collection. I suppose the war had highlighted some of the dangers and the palace itself had been subject to danger from bombing and fire and looting so the count decided – or rather his descendents decided – that it would be safer to move parts of the collection. 

They were moved further west to the castle at Hohenheim, and a number of them – including the ‘St George and the Dragon’ – were put into a bank vault in Zurich. This turned out to be quite fortuitous for the Uccello painting because the castle itself caught fire and a number of works were destroyed in that fire, but obviously it was safe in its vault.

Miranda Hinkley: So this is the third narrow escape for the Uccello?

Caroline Smith: At least the third narrow escape, absolutely. It seems to have had a very adventurous life and it survived confiscation and salt mines and potential fire and destruction and it’s now here hanging on the wall for us all to see.

Miranda Hinkley: So how did it end up here in the National Gallery collection?

Caroline Smith: It was decided by the family that a number of pieces would be sold and so it was one of those put up for sale and it was bought by the National Gallery in 1959 and put on public display.

Miranda Hinkley: So that was probably the first time that it was seen publicly for a very long time?

Caroline Smith: Yes, absolutely. Even before 1939 it wasn’t a very accessible painting. Although it was one of the largest private collections in Vienna, very few people would have had access to it and although there were some notable visitors– it wasn’t a collection that would have been accessible to the public. And obviously it was hidden away for many years and it’s only now – or rather in 1959 – that it was put on public display for the first time. And it is, I think, a painting that we could describe as having nine lives really, that it’s survived all these potential catastrophes and is now hanging quite peacefully on the wall here.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Caroline Smith. If you’re visiting the Gallery this month and would like to see Uccello’s ‘St George’, you’ll find the painting in Room 54. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to one of the most famous art movements of all time – Impressionism.  It was on the 15 April 1874 that the doors opened on a curious new type of exhibition in Paris.  It was staged by a group of artists fed up with the state-run display of contemporary art called the Salon. What was the Salon, and why was the first Impressionist show such a momentous event? Leah Kharibian met James Heard in the National Gallery Library to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: James, the story of the Impressionist exhibitions is often told as a heroic stand against the Salon, but what was the Salon and what was wrong with it?

James Heard: Well, the Salon was the most extraordinary exhibition. There were 2,000–plus paintings hung on the wall on the site of what is now the Grand Palais, but then it was the Palace of Industry, and the paintings were hung in such a way that you didn’t really see the walls at all, because these paintings were hung, not just two layers, but I mean going right up to the ceiling, with the big paintings on eye-level.

Leah Kharibian: Right, but wasn’t this the case that actually this hanging frame to frame and on many levels was actually quite common amongst the galleries of Europe. I know there’s a cartoon of the hang at the National Gallery where we see pictures hung in this way.

James Heard: It was entirely common and one of the interesting things about it was that it changed frames. The frames became wider and wider to isolate your image from all the images above, below and either side. It was indigestible exhibition. The problem was the jury. You had to go through a jury, who would be... well, from photographs it looks about 20, 25 people. And of course they’re not young, radical painters, are they? They’re kind of establishment guys; they’ve worked their way up. The problem was one year they’d accept you and another year they wouldn’t, so that was what really irritated the group we now call the Impressionists.

Leah Kharibian: So it was this unpredictability, but also I presume quite a bit of crony-ism going on amongst the jurors – is that the case?

James Heard: I think the system was entirely corrupt, because you’d be looking out for your own students, and famously in 1863 there was a terrible row because 3,000 paintings were rejected. 3,000! And as you know, the Emperor actually sponsored an official Salon des Refuses, which interestingly was continued in the 1870s and I think the last one was 1886.

Leah Kharibian: So the group of artists that we now called the Impressionists, they got together and they set up this exhibition, this independent exhibition. Was this a very straightforward proposition?

James Heard: Well, not really because they had to organise themselves into a kind of co-operative. And there were terrible arguments between people like Degas, who was rather right-wing, and Pissarro who was an anarchist. So you could imagine these kind of stresses and strains going on. Luckily they had Renoir who was a very organised man when it came to this. He seems to have sorted out the catalogue. He sorted out the hanging, because actually it seemed that nobody else helped him. The interesting thing about the hanging was that it only had two tiers, so it was quite different from the Salon. There were 163 works...

Leah Kharibian: So much smaller...

James Heard: Oh yes, it was tiny by comparison. We don’t know quite how the paintings looked but we do know that they were on red walls. Well, that’s very traditional –even the National Gallery has its red walls and that came from the fact that in medieval times, Renaissance times, red cloth was expensive so that it’s very, very traditional and it would have looked very good there.

Leah Kharibian: There aren’t any photos of the exhibition, but we do have reproduction catalogues and I’m wondering what these tell us about the show.

James Heard: We do actually have a lot of information about this show, partly because Paris was full of writers and all the left-wing press went. They had something like 50 notices – that seems to me a really considerable amount of writing and reviews – and we also have the catalogue, but as you can see it says the first exhibition in the Boulevard de Capucin. And another interesting thing is they had great arguments as to what to call themselves. And Degas said we should call ourselves the Capucin group, which some people thought was rather feeble because that means a nasturtium in French. They eventually called themselves the independents, which is appropriate.

