The Curator's Trail: In this series, we are traveling some of the world's greatest museums and galleries through the eyes and minds of a specialist team of Cabana Curators, asking them one question: if you only had an hour to spare, what would you see? This week, writer and art lover, Charlotte di Carcaci, visits London's National Gallery.
BY CHARLOTTE DI CARCACI | SEPTEMBER 2023
Going into any gallery or museum, especially if one is short of time, can be confusing. Where does one start? What should one see? Is it better to visit every room and glance around, or pick a few great treasures and concentrate on those? The latter course is the more rewarding, but even then one can be spoilt for choice.
I have made a very personal selection of a handful of masterpieces to help the time-poor visitor get the most from London's National Gallery. One of the greatest museums in the world, the National collection was founded in 1824 and the gallery houses over 2,300 paintings, dating from the mid-13th century to the 19th century.
Not everyone will agree with my preferences, but when I have only an hour to spare, these are the paintings I want to see. I first came to love art at school, through studying the Italian Renaissance, and my passion for this era endures. So, if you think my list is over-heavy with early Florentine paintings, that's the reason; for me, that epoch remains the finest flowering of art the world has ever known.
The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough
Painting children can be a minefield for an artist, an attempt to capture the delicacy of a child on canvas can all too often tip-over into saccharine sentimentality. To my mind, Thomas Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his daughters chasing a butterfly avoids that trap, in fact, I think it is among the greatest depictions of children in the history of art. The two little girls, Margaret and Mary, Gainsborough’s only surviving offspring, run hand in hand through a dark wood chasing an elusive Cabbage White. The younger daughter, Margaret reaches out toward the butterfly, while her sister Mary is holding her apron as if it were a net to catch the insect. When they grew up Margaret and Mary lived with their parents in Schomberg House in Pall Mall, Margaret spending her days helping to nurse her sister who suffered from mental illness.
Mars and Venus, Sandro Botticelli
It is thought that this was painted to celebrate a marriage and its unusual shape suggests that it was a panel to be set within the wall of a bedchamber. An allegory of sensual love, Venus looks on while her lover Mars sleeps oblivious to the mischievous child-satyrs playing around them. One satyr blows a conch shell attached to a lance in his ear, both of which are sexual symbols, and the Florentines of that date would have appreciated the joke that male gods, just like their earthly counterparts are apt to fall asleep straight after lovemaking.
The Florentines also thought that if a woman looked at beautiful male bodies they were more likely to conceive boys. The wasp nest above Mars’s ear is probably an illusion to the Vespucci family ('vespa' being a wasp in Italian). The beautiful Simonetta Vespucci is thought to have been the model for Botticelli’s Venuses and Madonnas.
Whistlejacket, George Stubbs
Whistlejacket was the chestnut Arabian belonging to the Marquis of Rockingham who commissioned George Stubbs to paint his prized stallion after its win at York races in 1759. Stubbs, who was the greatest horse painter who has ever lived, chose to paint the horse riderless, against a plain background, and on a heroic scale more usually found in monumental mounted portraits of kings and emperors. This horse portrait soon became very famous among Stubbs’s contemporaries who regarded it as the painter’s challenge to the humble place then occupied by animal painting within the recognised hierarchy of art.
The Death of Acteon, Titian
This painting was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain from the aged Titian, who was then in his mid-80s. The subject, extremely rare in Italian art, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It shows the hunter, Acteon, who was caught spying on the Goddess Diana bathing; he has been turned half-stag by the goddess, and is being torn apart by his own hounds. At the end of his life, Titian’s style became very free and almost expressionistic, his colors grew muddier and in this case, wonderfully autumnal.
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the infant Saint John the Baptist, ('The Burlington House Cartoon'), Leonardo da Vinci
This is a drawing in charcoal on eight sheets of paper by Leonardo da Vinci, and the only example of a large-scale drawing by the artist. It shows Mary and her mother, Anne, with the Christ-child and his cousin, St John the Baptist. Sigmund Freud wrote a treatise about Leonardo’s life based upon the psychology of his paintings. Leonardo, born the illegitimate son of a rich married man, Ser Piero, was at first raised by his natural mother until he was adopted by his father’s wife. As an adult he often painted the Mother of God with her own mother; as Freud noted, this was a familiar dynamic for him as he had, in effect, been brought up by two mothers himself.
The Vision of St Eustace, Pisanello
The subject of this painting comes from the Golden Legend, which was a book of stories about saints that was very widely read in the Middle Ages. St Eustace was a second century soldier who, while hunting, came across a stag with a crucifix between his antlers. This vision led to his conversion to Christianity and later to his martyrdom. In this painting by this most magical of artists, the Saint is dressed in the rich apparel of a fifteenth century nobleman, an indication of the pagan life that he is soon to abandon. The charming animals that surround him are very gothic in feel and look as if they might have strayed from a verdure tapestry.
A Satyr mourning over a Nymph, Piero di Cosimo
This dreamlike painting depicts another myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that of Cephalus and Procris. Procris was a nymph who, worried that her recently-wed husband was being untrue to her, spied on him while he was hunting. Cephalus, thinking that the sound he heard coming from the nearby vegetation was that of an animal, threw his magic, never-erring javelin in its direction and killed his wife instantly. Here she is depicted, mourned by a Satyr and a hunting-dog, one of the most poignant portrayals of a dog in the whole history of art. This painting is a similar shape to the Mars and Venus by Botticelli, and it's thought it was also made to fit within a panel of a bridal bedchamber, the subject matter being a dire warning against jealousy in marriage.
With thanks to the National Gallery, London
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