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Having practical business to take care of in North Soho on Friday, David and I walked through the city – doing errands and enjoying street food for lunch. David had a burrito, I had Vietnamese chicken salad – £5 each. Yum. I would have taken pictures except we were both eagerly hungry.

After taking care of business, we decided to go to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The museum is free and there are even zero-priced tours hosted throughout the day. We waited for the 14:30 tour and were pleasantly surprised by the format. An exceptionally knowledgeable member of the staff took us through a selection of five paintings in one hour. She spent time telling us about the context of the paintings, the stories behind each, the technology involved in creating the art, and a great deal of insight into each piece. Below are the five paintings she showed us and just a snippet of something interesting I learned with each one.

[Bernardo Daddi, The Coronation of the Virgin, ~1340-5]

This painting is one of the earliest paintings in the National Gallery (circa 1350). It was part of a whole reconstructed set of panels that surrounded the one above with depictions of Saints. The guide told us of how it was likely displayed in a very dark church and illuminated only by candlelight, so the way the gold halos were constructed maximized the limited light. The beautiful blue in the painting was very expensive to make, more expensive than even the gold leaf used for much of the background and painting. Finally, the guide told us that artists were not interested in distinguishing individuals’ faces at the time, so the faces in this piece look very similar to one another.

[Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr mourning over a Nymph, ~1495]

This second painting was the weirdest in the series we saw. The guide said that there were competing narratives about what is actually represented here. David and I thought the dog looked creepy and I think he knows something about who was responsible for the lady’s untimely death.

NOTE: In the lower level of the National Gallery there is a photo of a modern rendition of the painting that captured my attention and humanized the piece IMHO.

[Jan Janez. Treck, Vanitas Still Life, 1648]

This was a very cool still life painting. The narrative given by our guide made what would otherwise be simply a collection of items into a story, giving rich detail about what those items might have symbolized. She said the entire piece was a representation of a life lived.

The skull and the helmet indicated a life, perhaps in war or service.  The piece of paper was a play bill from the theater and the stem of the violin, the recorder, the bow, and the sheet music – represented not only a love of music and the arts but a contemplative reflection on those things. She said the presentation of the objects represented a hierarchy of the arts, well known at the time: voice (because it was God given and independent) then strings, then wind instruments).  The box was a fancy lacquer box from the East and the jug of wine was of obvious value.  She said the items were perhaps meant to pique the audience’s curiosity as to what may be inside.

The books signal knowledge. The pipe was something that would have been common in the person’s youth. The best little interesting fact was about the sea shell. Apparently it was filled with soap and water and used to blow bubbles. Our guide told us it was a signal of youth. In this setting it was homage to the past.

She told us how the artists of this period did not know systematically (but intuitively) of the relationship of complementary colors. That being said, she noted how strong the artist’s intuition was by first using the texture of the cloth and then by placing the soft light blue at top and noting how the shade draws down into a green – both of which complement the boldness of the red.

[Joseph Wright ‘of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768]

The Science (my name for the painting, not the actual title). This was the fourth painting we saw. Looking at this incredibly interesting composition, I am not sure I would have sorted out what was happening had our guide not given us the insight.

She began with how the full moon creates an atmosphere (and apparently there was some association with a ‘Lunar Society’). Then she discussed the light directs the audiences’ gaze from the center at first to the young girls’ face. She detailed the girl’s expression and mentioned how the older girl couldn’t even bear a look. Then she told us about how the artist was initially a portrait painter and drew our attention to how the faces of the characters were likely of real people.

The character at the center of the painting is what would have been called a “natural philosopher”, interested in the elements of nature and of what allowed life to flourish. As a curious Renaissance man, he was interested in conducting experiments. But unlike the lab coat and pristine environment we envision today, many ‘scientists’ conducted their experiments either at home (as pictured here) or in public. The idea here was to create a vacuum, restricting the ability of the cockatoo to fly (hence why he is low in the jar) and eventually to deprive him of the oxygen he needs to live.

The man seated below, intent on watching the experiment is holding watch or time piece. The idea is that because these experiments would often take place in public, he may have been able to time the stunt such that the “natural philosopher” could remove the vacuum in time to bring the cockatoo back to life.  The fact that it is ambiguous as to whether the boy is raising or lowering the cage is supposed to create suspense.

Finally, the fact that women are present at the event (albeit looking to be acting very girly and it was held in the home) is supposed to be an indication of a movement towards Renaissance ideas of equality.

[Claude-Oscar Monet, Bathers at La Grenouillère, 1869]

The last painting our guide brought us to was a Monet. Quite beautiful and I can see why strategically she might put this piece last. It was in a room with other Reniors and Impressionists. And to be fair, it was enchanting. But I appreciated it more as she told me of how it was the first (proto-impressionist) painting of its type. Monet never intended it to be a final draft — (there is a lesson to be learned here!)

Oil paints were for first time in the tube and transportable to those who could afford them. As such, people could now paint on location in a new fashion. The painting was seen by upper crust reviewers to be simply a depiction of ‘normal’ weekend vacations – nothing notable to paint about.

One of my favorite things about the piece are the boats. I can imagine them sitting on top of the water, gently knocking into one another.