On the Trail of the Great Artists at Manchester Art Gallery
On a recent trip to Manchester Art Gallery, it struck me how little attention the gallery draws to the more famous names who populate its permanent collection.
Is it, I wondered, a result of that natural reticence responsible for Northerners’s collective bypassing of star-strucked-ness? It certainly feels like Manchester is a gallery hiding lights under bushels en masse. ‘We’ve got a Constable, but it’s no big deal,’ it might say if art galleries could speak – and probably blush. But it is a big deal. We should be impressed. Renoir, Gauguin, Sargent, Gainsborough and indeed Constable, names that mean something to an increasingly art-conscious public, all have a home at Manchester Art Gallery. Besides which, it’s no small thing to see a work by a big-name artist. Art opens up worlds and you don’t have to go to London to see truly great art when there’s an abundance of regional galleries in this country which are treasure troves of great painting.
With all this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of 20 paintings by 20 great artists that you can see in one day – one day! – at any time of the week (except Mondays) in Manchester Art Gallery. They may not be the best examples of the artist’s work (though some are truly breathtaking) but, like all great art, each is an invaluable cultural impression set on canvas which simultaneously affords us a unique view of the artist’s development. Paintings are translators and survivors of history.
1. A Man with a Dog in a Landscape (Abraham Bloemaert, c.1632)
Where: Gallery 11
Surprisingly, Manchester Art Gallery has one of the best collections of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings outside of London, a bequest of Gorton-born stockbroker Edgar Assheton Bennett and his wife Effie. Both had a passion for the works of this period and, despite living most of their lives in London, insisted on leaving their beloved collection to a regional gallery after their deaths. The collection was transferred to Manchester in 1965 after a farewell viewing at the Royal Academy and became the property of the City of Manchester after Effie’s death in 1976. In addition, the thoughtful couple left money for both the collection’s maintenance and the acquisition of other works, which the gallery later used to purchase A Man with a Dog in a Landscape. The painting’s subjects secure its charm, depicted as they are in a simple, understated manner lacking in the darker tones typical of the period. Though Bloemaert loved to paint country scenes like this most of all, he was more famous for his grander religious works.
2. The Adoration of the Golden Calf (Claude Gellée, called Lorrain, 1660)
Where: Gallery 2
Claude Lorrain (known familiarly in England as ‘Claude’) was a French landscape painter who lived most of his life in Rome and was hugely popular in England. The Adoration of the Golden Calf is a biblical scene of the unabashed false-god worship of a golden calf, based on a passage in Exodus. The worshippers are Israelites, recently uncoupled from their faith in God in the absence of Moses, who we can see returning from Mount Sinai on the left of the canvas after receiving the Ten Commandments.
The 17th century landscapes had to be validated as art by serving as backdrops to a story or moral tale, and painting them for their own sake was generally considered to be a distinctly low-brow practice until Constable and Turner revolutionised attitudes toward the genre during the Romantic period. Constable himself was greatly influenced by Claude, whom he described as “the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw”.
3. A Storm off the Dutch Coast (Jacob van Ruisdael, c.1665-70)
It’s hard to believe that this seascape by the great Dutch landscape painter van Ruisdael was painted more than 300 years ago. A sense of foreboding is provided by thick, stormy clouds and white-tipped tempestuous waves, giving it the feel of a 19th century canvas. Later seascape artists like Turner and the Norwegian painter Balke had less to fear in expressing the drama of nature, expending a great deal of their emotions to paint bolder, more striking scenes than A Storm off the Dutch Coast. In an age of painterly restraint though, van Ruisdael, who was famed for his brilliant landscapes, more than succeeds in conveying all the drama of a storm at sea.
William Hogarth’s A Gentleman shows an unknown sitter wearing a fashionable blue double-breasted waistcoat and a wig, at ease before the finest portrait painter of the day. It is in the nature of artists to take an interest in the world around them but Hogarth was a particularly engaged individual with a keen interest in the social and political affairs of his native London. His witty and intelligent observations of London life inform the satirical and moral works for which he is perhaps best known. Hogarth’s extraordinary artistic ability secured him the post of Serjeant Painter to King George II in 1757.
5. Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, c.1740)
Poor Canaletto. During his lifetime it was felt by some that his later works were so lacking in feeling that they must be the product of a forger, a charge which forced Canaletto to hold public demonstrations of his painting in order to prove his professional identity. Looking at Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, it’s almost impossible to believe that such a situation could befall the artist. The muted tones and neatness of Church of San Giorgio Maggiore may not correspond to modern tastes but there can be no doubt that he was a master of the Venetian landscape. Besides exercising great attention to detail, Canaletto’s ability to paint the reflective stillness of the Venetian waterways is particularly impressive. Despite the huge commercial success of his Venetian scenes, painted almost exclusively as souvenirs for aristocratic Englishmen partaking in the ritual Grand Tour, Canaletto’s artistic decline led to his dwindling popularity among English collectors, and he returned to Venice after a ten year residence in London (1746-1756) where he had moved to be closer to his market.
6. Charles, 9th Lord Cathcart (Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1753-5)
Joshua Reynolds was a son of Devon, an exceptionally brilliant portraitist and the first president of the Royal Academy. He was a great advocate of the ‘Grand Style’, at the heart of which was a classically-influenced perfectionism which made great concessions to flaws and imperfections. He was revered by Turner, who wished to be buried beside him, but was later detested by William Blake and the colour-smitten, anti-establishment Pre-Raphaelites. Charles, 9th Lord Cathcart shows the noble, nattily-attired Lord Cathcart sporting a silk patch under his right eye which masks a wound he received in the Wars of Austrian Succession in 1745. It’s a typically well-executed portrait by Reynolds who sadly lost the sight of his left eye in 1789. When Reynolds died in 1792, the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote of him in a very touching eulogy: “The loss of no man of his time can be felt with more sincere, general and unmixed sorrow.”
7. A Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood (Thomas Gainsborough, 1782)
One of Gainsborough’s final works, A Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood is actually unfinished around the hands and feet, though it’s not easy to tell. Gainsborough, one of England’s greatest landscape painters, is equally famous for his portraits from which he made his fortune in fashionable Georgian Bath. Landscape and the human form meet in this painting with a fluid, impressionistic softness anticipating the future English Romanticism which he so greatly influenced. The innocence conveyed in the young girl’s face, the handling of the brushwork and the precise balancing of numerous subtle tones combine to make this an exceptional work by Gainsborough. The thankful features of the child tell a story of social change, namely the increasing dependency of peasant labourers on charities and landowners for their survival as a consequence of new legislation. A fine painting such as this would certainly have appealed to the more charitable country gent.
8. Homer (William Blake, c.1800-3)
Blake’s work of the Greek poet Homer was a commission for his patron William Hayley’s library and as such is a relatively conservative work by the artist. Never famous during his lifetime, the Royal Academy student was possessed of exceptional creativity and individuality. His output was dramatic, original, distinctive and highly imaginative, defying obvious categorisation, testament to his broad range of influences and interests. It’s hardly surprising that Blake’s artistic efforts extended to the poetry for which he is equally remembered today. The peculiar inclusion of a frog and mouse in Homer is a reference to a parody of the famous Greek’s work called The Battle of the Frogs and Mice by an unknown poet.
9. James Curtis (Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804)
Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lawrence – four of England’s greatest portrait painters – are in the permanent collection at Manchester Art Gallery. Like Reynolds, Lawrence was a president of the Royal Academy and the choice painter of royalty and the aristocracy in Britain and throughout Europe. Among his most famous commissions were the Duke of Wellington in 1814, Tsar Alexander I in 1818 and Pope Pius VII in 1819. The self-taught artist was apparently handsome, polished, always in love and constantly in debt – it is thought through the result of poor account-keeping rather than through the exercise vice. The sitter, James Curtis, was a successful brewer and his portrait was commissioned by his friends. Like many portraits of the period, a classical column lurks in the background, a symbol of literacy and authority, and Curtis’s pose is manly and relaxed. Lawrence died in 1830 aged 60, at the peak of his fame.
