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Episode 76

The National Gallery Podcast

Stunning new landscape oil sketch exhibition opens, plus the secret of a happy marriage portrait and a peek inside a curiosity cabinet.

16 min 15 sec | February 2013

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

This month we start in the 18th century, a time when it was fashionable for well-to-do couples to have portraits made together when they married. This sounds very romantic – but in fact these images of husbands and wives are often very generic, and tell us comparatively little about the individuals or their relationship.

But there’s a nice exception to the rule in the National Gallery Collection – a portrait of a young couple painted by Joseph Wright 'of Derby'. Dr Kate Retford from Birkbeck College took Cathy FitzGerald to meet Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman.

Kate Retford: We’re looking at an attractive young couple – they’re both in their mid-twenties. They’ve just got married – they married in the October of 1769, and this is painted in the following few years – and they’re about to go out on a horse ride… they’re about to have a nice gallop through their country estate.

Mary is seated side-saddle on her grey horse… she’s wearing this wonderful, rich old rose riding habit, and a lovely hat with these beautiful white feathers, which Wright has picked out in meticulous detail on her head. The horse is a bit distracted by this beautifully painted brown-and-white spaniel that’s playing around its front feet.

Cathy FitzGerald: Yes, he’s rather cute, isn’t he?

Kate Retford: Yes, he’s actually much better painted than the horse is. If you look at the horse’s head and the neck it goes a little bit wrong around there, but the dog is lovely.

And she’s looking down with this sort of lovely smile on her face at her husband, who's resting in this very affectionate way on one of her legs, and look at the way Wright has painted the frogging going across the front of his waistcoast, with the light catching the silver strands and the tassels just blowing gently in the breeze. And if I can direct your attentions slightly below that to his tight breeches, you can actually see a coin in the inner pocket of his breeches – that’s how much detail and specificity Wright has put into this portrait.

Cathy FitzGerald: And this was an era, wasn’t it, when the two genders had very definite roles when it came to marriage. So the woman was there to soften the husband and the husband was there to raise the intellect. And that’s often something that turns up in marriage paintings, isn’t it? But this is a bit different, isn’t it?

Kate Retford: Marriage portraiture is very formulaic and you do always get this sense that the husband is directing his wife and the wife is responding and providing a more softening influence.

In this, Thomas Coltman is pointing – he is gesturing across the landscape – and men do that a lot in portraiture. What’s different about this is that his gesture is mirrored by her gesture: they’re both actually pointing and talking about the route... presumably their ride... is going to take across the grounds.

The other thing is there’s a very standard compositional device in family portraiture of this time and basically you always have the husband, the father, the 'pater familias' at the top of the group. He’s actually the highest person in the canvas, and if you look at 18th-century family marriage portraits you have the husband often at the top of a triangular group of sitters.

In this, we’ve actually got Mary as the top figure in the composition. Because she’s the mounted figure in the portrait, we look up to her and then follow her gaze down to her husband, so Wright’s really playing with those conventions of marriage portraiture which are in place to show the established superiority of the husband.

Cathy FitzGerald: So why is this portrait so much more intimate than others in the genre?

Kate Retford: Well, usually portraits in the 18th century and probably today are based on a few encounters in the portraitist’s studio. Money would exchange hands – end of story.

What we’ve got in this is one of those cases where the portrait is actually rooted in personal friendship. Wright was actually very good friends with Thomas Coltman. He knew this couple; he knew what their relationship was like. And a couple of years after this, Wright goes off to Italy and Coltman actually lends him some money, a reasonable amount of money for the journey, and Wright pens a letter to his brother, saying ‘my good friend Coltman has behaved wonderfully generous and genteel to me’.

So they know each other well, they like each other, and it also seems likely that Wright has actually painted Mary and Thomas before. If you look at another very wonderful Wright 'of Derby' painting in the National Gallery’s collection – 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' – you’ll notice a couple just to the left of the picture who are much more interested in each other than they are in what's going to happen to this poor bird. Everyone else is wondering, 'Is the bird going to live or is it going to die?'.

