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Episode 88

The National Gallery Podcast

Why German Renaissance art made the Victorians blanch, plus painting in the snow and a reunion for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

13 min 37 sec | February 2014

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

We start with a preview of an exhibition that’s opening on the 19th of February. 'Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance' will take a fresh look at German Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery collection - and how the reception of such masterpieces by British audiences has changed significantly over time. When they were painted, back in the 16th century, these pictures were admired for their expressiveness and invention - as they are today. Yet during the 19th and early 20th centuries they fell out of favour with curators and the public alike and were perceived as excessive or even ugly.

To make sense of this radical change in taste, Cathy FitzGerald met up with co-curator Jeanne Nuechterlein from the University of York in front of one of the highlights of the show, Albrecht Altdorfer's 'Christ taking Leave of his Mother '. Christ stands in the centre of the work, about to leave for Jerusalem and calm in the face of the violent death he anticipates. His composure is contrasted with the agonized grief of his mother, who has collapsed at his feet in the arms of a group of women. It’s a strange and powerful work… and Cathy began by asking Jeanne what Victorian gallery-goers would have disliked about it.

JEANNE NUECHTERLEIN: Well, there are lots of things that the Victorians would not have liked about this painting. First of all, all of the figures are very elongated and they’re very tall and thin.

CATHY FITZGERALD: They still look quite strange to us today actually…

JEANNE NUECHTERLEIN: Yes, absolutely. I think even to a modern eye. They don’t look as if they’re attempting to show anatomy in the way that we would normally expect to see it, particularly with the two figures who are sitting crossed against each other on the ground – you can see their feet, they’re almost positioned out at the viewer, and they are very big shoes that they are wearing and this is one of the details that people tend to notice about this painting and think is really rather peculiar. I think another feature that’s odd about this painting to a Victorian taste is the very bright colours. The very strong blues and greens that you get in the background… this very extreme, almost other-worldly apparition of a kind of sunset that seems to be happening off to the side and then the very bold draperies in the foreground. It’s relating to naturalistic colours, but it’s not trying to look purely like a natural scene.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Why in terms of 19th century taste would those things be so difficult?

JEANNE NUECHTERLEIN: They had very definite expectations of what they thought a painting should look like. And their taste was very much informed by the Royal Academy, whose first president was Joshua Reynolds, who wrote about what made a work of art great, and the kind of criteria that they used very much originated in Italian Renaissance painting and to some degree 17th century painting as well. So art was expected to be beautiful – beautiful figures, proportion, a certain kind of use of brush strokes, which is very different from the kind of work that we see here, and I think that the conception of beauty and expression in German Renaissance art is very different from the expectations that 19th century viewers would have had.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And why is it do you think that it appeals so much more to us than it did to the Victorians?

JEANNE NUECHTERLEIN: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we just want art to be striking and interesting nowadays in a way that I think is different from what a lot of 19th century viewers brought to these art-works. That sense of both the figures themselves but also nature itself being somehow energized by inner force. To us I think this seems like a powerful aspect of the painting, whereas to the Victorian viewer it just seems like the artist didn’t know what they were doing.

We’re hoping that everyone who comes to the show will also think to themselves ‘well, what do I think about these works? Do I think of these as beautiful, expressive, ugly, strange – we really want people to think for themselves about what they value in art works and what expectations we bring nowadays to art works. When you go to a contemporary exhibition do you expect the work to be beautiful? Do you expect it to move you emotionally? What do we think the work of art ought to be nowadays?

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Jeanne Nuechterlein, talking about Altdorfer's 'Christ taking Leave of his Mother'. The exhibition 'Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance' opens on the 19th of February, as part of the National Gallery’s Renaissance Spring… more on that next month. Meanwhile, you can buy tickets for the show from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to one of the real stars of the National Gallery collection - a work so famous it tends to hide in plain sight - Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'. The National Gallery picture is one of seven sunflower paintings Van Gogh made between August 1888, when he was anticipating the visit of fellow artist Paul Gauguin to his home in Arles, and January 1889. Today Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings are so highly prized by collectors and museums that they’re seldom loaned - and so the opportunity to see the pictures side by side is extremely rare. But a new display at the National Gallery brings the Gallery’s own painting together with a version from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - the first time in 65 years the works will be shown together in London.

Leah Kharibian spoke to Martin Bailey, the author of a recent book on the works, ‘The Sunflowers are Mine’. He began by telling her the rather mundane reason Van Gogh embarked on this extraordinary group of works.

MARTIN BAILEY: Well, it was partly because of the weather. Van Gogh had come down to Provence where he living in the Yellow House and during the summer he wanted first of all to paint some portraits and the sitters didn’t turn up and then the weather turned bad and the Mistral, which is a very strong wind, blew so he had to work inside. So it was the sunflower season so flowers were the ideal thing to paint during this period, so that’s why he painted the famous sunflowers.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And the National Gallery version of the Sunflowers was the sort of culminating work of this first period of working on the Sunflowers. It’s an extraordinary picture, isn’t it?

MARTIN BAILEY: It’s an astonishingly vibrant composition and the juxtaposition of the yellow background and the yellow sunflowers might seem surprising but it actually works astonishingly well and it really sings.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And did Van Gogh have a plan for these pictures?

