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Episode 77

The National Gallery Podcast

Barocci! The new exhibition opens. Plus: discover a hidden symbol in Frederic Church’s landscape, and 18th-century tiny tots.

14 min 46 sec | March 2013

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

We start with our new exhibition, Barocci: Brilliance and Grace – an exploration of a charming, yet today relatively unknown, master of 16th-century Renaissance Italy.

The show's a once in a lifetime opportunity to see major altarpieces by the artist – many from his native city of Urbino – which have never travelled before. But there’s a feast of smaller works as well, including The Madonna of the Cat, in which the holy family – Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Christ Child and infant Saint John the Baptist – all gather by the hearth to play with a ginger and white cat. The show’s co-curator, Carol Plazzotta, told Leah Kharibian why the picture sets Barocci apart.

Carol Plazzotta: It is such a tender and intimate picture. The family really are having a lovely time – in fact, in the 19th century people thought this was highly inappropriate for the holy family and they thought that people should just be sitting, looking very stiff and sober an proper. Well, this is not like Barocci’s picture at all, and Joseph is leaning over, really having a good laugh at what’s going on. The cat’s up on its haunches and Mary too is joyful and kind of surrounded by her family – and in fact the palace that it was painted for was a small palace – it was a very intimate domestic space and I’ve discovered that the picture was almost certainly painted for the Contessa’s bedroom. So again a lovely intimate space, which we know was also filled with other family portraits. 

Leah Kharibian: And the idea of ‘brilliance and grace’ – there is definitely this gracefulness – but there is this extraordinary attitude, if you like, to colour. I mean Barocci to me doesn’t seem to be like any other painter at the time. There are these sort of lemon yellows and sage greens and odd colours that you’re not expecting. 

Carol Plazzotta: Absolutely. I mean, Barocci was the, probably, ultimate colourist of the 16th century and he worked alone, outside the mainstream in provincial Urbino, and so he developed his own sense of colour harmony. He didn’t really go along with what else was going on in the 16th century and he saw it in terms of musical harmony – in fact he actually said when the Duke one day visited him and asked him what he was doing – he said, ‘Well, I’m composing a tune.’

Leah Kharibian: Is it a case then that because he was really very individual and was working in Urbino – which although not a backwater wasn’t maybe the main event in Italy at the time – is that why we don’t know about him very much today?

Carol Plazzotta: You can’t say that that’s the only reason because, of course, Raphael was from Urbino as well; Raphael, who was born there about 30 years earlier or 40 years earlier. But he is completely the opposite of Barocci – there couldn’t be two more different personalities. Raphael was immensely ambitious and he left Urbino for Rome never to return. Barocci was completely the opposite. He lived in a much poorer house around the corner from where Raphael lived. He was very shy and very retiring and when he did go to Rome, he actually got terribly ill. We don’t quite know why but legend has it that his salad was poisoned at a picnic by jealous rivals. And he went back to Urbino and never left Urbino again. He wanted to live and work in the quiet of his own surroundings.

And what’s lovely about his work is that he populates these wonderful sacred images with the landscapes of Urbino, the animals around, especially the cats and the donkeys… the cats – he was a great cat lover – and finally and also the people. And his biographer tells us that when he used to go around town with a sketchpad and would often sketch people that he saw on the street and invite them back home if he found them particularly interesting so that he could actually infuse his pictures with real humanity. 

Leah Kharibian: Now I have to say I really like the sound of Barocci. Do you feel you’ve got to know him over the course of preparing for this exhibition? 

Carol Plazzotta: Yes, absolutely. He’s terribly intimate, cheerful, uplifting and with a marvellous soul. A very spiritual man, who I think really loved life, loved nature. He sort of brings religious work down to earth and makes it so accessible to the everyday viewer. And people did love him at the time – his works became instantly popular and he was very famous… more famous than he could probably cope with!

Leah Kharibian: Well, time for him to become famous and well-loved again, I think. 

Carol Plazzotta: Absolutely. 

Leah Kharibian: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Carol Plazzotta.

If you want to get to know Barocci better, come along to the exhibition – it’s just opened and will run until May. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): In last month’s episode, we took a look at the stunning oil sketches of the 19th-century American artist Frederic Church, currently on display in Room 1.

The paintings are on loan from collections around the world, including the Terra Foundation for American Art. Katherine Bourguignon, one of Terra’s curators, came along to the Gallery to see their paintings installed for the show – and spoke to Cathy FitzGerald about an exhibition highlight: a tiny but vibrant picture by Church called 'Our Banner in the Sky'.

Katherine Bourguignon: This painting by Church shows us a landscape – a natural landscape – with a red sky. It’s dawn, there’s a sort of bare tree in the foreground, some hints of trees and mountains in the background, but as we look at it more carefully we see he’s used the white clouds and patches of blue and even some stars to actually depict the American flag.

Cathy FitzGerald: Yeah, it sort of comes out of nowhere, doesn’t it? You think to begin with you’re looking at a landscape and then out of this very luminous sky, a symbol turns up. 

Katherine Bourguignon: It’s true – once you recognise this it’s hard not to see the flag and it becomes almost too obvious, but I do find it exciting to see visitors' first glance, when maybe they haven’t yet recognised it as the American flag. 

Cathy FitzGerald: And this flag of ours has a slightly tattered, woebegone look – why is that? 