10. View from Hampstead Heath, looking towards Harrow (John Constable, 1821)
Constable was the supreme painter of trees and skies and it is likely that in these he will never be surpassed. He was a meticulous observer of nature and extremely knowledgeable about meteorology. He made countless studies of the sky, many of them bearing notes made at the time of their execution on the reverse, as View from Hampstead Heath does: “August 1821/5 o’clock afternoon: very fine/bright and wind after rain slightly/in the morning.” What we see in Constable’s paintings is not just his love for nature but an appreciation of man’s harmonious part in it; his landscapes are as much about people as they are about the gently stirring tree.
In View from Hampstead Heath we can see 19th century people on the move at the bottom of the picture, represented by flurries of red, white and yellow paint. Contrary to his rather conservative public image, Constable was a bit of a rebel who was utterly single-minded in the pursuit of his chosen profession. He breathed life into a frowned-upon art form and succeeded against the odds in making it acceptable to an establishment obsessed with portraiture and history painting. He was especially popular in France and much admired by Delacroix. The rapidly-executed brushwork of View from Hampstead Heath gave this and much of Constable’s other work a strong sense of movement, and his technique and choice of subjects were a major influence on the Impressionists. As the artist himself wrote, “Painting is but another word for feeling”.
11. The Sirens and Ulysses (William Etty, 1837)
Many visitors to Manchester Art Gallery will remember seeing this painting being restored by conservators in a specially created public conservation space in 2006/07. Until its restoration, it had lain unseen by the public for 120 years, and without conservation would have deteriorated beyond repair. The Sirens and Ulysses is a breathtaking work. It depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey where Ulysses and his men must resist the captivating singing of the fatal Sirens or be lured to their deaths. The painting shows a muscular Ulysses possessed with lust, but a man who has presciently had himself tied to the ship and ordered his men to stuff their ears with wax. The painting is striking on all levels: in size, in drama, and in Etty’s bold use of colour. Etty’s work could fairly be described as a riot of nudity, but the female form was both his inspiration and niche, and he excelled at painting voluptuous women in classical settings. Essentially, he was a supremely confident artist with a vigorous style. Etty himself said of the painting: “The Sirens and Ulysses is one of those great efforts of my art achieved in the vigour of my life, I can never make again.”
12. The Desert (Edwin Landseer, 1849)
Edwin Landseer was a prolific painter of landscapes and animals and was hugely admired in his day. The Desert shows a huge lion lying by a boulder in a gloomy desert but it’s a puzzling image: can we be sure if the majestic animal is dead, dying, or sleeping? Landseer’s depictions of animals, especially dogs, were often sentimental, and succeed in arousing deep feelings of pity and sympathy. It’s impossible not to feel either as we ponder the unknown fate that has befallen the subject of this magnificent painting. It is thought that this lion, which Landseer may have drawn with the aid of a dead London Zoo specimen, was the inspiration for the lion emblem on Lyle syrup tins. Landseer’s most famous and visible works are the four bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, commissioned by the Government in 1858 and installed in 1867.
13. The Hireling Shepherd (William Holman Hunt, 1851)
What strikes you immediately about The Hireling Shepherd are the painting’s vivid colours. Hunt was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelites, along with John Everett Millais and the poet-artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who used colour to hitherto unseen, startling effect. Tired of the muted tones and perfectionism of the Grand Style advocated by the Royal Academy, the Pre-Raphaelites were determined to tap new naturalistic influences and revitalise painting with colour, symbolism and realism. They created a series of extraordinary paintings using detailed observations of nature, often choosing religious themes to express contemporary moral or social concerns. The Hireling Shepherd is a supreme example of Hunt’s work. The hireling is distracted from tending his flock by a young farm girl, causing the sheep to stray. The painting expresses Hunt’s concern for the clergy of the time whom he thought to be neglecting their basic pastoral duties: hirelings lacking the necessary watchfulness of true shepherds. Though beautiful in colour, the work has a slightly sinister feel; this, together with the realism of its leering subject, must have jarred with Victorian audiences hitherto used to a measure of idealism in their art.