But looking through the catalogue you find lots of names you’ve never heard of. There’s Edouard Brandon on there, Belliard, La Touche. So there are lots of artists here that have just disappeared amongst the greats... I mean there’s Mademoiselle Morisot, Degas, etc etc... Cezanne... there was great argument over Cezanne. Quite a lot of them didn’t want Cezanne – he was rather boorish in his behaviour – but Degas decided he wanted some of his trad friends who were not part of the group so eventually Cezanne was admitted. So the whole thing was difficult to organise and they had to organise the printing of the catalogue. Monet was difficult because they had to wait on one of his paintings, and eventually he said, ‘oh, I’ll call it “Impression: Sunrise”’ – although now we think it’s actually a sunset, but that’s another story, isn’t it? But that was the painting that of course attracted the critics and gave the movement its name. It broke the mould entirely, and so 15 April 1874 was a very important day for art history.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): James Heard talking with Leah Kharibian. And you might like to know that the National Gallery Library is open to researchers by appointment – see the website for details.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): It’s wedding season again and, with the biggest of them all just around the corner, we took a look through the collection for couples who could share in all the marital bliss. The 18th-century artist Gainsborough obliged. ‘The Morning Walk’ shows an elegant young man and woman out for a stroll with their dog.

I asked Professor Amanda Vickery – an expert in 18th-century domestic life – who they were, and what kind of wedding they might have had planned.

Amanda Vickery: By the time the painting was exhibited, this was Mr and Mrs Hallett. So Hallett is marrying his young bride, Elizabeth. They’re about 21; some say that he’s 21 and she’s just 20. They’re engaged to be married when they’re being painted, and they’re showing themselves off, I think, as a young couple on the very brink of married life, going for a graceful promenade about what you imagine is their beautiful landscaped garden. I think one of the difficult things about looking at a portrait like this is to try and work out how much it tells you about the individual relationship of this couple that we’re looking at. I like to think that it’s a sign that they are a thoughtful, loving and polite couple but actually I think what it also tells us is how much they’ve absorbed the polite rules of the day.

From the 1750s onwards, there are loads of paintings of young couples promenading about their estates, or about this sort of fictionalised pastoral landscape, so clearly this is the fashionable way to present yourself as a young couple. It’s almost the equivalent of the engagement photograph today. Whereas earlier you might have had very formal, posed, separate paintings of the bride and the groom, here we have them linked together. And a lot of the commentary at the time about the perfect marriage emphasises how a man gives a woman a sort of necessary... a degree of rationality, but she softens his severity. So she mollifies him a little, and she introduces him to the world of nature and empathy. But he represents the world of rationality and has got a much more developed intellect, and I think some of that is implied in the portrait here and the difference between her in her filmy, gauzy white – almost like a sort of queen of the fairies floating into the background – and him much more sombre and solid in his black velvet.

Miranda Hinkley: She’s wearing white and of course she’s going to be a bride – is that significant here?

Amanda Vickery: I don’t think it is, myself. I think she’s in her ... what would be seen as her casual finery. Before the 1790s, brides and grooms married in every colour of the rainbow. And in fact, if you were in the elite, what your wedding dress was like is not the most significant dress in your wardrobe. Far more significant is the dress that you would wear to court, or to show yourself off to your family and friends after you were married. So often you’re married in private; they don’t have a strong sense of ‘here comes the bride’ and the great big spectacle that we would expect. They’re rather discreet, weddings of the elite, but the showing off afterwards – here we are, bride and groom – is very much done in your finery.

Miranda Hinkley: What would a wedding in the 18th century around this time have been like?

Amanda Vickery: This is not really the period of the full Victorian paraphernalia of weddings. You can see there’s no veil, no orange blossom, nothing that you would call a honeymoon, or even rice – people don’t start throwing rice until Indian rice becomes part of the Victorian diet – so actually I think it’s a much more polite and possibly low-key wedding that you would have in the 18th century, without quite a lot of the sort of nonsense that really starts cranking up in the Victorian period.

Miranda Hinkley: Did they have a happy marriage?

Amanda Vickery: Well, it was a long and – in the eyes of the world– a successful marriage, in that he remembered her very, very fondly. They were married for 40 years or so, although he was a notorious gambler. So in social terms it’s not a complete success, but I think in sentimental terms, it probably was.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Amanda Vickery. And I've heard since the interview that William Hallett left a note about his wife in his will - ’I lived with her most happily for 48 years’, he said, ‘it was impossible to do otherwise with such a woman’. If you’d like to see the happy couple, Gainsborough’s ‘Morning Walk’ is on display in Room 34.

With this month's other wedding in mind, you might also like to know about our ‘Right Royal Tour’, an audio trail for kids that tracks down kings and queens in paintings around the Gallery. It's available from audio guide desks.

Until next month, goodbye.