Can you believe I read the Guardian on occasion? I can’t. While perusing these hallowed pages, I happened upon a wonderful article about an old exhibition of Sorolla works at the National Gallery. I was instantly smacked in the face by Sewing the Sail, which I will discuss at length. I then did some more digging and was blown away by this master of light. Below are three paintings which stuck out to me as particularly inspired.
Sorolla (1863-1923) was a Spanish painter excelling in portraits, landscapes and works of social and historical themes. He is most known for extremely adept depictions of people engaged in various activities under the Spanish sun or near water, both of which feature in this review.
Sorolla was a child prodigy. Orphaned at two, he was raised by an aunt who recognised his gifts, bought him pencils and paints and got him work as a lighting assistant to a local photographer at a very early age. A breezy portrait of his beloved wife, Clotilde, from 1906, shows her focusing a brand new camera at the beach, and many of Sorolla’s paintings are lit and composed like snapshots. Guardian
Sewing the Sail, 1896
This to me is the epitome of light depiction. I’ve been to Spain many times, in many disguises, and have seen (and felt) the startling effect of the Spanish sun. This almost folkloric depiction of Valencians coming together to sew a sail for a waiting ship captures the light in a way which baffles me. Think about it, Sorolla could very well have removed the plant pots on the gorgeous blue plinths, but he kept them there so the light was split up by the leaves and petals across the sail. Let’s not ignore the fact that paintings are not pictures, everything in a painting represents a decision by the artist, not happenstance. Sorolla chose to make this more difficult and the result of his heroic effort are astounding.
Further to this, there are more flowers on the opposite side of the sail, making for further splitting of the light within the leaves, rather than on the sail, giving the effect of a really wonderful bouquet of leaves, light and colour.
Moving onto the sail itself. The crumpling effect rendered here is exquisite. Have a look at your bedsheets next time you change them and imagine the skill it takes to capture all the light and shadow on them, now put a plant in front of the window. You’ll see what Sorolla was up against. Observe the seam of the sail on the left side, roughly rendered but no less clear.
And let’s discuss the people in this painting, with their varied expressions. The third woman on the left seems to be amusing her neighbour with a story. The first woman on the left is concentrating deeply on the work at hand. The man at the back of the painting seems to be inspecting the work of an unsuspecting fourth woman, who seems to be begrudgingly taking on his criticism.
Overall this is an astonishing piece which correctly grants Sorolla the title of Master of Luminescence which I have ascribed him.
Running Along the Beach 1908
Another aspect Sorolla was known for were depictions of water and the heavenly Spanish Summer. If you’ll excuse the child with bare ankles, this is really an excellent piece. I jest of course, while children are in all circumstances off-putting, this one is rendered quite exceptionally. One is given the impression he has just this instant come from the water and begun to chase the two young ladies in front of him. the depiction of the light and water on the skin is really extraordinary.
Observe the beauty of the water in this painting. The motion is shown so wonderfully. And also the varieties in motion, there are many different levels of wave crests here. These are all shown to be in motion at the same time which is truly an achievement to behold.
Observe the gorgeous way he has depicted water being absorbed into the sand. We see this in three or four stages. At the bottom right we see relatively dry sand. Moving closer to the sea there is a layer of freshly wet sand followed by a layer of water just receding, in which the reflection of the running children is reflected roughly to give the impression of motion. Finally we have the water itself receding back, ready for the next wave to crash. the crests of the waves are also exquisite.
Nude Woman 1902 (take on Velazquez, Rokeby Venus?)
Now this isn’t just any old nude woman, this is a portrait of Sorolla’s wife, Clotilde García del Castillo, painted in 1902, when she will have been around 37 years old. I’ll refrain from any lecherous comments on the aesthetics of his wife’s buttocks, focusing instead on the way that she has been lovingly and elegantly depicted here. The curvature of her spine and the sheen on her skin, the way she is admiring her ring, almost in adoration of the man who gave it to her (insert disparaging comment about the male fantasy here), are all represented beautifully.
The way that the light catches the silk/satin sheets is also extraordinary. Observe the plush duvet and the way the folds are almost running from Clotilde’s body. Also note the translucent patterned throw at the end of the bed, a wonderful detail to contrast with the solid silk.
