Of all the museums and galleries in London, the Wallace Collection is my favourite. Displayed at Hertford House and only a short walk away from Oxford Street, the collection contains everything from leaves of illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, to military arms and armoury, in addition to a very strong selection of French 18th-century art and furniture. The works of art were collected in the 18th and 19th centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. His widow, Lady Wallace, later bequeathed it to the British nation in 1897.
Among its wonderful highlights is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (c.1767-68), Frans Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier (1624), nine paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, five by Rembrandt, two by Velázquez, Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda (probably 1554-56), and two sets of equestrian armour.
It is a beautiful place to wander around and I often find myself drawn to random pieces on the walls. Here are three works of art that have captivated me ever since my first visit:
Anthony van Dyck, Paris, c.1628
In Britain, Anthony van Dyck is best known for his full-length portraits of prominent individuals in the court of James I and Charles I. As a result, it is astonishing to believe that the same artist also painted this introspective figure of Paris. Paris is usually shown alongside the three goddesses (Juno, Minerva, and Venus), one of whom he must choose as the most beautiful by giving her a golden apple. In the end, he chooses Venus, the goddess of love, and inadvertently initiates the Trojan War.
Unconventionally, van Dyck has chosen to exclude the goddesses and focus on Paris alone, holding the golden apple in one hand and contemplating his decision. He is beautifully rendered with shimmering blue drapery and illuminated against a dark, plain background, reminiscent of seventeenth-century Italian painting. He looks outwards with a hesitant expression, as if foreshadowing the fateful events caused by his decision. Van Dyck’s reinterpretation emphasises the seriousness of the mythological story, producing an image that is psychologically charged and full of emotion.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Portrait of a Woman, 1770s
Many of the paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze in the collection are the ‘expressive heads’ of young women which he was famous for. This unfinished portrait of a woman, previously identified as the French actress and operatic singer Sophie Arnould, does not fit in that category. Aside from being exquisitely painted, the painting commands our attention when viewed in person. The sensitive modelling of her skin and facial features contrasts well with the unfinished passages of her hair, uneven surface of the plain background, and summary outlines to denote her clothing. Overall, there is a timeless quality to this portrait that is impressive and memorable.
Hans Memling, Angel with a Sword, 1479-80
Hans Memling was one of the most important 15th-century artists working in the Southern Netherlands. However, he was of German origin, born near Frankfurt in Selingenstadt. Despite the simple beauty of this little panel, it unfortunately sits in the corner of a room at the time of writing with very little lighting. It was once the right wing of a small triptych, of which the central panel depicted a Pietà painted by Rogier van der Weyden. The side panels were painted by Memling, each showing an angel, with an Annunciation in grisaille on the exterior.
This painting is one of only two early Netherlandish works in the collection. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The angel is skilfully rendered with a naturalism that is characteristic of the Netherlandish tradition. The lack of ornamentation in the gold background further enhances the delicate folds of drapery and the glistening effects of light on the angel’s hair. The tiny reflections on the hilt of the sword are also reminiscent of Jan van Eyck. Each section of the painting is a precise interplay of light and dark: the dark blade against the white wings, the areas of shadow against the luminescent background, the white drapery against the rocky foreground. As a result, there is a harmonious quality to the panel that is very satisfying to observe.
3-2-C is a 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.