Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland: an exclusive sneak preview
‘She stares out at you in a certain way, doesn’t she? Quite bewitching.” Michael Clarke, director of the Scottish National Gallery, knows well the power of the female gaze. The pair of eyes in question gazes out of the frame of one of the gallery’s most famous paintings, John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. Since 1925, Sargent’s fey, slyly smiling enigma has been drawing thousands of fascinated fans to Scotland’s premier art museum.
“It’s sensational — though I’m sure Sargent flattered her enormously, which portrait painters are supposed to do,’’ Clarke tells Review. “But she’s definitely got personality.”
Sargent, the charismatic, piano-playing American expatriate artist, painted Gertrude Vernon, 27, young wife of Andrew Noel Agnew, ninth baronet of Lochnaw, in just six sittings in 1892. At the Royal Academy a year later, the painting launched both their fortunes, securing Vernon’s role as society beauty and Sargent’s reputation as one of the finest portrait artists of the Gilded Age: The Times, on April 29, 1893, hailed the work as “not only a triumph of technique but the finest example of portraiture, in the literal sense of the word, that has been seen here for a long time”.
Handily, it also resurrected Sargent’s public reputation, badly damaged by the scandal surrounding his infamous Madame X portrait at the Paris Salon in 1884. “Though I don’t know why,” remarks Clarke mildly of that latter work, depicting socialite Virginie Gautreau. “Her dress was falling off her, but there were plenty of more risque portraits in the 19th century.”
Over the years, Sargent’s grand lady has taken on a life far beyond her gilt frame. With her unusually direct, liquid gaze and contrapuntal mix of languor and nervous energy, her coiled figure rising like a question mark out of a cloud of pearly white satin girded by a lilac sash, she would come to be seen as a potent symbol of fin de siecle malaise. Critics regard it as one of Sargent’s best works, paving the way for a later wave of psychologically incisive portraits by the likes of Gustav Klimt. There is an almost animal energy to the work, as has been noted by Sargent scholar Richard Ormond, a descendant of the painter: “The picture simply sings out ... she is a living, breathing person.”
She has even become a cultural icon of sorts, immortalised in everything from book covers to prints and puzzles, and with her own tribe of obsessed fans, including British comedian Phill Jupitus, who has made so many visits over the years to pay homage to the “hussy”, as one staff member once described her, that he’s drawn the attention of curious museum guards. Finding her out on loan one day, he was thus consoled: “Dinnae worry, Phill, she’s back in July!”
Sargent’s elusive lady, in all her witchy beauty, is on the road again, this time to Australia, where she joins another enigmatic muse, Rembrandt’s A Woman in Bed, as part of the travelling exhibition The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the Sydney International Art Series next month.
Drawn from the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, on show will be 70-plus paintings and drawings by Vermeer, Velazquez, Titian, Degas, El Greco, Monet, Constable, Gauguin, Poussin and others, encompassing 400 years of art from the Renaissance (Botticelli’s luminous 1485-90 masterpiece The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child ¸ saved for Scotland by a dramatic last-minute funding rescue, is the earliest) to Post-Impressionism (Cezanne’s spiky, almost geometric circa-1904 work The Big Trees), with a weighty Scottish battalion bringing up the rear spearheaded by Henry Raeburn’s so-called The Skating Minister, which is widely celebrated as “the Scottish Mona Lisa”.
Lady Agnew and company come here as part of an international tour that kicked off when Scotland sent a core of 10 masterpieces to New York’s Frick Collection last year. Another 45 pieces joined the show when it went on to San Francisco’s de Young museum and Texas’s Kimbell Art Museum. Clarke approached AGNSW’s then deputy director Anne Flanagan about an Australian iteration of the show in 2012; incoming director Michael Brand finetuned the museum’s wish list with Clarke and the director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, John Leighton.
As a result of those Edinburgh talks, Clarke says a substantial 30-odd piece graphics component (Leonard da Vinci’s exquisite Studies of a Dog’s Paw, usually not on public display even at the NGS, will make a rare outing) and three large pastoral Bouchers are exclusive to the Australian leg of the tour.
