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My Favorite Paintings in the National Gallery, London

In 2004, I visited several art capitals in the western Europe - London, Amsterdam, Den Haag (The Hague), Rotterdam, Brugge (Bruges), and Antwerpen (Antwerp).

The great London was rich with art collections and looking back now, I marvel at the stamina and my strategic planning so essential for so many museum and gallery visits in mere three weeks, considering I wasn't there for visual art alone.  I also saw three plays in London, visited Stonehenge and wonderful Roman ruin in the Georgian city of Bath.  The more I think about it, the more I am grateful for my good fortune of having enjoyed so many visual feasts.

The most impressive painting museum in London was the National Gallery - the British Museum was more impressive in its antiquity collections.  In the National Gallery, there were much to savor and the two paintings left me the strongest impressions were a simple portrait by Giovanni Bellini and a double portrait by Jan van Eyck.

The portrait of Leonardo Loredan presented the Venetian Doge in full official regalia - lavishly yet subtly embroidered state robe and a horn-shaped hat, 'corno', which was worn over a linen cap.  The distinctive official costumes of those Venetian doges were wonderfully picturesque, as also described in my previous entry, My Favorite Paintings from Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest), while discussing a Titian's portrait of another Venetian Doge Marcantonio Trevisani, done about half-century later.  In both paintings, these fanciful costumes avoided being comical largely due to the gravitas of those severe-looking Doges themselves.


Doge Leonardo Loredan, 1501-2, Giovanni Bellini 
Source: wikipedia
Public Domain

Bellini's Doge, in contrast to Titian's glowing yellow, dressed in silvery robe and looked much cooler and more metallic, but no less sumptuous.  He was as sharply profiled, wearing a similar hawkish determined expression.  He looked somewhat younger, due to the cleanly shaved chin, and without the later Doge's sadness and apparent compassion.  Bellini's Doge was more meditative, still and pensive, deeply in his own thoughts, private but not secretive and one felt no need to fear for this magnificent prince.  As a matter of fact, Bellini made him quite rigid and stiff in the armor like robe, resembled a puppet doll.  Was that the true status of that particular Doge? 

This work was painted in the style of sculpture busts popular at the time. Bellini, famous for his portraits, helped advance this art form in Venice.  Despite the sculptural inspiration and rigid facial and wardrobe structures, this Doge was also fully human, thanks to the detailed depiction by the marvelous painter.  Every detail was perfectly defined, from the tiny highlights in his eyes, to the fine threads on the embroidered silky robe.  And thanks to the painter's keen observation and his ability to reveal a hidden humanity of the sitter, who was under obvious strict social constraints.  The painting was very pleasing to viewer's eyes with its contrasting yet harmonious palettes - warm yellow glow of the figure and cooler but rich looking blue/green flat background.  It was an unforgettable piece of art.  A bit mannered, or simply stylish, one could argue.

If the Bellini's sitter looked a bit strange, the below masterpiece by Jan van Eyck was like a study of strangeness or hallucination albeit a beautiful and delicate one.

The portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, an "official" double portrait of the couple, was not a wedding portrait, as often assumed.  It was simply the record of their prosperous and faithful married life. With their very pleasing doll-like or elvish figures, alabaster skin tone and expressionless faces and impossible anatomy and proportions, they were an enigmatic couple and very endearing.

Arnolfini, a member of a merchant family from Lucca, Italy, lived in Bruges, Belgium, had an obviously materially comfortable life. The couple are shown in a well-appointed interior, in front of a large canopied marriage bed to the right.  In the middle of the painting, above their joined hands, there was a large chandelier and a convex mirror fantastically painted with every possible details, and perhaps more.

In contrary to another common believe, the wife was not pregnant.  She simply held up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion, with her hand resting on her belly, definitely gave it an illusion of a swell.  But she was simply showing off her yards after yards trimmed finery.  This painting was inundated with such visual illusions.


The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, Jan van Eyck
Source: wikipedia
Public Domain

The painter signed with ornate Latin on the wall, translated as 'Jan van Eyck was here 1434', above the convex mirror.  The mirror reflected the backs of the couple and another two figures in the doorway. One may be the painter himself.  Arnolfini raised his right hand, perhaps as a greeting.

Source: wikipedia
Public Domain

This painting boasted endless wonderful details, almost all of them carried some symbolic meanings, such as the companion dog as a symbol of faithfulness and love, the fruits on the window ledge stood for fertility and the fall from Paradise, and even the discarded slippers signified the sanctity of marriage.

Van Eyck gave us a painting with a luminous and almost reflective surface and many subtle effects of light - direct or diffused, such as the gleaming brass chandelier and the reflection on the mirror.  He achieved this by applying layer after layer of translucent thin glazes. This painting held us in spellbound with the amazingly precise depictions of the array of differentiated textures and surface appearance of so many objects, all with intense glowing colors.

Art historian Craig Harbison pointed out to us that this painting "is the only fifteenth-century Northern panel to survive in which the artist's contemporaries are shown engaged in some sort of action in a contemporary interior. It is indeed tempting to call this the first genre painting - a painting of everyday life - of modern times".

The final footnote to this painting was that after seeing this unforgettable painting of material wealth and opulence, I saw a large print of it in our hotel lobby in Bruges.  Our hotel was called Hotel Lucca, formerly the Lucca warehouse, built originally by none other than the very same Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini.

A most delightful coincidence.




My Favorite Museum Collection Series

>> My Favorite Museum Collection Series 43: My Favorite Sculptures from The British Museum
<< My Favorite Museum Collection Series 41: My Favorite Paintings from Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest) (Szépművészeti Múzeum)

Posted by Matthew Felix Sun on 8/4/12 | tags: portrait genre Giovanni Bellini Van Eyck traditional figurative







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