Director's Gallery: Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery is one of Britain’s wonders. It houses a collection of international importance, set within a unique building designed by renowned architect Sir John Soane. The Gallery is surrounded by its own beautiful garden in Dulwich Village, a green and lovely place. Out of the Gallery's extraordinary parade of riches I have chosen a selection of paintings that particularly speak to me, though really the pictures on this list chose themselves. They are not presented in any logical order, but just as they came to mind.

-Ian Dejardin,Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Paintings that come with their own legends—a kind of art historical performance indicator—are usually something special. The identity of the girl has also been shrouded in uncertainty, with suggestions including servant (the most universally accepted), family member, courtesan and historical figure. Falling somewhere between genre and portraiture, the painting remains mysterious and full of ambiguities. More than three hundred and fifty years after she was painted - Rembrandt's ability to conjure ** the sense of a living being out of paint can still astound, while the warmth and humanity in the girl's unsentimental gaze continues undiminished. During the recent conservation of the painting, the discoloured varnish was carefully removed, revealing an astonishingly bold mixture of colours in the model's face that would not seem out of place in a twenty-first century portrait. She is what the Dutch call a tronie—a character head, comprising a knowing glance, a lazy gesture and a smile as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s. She is Dulwich Picture Gallery’s very own presiding genius.
The skill of works such as this lies in their combination of profuse variety and minute details. Here, fine grasses, moss, feathers, eggshell, droplets of water, ants, a ladybird and other insects, the many varieties of flower - iris, convolvulus minor, flax, London pride, veronica, larkspur, poppies, orange blossom, French marigolds, auriculas, tulips, salvias, forget-me-nots and roses - and the marble ledge, are all means of displaying the artist's skill. The picture’s realism simply defies belief. Search for the myriad tiny insects; fight the urge to flick them off the surface; don’t miss the woodlouse in the birds’ beast at the bottom right. Observe the differences int exture: the waxiness of the tulip petals, the crispness of the rose leaves, the wiriness of the convolvulus stem, the delicacy of the two grasses that have somehow been swept up into this glamorous arrangement.
Lely always regretted the fact that he had so little opportunity to paint Arcadian scenes like this one. According to his poet friend, Richard Lovelace, England was an 'un-understanding land' where painting was concerned, with patrons only interested in adoring 'their own dull counterfeits'. In other words the English only like portraits. It is a picture that demands a story. What’s going on? Why are they all so very exhausted? You simply can’t imagine them waking up; they seem to inhabit the world of fairytale more than that of classical mythology. They appear to be under a spell. It is a shame, in some ways, that Lely went on to be the portraitist of choice of Charles II’s court. His succession of identical ladies with strong noses, huge almond eyes, cupid’s bow lips and gorgeously coloured satins doesn’t quite make up for the lack of more paintings like this.
This is a scene of wish-fulfilment - a warm dusk in the marble-vaulted summer-house of an Italian garden. There is music from a rustic band, dancing in fancy-dress, romance, flirtation and chat. Watteau provides a glimpse of Earthly Paradise for the urbane. To the eighteenth -century viewer this scene would have appeared far more informal than it does to us. The outdoor setting, the mix of high and low life, the confusion of dressing up and dressing down; all these would have seemed a daring relaxation of etiquette. After the stuffiness of the Court of Versailles, this scene would have conveyed the idea of liberty. This is a world inhabited entirely by lovers, exquisitely dressed and flirting as if their lives depended on it. The magnificent architectural setting is like a great big boiled sweet; the swooningly beautiful woodland landscape is spun sugar. There are numerous related drawings, of which one - used for the young servant slightly to the right of centre - is taken from Veronese's 'Christ and the Centurion' in the Prado. The X-ray shows a more ambitious architectural setting, which Watteau replaced with the banded columns (which recall the Luxembourg Palace in Paris) and a more extensive view of the park.
I like this painting particularly, partly because of its marvellous still-life elements but also because of the truth of its observation of childish behaviour. In the nineteenth century the painting's title, The Poor Black Boy, implied that the boy was begging for charity. However, his earthenware jug and proper shoes and clothes clearly indicate he is a servant boy whose position is probably better than the white boys', who may have resorted to stealing the pie. Whatever hierarchies existed amongst the street children of Seville, the possession of shoes put you pretty near the top of the heap. He also has water, or wine, so one suspects that this is more negotiation than confrontation—a surmise surely confirmed by the delighted smile of the smaller of the two boys. Everyone will probably come out of this episode both watered and fed.