In its three American incarnations, the show has drawn big crowds and critical praise. But in the mix have been some dissenting voices, with art critics raising the spectre of such travelling shows being padded out with second-tier works and acting as mere “cash cows” to raise funds, through fees, for capital work projects (the Scottish National Gallery is undertaking a reported £15.3 million expansion set for completion in 2018). Clarke says he understands the concerns but the NGS takes great care to minimise risk to fragile art exports through strict safety measures. Furthermore, “we live in an age where works of art are lent frequently … and we participate in that fully. It’s also an opportunity for us as well to get things out that would normally be hidden away.”
Brand describes the show as “a statement of unequivocal artistic excellence — each piece in this exhibition is of extraordinary quality”. It brings together two museums whose ties go back to their original architectural blueprints: the AGNSW archives reveal that the trustees had in mind William Henry Playfair’s classical temple-style design for the Scottish National Gallery, opened to the public in 1859, when AGNSW was being built in 1896.
These links will be highlighted in the exhibition design in Sydney, which will re-create the famous octagonal rooms of the Edinburgh institution in old-masters red.
A graceful sandstone presence on Edinburgh’s The Mound, the Scottish National Gallery forms part of the National Galleries of Scotland alongside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Clarke observes that “we are very lucky that in a country of about only five million, we have such a magnificent national collection which is known and respected around the world”. It has long punched above its weight, with a certain David and Goliath quality to the story of many of its blue-chip acquisitions. A case in point is the beautiful Botticelli — “a magnificent devotional painting rich in symbolic detail and clarity of palette”, according to Suhanya Raffel, deputy director of AGNSW — winging its way to Sydney.
Painted by the Florentine master Sandro Botticelli around 1485, the so-called Wemyss Madonna, in the collection of Lord Elcho (later
THE MIGHTY RAEBURNS ON SHOW HAVE A FASCINATING BACKSTORY
10th earl of Wemyss) since 1859, was thought to be a Botticelli workshop piece before it was confirmed as an original in the 1990s. In 1999, Texas’s Kimbell museum made a huge bid for the work but, luckily, says Clarke, the £10.25m price tag was met by a last-minute funding package cobbled together by a national lottery heritage fund grant and philanthropic contributions, among other sources. ‘‘And so with less than 24 hours to go before it was shipped off to the US, it was saved. And it’s now one of the stars of the collection.”
At the time, it was considered to be among the greatest Renaissance paintings acquired for any museum in Britain since World War II. Why? Clarke says the vividly emotional nature of the piece “readily inspires devotion among believers. It’s very moving, it’s about a mother’s love for a child … but it’s also very much centred on the cult of Mary, emphasising her purity and unstained nature, as it were, by the depiction of roses without thorns, and the enclosed gardens”.
Both the mighty Raeburns on show also have a fascinating backstory. Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, painted by the pre-eminent Scottish portraitist in 1795, is an unusually informal depiction of Robert Walker, minister of Edinburgh’s Canongate Church, gliding serenely as a Degas ballet dancer across one of the city’s frozen lochs.
“It’s such an icon of Scottishness,’’ Clarke says. “It grabs the eye from quite a distance away, you’re drawn to it by its simplicity because Raeburn catches the silhouette so well.”
It too, has an interesting provenance, with some critics suggesting it was by French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux. Clarke is confident it is a Raeburn original, “but all debate is healthy”.
He loves, too, the sense of robust eccentricity in Raeburn’s magisterial 1812 portrait of the flamboyant Alastair Ranaldson MacDonell, 15th chief of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry, described by the novelist Walter Scott as “a kind of Quixote in our age, having retained in its full extent whole feelings of Clanship and Chieftainship elsewhere so long abandoned”.
Raeburn’s depiction, so full of life, of the unorthodox highland chieftain (wearing tartan, as the proscription on wearing Highland dress following the Jacobite rising of 1745 had been lifted in 1782) “is such an archetypal Scottish image, isn’t it?’’ Clarke says. “Raeburn was a wonderfully painterly painter ... to the best of our knowledge, no drawings by him survived, he painted straight on to the canvas. He was a great artist who thought with his brush.”