14. Winter Fuel (John Everett Millais, 1873)
One of England’s great artists, Millais’s Scottish landscapes evoke strong feelings of Autumnal wistfulness and melancholy. Winter Fuel is no exception – a young girl holding an apple sits on the end of a cart with her dog among silver birch logs collected for fuel under a grey, Perthshire sky as wisps of smoke are carried on the breeze in the near distance. The slightly raised ears of the dog and the girl’s gripping of the log suggest that something is holding the pair’s attention, though we cannot be sure what. The bleakness of the Scottish landscape gave Millais a canvas for the expression of mood and the elements. Paradoxically, it was also the perfect setting for emphasising colour, as we see in the girl’s red bonnet and blue neck scarf, and the contrasting shades of vegetation: golden-brown leaves, dark green rushes, the weather-weary green of the grass and the silver bark of the birch – all offset to a surprising degree by the greyness of a Scottish upland scene on a sunless day. Though Millais had left his Pre-Raphaelite days behind at the time of painting Winter Fuel (the brotherhood was formed in his living room), this work, with its emphasis on nature, colour and simplicity, is more than a little tinged with their influence.
15. Harbour Scene, Dieppe (Paul Gauguin, 1875)
Long before his now legendary nine-week sojourn with Van Gogh in 1888 and his final trip to Tahiti in 1895, Paul Gauguin had tried to carve out a very middle-class career for himself, first as a stockbroker in Paris in 1873 (when he also got married), then later as a tarpaulin salesman in Copenhagen from where his Danish wife Mette-Sophie Gad hailed. By 1885, however, his business and family life had fallen apart, driven by his desire to explore painting and the world more thoroughly. He returned to France in 1885 and painted Harbour Scene, Dieppe in the same year. The painting is a solid example of Gauguin’s work from his brief Impressionist period, before his adventures in French Polynesia would transform his style completely and his experiments with Primitive art would make him one the most celebrated Post-Impressionists. Harbour Scene, Dieppe, once owned by a resident of Bury, is essentially a charming, unremarkable work, but it’s an important stepping stone in the artistic development of one the most important artists of the late 19th century.
16. Captive Andromache (Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1888)
This monumental, almost perfect work by Leighton, the first artist to receive a peerage in Britain (Baron, in 1896, on the day before his death), is a poignant study of tragedy from Greek legend. The scene depicts the premonition of Hector, prince of Troy, before his battle with Achilles in the Trojan War. His wife, Andromache, stands in the middle of the painting dressed in black, mourning the death of her husband and her young child, thrown from the walls of Troy. As she waits at a well, alone and in a foreign land, she observes the young family nearby which increases her sense of loss. Not surprisingly, the painting took Leighton over a year to complete and illustrates his gift for depicting the refined, sensuous, idealised beauty typical of late Victorian art, despite the tragic circumstances of the theme. Besides painting, Leighton was a renowned sculptor and lived in some luxury in Holland Park in London, where his house has been turned into a museum (and is well worth a visit). In addition, Leighton’s leadership skills led to him became Commanding Officer of the 38th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle Volunteers, which he joined in 1860.