Cathy FitzGerald: This is a very famous painting isn’t it, with a scientist who's doing an experiment. He’s put the bird in the air pump to see what happens…

Kate Retford: Yes and he’s got his hand on the valve – will he let the air back in so the bird will live; will he close it so the bird will die? There’s a couple who seem really not to care whether the bird lives or dies. They’re gazing into each other’s eyes and it’s been proposed – convincingly, I think – that these are actually portraits of Thomas and Mary before their marriage. The air pump painting is 1768, the year before they married.

So this is a portrait rooted in friendship, in liking, in mutual respect. One art historian a few years ago wrote of this painting that it’s 'one of the most affectionate portraits of a happy marriage in the whole of British art' – and I think she was probably right.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Kate Retford, talking about 'Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman' in Room 35.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump isn’t currently on display, but you can take a closer look at the work on the National Gallery website – and zoom in close to decide for yourself whether it really is an earlier portrait of Mary and Thomas. The real thing will be back on the walls from mid-February – again, check the website for the latest information  

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to our new exhibition in Room 1 – Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch.

Chances are, you won’t have heard of Frederic Edwin Church. But in the mid-19th century he was one of the most successful artists in America and leading light of the so-called Hudson River School.

He was also the creator of some of the most breathtakingly fresh and vivid landscape oil sketches ever made. Leah Kharibian met up with the Gallery’s Chris Riopelle to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Chris, I have to say that I’m completely bowled over by this selection of Frederic Church’s oil sketches, and I really can’t believe that I don’t know more about him.

And in particular, this 1859 sketch of an iceberg – which is only 50cm across, but it’s this wonderful dark blue-green iceberg, under this deep, dark cloudy sky – and really, you’re sort of… bang – you’re right there with him. This surely has to have been made out of doors… it can’t be a studio work, can it?

Chris Riopelle: No, this is a true oil sketch, made 'in front of the motif' as the saying is, in 1859.

Church, who was indefatigable in searching out fantastic motifs in nature, went toward the Arctic, up the coast of Labrador, further and further north, simply to study icebergs, these gigantic ships of the sea, and painted a number of oil sketches, just sitting in a boat, looking right at them, recording them with a kind of cool objectivity, and later he would use them as he worked up one of his most ambitious, huge paintings, now in Dallas, called simply – 'Icebergs'.

Leah Kharibian: Of course, all these oil sketches were being made by Church in order to feed into these grand pictures, and this exhibition has got one particular spectacular work – could you tell me about that?

Chris Riopelle: It is a picture of Niagara Falls – the most famous natural wonder of North America. Church, like many… like hundreds of thousands of tourists before him had started going to Niagara Falls in the 1850s. In the 1860s, he decided to paint a monumental picture of the Falls from the American side that was meant to, and indeed did dazzle audiences when it was put on display.

Leah Kharibian: It’s just extraordinary. I’ve never had a picture actually where I really hear the sound – I mean this, you hear the waterfall thundering. And also just the scale… the awesomeness of the whole thing. It’s only really just on the left-hand side near the edge that you see these tiny, weeny little figures on a very precarious platform. It’s just amazing.

Chris Riopelle: Church certainly pulled out all of the rhetorical stops of picture-making to turn this image into spectacle. And yes, that positioning of two viewers on the very dangerous looking little viewing platform… pulls us into the picture and gives us a sense of the terror that they must have felt in that dangerous location.

Leah Kharibian: We know that Church himself really put a lot of work into the way in which these works were shown. He was a great showman, wasn’t he?

Chris Riopelle: Church, when he showed his really big, really ambitious landscape paintings often showed them in a kind of theatrical context – with curtains around them, with dramatic lighting – and one of the things he would do is recommend that you roll up a roll of paper and look at the picture from a distance through the roll of paper, almost as if you were looking at it with binoculars, and so you only saw part of it at any time, but your eye could go on a trip around this huge expanse of paint, as if you were on a hilltop looking at Niagara, or looking at icebergs, or looking at volcanoes in the Andes, and that sense of physical participation was part of his extraordinary showmanship.

Leah Kharibian: And have you tried this trick yourself, Chris?

Chris Riopelle: I have… I have tried it, and it really does work. It is as I say as if you were looking through binoculars and details of the picture just sort of pop as you discover them moving across the surface.

Leah Kharibian: So, definitely worth coming and having a look in the flesh, and then making sure that you get either a roll of paper, or actually you can just do this with your fist, can’t you – you can make a little sort of porthole to look at the works with and it really does make a huge difference.

