The Great ‘Fortune’ of Sir Richard Wallace

Every trip to London, I race to The Wallace Collection for some comfortable breathing space, and, more importantly, for gazing at the mesmerising Seymour family collection inside of this public townhouse, formerly belonging to the Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. In the time of half an hour, and if one’s focus is solely on the paintings, not the splendid array of armoury, jewels, furniture, or pottery, one can see an entire range of European masters from Rembrandt to Murillo. Following a selection navigated by intuition, as is usually most profitable for the soulful spectator when viewing a gallery, I fell upon the following paintings, each of which inspired me to write down a few jolly criticisms.

 

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Murillo, Esteban Bartolome: The Virgin and Child with a Rosary, 1670-1680 (The Wallace Collection)

There is a strikingly similar depiction of the Virgin and Child painted by Murillo in the Museo El Prado. Both feature the direct encounter with mother and child, the stark chromatic qualities in bright, pure skin tone, against a dark, thick background, and the child with a rosary bead. Both are wonderful, and, truly, Mr. Wallace has a painting worth seeing here. The effect is, of course, with Murillo, one of grace and majesty, as the heavenly presence abounds in the sense of divine peace offered by their open embrace with us.  

 

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Rembrandt: Titus, the Artist’s Son, 1657 (The Wallace Collection)

The pose is of a young man quite sure of himself, his right shoulder is turned slightly off-centre and his chin follows by the fraction of an inch, allowing room for a flourishing shadow. However, the manner felt in this posture is not one of entitlement or arrogance, but of the aspirational youth, wearing a sense of enthusiasm across his brow, as if inspired by his father’s brushwork, which, here, is by no means exemplary, considering the artist is Rembrandt. The frolic hairstyle adds vibrance to the character of Titus, as do the few creases in his cloak, which suggest, despite the hard stare, that this could well have been a lively and playful encounter between father and son.   

 

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Rembrandt: Jean Pellicorne with his son Caspar, 1632 (The Wallace Collection)

The father appears to be pleading at us, one step away from either grinning like a fool or bursting into tears; yet, either way, he is acting without the necessary attention or parenting skill required of his son, a seemingly wayward boy with little expression. However, I lack the understanding of sufficient context – what is in the small sack-cloth, the single item connecting the subject as one? There is an oddity to the picture, but, nevertheless, it comes to life, and due to the artist’s perfection, compels the viewer to step inside – the canvas grows a seed to do with reality; becomes real, regardless of interpretation.

 

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Van Dyck, Anthony: Paris, 1628 (The Wallace Collection)

Paris is a male vision of beauty, with his muscular Greco-Roman torso and shoulders, his elegant and glossy blue tunic, and even a romantically fashioned set of dark and curly long hair. However, his pose is somewhat in retreat: his head turns left and downwards over his postured left-shoulder; his eyes appear soft and self-conscious, and the gesture of his left-hand almost meek and forgiving. Therefore, at a second glance, the painting takes on a feminine stance, in which one could almost substitute Paris for one of the three beautiful goddesses whom he is supposedly in the midst of having to judge, choosing one for himself; the golden apple in his right hand clearly signifies the Judgement of Paris, leading up to the battle of Troy. With such foresight of the ancient events taking place, we could distill a sense of fear in the countenance upon Paris’s face, and, at the very least, from the instrument of wood under his arm, thence perceived to be a weapon, believe that he is reckoning with the magnitude of what is to come. 

 

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Velázquez, Diego: Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver, 1633 (The Wallace Collection)

Velázquez, Diego: The Infanta Margarita, 1656 (The Wallace Collection)

Velázquez is under the influence of a stirred soul, his paintings haunt the eye and proclaim the many deep mysteries of life, as Las Meninas gives us strong reason to believe. In these two portraits of children, one male, one female, the artist sculpts young royalty with an intensity that both at once expresses their infancy, and the innocence found there, as well as their power and the features of supremacy belonging to wealthy status. The approach is quite fluid, with thick brushstrokes and a sense of movement in space, doubtless the children would often shift their modelling position countless times. However, there is a gravity to each pose: the pale face of Maria is striking and austere, whereas the hue of Carlos is by contrast warm and appearing fresh. When viewed together then, the similarities of childhood can be captivatingly juxtaposed by the light and colour of a master like Velázquez.

 

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Velázquez, Diego: The Lady with a Fan, 1640 (The Wallace Collection)

This female portrait is uncanny, as if the woman is being preyed upon by some grief, emphasised by her black clothing, and yet there remains a will of goodness and faith in her, the rosary and necklace clearly devoted to the Virgin. Thus, the character is intelligent and withered; making an effort to appear holy and beautiful, whilst clearly being a little tired or suffering of misery in the process. 

 

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Florentine Journal: The Walls of the Convento di San Marco

The Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence is home to numerous Beato (Fra) Angelico frescoes, preserved in all their splendour of artistic humility and beauty. The convent was given to the Dominican Observants in 1438. Angelico was resident there between the years 1439-1444. His works might also include the hands of Benozzo Gozzoli and Zanobi Strozzi, two disciples of his. There is a profound touch of delicacy to the frescoes, and simplistic innovation: there is no attempt to create any more glamour than the bare essentials within a given space, and many of them adorn the bedrooms belonging to monks. They are perfect for contemplation.

