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Generosity

Catalogue entry

From:
Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (NG186), 1434, oil on oak, 82.2 × 60 cm, The National Gallery, London, bought, 1842

A couple stand in their home, their hands touching. Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a prosperous Italian merchant based in Bruges, offers a greeting but doesn’t meet our eye. They are surrounded by delicate and curious objects. There are oranges (a sign of wealth because they were so expensive in Northern Europe), a candle, two dirty shoes, a fluffy dog and a convex mirror. We catch a glimpse of a cherry tree’s glistening fruit. Though it’s spring, the couple are dressed in their winter best to show off their wealth. The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the world’s most famous paintings, and its serene mystery attracts millions of viewers. Despite all the detail, the crisp colour and the intimacy of the couple’s shared space, they give little away. Audiences experience the painting with a combination of ‘admiration and puzzlement’.1

The mirror between them is surrounded by ten tiny scenes of the Passion of Christ. Its curved surface reflects two figures visiting the couple. Mirrors don’t just reflect objects; they can distort, reverse, confuse and break. Perhaps by placing images of Christ around the outside of the mirror, Van Eyck is making a distinction between the vulnerability of human life and the infinite power and love of God. By having their portrait painted, the couple would have also been inviting viewers to be generous. In this period, portraiture was always linked to remembrance after death and prayer for the souls of those depicted by the artist. By including himself within the picture, Van Eyck was asking for viewers’ prayers too.2

The artist signed his name above the mirror as boldly as a modern‐day graffiti tag: ‘Jan van Eyck has been here. 1434.’ For centuries, artists had used the term ‘me fecit’ (‘made me’) as part of a signature, declaring the work to be theirs. Van Eyck did something different in his phrase ‘fuit hic’ (‘has been here’).3 The artist’s signature was deliberately connected to a unique sense of the artist’s real presence. He was not only the painter, but also a real person in his own right, with real hopes, joys and sorrows too.

However famous the painting is, the connection with the theme of generosity invites us to see this familiar scene with fresh eyes. A group of insightful young women visited the National Gallery with me recently, and this was our first stop. They have all studied The Arnolfini Portrait and knew the many art historical theories surrounding it. The painting has been variously described as an image of pregnancy, a marriage contract, a betrothal, a social ritual and a memorial to Arnolfini’s first wife, who died shortly before the painting was commissioned. The painting remains a mystery in many ways.4

When it entered the National Gallery’s collection in 1842, it was the Gallery’s first Northern Renaissance acquisition. People perceived it as ‘the perfect document of the art of oil painting’.5 When it first went on public display in 1843, the Illustrated London News commented on the painting’s combination of glossy perfection and emotional ambiguity: ‘To everyone it is a mystery. Its subject is unknown, its composition and preservation of its colours a lost art.’6

The young women who stood in front of the painting in spring 2022 entered into that long tradition of puzzlement as they thought about the painting in a new way, aware of their art historical knowledge but not placing it at the forefront of their interpretation. They wondered about what kind of greeting the couple are offering, the friendship represented by Van Eyck’s bold signature and the possibility that he is one of the two people in the mirror. The painting, they said, is an uncanny threshold between public and private, sacred and secular, personal and impersonal. Friendship is an enduring bond. Regardless of money changing hands, it would have been painted with loving generosity and care.

The uncanny collapse of the binaries that these women described is comparable to what we see in the conversation between two people on a bench in Dundee. Not dressed in finery, they are depicted in an eccentric mix of warm layers, hats, bags, socks and a shoe that the artist, Ron Stenberg, painted casually thrusting out into the viewer’s space. These two people, mother and son, are completely at ease in each other’s company. Like the Van Eyck, it is a family double portrait. They may not appear wealthy, but in addition to material wealth that the woman’s self‐fashioning may conceal, the two figures offer each other deep tenderness in generously giving each other the space they need to be themselves on an ordinary afternoon on a bench outside a Boots pharmacy.