In the title I make the comparison with the Rokeby Venus (also known as The Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, Venus and Cupid, or La Venus del espejo) because there is a school of thought which believes Sorolla’s Nude Woman is an ode to the Rokeby Venus by Spain’s most noted painter Velázquez. I will let you draw your own comparisons but I have included a very helpful video from the National Gallery explaining at length the sensational painting below.
This is the only surviving female nude painted by Velázquez. The subject was rare in seventeenth-century Spain, where overtly sensual images were met with disapproval by the Catholic Church. In spite of this the king, and wealthy Spanish art collectors in his circle, did own mythological paintings depicting nudes by artists such as Rubens and Titian. National Gallery
I won’t go into this marvellous work as I could devote an entire post to it. Please find below a great dissection of this painting by Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800 at the National Gallery.
There you are, two nudes for the price of one. I must say when I started doing reviews in late 2017, I never thought I would be giving my two cents on 17th Century nude paintings. Life does take us in bizarre directions.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on these masterpieces as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I get so much out of art reviews. I maintain that every alternative perspective understood helps us to become more well rounded individuals.
Jean-Etienne Liotard was one of the most accomplished portrait artists of his time. Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1702 he went on to have a very successful career, completing most of it in stays in Rome, Istanbul, Paris, Vienna, London and other cities. At the height of his career he was commissioned to represent members of royal families in his respective residences. The masterpiece came to my attention through a recent Guardian article, exploring how the painting was donated to the National Gallery through the UK’s AIL Acceptance in Lieu scheme. This painting was given in exchange for a waiving of a whopping £10 M inheritance tax bill. The government must be thrilled. Let’s explore it further.
Jean-Etienne Liotard was an artist in great demand across Enlightenment Europe and beyond. An eccentric and distinctive portraitist, his work conjures up the magnificence and cultural curiosity of the age in vividly lifelike detail. Royal Academy
This masterpiece represents a tender moment captured between a mother and her daughter having breakfast. the level of attention to detail is astonishing here. Look at the reflection of the tableware from the perfectly lacquered breakfast table. The reflection of the light on the metal pot and the porcelain jug, subtly different from each other, is impressive indeed. Liotard has produced this effect by wetting the pastels and creating lumps to give it form. And look at the reflection of the window pane in the milk jug!
Perhaps the greatest detail is the sheet music in the open drawer in the bottom left hand corner of the painting. Liotard has actually signed his name and the place the painting was made “Liotard, in Lyon, 1754”. Self referential? Yes, but in the most marvellous way.
Observe the tender look the mother is giving her daughter while steadying the saucer, observe the little curls of paper in the daughter’s hair and the concentration with which she is dunking. These paper curls were used to set her hair for the day, further confirming this scene is taking place at breakfast. If you look closely you’ll see that the mother’s finger tips and nails are reflected in the table, which is an extraordinary detail. Also, the cup of coffee into which her daughter is dunking is about to overflow, hence the need for her mother’s steadying hands.
The satin-esque material of the mother’s dress is resplendently portrayed, especially as contrasted with the simpler ‘smaller’ version of the same dress her daughter is sporting. Notice the similarity in the cut of both dresses and the ruffles in the sleeves.
The gallery said the level of care with which the still life aspects of the work had been executed was extraordinary. They include unusual layers of thick wet pastel to create the illusion of reflection on the metal coffee pot and Chinese porcelain. The Guardian
Overall I am awed by this work. The fact that a pastel work from 1754 has managed to last nearly 300 years and still be in this remarkable condition. The definition of each constituent part of this painting and the sheer detail Liotard has managed to expose to us is extraordinary. See below for more details on this painting, as told by the National Gallery’s curator for portraits 1600-1800, Francesca Whitlum-Cooper.
Have I mentioned I’ve been to Japan? Of course, when I went I was what can only be described as a chippy oik (definition here). I neglected to visit any of the sensational art galleries throughout Japan, despite extensive travel throughout the country. Perhaps I shall make up for this glut with the following post. Kiyochika Kobayashi (1857-1915) was a Ukiyo e painter, a school of Japanese art dedicated to depicting subjects from everyday life, on wood blocks or paintings. Cat and Lantern was a wood block piece.