MARTIN BAILEY: Well, he had the idea of decorating the bedroom of Gauguin, who was about to come and Gauguin was being a little bit prevaricating about coming to Arles, so Van Gogh thought that a decorated bedroom would encourage him, so they were painted to decorate the room.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: That’s wonderful. So we know that two versions of the Sunflowers, the National Gallery picture and another one that’s now in Munich went into Gauguin’s bedroom, plus a whole load of landscapes. I mean it’s the most amazing sounding room. But what did Gauguin make of it?

MARTIN BAILEY: Well, Gauguin arrived after the long journey and he arrived early in the morning, walked up the staircase in the Yellow House into the guest bedroom and he was astonished at the way Van Gogh’s art had developed over the previous few months. I don’t think he actually liked initially most of the art and he was diplomatic in his comments, but he did love the Sunflowers and he really felt that they epitomized the best of Van Gogh.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: But that aside, the stay of Paul Gauguin with Van Gogh doesn’t go very well and things seem to decline quite quickly, don’t they?

MARTIN BAILEY: They were together in the Yellow House for two months, but there were tensions. They argued a lot, mostly about art and also how the house should be run and the whole saga ended most unfortunately just before Christmas in 1888, when the incident occurred when Van Gogh mutilated his ear and that was the point at which the relationship broke down and Gauguin fled to Paris.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So he flees to Paris, but he doesn’t forget the Sunflowers and he asks Van Gogh a little bit later whether he could either actually have the work itself or have a copy… and that’s the work, the copy of the National Gallery picture is in fact the work that we’ve also got here, this wonderful Sunflowers from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The second picture isn’t an exact reproduction of the National Gallery picture, is it?

MARTIN BAILEY: The original painting was done from real sunflowers in August, when the flowers were at their height. And the copy of course was done in the winter from memory and from the original painting and the copy is more stylized and there’s also some differences in the colour. If you look closely, one of the flowers in the copy has a sort of lavender blue centre, which of course you don’t find in real flowers and Van Gogh obviously did that to get a specific effect and to draw the eye there.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: What’s it like seeing them together?

MARTIN BAILEY: Well, it is exciting and actually when you look at reproductions of the pictures you can’t get the same effect of precisely what they’re like – you actually have to see them in the flesh. And also seeing them in the flesh is much more powerful because they’ve got thick impasto, thick paint, and you can see that much more clearly when you’re in front of them and have got the light and the shadows, which you don’t see in reproductions, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to see the two pictures together.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Martin Bailey. 'The Sunflowers' display runs until 27th April and is free. You can find it in Room 46. Please note there may be queues at busy times.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Next… from sunflowers to a rather more seasonal subject. Art-historian James Heard introduces Cathy FitzGerald to a work by Claude Monet that many visitors overlook - ' Lavacourt Under Snow' - and explains how an artist better-known for his summery visions of gardens in bloom contrives to make us shiver.

JAMES HEARD: I want to take you to Lavacourt, which is a small place about an hour away from Paris and this is where Monet settled in 1878. We’re looking across the River Seine, we can see low hills bathed in winter sunshine and in the foreground, we’ve got snow… a few cottages and it’s got one of those wonderful wintery skies that are greyish, blue – very heavy-laden. So you’ve got a picture about very little indeed.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And he’s positioned us as viewers in all this shadow, hasn’t he – I mean he’s really captured that chilled to the bone feeling you get when you’re standing in the snow and suddenly the sun disappears.

JAMES HEARD: Well, it’s a remarkable painting because a whole third is taken up by blue shadow, distinctly blue shadows. So why is it blue? Well, the impressionists observed, painting outside, en plein air, that the light is coloured, it’s not white and therefore when it’s a certain colour – think of winter… it’s getting cold, the sun’s going down, it’s rather orange and it will give you by contrast a blue shadow.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And traditionally shadows had always been painted using quite brown tones, why was that?

JAMES HEARD: It’s a practical thing because if you have the sun streaming through the window, you know, that’s a nuisance, so you have a studio that faces the north…

CATHY FITZGERALD: … so then you have very even light.

JAMES HEARD: Absolutely. And the sun doesn’t pass… no irritating reflections. What it means is that that light is a cold light. Now by the laws of colour the cold light gives you warm shadows. So if you look at people like Constable for instance, you often see these brown shadows. They’re not distinctly coloured. It’s almost as though they think of them as just negative, but of course soon as you go outside and paint in direct sunlight that doesn’t work anymore because the Impressionists really were the first to spend most of the painting time outside. They had their box of paints, they had their easels, the whole thing was so much easier and this particular scene, across the Seine was actually painted in the summer and the winter and so on and interestingly enough he doesn’t paint the snow falling. Renoir said that snow was like a ‘leprosy of nature’…


JAMES HEARD: Well, the idea of these little dots across your painting surface. They only painted the snow when it was lying on the landscape to collect if you like these wonderful coloured shadows. So in our painting we have this deep deep blue, which means that the sun is going down and would therefore be orange… orange light giving a blue shadow. And you can see that on the far hill. It’s the same snow after all, but now because it’s in direct sunlight we can see hints of orange, even of pink. I’m sure he’s going to painting in the dark any minute now.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): James Heard. And you can visit Lavacourt for yourself in Room 43, where it’s hung alongside several other snowy Impressionist masterpieces.

That’s it for this month - if you’re visiting, we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays.

Until next time, goodbye!