The Arnolfini couple are ordinary in the sense that they are human beings just like everyone else. The painting is meticulous and carefully staged. As Craig Harbison puts it, Van Eyck’s portraits depict ‘people struggling in the world, people about whom remarkable stories can be told’.7 There is no voyeurism here, even though the couple do not greet us warmly. Moreover, in the mirror next to the prayer beads on the back wall, the couple place Christ’s own generosity in the centre of their domestic life. The figure seen in the mirror, in blue, possibly Van Eyck himself, raises his arm in greeting. Van Eyck’s own barely visible self‐portrait is framed by Christ’s Passion. Perhaps we might interpret this as the painter offering his skills not only to his friend, but to the glory of God, reflecting a line from the Church of England’s eucharistic prayer, said before the bread and wine mysteriously become the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar in a church: ‘All things come from you, and of your own do we give you.’8 The artist asks us to look patiently and slowly at the couple, revealing that there are many people in this painting: the two in the mirror, Christ and those who met him on the way to his crucifixion, and the countless viewers who have been perplexed by this painting for almost 600 years. Ultimately, in this meditation on generosity and gifts of different kinds, van Eyck gives us the unexpected gift not of furs and oranges, but the image of Christ. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, when human beings are created from earth and bone, the author explains that they were made ‘in the image of God’.9 Van Eyck’s meticulously detailed portrait of the Arnolfini couple may inspire new ways of thinking about the sheer generous gift of being alive and living life to the full, and hoping to be remembered after life comes to an end.

Anna Robertson

Ron Stenberg, Two Auld Wifies, Dundee, 1982, oil on canvas, 94 × 121 cm, The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, Collection of Dundee Art Galleries & Museums (Dundee City Council) © The Estate of Ron Stenberg. Donated 2015 by the artist, museum number 2015‐61

This painting has become a much‐loved visitor favourite at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, since it was gifted by the artist in 2015, in recognition of his time in and love for the city. The title, Two Auld Wifies, Dundee, appears to tell us all we need to know about this very ordinary couple sitting on a bench. They chat, quietly absorbed in one another, in an everyday kind of place. It is not clear where they are, or what they are talking about. The monochromatic geometry around them is in marked contrast to the striking geometry of their colourful outfits. But nothing is as it seems in this quietly enigmatic painting. In fact, it reveals a cautionary tale of the danger of judging by appearances. Ultimately, it is a work that represents generosity in many guises.

So, what is the story? Artist Ron Stenberg spotted the couple gossiping on a bench in front of Boots the Chemist in Dundee. The geometric backdrop is a representation of the door and window glazing of the Overgate shopping centre, one of Scotland’s first shopping mall developments, which opened in 1963. The area has been the beating heart of the city since the medieval period, and it remains a popular meeting place. Every day it throngs with people catching up, taking a break from shopping, being entertained by buskers or watching the world go by.

Stenberg observed, ‘I’ve been looking at people all my life. I like characters and thought they’d make a grand painting. These two characters were sitting there completely oblivious to everyone else. I sketched them a couple of times. They never even saw me.’10 You can see why Stenberg was captivated. He worked up his sketches into a finished oil painting, adding its descriptive title indicating that it was a portrait of two ordinary Dundee housewives. After it was donated to the museum, the two ‘women’ were identified as a mother and son. Janet met her beloved son, Alexander, every Friday. He had profound learning disabilities and was a long‐term resident at Dundee’s Royal Liff Hospital.

Janet’s marriage broke down shortly after Alexander’s birth, leaving her mistrustful of men. Happily, she was very close to her son and is shown gazing fondly at him. The painting is given added poignancy for viewers today because Alexander died only a few years after Stenberg spotted him and his mother on their bench.

Stenberg studied art in New Zealand and worked internationally as an illustrator and lecturer before becoming Head of Illustration at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee in 1960. He is known for encouraging his students to draw or paint only what they could see. It is fascinating that, despite mis‐gendering Alexander in his title, Stenberg did exactly what he taught, painting only what he had observed. Look closely at Alexander. Consider the position of his coat buttons in comparison to his mother’s, the size of the hand holding the red purse and the size of the foot that projects out into our space. What Stenberg saw as a patterned dress was actually Liff Hospital’s distinctive pyjama trousers.

The basis of many artists’ practice is close observation, and it is a mark of Stenberg’s approach that he sketched exactly what he saw in front of him, using these sketches to create a remarkable painting that draws us into the scene. Today, we are increasingly aware that we view the world through our unconscious bias, and everyone sees people in a different way. In his choice of title, Stenberg described the scene as he perceived it. Stenberg painted what he saw, enabling us to identify both sitters and uncover a more generous and inclusive reality. As a result of Stenberg’s accurate observation, we were able to decode the scene and uncover a remarkable story many years after both individuals had died. Near the end of his own life, Stenberg expressed delight at his role in capturing a mother’s enduring love for her son.

The art historian E.H. Gombrich famously described Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait as ‘a simple corner of the real world’.11 There could be no more apt a description of Two Auld Wifies, Dundee. There are many tangible links between the two double portraits. Both show intimate interactions between two family members depicted in a specific time and place. The figures wear clothing that tells us much about their status and identity. The role of the artist is clear, both as eyewitness and as mediator between the couple and ourselves as viewers. There is an element of mystery and a sense that each image captures much more than meets the eye.