The flowers behind her ear are the gift of the season. Her smile, her youth, her beauty all speak of new life—she literally turns her back on Winter. Even the hint of provocativeness is appropriate; after all, as Tennyson says, ‘in Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’. Her costume has elements of the dressing up box because she is, after all, an allegory—and allegories are dressy creatures.
This work owes much to Rubens' Samson and Delilah now in the National Gallery, London and was for a long time attributed to him. The subject is from the Book of Judges (XVI, 19), and depicts the moment when one of the Philistines tries to cut Samson's hair - the source of his strength - without waking him. His secret was given away by his lover Delilah, who had been bribed by the Philistines. Both the man with the shears and Delilah herself are tentatively moving to lift a piece of heavy brocade from Samson’s hair. The tension is absolutely palpable. Van Dyck has chosen action over subtlety—a young man’s choice, perhaps—and furthermore cannot resist showing off his technique in Samson’s bravura fur and Delilah’s heavy white satin and dazzling brocade.
Dou has thought especially carefully about light and how it strikes different surfaces. It is absorbed by the girl's frizzy hair like a cloud; it makes a sheen on the silks and velvets; it picks up the weave of the tapestry; it glows on the wood of the viola da gamba; it sparkles on the bird-cage; it almost swallows up the flowers on the window. Dou took the business of reproducing reality in eye-deceiving detail to an extreme, and his triumphant success, aesthetic and financial, resonated well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His eye was, indeed, phenomenal: the detail of the hanging rug, seen from front and back, with every individual stitch visible, and the amazing bine leaves in the bottom right-hand corner, are only two examples of his skill. The hanging rug is like a theatrical curtain, raised; the girl has been surprised at her clavichord; and the conceit is that the viewer—you that is—is her unexpected guest. You play the viola da gamba, incidentally—and music is the food of love, after all.
This portrait at first looks like the product of an unpromising commission. How could a painter be expected to make much of a single head on such a small scale, especially when his sitter insists on wearing such sombre clothes? Rembrandt accepts that there is nothing much to be done compostionally: he even makes a virtue out of this simple, direct and frontal arrangement. But there are two other vital elements which he uses to infuse life into the image. The first is light. The cheek is so brilliantly lit that the detail appears to have been lost in the glare. A glowing aura surrounds the head like the rings of Saturn. There is no obvious wall or surface reflecting this light, which seems to have a substance of its own. The likeness was criticised by Huygens in a series of epigrams. De Gheyn bequeathed this painting to Huygens's brother, Maurits, who is the subject of a companion portrait by Rembrandt (now Kunsthalle, Hamburg). Seeing the two portraits together was rather moving—suddenly you felt part of a three-way conversation between the two friends and Rembrandt; they came to life in each other’s company. On its own, it is a reminder of how brilliant a painter Rembrandt was.
The seventeenth century, as it progressed, had had a softening effect on the rigours of early Bolognese classicism (Reni’s late work takes on an almost fey grace), and Franceschini reflects that development in his soft colours and great delicacy of line. I love this painting partly because it is so beautifully drawn—the powerful Bolognese academic tradition has truly grounded Franceschini’s work in exquisite draftsmanship. Complex foreshortenings, balance, beauty of line—these are all taken in the artists’ stride. Here, divine intervention reveals to a mere toddler the ‘true’ path (or at least the need for concentration on where one is going), just before he or she stubs its toe on the rock of injustice, scratches itself on the thorny branch of life and tumbles down the precipice of sin. The guardian angel’s interventionist role is plain: protect the innocent, direct their attention to the right spiritual path, and—in the case of this baby—some advice on the desirability of stout walking shoes might not go amiss also.
It is interesting how the windmills—such anthropormorphic buildings in general, with their quasi-human proportions and their semaphoring ‘arms’—appear to look towards the church, shepherding the eye firmly down towards its looming bulk. It is a characteristic of Dutch landscape, this playing with the viewer’s eye. The trick is to lead the eye by careful stages (in this case the road, the cottage, the windmills) from the foreground to the distant horizon, then release it into the vast sky by some means of some bridge between land and sky—often a church spire. In the hands of a master like Ruisdael, one is probably justified in thinking that a deliberate religious point is being made here. The God-fearing Dutch would have been quick to pick up such a visual reference to the dominant role of religion in their daily lives.