Brand has his own favourites — from Vermeer’s mastery of light and shade in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, an early work in the artist’s small surviving catalogue of only 36 paintings (“especially interesting for tackling a religious subject at a larger scale than his later works”) to the striking, sunny 1899 Gauguin, Three Tahitians (“for the way he combines an outsider’s gaze into Tahitian life with the concerns of European painting to create a unique composition within a blazing field of colour”) and Degas’s 1879 portrait of Florentine critic Diego Martelli in his Paris apartment, “which depicts his good friend with gentle immediacy, well natured but slightly weary from his work helping to forge a new art for Europe”.
Also intriguing, says Brand, is the “headscratching” strangeness of the enigmatic El Greco, An Allegory (Fabula), featuring a boy blowing on an ember between a monkey and a fool in a clever play on a work of classical antiquity described by Pliny the Elder. It is, says Richard Beresford, senior curator of European art at AGNSW, “a show-off of an artist’s technique, showing his ability to use freshly applied paint to convey an artificial light caught on the face … it’s very likely that El Greco is playing a game here, setting himself up against a painter from antiquity, showing that modern artists can do it just as well”.
Beresford is struck, too, by the precocious virtuoso technique on display in Velazquez’s An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618), painted by the Spanish master in his late teens, and imbued with an “extraordinary presence and clarity, so you can feel the drips of the glaze off the porous terracotta, and you can see where the hands of the potter have slipped as he has turned the object on the wheel”.
The sheer mastery of Velazquez’s depiction of textures, right down to the semi-cooked eggs (the best such depiction in Western art, quips Brand) competes for the eye with the work’s intriguingly disconnected, fragmented quality: “The subjects are like a group of exotic animals brought together from different habitats and who are uncomfortable with each other. Is the old woman blind? I think that’s partly why it’s such a powerful picture … the figures are telling a story but it’s a story that no one can specify.”
There’s a similar sense of mystery in everything from the stormy “supercharged” dark clouds, pregnant with psychological portents, in John Constable’s dreamy, uniquely autobiographical The Vale of Dedham, his last major work of his childhood landscape around the Stour Valley, influenced as much by Rubens, in Beresford’s view, as by Lorrain (“a particularly extraordinary work because it so completely encapsulates the life of the artist who’s made it — it’s a landscape which stands for the artist himself and the place where he was born and educated, where he grew up as an artist, where he learned to paint in nature, where he learned to record the experience of sunlight as it is caught on wet grass”) to Jean-Antione Watteau’s Fetes Venitiennes (1715), a beautiful, small jewelbox of a work by one of the foremost exponents of the rococo style in French painting.
Here again is a painting that “is never going to yield an answer”, depicting a group of people in a graceful parkland setting: a musette player thought to be Watteau, a male dancer resembling his friend the Franco-Flemish painter Nicolas Vleughels, and a woman they’re both battling for.
“But because Watteau is so elusive, the imaginative content of the work gives you no closure as a spectator, you can’t explain what’s going on,” Beresford says. “It’s dream world.”
Similarly you have to work hard to decipher Rembrandt’s sensual A Woman in Bed (c. 1647), possibly depicting Rembrandt’s lover Geertje Dircx.
Some critics believe it is based on the Biblical tale of Sarah and Tobias on their wedding night, Beresford says, but “it’s not at all definite. I’ve come to the conclusion that with a lot of very great paintings, their power stems from the fact that they’re not readily explicable, they don’t tell stories we can just tick off and say, ‘OK, now we know what that painting is about’ … All really great paintings do have that multilayered quality. Different people will take away different things from them.”
The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on October 24 and runs until February 14.
An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) by Diego Velazquez, top; John Singer Sargent’s Lady
Agnew of Lochnaw (1892), left; The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping
Christ Child (c. 1485) by Botticelli, above
From above left, Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch ( c. 1795) by Henry Raeburn; Venus Rising from the Sea by Titian (c. 1520-25); Rembrandt’s A Woman in Bed (1647); Michael Brand, top, and Michael Clarke
Colonel Alastair Ranaldson MacDonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (c. 1812) by Raeburn, above; Bell Rock Lighthouse (1819) by JMW Turner, below