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Episode 99

The National Gallery Podcast

Upcoming exhibitions for 2015, stormy seascapes by Peder Balke, and all the quack about the National Gallery’s new star: Sijctghen Duck.

10 min 42 sec | January 2015

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

To mark the New Year, we start with news of upcoming exhibitions in 2015. Special Projects Curator Colin Wiggins spoke to Cathy FitzGerald about what the Gallery has planned, beginning with Inventing Impressionism, a major show opening on 4 March. The exhibition will trace the contribution of Paul Durand-Ruel, a 19th-century art dealer who bought the works of key Impressionist painters when they were still largely ignored or ridiculed. “Without him,” said Monet, “We wouldn’t have survived”. Colin began by explaining why.

COLIN WIGGINS: Well, yes, Monsieur Durand-Ruel is the man who basically took a punt on this herd, as it were, of unknown artists like Monet and Pissarro and Sisley and Renoir. Because, remember, we all know and love these artists now as 'the Impressionists' but when they started, how were they going to exhibit their work? And enter Monsieur Durand-Ruel, because he had a gallery, he showed their work, he publicised their work, he promoted their work, he sold their work. And also with Durand-Ruel, he more or less invented the idea of what we now call the one-person show – although then, of course, it was called the one-man show, we’re a bit less sexist now. But this idea of showing an artist en masse and getting customers to come in and see the whole two or three years’ worth of creative output was essential to the way that he worked and has become essential to the art market since.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Then in July we’ve got a very different exhibition called ‘Soundscapes: Listening to Paintings’. What’s that all about?

COLIN WIGGINS: Well, well you may ask, because this is very much a first for the National Gallery in that we are inviting six artists who are not visual artists, they work with sound, and I don’t just mean musicians, although some of the invited artists are musicians, but they have been invited to choose a National Gallery picture and to make a response to it in the medium of sound in whichever way they want to.

The idea of sound as art has really taken off in the last few years with Susan Philipsz, a sound artist winning the Turner Prize a couple of years back – well, we think it’s a very good time for us to experiment with something similar.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And then in October we come to 'Goya: The Portraits'. 

COLIN WIGGINS: Yes we do, and that’s very exciting because Goya is a great, great portrait painter and he’s an artist who saw so much in his life. He starts off in late 18th-century Spain in a background that’s relatively calm and prosperous and peaceful, then of course, we have the Napoleonic invasion, then the Peninsula War, the re-establishment of the Spanish monarchy, and Goya met many of the big players of the time and actually painted their portraits.

And, of course, everyone knows our great portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which the Duke didn’t like whatsoever because it showed him in what he thought was a very poor light. It shows him as a vulnerable human being rather than the great military superman that he saw himself as, so this is going to be a real eye-opener, I think, for our public.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins. And you can find more information about Inventing Impressionism, ‘Soundscapes’, and ‘Goya: The Portraits’ on the Gallery’s website at

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to a relatively new face at the Gallery. Aelbert Cuyp is one of the National Gallery’s most celebrated Dutch 17th-century landscapists. But a recent loan from a private collection shows Cuyp was also a great portraitist – even if, in this case, his subject was an elderly female duck. Curator Betsy Wieseman took Leah Kharibian along to make the introductions.

BETSY WIESEMAN: Leah, I want to introduce you to one of our visitors to the Gallery. Leah, this is Sijctghen the duck. Sijctghen, welcome to Leah.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And how do you know, how do we know her name?

BETSY WIESEMAN: Well, there’s an inscription, a very detailed inscription in the upper left-hand corner of the painting that tells Sijctghen’s story. And it’s really charming because it’s told in the first-person and Sijctghen is telling us that she lives in Werkendam and she’s had a long and productive life. She has never mated but she’s laid 100 eggs a year for 20 years and she’s reached the fantastic age of 20, and then the inscription ends saying “when I die, please, give the date and my age”.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: She is such a character. I mean there she is sitting all plump and beautiful and fixing us with this very beady eye. It’s an extraordinary painting.

