The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Ninety Six

October 2014

Episode Ninety Six
Listen now - 12 mins

A sneak preview of the Gallery’s much-anticipated autumn exhibition, ‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’. Plus fashion tips from Madame de Pompadour.

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

This month, there's a lot going on behind the scenes in preparation for our highly anticipated autumn exhibition, 'Rembrandt: The Late Works'. There are still a couple of weeks to go before the exhibition opens on the 15th of October. But we have a sneak preview. As institutions across the world loan paintings, prints and drawings to the Gallery, we sent Leah Kharibian to look at a few before they make the journey to Trafalgar Square.

First, a visit to Kenwood House, a former stately home on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath, with National Gallery curator Betsy Wieseman. It's home to a work that's a favourite of Betsy's and sure to be a highlight of the show: 'Self Portrait with Two Circles'.

BETSY WIESEMAN: One of the reasons I think it’s such a brilliant painting is because it seems to bring together so many aspects of Rembrandt, both as a person and what he was trying to achieve as an artist, so it combines a likeness of himself, but, also, I think, a statement about his artistic ambitions, and comes together in a beautiful example of his craftsmanship and his skill in just putting paint on canvas.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: It’s the most extraordinary picture in terms of when you get close, it seems to sort of crumble away into these very bold brushstrokes, but when you step back a little bit it all just melds together and you get this sense of a living, breathing person standing in the cool light of their studio – it’s extraordinary.

BETSY WIESEMAN: It is, and I think what’s difficult to appreciate in a reproduction or until you’re standing in front of the painting is just how abstract parts of it are. It really is an 'impressionist' painting. For example, if you look at the detail of his hand holding the palate and the brushes and the maulstick, it’s really just a scribble of brushstrokes in varying shades of brown. It’s not until you step away and you see it in the context of the entire image that you really understand just what he was doing. And I think it’s remarkable how Rembrandt was able to do that and how he was able to limit himself from adding any details that were extraneous.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now, we’re here in the very palatial surroundings of Kenwood House and this picture if just about to be packed up and taken to the Gallery for the opening of the show, but it’s not just British collections that you’re drawing from for this exhibition is it?

BETSY WIESEMAN: No, it’s not. We’ll be having paintings, drawings and prints from literally around the globe, from public and private collections in the UK, Europe, the United States and even Australia. So it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And Betsy, I know that you were toying at one point with calling this exhibition ‘Rembrandt: His Finest Years’. You really believe that, don’t you?

BETSY WIESEMAN: I do and of course it’s completely subjective because everybody’s going to have their favourite work by Rembrandt from a particular period, but I think in these last years of Rembrandt’s career, the last 15 years or so, you really see him as a mature artist thinking about what are the most important directions for himself as an artist. And he discards things that… you know, ideas or ways of painting or drawing that are artistic dead-ends in a way, that aren’t as fruitful as other paths. And he takes those issues and concerns and modes of expression to their pinnacle, really, and finds a way of infusing his works with an emotional content that, I think, just clicks more in these final years than it does at any other moment in his career.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: I simply can’t wait to see them all. Thank you so much. 

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman, talking about Rembrandt’s 'Self Portrait with Two Circles'.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): For her next preview, Leah went to the British Museum Prints and Drawings Department to see two separate versions - known as 'states' - of one of the many astonishing Rembrandt prints coming to the exhibition. The work is 'Christ Presented to the People' in which Rembrandt makes powerful use of a technique called drypoint. The drypoint technique involves scratching a copper plate with a needle to form lines that retain a tiny curl of metal to either side. The ink that seeps into these curls is released during printing to give a rich, velvety blackness to the lines and shadows. 

Rembrandt's print shows the beaten and manacled figure of Christ standing on a platform before a lively crowd who are offered the choice of freeing either him or another prisoner called Barabas. In the first state of the print the crowd fills the foreground, but Rembrandt changed his mind and in the later of the two versions, these figures are nowhere to be seen. An Van Camp, the British Museum’s Curator of Dutch and Flemish Drawings and Prints, explained how Rembrandt made this dramatic change.

AN VAN CAMP: What Rembrandt did is he burnished the plate, so he polished the area where the original crowd was standing in front of the platform and he just starts polishing it off, so all the lines disappear again and that is the scratchy effect that you get on the impression of the sixth state.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: That’s extraordinary because it sort of changes the way that we approach looking at Christ. We become part of the crowd, don’t we? We become those people who are saying ''No, let’s not bother saving him, let’s save Barabbas instead''.

