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Seminars and conferences

Past research seminars and conferences at the National Gallery

The National Gallery is a pre-eminent centre for research into European paintings from the 13th to the early 20th centuries. It seeks to answer questions regarding how, why, when and for whom paintings were made and who the subsequent owners were. Research is also conducted into how the pictures were used over time and what their imagery means, as well as into general questions of art historical interest.

Seminars and conferences ensure that new research of this kind, conducted by staff and external experts, is disseminated to diverse audiences, both specialists and the general public.

Details of future seminars and conferences are available via the events calendar.

Contemporary Art Society Annual Conference: The Virtual in Museums: Hot Medium?

10 May 2018, 10.30–5.30pm

Tracing the influence of the internet in art production and the subsequent need for museums to represent this impact, this conference focused on the rapid development of virtual reality into the artistic realm.

Virtual reality to this day is defined as a computer generated environment that is both immersive and interactive, tied to its technology – a headset and a screen of variable dimensions that enables to create multi-layered imagery. Still a solipsistic experience at this stage, virtual reality is as a counter point to the shared experience of a museum visit and the conference aimed to think critically and constructively about the term virtual in relation to museums.

Marshall McLuhan defined a ‘hot medium’ as something that “engages the senses completely and requires minimal participation from the user”. The conference questioned the status of virtual reality and explored its manifold associations with the artistic context. Curators, artists and specialists in the field critically discussed how this technology is used both as a product and as an object in itself.

Inquiring, engaging and exploring the possibilities of the digital – from enhancement of collections to immersive environments – the conference discussed the distinctions between what is real and what is artificial, what is experienced and what is perceived; and to expand the notion of what the virtual can be.

This was a Contemporary Art Society event in association with the National Gallery.

Image above: Detail from Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, 'Finding Fanon 2' (2015). UHD Digital Video screenshot Courtesy of Larry Achiampong and David Blandy

Interpreting the Renaissance in the 21st century

25 May 2018, 6.30–8pm

What do we mean by the ‘Italian Renaissance’, and is the term still a helpful one when interpreting art from the period?

Marking the bicentenary of the birth of Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, this seminar, comprised of a panel of curators, explored how best to present Renaissance art to modern museum audiences.

This was a British Academy event, in association with the National Gallery.

Image above: Detail from Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485

Monet & Architecture: Exploring a new dimension

27–28 April 2018

The National Gallery, in association with the Institut Français, presented an international academic conference to coincide with The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture

While the exhibition catalogue is by a single author, the conference provided an opportunity to hear from other voices and their different perspectives on the exhibition, enhancing or challenging its premises.

Given that the theme of 'Monet & Architecture' was a new one, the conference challenged scholars in the field to explore the theme and to put forward their own arguments and interpretations.

The conference used Monet’s paintings as starting points from which to explore many avenues, from contemporary aesthetics such as naturalism and symbolism, via practicalities such as tourism and transport, to issues of modernity and interpretation. In a wider context, 'Monet & Architecture' had implications for the study of Impressionism, asking how other artists responded to the built environment.

Image above: Detail from Claude Monet, The Gare St-Lazare, 1877

Arnolfini histories: Jan van Eyck’s 'Arnolfini Portrait' and its receptions

12–13 January 2018

‘I should think it’s the finest picture in the world.’
Burne-Jones on the Arnolfini Portrait (19 February 1897)

Acquired by the National Gallery in 1842, Jan van Eyck’s 'Arnolfini Portrait' with its rich colours, precise detail, and enigmatic symbolism had a profound and lasting impact upon the young Pre-Raphaelite artists who banded together six years later to challenge the art establishment of the day.

Fascination with van Eyck’s painting persisted in artistic circles and the public imagination alike, and the 'Arnolfini Portrait' came to achieve almost cult-like status in the ongoing discussions around the art-historical canon. Van Eyck’s potent influence on the avant-garde painting of the PRB initiated a transhistorical visual dialogue whose ramifications can be traced throughout the development of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and beyond.

Organised in conjunction with the exhibition 'Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites', this conference explored the complexities of the relationship between van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites. Areas explored included: Netherlandish art and its 19th-century reception, conservation and technique, colour, mirrors and mirroring, painting and literature, photography, magic and the supernatural.

Convened by Professor Liz Prettejohn (University of York) and Dr Claire Yearwood.


Image above: Detail from Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Knowing 'as much of art as the cat': 19th-century women writers on the Old Masters

Friday 10 November 2017, 10am–5.45pm

This conference examined the role of English-speaking women as disseminators of knowledge about Old Master paintings and historic painting techniques during the Victorian era

The conference formed part of a collaboration between the National Gallery and Birkbeck, University of London that also includes Chawton House Library, Hampshire, and the Southampton Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of Southampton. It follows a one-day event held at Chawton House on 25 February 2017.

Aims and scope
John Ruskin infamously dismissed the art historian Anna Jameson as knowing ‘as much of art as the cat’. However, in recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in women like Jameson as influential interpreters of the visual arts and as writers of art history during the formative years of the discipline. This conference, which capitalised and expanded upon this interest, looked at the role of English-speaking women as disseminators of knowledge about Old Master paintings and historic painting techniques during the Victorian era.

While the National Gallery's first Director, Charles Eastlake, and his male colleagues produced scholarly publications, including museum catalogues, aimed at professionals and connoisseurs, women in his circle and in the following generations typically had a wider reach. They could – and did – speak to specialists, but many chose to disseminate information in more creative and demotic ways. Mary Merrifield, for instance, wrote on historic painting techniques and also published articles about women's fashion, in which she used the Old Masters as a sartorial guide, illustrating her points with pictures from the National Gallery’s collection.

Among the research questions the conference speakers engaged with were: What was the contribution of British women writers to the emerging discipline of art history, including canon formation, formal criticism and history of techniques and other genres such as exhibition guides and translations? Was there anything distinctive about women’s approach to these fields? A second set of issues addressed were  women’s networks and relationships – between sexes, between generations, and with professional counterparts abroad – as well as exploring women writers’ institutional affiliations. Finally, new insights emerged at the conference about the reception of women writers’ published work in art history, not least in relation to its reach and audiences and its critical fortune.

Read the online journal which accompanied this conference

Supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Image above: A page from an album of mid-19th century drawings by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, 'After Giovanni Bellini, Virgin and Child with Saints Paul and George, Venice, Accademia'

Michelangelo & Sebastiano: An academic conference about their art and collaboration

23–24 June 2017

This two-day international conference on Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, explored their unique creative relationship, their lives, times and, most importantly, their art -- art that helped shape the development of the Western tradition

Coinciding with 'The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano', this academic conference gathered international experts who shared their research on a range of subjects, including the individual practices of the two artists in drawing, painting, and sculpture. Areas examined included the artists’ creative processes and studio practice, with results drawn in part from technical analysis; the intellectual and theological context of their work; their patrons and commissions; and their artistic and historiographical legacies, as well as the creative work that went into the exhibition itself.

Image above: Sebastiano del Piombo incorporating designs by Michelangelo, The Raising of Lazarus (detail), 1517–19