Katherine Bourguignon: Frederic Church was a Northern artist and this painting was produced in the spring of 1861, just a few weeks after the Confederate South had attacked Fort Sumpter. And so during this attack it was the American flag that was in question because the Confederate South wanted their own flag. They were starting to secede – they wanted to be recognised as a separate nation. This is the beginning of the American Civil War and what’s interesting is that Church is truly trying to show a kind of natural, divine right to the North to fight this war. 

Cathy FitzGerald: Because it just emerges out of the landscape – it’s part of what’s around us?

Katherine Bourguignon: He makes it seem as if it’s just already there – and that if we look close enough we will see it. So we have this bare tree that serves as a flagpole and just above it, if you look carefully, is a form of an eagle perhaps – again a sort of symbol of the United States, just above the American flag, right at the very top of the picture. 

Cathy FitzGerald: And so he was painting this at a point when public fervour was high anyway – how was it received? 

Katherine Bourguignon: It was so popular that just a few months after Church finished it, Goupil and Company in New York decided... they were a company that made reproductions of paintings... and they paid Church for the rights to reproduce this small painting in a chromolithograph so that people could purchase it. And today, looking back, it was sort of 'rally round the flag', but this was for the North, who did not want to see these Southern states leave the nation – they wanted – they fought the war in order to keep it as one country. They saw this flag as the most important symbol of that unity and so the painting became a kind of symbol of that. 

Cathy FitzGerald: So how does this oil sketch fit with some of the others in the show, because it is a little bit different, isn’t it?

Katherine Bourguignon: It’s very different; you know in the other works – especially in this exhibition – Church is not trying to be symbolic or poetic. He’s painting the landscape, sometimes inventing but usually just painting – these are the oil sketches after all. And in this work I think he shows us that he can read through the landscape – really look at it in a different way – and it’s just so exciting to see these bright colours and this small work on the wall.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Katherine Bourguignon. Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch is currently on display in Room 1. Admission's free and the exhibition closes at the end of April.

And don’t forget 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): There are many images of childhood in the Gallery. One of the best loved, and also most enigmatic, is a painting by the French 18th-century artist, Jean-Siméon Chardin. The picture, probably dating to the mid 1730s, is called The Young Schoolmistress. Art historian Emma Barker gave us her take on the work.

Emma Barker: The painting’s called 'The Young Schoolmistress', but the point you have to realise is she’s not really a schoolmistress. She's a little girl, playing a game, teaching her brother to read from some very blurry characters. So whether these are even real letters, we can’t be sure. She’s looking down at him, she’s holding a large knitting needle, and he is looking very intently down at the page and has his finger on it. So it looks very, very solemn and serious, but the whole thing is that it’s a rather charming game.

Leah Kharibian: It is really charming, but there are two things that I find really curious about the picture. The first is, I suppose, the size of the little – it is a boy, isn’t it? A little boy's head in this rather large cap. I was wondering what that was about, and also I was wondering why you think he is so strangely out of focus?

Emma Barker: Well, he’s dressed in the clothes that little boys wore up until they were about five or six in this period, and little boys in particular – maybe I think little girls as well – wore these funny padded bonnets. And the whole point was to protect the fragile child’s head against falls as the child was learning to walk, and I think this was, obviously, particularly important for boys because there’s this fear that boys are much more likely to run around and fall over and hurt themselves.

But you have to understand that the way children are dressed in this period is part of a whole way of… a very traditional way of thinking about childhood as physically, incredibly vulnerable. As soon as children were born, they would be wrapped up in swaddling clothes. And this was because it was thought that children were formless and needed to be shaped and disciplined into proper human beings, because the way they were born, they were almost like little animals.

And it seems to me that the rather blurry way his face is painted is perhaps... can be related to this whole attitude towards the young child’s body as something that’s rather formless. By... and certainly by comparison with his older sister, who has this very precise, neat profile and silhouette, and she’s clearly wearing a corset. And children of both sexes – well-off children of both sexes – would wear corsets or bodices at this time, so there’s the contrast between the older child whose body is shaped and disciplined, and the younger child who still remains somewhat formless, a kind of blur.

Leah Kharibian: She definitely seems to have not only shape because of her corsets, but also poise, and there’s something – obviously due to her stays – something very straight about her back, but there’s a sort of correspondence almost with the little pin that she’s holding. What about her character? There’s something slightly prim about her.

Emma Barker: There’s something very precise and neat about her. You know, she's like, as... what? What's the phrase? Sort of, 'As sharp as a new pin'. This knitting needle (or whatever it is) is, I think, something that can be related to, you know, feminine adornment. This sense that what little girls are brought up to do is to sew and to knit… to adorn themselves. This sense, I think, that she’s already a little woman in the making.

Leah Kharibian: And yet there’s something about the way that Chardin observes these children, and something in the way that he paints them, that seems to actually say something quite profound about childhood.

Emma Barker: Oh I think it is a very affectionate view of childhood; very sympathetic in many ways. I think there is a great charm in this seriousness and gravity with which they’re both engaged in this game. I think it offers very much a parent’s eye view of these children. And this is the tantalising thing about the painting – we’re really up close to them, but at the same time they’re very separate from us. The little boy, because of the blurriness of his face, and the girl because of the way she’s seen in profile and turned away from us, so that we can’t really see exactly what their game is, so that there is this sense that even though they are well behaved children who are no doubt very docile to their parents' bidding, they nonetheless remain ultimately elusive and tantalising. And that, I think, is a lot of what makes this painting such a continually fascinating one.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Emma Barker talking about Chardin’s 'The Young Schoolmistress' – on display in Room 33.

That’s it for this month. If you’re visiting, don’t forget we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and till 9 on Fridays.

Until next time, goodbye!