17. Hylas and the Nymphs (John William Waterhouse, 1896)
Voted the one of the nation’s favourite paintings in 2013’s Art Everywhere initiative, Hylas and the Nymphs is a classic by John William Waterhouse, immediately captivating us with its sensuality and greens. In Greek myth, Hylas was one of the Argonauts who accompanied Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece. Scouting for water, Hylas comes across a spring and was lured in by seductive nymphs, never to be seen again. The power of female attraction, exaggerated in myth by the frequent linking of sex with death, is thoroughly explored here and seems to have been a source of fascination for Waterhouse generally, being a recurring theme in his paintings. Though undoubtedly imbued with a sense of realism through his masterful use of colour and depictions of English nature, it was precisely these ingredients that ensured Waterhouse’s art was primarily appreciated for its beauty. As one critic correctly observed in The Spectator in 1898: “Woebegone people we too often see in ideal pictures…Mr. Waterhouse…has the secret of lyric charm.”
18. Sweet Industry (Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema, 1904)
This painting of a woman absorbed in her needlework by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema is, in my opinion, one of the finest paintings in Manchester’s permanent collection. Alma-Tadema’s inclusion in this list of great artists is not tokenism; women are equally as capable as men of producing great art, as we can see in the works of Gwen John and Dame Laura Knight, also represented in Manchester’s collection. Sweet Industry, though, is a mini-masterpiece. If it is reminiscent of the Dutch interiors of Vermeer, it is because Alma-Tadema took great pains to achieve the effect of a style she much admired, and we should be thankful for her efforts. The painting exudes calmness and tranquillity, yet closer inspection reveals a startling amount of mesmerising detail, particularly with regard to the woman’s dress which is exceptional. The execution of her posture and figure is perfect and her sewing hand in particular is supremely well drawn. The softly-lit features of her face show a fulfilling devotion to the task in hand, and the overall fineness of the painting adds to the viewer’s own sense of absorption. It may be that Alma-Tadema painted Sweet Industry as a moral example to Edwardian women but it’s difficult not to be completely captivated by this painting’s calmness and beauty.
19. Seated Nude (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1907)
Painted at the age of 66, this is a classic Renoir nude, full of softness, sensuality and life. Renoir, who once painted a portrait of the composer Richard Wagner in 35 minutes, was the consummate Impressionist. His output was considerable, painting several thousand pictures during his lifetime. Renoir’s paintings have a distinctly luminous quality; they are suffused with light, an adeptness which, together with his choice of subjects, has made his work highly collectable. By the time of Seated Nude, the artist was concentrating exclusively on the female form. His signature blending of the subject with its surroundings is evident, and while the background is undoubtedly impressionistic, the fleshy tones of the woman are reminiscent of Rubens. It’s all the more remarkable that Renoir painted Seated Nude when wheelchair-bound and suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis.
20. Albanian Olive Gatherers (John Singer Sargent, 1909)
The American painter John Singer Sargent is famous for his fabulous portraits of the world’s rich and famous. He was, without doubt, one of the most gifted, most technically brilliant painters of the human form. His understanding of classical notions of beauty was absolute, a sympathy he brought to bear in most of his work, and comparisons of Sargent with the Old Masters are entirely appropriate. However, Sargent’s reputation as a highly successful society painter and a perceived lack of originality led to accusations from artists and critics alike of woodenness and lack of feeling – though one might well ask how else one should paint if one can paint perfectly.
There is undoubtedly a classic, sometimes documentary element to much of Sargent’s work and, while much of it is beautiful, a great deal of it feels decorative without being inspiring. Albanian Oliver Gatherers, however, goes some way to breaking the Sargent mould and our preconceptions. Firstly, it’s a landscape, painted two years after Sargent closed his studio at the age of 51, tired of painting portraits and desperate to pursue other subjects. Secondly, the subjects of this work are infinitely more humble than the wealthy clientele he was used to painting. Sargent had spent time painting landscapes with Monet in the 1880s and this work, painted in Corfu, is infused with the spirit of Impressionism. Thus released from professional obligation, Albanian Olive Gatherers demonstrates a freeing-up of Sargent’s style and, as well as being beautiful in its own right, is an important document of his later career.
Main image: Hylas and the Nymphs (John William Waterhouse, 1896)
Photographs and details from the artworks by Matthew Graham
All images courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery
For more information about Manchester Art Gallery, follow this link: www.manchestergalleries.org
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