3-2-C: The National Gallery, London

Everyone thinks they know the National Gallery, especially art historians and enthusiasts. They look at Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533), Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), and Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), thinking they’ve seen it all. On the odd occasion, they might view Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-23) or Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus (1601). The more informed may recognise Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450s) and Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (c.1750), possibly even Johannes Vermeer’s A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-72).

The National Gallery highlights 30 works in its collection as ‘must-see’ paintings, eight of which I have mentioned above. The following are three unsung heroes in my opinion which I think everyone should look for the next time they visit:

Jan Gossaert, An Elderly Couple, c.1520

about 1520
Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart), An Elderly Couple, c. 1520

This is the only known double portrait by the French-speaking Flemish artist, Jan Gossaert (sometimes called Jan Mabuse). He was one of the first Flemish painters to travel to Rome and bring back to Northern Europe elements of the Italian High Renaissance style, dubbing him a first-generation ‘Romanist’ artist.

Simplistically speaking, the Romanist style combined the Italianate forms of Michelangelo and Raphael with the Flemish penchant for meticulously fine details. In the case of this double portrait, the Italianate element is the clarity of the sitters against a plain background instead of a lush landscape. By contrast, the couple’s garments are so sensitively painted that you could almost feel their varying textures and materials – fur, silk, and even a little lace. Gossaert’s interest in classical antiquity is also evident in the old man’s hat-badge, a classical cameo depicting a nude man and woman (possibly Mercury and Fortuna, or Mars and Venus).

Further Italianate influences can be seen in the animated portrayal of the man’s arms, suggesting a sense of movement within the picture, unlike the frozen posture of the woman which is more in line with early Flemish portraiture.

The identities of the two sitters have not been established.

Ary Scheffer, Mrs Robert Hollond, 1851

Ary Scheffer, Mrs Robert Hollond, 1851

Ary Scheffer was a Dutch-French painter of the Romantic period. Romanticism elevated the intellectual pursuits of the past, especially medievalism, whilst emphasising intense emotions which are grounded on the individual expressions of the artists themselves. In the words of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, ‘the artist’s feeling is his law’.

Scheffer was best known as a history painter whose subjects often derived from Dante, Lord Byron, and Goethe. He was, however, also a very prolific portraitist. The sitter of this portrait, Ellen Julia Hollond (née Teed), was an English writer and philanthropist. She married Robert Hollond in 1840, the M.P. for Hastings from 1837 to 1852. She later donated François Boucher’s Pan and Syrinx (1759) to the National Gallery in 1880, four years before her death at Stanmore Hall, Middlesex.

Scheffer’s portrait is remarkably sweet. Despite her classical dress and tender posture, the portrait resonates an emotive force of authority the longer one views it.

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912

For New Yorkers, George Bellows was their artistic voice in early twentieth-century New York. He was well known for his realist portrayals of urban life in the city, especially the harsh reality of the working-class neighbourhoods and its inhabitants. Men of the Docks depicts day labourers looking for work at a dock in Brooklyn during a bleak, wintery morning with the Manhattan skyline towering in the distance.

What is special about this painting isn’t necessarily its aesthetic quality and visual appeal. Rather, it is its place within the National Gallery’s collection. Men of the Docks is the first ever major American painting to enter the traditionally Western European collection. Although they do possess Newburgh-born artist George Inness’ The Delaware Water Gap (c.1857), it is rarely on display and is considered a minor work by the artist.

Bellows’ painting is hung in the same room as other European artists working in a similar style – Camille Pissarro, Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot, etc. – and this curatorial decision highlights the gallery’s new direction to incorporate paintings stylistically made in the Western European artistic tradition, in contrast to geographically European works.

3-2-C is a new series of blog posts devoted to presenting an alternative selection of ‘must-see’ exhibits from museums and galleries in the UK and around the world.


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