Monday, September 15, 2014

Portraits with Comments

John Riley
Bridget Holmes
Bridget Holmes was a ‘Necessary Woman’ at Court who lived to the age of one hundred. Her period of royal service began during the time of Charles I and continued into the reign of William III and Mary II. She is shown brandishing her brush, playing a game with a Page of the Backstairs.

Anthony Van Dyck
Margaret Lemon
Margaret Lemon was Van Dyck’s mistress and is unfortunately known to us today only through contemporary tittle-tattle. A fellow artist of Van Dyck, Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77), described her as violently jealous, even on one occasion attempting to bite Van Dyck’s thumb off. It is believed that this portrait was left unfinished because of the artist’s marriage in February 1640 to the more respectable court beauty Mary Ruthven.

George Stubbs
Laetitia, Lady Lade
Laetitia, Lady Lade, was the wife of Sir John Lade. She was a notorious adventuress and renowned as a skilled rider. Her reputation for using bad language made her unpopular among the fashionable ladies at court, but she and her husband were both friends of the Prince of Wales. 

Sir Edwin Landseer
Queen Victoria on Horseback
c. 1837-39
Landseer described Queen Victoria as a ‘very inconvenient little treasure’; the Queen described the artist in similar terms. Their relationship was close, fruitful and fraught; Landseer was inspired in fits and starts; the Queen enthusiastic but also meddlesome and as concerned with the banality of a likeness as with the brilliance of an artistic idea. This work is an oil sketch for an ambitious equestrian portrait which failed to materialise after thirty years of trying and as many false starts.

Jan Steen
Woman at her Toilet
A young woman is shown partially undressed, with an unlaced jacket, putting on a stocking. A lapdog lies on her unmade bed, by which there is a chamber pot, and her shoes are scattered on the floor. The figure is alluring and looks straight out at the viewer with an inviting expression. Seduction is her intent. 

Pieter de Hooch
Courtyard in Delft at Evening
c. 1656
A Courtyard in Delft, acquired by George IV in 1829, is one of de Hooch’s earliest treatments of the theme, dating from c.1657-8. It is also one of the most atmospheric in the portrayal of the shadows filling the foreground. Thus, de Hooch contrasts the seated figure seen in shadow with the standing figure who is walking from the sunlight into shadow. On the vertical axis there is a similar shift from the bright blue sky overhead to the darker tones in the lower half.

Saint Catherine Reading
c. 1530-32
According to the Golden Legend, St Catherine of Alexandria was a young girl of royal birth who was desired by the Roman Emperor Maxentius (AD 306-12). She refused either to marry him or renounce her Christian faith, and he ordered her to be tortured to death on a spiked wheel, but it shattered miraculously. Maxentius then had her beheaded. Catherine was particularly known for her learning: here a broken fragment of her wheel provides a convenient resting place for her book, while she holds a martyr’s palm in her other hand.

Giulio Romano
Margherita Paleologo
c. 1531
This portrait by Giulio Romano depicts a fashionable noblewoman in a magnificent black dress. She is probably Isabella d’Este’s daughter-in-law, Margherita Paleologo (1510-1566), at the time of her marriage to Federico Gonzaga, 1st Duke of Mantua, in 1531. The sitter wears a black overdress created from interlaced bands of black fabric (perhaps a heavy silk) edged with gold over a pale crimson undergown, and on her head an elaborate zazara (headdress). In the room behind her, a maidservant greets three visitors: two fashionable ladies and a nun.

Jacopo Tintoretto
Esther Before Ahasuerus
c. 1546-47
King Ahasuerus’s second wife, Esther, learns that the King’s chief minister is plotting to have all the Jews in the Persian Empire massacred. Esther intercedes with the King and eventually he grants her request to spare her people. The intense colours create an impression of exotic splendour, while strong light heightens the drama. 

Palma Vecchio
c. 1522-24
Inspired by Titian’s 'Flora' (Uffizi, Florence), the seductive but idealised female half-length was one of Palma’s specialities. This woman’s appearance may have been inspired by the look of Venetian courtesans at the time, and also reflects descriptions of erotic beauty in literature.

Style of Francesco Albani
Woman Listening to a Satyr Piping
c. 1650-80
In a wooded landscape a woman, perhaps a nymph, is half reclining with her head on her right hand. She rests her left hand on the pink red cloth in which she is half-draped as she listens to a satyr at the left, piping. Behind the satyr a cupid aims a bow at the woman.

Peter Paul Rubens
Assumption of the Virgin
c. 1611-12
The subject comes from various early church fables collected by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend of c.1260. The apostles were brought by angels to the Virgin’s death-bed and assisted in her burial in a tomb in the Vale of Josaphat; there she was assumed (that is, ‘carried up’), body and soul, into heaven, ‘great multitude of angels keeping her company’. St John of Damascus (c.675–c.749) called the Virgin the ‘font of true light’ and likened her assumption to the sun appearing after an eclipse. Rubens uses a similar metaphor, creating a heavenly glory around the Virgin in the likeness of the rising sun. Rubens departs from usual practice in including the sisters, Sts Mary and Martha, symbols of the active and contemplative life, with the apostles round the tomb.