Chris Riopelle: Please do come.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle.

If you’d like to take up his invitation, the exhibition opens on 6 February. It runs until the end of April in Room 1 and admission is free.

And if you’re coming along, do also take a look at the show’s sister display in Room 46. It’s called Through European Eyes: The Landscape Oil Sketch and offers a chance to compare Church’s work with the European tradition.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next – the ‘pictures of collections’ genre was invented and popularised in early 17th-century Antwerp. Such works depict an array of luxurious goods and artworks displayed in an elegant interior – and were designed to parade the skill of Flemish artists of the time.

Cathy FitzGerald asked Dr Alexander Marr of the University of Cambridge to introduce a celebrated example in the National Gallery Collection: Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures.

Alexander Marr: What we see is a large elegant room, probably in a private house, filled with an array of paintings, sculptures, prints, other 'objet d’arts', a few natural objects, some of which are hung on the walls, others are on tables, some have been taken out for viewing and they’re being scrutinised by a group of very elegantly dressed male connoisseurs, or 'cognoscenti'.

And that’s where the picture gets its title, which is 'Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures'. ‘Cognoscenti’ of course being 'those who know', 'those who are knowledgeable', in this case it’s 'those who are knowledgeable or who want to know about art and nature'.

The majority of the things that we see are pictures – paintings – of all sorts of different genres and subjects, but they are more or less all painted by Flemish artists, so we’re in the southern Netherlands; more particularly by artists who were active in the city of Antwerp, which is almost certainly where this work was painted.

So what do we see? We see landscapes of all different kinds – a rugged one at very the top in the manner of Joos de Momper… some in the manner of Jan Brueghel the Elder, who was one of the most important cabinet painters – cabinet being small scale pictures – active at this time… and in fact, in the Gallery, the National Gallery, hung on either side of this work are pictures by Jan Brueghel the Elder of the type that we see mimicked in the interior that we’re looking at now.

There are still life pictures – vases of flowers – again in the manner of Brueghel, but also in the manner of Bosschaert, who’s also represented in the Gallery – the National Gallery – just a few rooms down. We have genre scenes – a fish market in the manner of Beuckelaer – again…

Cathy FitzGerald: Just a room or two away…

Alexander Marr: Just a room or two away…

Cathy FitzGerald: We have these wonderful high resolution images now where we can actually really zoom in to a painting and the exquisiteness with which each of these miniatures has been made is quite something…

Alexander Marr: The level of detail is absolutely extraordinary and this was one of the real talents of Antwerp’s cabinet painters at this time. A lot of the fictive pictures that we see in this painting would have been created with brushes with just one or two hairs on the end to get this extraordinary level of detail – and really one of the main points of this kind of image – of this genre of gallery interiors or 'Kunstkammer' paintings – is the cunning imitation of different artists’ styles. So the idea is that you have one artist who is able, almost proteus like, to turn himself into all of the other artists whose styles we see on display here.

And that’s a game. These are very playful images and that’s part of the point. Is what we’re seeing an accurate reproduction? How much fiction has been deployed? It’s very much a game for connoisseurs to hunt for tell-tale stylistic traits.

Cathy FitzGerald: And of course we’re in this strange situation where we’re in a Gallery of pictures ourselves, staring into a particular painting, and in the painting we have a room full of pictures with people staring into paintings, so are we also being invited to play the game?

Alexander Marr: Very much so. We’re, I think, meant to put ourselves in the role of these connoisseurs, of these 'cognoscenti'. And perhaps – this picture is unattributed, we don’t know who painted it – but I have a feeling that the man in the very centre, wrapped in a grey cloak with a wide-brimmed hat who is looking out at us directly…

Cathy FitzGerald: Yes, it’s a very direct gaze.

Alexander Marr: Very direct gaze… I think he might be the artist. It has the feel of an author portrait, so maybe this is our brilliant, but anonymous Flemish painter of c.1620.

Cathy FitzGerald: Who’s able to ape all of these different styles with such panache.

Alexander Marr: Who’s able to ape nature with consummate skill and wit.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Alexander Marr, talking about 'Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures' in Room 28.

That’s it for this month. If you’re visiting, don’t forget we’re open 10–6 daily, and 'till 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!