Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery

National Gallery, London 
(image from Wikimedia)
Last week I went to see the Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian exhibition at the National Gallery in London. If you're going to be in London before the exhibition ends in January, I highly recommend you go and see it as it includes some iconic paintings and some very usual artwork.

What's wonderful about exhibitions like this is how they remind you how long people can live on in their portraits.

 The people in the portraits in this exhibition all lived in the 15th and 16th centuries and most have been dead for well over 500 years - and yet their humanity speaks volumes due to the skill of the artists.
The German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) explained that portraiture preserves the likenesses of men after their deaths. Remembering people was the main purpose of portraiture in the Renaissance.
Exhibition pamphlet
Phillip II by Titian
Museo del Prado 
(image from wikipedia)
Other things I noted include:
  • how artists often create illusions which flatter the subject - Phillip II's legs got a lot longer after he sat for Titian. He really looked like this ( think!).
  • how artists often focus on an idealised version of beauty - and how this always seems to vary according to time and place
  • how Holbein rarely worried about what to put in the background! Blue green seems to go with everything! ;)
  • how enigmatic faces always make you look longer at a portrait. I'm still puzzling over what exactly the artist does to make a face look enigmatic. It's something to do with the direction of gaze, the eyes and the mouth.
  • how portraits can be constructed after death (like this one) - and how sometimes people anticipated their own death by commissioning their portraits for their tombs in advance of their death
  • how you didn't have to be wealthy or an aristocrat to commission a portrait
  • how a good self-portrait very often promotes the work of an artist
  • how painterly Titian was!
  • how long portraits can survive in a really excellent condition
  • how painting can improve on photographs in so very many ways.
After all, if we hadn't had people who drew and painted we wouldn't have any record of what people looked like in the Renaissance. Plus who's to say whether photographs we take today will last five hundred years!

You can see sketches I made while in the exhibition in Renaissance Faces - in my sketchbook.

Slideshows of the paintings are available as follows:

This is a really splendid exhibition, but the tickets are not cheap (£10). So my recommendation would be to make sure you have enough time to see it properly. The crowds have quietened down now - but will return during the Christmas holidays and in the days just before it finishes. So, go and see it now if you have the opportunity.

For those of us who live in London, what we're really coming to the exhibition to see are all the major loans of paintings belonging to other galleries and collections in the UK, Europe and North America. Highlights include masterpieces of Habsburg court portraiture on loan from the Museo Nacional del Prado, including Titian’s majestic warrior portrait of the young Philip II (1527 - 1598) and Anthonis Mor’s 'The Court Jester Pejeron'.

11" x 8", pencil in sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
However, if you can't get to see this exhibition, it should be noted that it includes a number of paintings which you are able to see any time in the National gallery for free. These include:
My favourite paintings and artworks in the exhibition would probably have to include:
  • all the portraits by Jan Van Eyck - I'm not fussy, when this artist paints portraits he can do no wrong in my eyes! This is, after all, the man who is frequently credited with inventing oil painting! I used to have a postcard of the painting which is thought to be his self portrait on the wall of my room all the way through college. I couldn't believe how small it was the very first time I saw it 'face to face'. I've created a new information site about this artist Jan van Eyck - Resources for Art Lovers - it's got the basics and I'll be adding to it and refining it over time. I enjoyed seeing the portrait of van Eyck's wife for the first time. (Jan van Eyck, 'Margaret, the Artist’s Wife', 1439 Groeningemuseum, Bruges. )
  • all the Durer paintings, drawings and engavings (again, I'm a longtime fan of Durer) - this one is stunning (it seems to me this would normally be thought of as a totally modern notion of how to crop a face - and yet it was done in 1508) and this one - A Portrait Machine (1525) - is fascinating.
  • A Man Holding a Coin of Nero (possibly Bernardo Bembo, 1433-1519), about 1474, by Hans Memling. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
  • A Laughing Boy (Henry VIII)
    attributed to Georgio Mazzoni
    11" x 8", pencil in sketchbook

    copyright Katherine Tyrrell
  • Laughing child, possibly Henry VIII, c.1498, Painted and gilded terracotta, attributed to Guido Mazzoni - the link is to its entry in the Royal Collection. This is an amazing bust. I've never seen a laughing child before done as a bust like this and the head is just remarkable. I had to draw it!
The Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian exhibition continues until 18 January 2009 in the Sainsbury Wing, at the National Gallery in London. The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery, London, and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
There is a simple rule which needs to be applied to all art appreciation. If an artwork deserves to be looked at for more than ten seconds, it stands a chance of being a serious piece of work.........This is a brilliant survey of European portraiture from the 15th and 16th centuries, at that moment in the western tradition when painting the human form reached a degree of brilliance and profundity which has never been surpassed. When you look at these great portraits by the likes of Memling, Holbein, Titian, Pontormo, Botticelli, Bellini, Lotto and so many others – there is an almost absurd embarrassment of riches here;
Michael Glover

Campaign for the Titians

I also went to see the two Titians which are the current subject of a major campaign to save them for the nation and are in London for a month. I watched a video on the news recently of Lucian Freud (who NEVER does interviews) talking about how inspiring he finds the Titians - particularly Diana and Acteon. The interviewer had obviously mugged up and asked all sorts of seemingly intelligent questions which fell on stony ground. Freud wasn't in the least bit interested in the history or the colours or the brushwork - what he liked was the way the painting made him feel when he looked at it!
Actaeon Surprising Diana (Artemis) in the bath
Titian, 1556-59, for Philip II
(National Gallery of Scotland - on loan from the Bridgewater Collection).
Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is one of six large-scale mythological works inspired by the Roman poet Ovid. These works were painted for Philip II of Spain. Titian called his lyrical compositions ‘poesie’, the visual equivalents of poetry. Nothing he ever painted was more inventive in beauty and power.
You can see the campaign and donate online on the web by visiting the National Gallery - Campaign for the Titians. You can see the Titians in Room 1 at the National Gallery in London until this Thursday - 20th November.

Reviews of the exhibition

You can read reviews of the Renaissance faces exhibition by following these links:



  1. Thank you for alerting me to the exhibition. I looked at the National Gallery site. I'm very taken with the "Portrait of Johan Friedrich the Magnaminous." I love the colours and the composition. I am looking forward to seeing it, probably after Xmas.

  2. I loved this exhibition when I saw it in Madrid a few months ago. Well, it was almost the same exhibition, with mostly the same paintings. I love this portrait by Van Eyck (and it wasn't in Madrid!)


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