[Kobayashi was] also referred to as Hoensha, Shinseiro, and others as Betsugo. He didn’t have any particular mentor, but made a friendship with Shimooka Renjo and Kawanabe Kyosai , and also being on close terms with Shibata Zeshin. In 1874 approx., he had a chance to learn the western -style painting under Wirgman, which enabled him to invent Kosenga, a new style of multi-color prints taking in the western -style painting’s technique. He also handled caricature, and in his latest years, left many autographs. Japanese Fine Arts
As you can imagine I fell in love with this woodblock print. 1886 is a little later than my favourite period of art but this is just so delightful. This is a Japanese Bobtail cat, playing with a bamboo cane and a knocked over lantern. The richness of the gold really captures my attention, especially as contrasted with the bell on the cat’s vibrant red collar. Its eyes are fixed on what appears to be a red piece of string leading into the lantern. For a wood block artwork, the light shining both through the lantern and atop the black lantern rim are exceptionally well done. The cat itself is just delightful. Its fur is meticulously rendered, as is its semi pouncing stance. I just adore this wood print piece.
According to Japanese folklore, a Japanese bobtail cat’s tail caught on fire while it was sleeping. Alarmed, the cat ran through the village and began spreading the fire with every flick of its tail. Once the village was reduced to ashes, the Japanese emperor insisted that all cats’ tails should be shortened to prevent a repeat disaster. Pet Insurance
Now in the spirit of contract and compare, see below Tomoo Inagaki’s (1902-180) Black Cat. This was painted around 1940. Inspired by Onchi and Hiratsuka, Inagaki’s cats are modern and stylised. They are almost always in black and grey. Usually modern art will send me into fits of revulsion, but this struck me as unique and quite beautiful. The wide leg stance, made popular before the Tory Power Stance debacle of 2015, the curious gaze and the crudely rendered whiskers add up to a suitable amount of whimsey. Observe the minor disruptions in the fur added around the neck and ear. The choice of shades of beige as the background to this delightful cat are a terrific contrast with the black and grey of the fur. Overall this is an excellent concept for a wood print, flawlessly executed by one of Japan’s great modern artists.
By way of an amusing tangent, please see below the cover of The Best of Emerson Lake and Palmer, which emplys with very same Ukiyo e style to combine a thoroughly modern scene with an ancient setting:
Overall I hope these two feline art works have brought a suitable amount of joy and whimsey into your day. They have certainly made mine better.
Guido Reni (4 November 1575 – 18 August 1642) was a Baroque painter whose main body of work consisted of religious figures. Reni also painted mythological and allegorical works. While living in Rome some time ago, I would often walk past the Palazzo Spada on my way to some extraordinary restaurant or other and wonder in awe at it. Cardinal Spada bought this building in 1632 and commissioned Fransesco Borromini to create the masterful forced perspective optical illusion in the arcaded courtyard. Borromini used a rising floor and diminishing rows of columns to create an illusion of a 37 metre gallery, when in fact the gallery itself is only 8 metres long. See it below.
For this post I should like to focus on Reni’s wonderful portrait of Cardinal Bernadino Spada, the owner and commissioner of this wonderful gallery in the heart of Rome. This painting is the iconic depiction of Cardinal Spada and a key piece in Reni’s body of work. The cardinal is depicted looking stern and occupied, mid letter. Though I do not understand why the nib of the quill is so near the middle of the page when the last sentence seems to have been written at the top. Another sacred mystery I suppose.
Observe the perfect crease in the centre of his Hat and the way the shade from the light source to the right is depicted. Similarly, look at the way the shadow from his nose falls across his face. The folds in the fabric from his odd seated position are also very fine indeed. Look at the astounding way in which the felt on the chair is rendered. It looks so real. The folds in the white cotton, the way the silk appears almost as though it is moving, the simplicity of the background as contrasted with the complexity of the subject – everything about this portrait is exceptionally fine.
I thought it might be interesting to include another portrait of Cardinal Spada, painted the same year (1631), by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino. This portrait was commissioned directly by Pope Urban VIII. I won’t go into too much detail, but observe the stern look. This translates to me as almost scornful, or as though the audience are being rebuked for disturbing the cardinal at work with blue prints in hand. This looks to be the blue print for the central quad of St Peter’s Basilica, but this was completed in 1626, five years prior to this painting. Observe the richness of the colour used and the beauty of the light hitting the folds in the cloth. The casting of shadow is quite similar to Reni’s work above. This is likely because both artists were from Bologna and will have been influenced by the Bolognese School of painting, which rivalled Rome and Florence between the 16th and 17th century. Important representatives of this school include the Carracci family, who were instrumental in the progression of the Baroque style.