AN VAN CAMP: Yeah, the changes that Rembrandt made are clearly meant to bring the audience closer to Christ and to that scene of judgement, so there is no barrier any more between the viewer and Christ and Pontius Pilate. Now the foreground is cleared and we can have a direct connection with it.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And you’re with these prints a lot. Do you feel when you’re going from one print to the next that you’re close to Rembrandt somehow?

AN VAN CAMP: I think with prints you really get a very close feeling because the different states, the working process, the imperfections, the improvements, the tiny little tinkering – you really see the artist at work and you can almost get into his mind and see why he’s making all these small adjustments. And Rembrandt is clearly a very passionate artist – he will not make pretty images just for pretty images. He depicts subjects because he really cares about them and, I think, with the drypoint you can really convey that passion because he can press the needle in a bit harder, he can work a bit more softly, so you get all these different feelings and emotions that are translated and it’s really interesting to be able to witness that.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: In terms of the history of print-making, where do you feel he stands?

AN VAN CAMP: Rembrandt is really a pioneer in print-making because he’s one of the great painters who actually also turned his attention towards print-making and that’s very important because in the past there was usually a division, either you were a painter or you were a print-maker, and with Rembrandt, we see it all combined and that is just fantastic to see it all in one person.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to An Van Camp. If you’d like to see the works we’ve been talking about in context with many other masterpieces from Rembrandt’s final years, the exhibition opens on the 15th of October and will run through to the 18th of January, 2015. ‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’ is sponsored by Shell and you can buy tickets from the National Gallery or online without a booking fee at

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Next, to 18th-century France and the Gallery’s famous painting of 'Madame de Pompadour' by François-Hubert Drouais. The work shows the one-time mistress of Louis the Fifteenth in the early 1760s sitting demurely at her tambour frame, sewing, but what really interests art-historian Jacqui Ansell is the exquisite dress she’s wearing. Madame de Pompadour was such a leader of fashion in her time that dolls wearing her latest clothes were circulated to an eager audience of court ladies on both sides of the Channel. In Drouais’ painting she wears a beautiful flowered gown covered in ribbons and lace - and when Cathy FitzGerald met up with Jacqui, she began by asking if it’s the most beautiful dress in the Gallery.

JACQUI ANSELL: I think it’s probably one of the most sumptuous ones, certainly probably one of the most expensive ones and possibly, possibly a real one, I think.


JACQUI ANSELL: I think it’s likely to be a real dress. It’s always impossible to say really, but it does have the air of something that could have actually been worn by this great leader of fashion.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And the lace is very beautiful, isn’t it?

JACQUI ANSELL: Yes and that is actually my primary evidence I suppose for thinking this is a very, very expensive dress because if you look at the dress it’s absolutely smothered in lace. She’s got lace forming a great big flounce at the bottom of the dress and edging her elbows she’s got falls of lace: it looks like there’s about seven different falls of lace there. When you understand how much this lace costs you realise that she really is showing off.

CATHY FITZGERALD: So how much would it have cost?

JACQUI ANSELL: Well, we know quite a lot about her because of her inventory that was published after her death. And there were 14 whole other dresses that were valued the same as a suite of lace, and one of the reasons for it costing so much is that it’s parchment lace, where you draw a design on parchment and then you literally embroider over that design, so you’ve got these individual stitches and it would take one woman 15 years to make this much lace.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And what about the fabric? What does the fabric tell us?

JACQUI ANSELL: Well the fabric at first sight looks like it might be one of these glazed cottons that are called chintz but we think it’s much more likely to be a painted silk, so a hand-painted Chinese silk.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And again that would take a very, very long time, I would imagine.

JACQUI ANSELL: Absolutely. It’s got the luxury associated with the exoticism of having been brought from over-seas, having been imported.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And Madame de Pompadour was a real style icon at this point, wasn’t she? Not just in France, but also over in England?

JACQUI ANSELL: There’s a letter that describes a woman going to court in Britain who was waiting for her hair to be dressed once she’d received the fashion doll from Paris dressed exactly like Madame de Pompadour. The sort of hair style she’d be going for would be the hair style that we see here almost which is hair cut very short, then it’s curled over heated lead rollers, then it’s got to be greased with animal fat and then powdered and the whole effect makes a 'tête de mouton', a sheep’s head hair style.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And is there a part of her outfit that you would wander away with if you could? For your own wardrobe?

JACQUI ANSELL: Well, if I had teeny tiny feet I might just covet the little slippers that she has just peeking out at the bottom of her dress and this is a little detail that you might overlook – a tiny little foot on a footstool and another glinting little toe just emphasising how dainty and delicate she is.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell, talking about 'Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame', on display in Room E.

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