BETSY WIESEMAN: It is, it really is a portrait of an individual duck. And we see in the foreground three eggs, you know, these are the fruits of her labours as it were. It’s such a proud portrait and you can imagine the owner of this remarkable duck bringing her to the artist and saying "look, Mr Cuyp, this is the masterpiece of my farm, can you please paint a portrait of this duck".

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now Aelbert Cuyp is famous for his beautiful landscapes, he’s a great painter of cattle and of horses. Did he often paint ducks? I mean, is this a regular line of work for him?

BETSY WIESEMAN: Well, you do see, you know, tiny little ducks in many of his landscape paintings and, in fact, he did paint a couple of other portraits or depictions of ducks and hens and fowl. And I think he was one of the only, if not the only, artist in the 17th century to paint portraits of birds like this.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: But it really is, as you say, a proper, proper portrait, and what happens to beautiful Mrs Duck?

BETSY WIESEMAN: Sijctghen died three years later, so there’s a second little inscription saying that she died at the age of 23 in October 1650. Well, I wouldn’t feel so sorry for her because I’ve learned that the average age for ducks is about 10 to 15 years maximum, so the fact that she had gotten to the age of 23 was absolutely amazing. 

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Oh, what a wonderful grand old lady and I’m so glad that Cuyp decided to paint her – she’s absolutely beautiful.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman. And if you’d like to visit Sijctghen Duck, you can find her in Room 23.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Now to our exhibition devoted to the highly original 19th-century Norwegian artist, Peder Balke. In the final decades of his life, Balke found it increasingly difficult to sell his work – which, surprisingly, led to the creation of some of the most innovative and expressive pictures of his career. Cathy spoke to Curator Christopher Riopelle about a work Balke painted in the early 1860s, The Tempest:

CHRISTOPHER RIOPELLE: We are in a storm at sea. Rugged waves are crashing onto the rocks and in the distance; two ships, one a sail-ship, is listing very, very far to the right. The other would appear to be some kind of steamboat, so an old-fashioned ship, a modern kind of ship, but both of them are equally at the mercy of wild, overwhelming nature.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And how would he have painted this?

CHRISTOPHER RIOPELLE: It is on a very thick, very uneven piece of wood. One side of the wood-panel has been shaved and covered with ground to make it a very smooth surface, but almost certainly Balke stood or sat with that piece of wood in his hand, the rough part cradling into the hand, with the smooth surface facing him.

What he seems to have done was to apply thinned pigment, black, to the surface of the picture, allowed it to take its own course, running across the surface, and when it began to suggest a seascape to him, then he began to manipulate the paint to turn it into a recognisable seascape, and mixing in greys and whites and, out of that, pulling the image of a storm at sea.

In this picture you can’t see his fingerprints, but in many of the other storm scenes you often see Balke’s very big thumb print, as if as the paint dried, he was still trying to manipulate the pigment across the surface and his thumb got stuck in the paint. It is a testament to the intimacy of the making of these pictures.

CATHY FITZGERALD: These works from the last few decades of his life, they’re very, very different to the earlier works, aren’t they, which are very precise, quite grand-scale, very detailed – what did the art-buying public make of this shift?

CHRISTOPHER RIOPELLE: Well, by this point, the 1850s and 60s, the art-buying public would have been completely unaware of what Balke was doing. About 1850, after a failed visit to London where he sought for clients, Balke more or less gave up being a professional painter with a public role. These small black-and-white storm scenes come from those later years where he wasn’t worrying anymore about critics, he wasn’t worrying anymore about people buying the pictures, he was doing them for himself and it was a kind of liberation. Here, working in almost complete isolation, was someone who was being extraordinarily adventurous, in making what we now see as modern paintings.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Christopher Riopelle. And you can find the Peder Balke exhibition in the Sunley Room until April 2015; admission is free.

If you’re visiting, we’re open 10 'til 6 daily, with late opening until 9pm on Fridays. That’s it for this episode. Until next time, goodbye!