I hope this post has been as enlightening for you as it has been for me. A lot of research goes into this blog in an effort to be factual and accurate in a world which seems to have disconnected from reality. Until next we meet…
The punctilious among you will notice that ‘gorgeousity’ is not strictly a word in the English language. This is a nod to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Alex’s character reacts similarly to how I react whenever beholding a Hopper painting:
Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!
Hopper (Ashcan School, most important) offers us the direct opposite of interpretation. In fact, he was specifically getting away from what he and others, such as Sloan, saw as the prevalent, very mannered and untruthful Genteel Tradition. He wanted to show everyday life (especially in the great American cities, such as New York) in its toughness, squalor and often alienating loneliness. I think he succeeds very well in this aim. Louise G.
Hopper is widely considered the most important American realist painter of the 20th Century. His idiosyncratic style brings a new vector to realism.
Edward Hopper and his wife first rented a cottage in Truro, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1930, and they would return regularly through the 1950s. Hopper began Office in a Small City while he was staying in Truro in the summer of 1953, and he finished it in his New York studio in the fall. Rather than depicting the Cape Cod landscape, however,Office in a Small City is a scene that could have taken place in any American town in the mid-twentieth century. Hopper’s explanation of his earlier work Office at Night (1940; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis – below) also applies to this painting: “My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air, with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning to me.” Edward Hopper
This painting, for me, is the height of isolation. We do not know this office worker’s profession, location or emotional state. He seems utterly alone in this world that I am finding it difficult to describe what I see to you. What I do notice is that he does not seem to be doing much work. I know I will only role my sleeves up if it is exceptionally hot or if I am done for the day. Certainly the enormous windows is his corner office and the sun shining through hint to the former. With all this space he still seems trapped. As an aside, observe the fake decorative front of the building. This in contrast with the starkness of the room could be seen to be Hopper evoking his disdain for modern Utilitarian living.
The subject leans back on his chair observing the world go by, yet is totally detached from it as it does so. The contrast between his small stature and the vastness of the outside world further confirms the crushing loneliness of this piece.
I am so moved by this painting. These times are desperately difficult for us all and it is wonderful to see loneliness depicted through someone else’s vision, especially one as illuminating as Edward Hopper’s. I hope this painting brings some comfort and a reminder that there is always someone whose loneliness is more vast than ours.
The Daily Art App, which I am now realising should be funding this blog, has once again thrown me an artistic morsel which I shall now chew on for your reading pleasure. Did you enjoy that mixed metaphor? I did not. Monet is one of the founders of the impressionist movement. On a side note, he was French. But that’s enough vulgarity for now. Monet painted this, one in a series of three, while staying at a hotel-restaurant in Pourville, a fishing village in Normandy, This is the owner, Paul Antoinne Graff, in his chef’s attire. Let’s delve into this a little deeper.
I love this portrait. These were so rare for Monet that the two he painted of Paul-Antoine and Eugénie with her lovely terrier (below) were a real testament to their close friendship. What I love about Monet is his confidence. In a time where artists went to great lengths to conceal their brush strokes in an effort to evoke an exact resemblance of what they are depicting. Monet paints in a way to deliberately show his brush strokes. This is part of my fascination with his portraits.
Observe the crude rendering of the beard, which is so wonderful to me. The curls in his hair and how Monet shows the grey hairs coming in sparsely is lovely. Look at how few brush strokes the artist has used to create a cooking jacket. Finally observe the minute swirl of brush strokes in the face to highlight the subject’s expression. I think this is very fine and worthy of much lauding.
As an aside, do observe this painting Monet made of Mme Graff, the aforementioned chef’s wife. Here she is looking longingly to the right while her terrier, Follette, looks directly at the painter. Now, what both of these portraits were designed to be looking longingly at a third painting – one of Mme Graff’s butter cakes!
This painting is worth another whole post in itself, but I am not so desperate for material as to subject you to that. Observe the extraordinary detail to showcase Mme Graff’s wrinkles! Her neck ribbon is also a delight to behold. And Follette is just adorable. Monet painted another portrait of Folelette by herself, but I will leave this to you to discover in your further research.
I’d like to close with the above, titled L’Alley Point, Low Tide, which money also painted in Pourville in 1882 during his stay with the Graffs. I am awe struck by this. The colours, the movement in the water, the people in the distance, the sky, the white rendering on the cliffs – every aspect of this is so masterful that I could not keep it from you, dear readers.
I hope you have enjoyed this short dissection. Please stay safe in this trying time.