 

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This large depiction of The Crucifixion is akin to the Moralities of 14th century Florence, urging detachment from worldly vanities, the current of Dominican monastic life at that time, and salvation through Christ alone. The founder of the religious order, San Domenico, is depicted looking up at Christ in awe whilst cradling the wooden cross, as if giving voluntary support to the uprightness of Our Salvation through Him. This exaltation of the Redeemer is painted in the cloister hall and would have provided a chance for repeated daily refection as the monks passed between their cells and the chapel for prayer. The blue sky provides a sanctified backdrop for the crucifixion and ceases to avert our attention unnecessarily to heavenly splendours, instead focusing on the beautiful aesthetic of Christ Himself crucified against the sky. The fresco is also notable for the illumination of Christ’s flesh as without decay; for it appears to be alive and thus signifies the eternal life of the body – an exceptional quality of representation in the age of Angelico.

 

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In this fresco Christ appears twice, stood on a rock, prefiguring his rising from the tomb, warding off a devil in the wilderness, and sat beneath the rock, in contemplation and sculptural prayer, directly engaging the eye of the spectator and inviting us to witness His Blessing. Chris is voluminously clad in a glowing white robe, tinted pink.

 

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Christ’s Deposition, Entombment, is shown here as a tender display of affection worthy of the glorious foresight in Christ’s Resurrection. The tomb appears almost inviting, carved in white marble and with light entering softly into the pointed-arched cave. Mary Magdalene, in her elegant red dress, welcomes the feet of Christ into her arms and washes away the blood with a cloth.

 

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This fresco is striking for its extraordinary symbolism of The Mocking of Christ and the triumph of His death and Resurrection, represented in a highly innovative form of abstraction: the disembodied hands, loutish faces, and soldiery weapons of the enemy, all appear around the blindfolded Christ who is unperturbed by their presence, free from the harm of their hate and spitting. In front of the tomb of Christ, a great slab of marble adding to the radiance surrounding Him, are the Virgin Mary and San Domenico, neither of whom regard Christ directly, but instead choose to focus on their own intense meditation – the depth of which these frescoes repeatedly announce in the hope of friars attaining such contemplative souls themselves; ascribed within to this movement of a somewhat perfect theology.

 

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This fresco of Christ’s Resurrection and Women at the Tomb is a powerful revelation of Christ Risen from the Dead. San Domenico kneels in meditation; an angel points upward at heaven and Christ triumphant, where he stands effortlessly – without the sting of death; whilst three women on the right look on with humility and praise, slightly averting their gaze in honour of the miracle.

 

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The Presentation of the Lord. The temple is depicted in the style of an Italian 14th-century rounded apse, more simplistic than the Gothic style, with the Virgin holding out her hands in awe towards the baby Jesus, whose confident and blessed smile reveals an early sign of His Divinity. San Peter of Verona, the Martyr, a most well-respected Saint by Dominican friars at the time, is knelt prostrate in admiration of the Lord, the cut through the top of his head a clear sign of the mortal blow. Altogether, there is a strong will of communion in the image, a sign of Christ’s submission to the Law, and a sure sense of the Joyful Mystery to come.

Crossing the Styx

Patinir, Joachim: ‘Landscape with Saint Jerome’ 1516-1517 (Museo Del Prado) – painting reference.

 

There Charon stirs; – by dreary rocks – 

A God of the Underworld: Crossing the Styx!

Beating his oar upward, fierce and mean;

His beard blows like fire, wild and dirty;

His eyes descend upon me, torn and hollow.

 

Oh, I, a reluctant Sinner; – enter his boat –

A man of earth: entering the Underworld!

Blessed with Hermes, as psychopomp clean;

But my Soul is weak, destiny is bleak;

My expression doubts the Spring flowing from Lethe. 

 

Looking to the left; – I see Paradise – 

Christian heaven: the hard road that leads to life!

Where an angel beckons her wings, upright;

Her smile is light, and on the promontory she stands;

In company of repentant souls, righteously abound.

 

Ah, sinuous tide; – we turn towards Hades –

Cerberus dwells in fire: the Inferno!

Bodies that sting, burnt, wretched flesh;

Hung from the black gates of a castle wreck;

Pierced with the hot rod of vice, trials awaits me. 

 

Charon roars with the tide; – crashing waves –

Cape Matapan fast approaches: the Peloponnesus!

A giant grey cave ascends towards the furnace;

An enclave leading to the feet of he who Punishes;

But in fear I plead, and hear my Guardian weep. 

 

The way home is drenched; – oh, cloudy fog –

The angels sigh: Heavens promise I’d forgotten!

Swearing Damnation, fighting Satan with fury;

My bosom startles into shape, singing with praise;

Oh, joy, I bow, smiling in deep arrest;

Whispering where only truth can rest:

“Thanks be to you O Lord Our God”.