Sadly, during their lives Janet and Alexander, a very ordinary pair of people in many ways, were not treated very generously by the people of Dundee. They were largely ostracised by the community in which they lived. Janet’s difficult life took its toll. She was described as an eccentric – by turns shunned or ridiculed for what some people perceived to be unconventional behaviour. Yet she and her son were clearly unapologetic about who they were. They sat confidently each week in Dundee’s most popular meeting point, in the very heart of the city centre. Today, in an age where the voices of those with different life experiences are being more publicly articulated, there is perhaps a greater solidarity with difference from the mainstream. We understand that it is both vulnerable and courageous to share our truly authentic selves with the world. Perhaps this is why an anonymous visitor to the museum wrote, ‘I found the picture captivating and very moving.’

Janet’s story has a final remarkable twist. This modest housewife, a woman who was mistrustful of people and was ostracised in return, left a substantial estate to establish a Trust12 to benefit the people of Dundee. It continues to make grants supporting a variety of charitable work in the city. For her generosity, the community continues to give her grateful thanks.

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly, who is the Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust Projects Coordinator, reflects on participatory art practice in relation to ‘generosity’. He speaks movingly of the importance of working with art as part of a healing process for people with diverse needs and experiences.

The creative process is a place of exchange and learning, a generous place that is driven by the desire to share, not just what is made, but also the personal revelation of its making. In recent times the light is once again shining on the personal value of creative participation, recognising that the arts are not just for trained artists. This is especially true of the work I am involved in, supporting creativity within the field of arts and health. The Western myth of the self‐isolating artistic genius was never particularly true and has not been my experience. As an artist I sought out many communities, not only fellow artists but others, to find where our interests coalesce or constructively collide. The artist as observer and recorder, but also part of their community, is exemplified by Jan van Eyck in The Arnolfini Portrait, where the depiction of the everyday lives of a wealthy couple is imbued with references and meanings that give generous insight into their life and times. The McManus’s Two Auld Wifies, Dundee by Ron Stenberg, in its modest and honest observation of a very ordinary couple sitting on a bench, also allows us a greater understanding of the relationships depicted than the title originally suggested. Both paintings in this perhaps unlikely juxtaposition reflect the generosity of the artists and the way they worked within their own communities. Artists have always sought community in its many forms and have always held a fluid but important place within the society where their practice is shared and recognised (if not always rewarded). Creative individuals learn to make places for themselves that are meaningful and relevant. Having spent over 20 years developing, facilitating and exploring creative engagement between professional artists and participants with health conditions, I have learnt just how valuable the creative exchange can be. When the artist moves beyond the artwork and even closer to a community, giving of their skills and creating a place for participation, further understanding of generosity in art practice becomes clear. Many people with long‐term health conditions are hidden in plain view, living in our communities but seldom considered and often isolated. That reality is captured remarkably in Ron Stenberg’s painting, where a mother and her unwell son were presumed to be two old women! For most people, learning to live with impairment and long‐term health conditions is to learn to lower your expectations. The economic and social impact of poorer health can be very significant, including the loss of work, wages, colleagues and even friendships, the diminishing of life’s experiences and increasing social isolation. Society’s failure to accommodate and celebrate health diversity in turn impacts hugely on cultural involvement even at the simplest audience level. Participation in creative activity can transcend poorer health and step beyond the artist–audience relationship, developing into a richer and deeper narrative. When the artist facilitates the ‘hit’ that comes from producing work, they open the door to the experience of amazement and wonder that all artists know: ‘How did I manage to do this, to achieve beyond my own expectations?’ To take on the creative mantle can be transformative for anyone. To do so despite ill health multiplies the benefits of that engagement. This experience transforms not simply the participants’ view of themselves, their confidence and self‐belief, but also, and sometimes even more importantly, how others perceive them. From wheelchair user to choir member, from stroke survivor to photographer, from a person living with Parkinson’s to a printmaker, from cared for to admired. So many people can benefit from these creative journeys. When you creatively empower an individual, whose circumstances have told them to expect less of themselves, you provide them with the opportunity to flourish anew. You contribute to and enrich their lives as well as those around them. The artists we work with open their relationship with the arts to our participants, wholeheartedly inviting them in and encouraging them to work together, learn together and develop their creativity together. Participants, in turn, support each other, champion and celebrate each other, connect their life stories, educate the artists they work alongside and bring joy and humour to this shared experience. The model of peer support through common illness or impairment is valuable but limited and can foster dependency. Ongoing peer support through new affirmative experiences, common interests and shared success can be much healthier. Add to that the generosity of spirit that is ignited through shared creativity and a self‐belief can be established and nurtured. By providing regular access and celebrating individual potential, that self‐belief burns long and bright and can be the foundation for significant change. Our participants are transformed; they become twenty‐first century‐cultural ambassadors! As an artist my and others’ instinct to share and explore creative practice with others can be seen as generous, but it is also an essential creative response. It creates a shared place that is meaningful and relevant. As an organisation, Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust has been working with and refining this philosophy for 20 years. The success of this work, the personal value of the creative experience and the generosity and optimism it is built on, is best explained by the participants themselves: ‘Stretching my mind and doing something new. I began to look forward again, which helped my confidence. Getting positive feedback has helped me as I was socially isolated and had stopped any creative activity. This gave me a sense of worth and I started to believe in myself.’ ‘Being part of the programme has given me a push to leave the house and interact with the world and begin to see the beauty of life again. The sense of accomplishment each week, completing and sharing a series of photos has had a huge benefit to my wellbeing.’ ‘It is marvellous. I would like to thank everybody at Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust in getting these programmes up and running. We all really appreciate having the opportunity to participate and all get more benefit from the programme than you can possibly realise.’

Notes

2. I am grateful to my National Gallery colleague Emma Capron for this insight. (Back to text.)

3. Turel 2020, p. 143. (Back to text.)

4. See, for example, Koster 2003, p. 314. (Back to text.)

5. Foister in Smith et al 2017, p. 9. (Back to text.)

6. Illustrated London News, 5 April 1843, pp. 257–8. (Back to text.)

7. Harbison 1991, p. 18. (Back to text.)

9. NRSV 1989, Genesis 1:27. (Back to text.)

10. Ross 2015, p. 3. (Back to text.)

11. Gombrich 1982, p. 180. (Back to text.)

12. The Mrs Janet T. Isles Denny Trust. (Back to text.)

List of references cited

  • Church of England 2000
    Church of England Liturgical Commission, Common Worship, London 2000, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer‐and‐worship/worship‐texts‐and‐resources/common‐worship/churchs‐year/holy‐week‐and‐easter‐2, accessed 12 June 2022
  • Gombrich 1982
    Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art, London 1982
  • Harbison 1991
    Harbison, Craig, Van Eyck’s Realism, London 1991
  • Koster 2003
    Koster, Margaret L., ‘The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution’, Apollo, 158, no. 499, September 2003, pp. 3–14
  • NRSV 1989
    The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, London 1989
  • Ross 2015
    Ross, Shân, ‘Wanted: Dundee’s Globetrotting Wifies’, Scotland on Sunday, 16 August 2015, p. 3
  • Smith, Foister and Koopstra 2017
    Smith, Alison, Susan Foister and Anna Koopstra, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre‐Raphaelites, London 2017
  • Turel 2020
    Turel, Noa, Living Pictures: Jan van Eyck and Painting’s First Century, New Haven 2020

About this catalogue

This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.

The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.

The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.

Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.

About the authors

Ayla Lepine

Revd Dr Ayla Lepine was Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery (2021–2) and is now Associate Rector at St James’s Piccadilly in London. Following her PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she held fellowships at the Courtauld and Yale, and was Lecturer and Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex. Her publications include co‐edited books on monastic architecture and modern visual culture, as well as articles on art and theology in Architectural History, the Sculpture Journal and British Art Studies. She is a trustee of the UK charity Art and Christianity, a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and a member of the Visual Arts Committee at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Anna Robertson

Anna Robertson is Fine and Applied Art Manager for Leisure & Culture Dundee. She is based at The McManus, Scottish Thistle Awards Visitor Attraction of the Year 2019/20, and an enthusiastic advocate for its nationally significant fine and applied art collection. She has worked in a variety of museum roles and was an arts development officer, supporting the establishment of Dundee Contemporary Arts, before a move back to The McManus. During its 2005–10 redevelopment, she was one of two lead curators co‐ordinating the creation of new displays across eight galleries. She continues to develop Dundee’s art collection through acquisitions and exhibition partnerships.

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly is a Fine Arts graduate with an MA in Public Art & Design. Having worked in public art, he entered healthcare in the 1990s and established Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust (THAT) in 2002. Chris has been Projects Coordinator for THAT since 2004, responsible for the ST/ART Project: a participatory arts project for those recovering from and living with the consequences of stroke and acquired brain injuries. From 2013 to 2016, he was also Research Manager for the ACES Study and has authored various academic papers. Chris is responsible for THAT’s Creative Engagement development, recognising the psychosocial benefits of arts participation.

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