All those pointing arms are tying the piece together, clarifying the narrative: look at this, then look at this. Then there are the multiple horizontals, dividing the composition up into varying degrees of foreground, middle ground and background. The powerful vertical columns introduce an almost musical sense of progression by stages across the route of procession. Most fascinating of all, I think, is the spiral that begins with that great circular horn at the centre of the painting. Carry on mentally drawing that spiral and the line will touch every key point of the composition. It is as if Poussin has incorporated sound waves into his picture; it has an inbuilt soundtrack, rooted in the puffed cheeks of the musician in green, and exploding forwards in the raised trumpet of the man in front of him, and outwards in the spiral of arms and gestures fanning out from him. But in amongst all this geometry, don’t miss the ravishing beauty of Poussin’s colours of the astonishing realism of the face of the trumpeter—a Dizzy Gillespie amidst all those Grecian masks.
Venetia Stanley (1600-33) was famous for her dazzling beauty and notorious for the sexual licence of her youth, something not usually tolerated in English seventeenth-century high society. Sir Kenelm Digby (a proto-scientist, author of one of the first cookbooks in English, and inventor of the modern wine bottle), fell so completely in love with her that in 1625 he married her, in secret and against the wishes of his family. When Lady Digby died unexpectedly in her sleep, during the night of 30 April 1633, Sir Kenelm was so distraught that he summoned Van Dyck to record the transitory beauty of her corpse. He painted her as they found her, with only the addition of a symbolic decaying rose. In the posture and the patterns of bedding Van Dyck offers two consoling visual suggestions: that death is but sleep and that Venetia (or her soul) is floating on clouds surrounded by the blue skies of Heaven. This painting then accompanied the grieving widower in a prolonged period of mourning. He travelled in Europe, and each night this picture was propped up in the sight of the bed. It is something of a miracle that the painting survived this treatment.
This is a late landscape in the Dutch Italianate style, from the 1670s. I love it for its peculiarities, and its humour. The landscape itself is purest poetry—crocus sky, lilac hills, long evening shadows, green dusk in the middle ground, a chill and a hush over all. The foreground, which is actually the top of a hill that slopes steeply down behind the figures, catches the last of the sun, which in turn touches each of the figures and throws into prominence the principal character—the white horse.
Sebastian was a Roman soldier condemned to death by the Emperor Diocletian for aiding the Christians; his arrow wounds were not fatal and he was later clubbed to death. Reni's painting was one of the most celebrated at Dulwich in the nineteenth century, but was catalogued in 1880 as a studio work and in 1980 as a copy. Pepper now accepts this painting as one of two autograph replicas of an original in the Prado, Madrid of 1617-18, the other being in the Louvre. I experienced my own ‘road to Emmaeus’ moment with this painting in Japan, in 1999 (Dulwich was touring 50 of its greatest paintings while the Gallery was closed for refurbishment), where I saw it in a huge, brutalist, white-painted art gallery, from a distance and at a steep angle. Somehow, at that moment, its three-dimensional qualities were fantastically enhanced, and the suffering saint looked like a living marble statue, about to topple forward out of the frame. From that moment, this painting has been ‘alive’ for me.
What impresses me in this limpidly gorgeous picture is his Canaletto’s eye for quirky detail—as if ‘quirky’ was his great discovery about England and what it meant. His patron, Thomas Hollis, insisted on making an appearance, on the front and back of the painting—in the front as the tall gentleman in the yellow coat, and on the back in the form of an affidavit signed by Canaletto, promising Hollis that this painting would be unique (Hollis had obviously encountered, or heard of, Canaletto’s tendency to turn out multiple Grand Canals, serial Doge’s Palaces, fleets of gondolas). But there are lots of other idiosyncratic details. I particularly love the gilt carriage, just past the apex of the famously steep bridge and going like the clappers; and the barge, whose tall mast (minus sail, you notice—there is absolutely no wind) is being lowered prior to passing under the bridge –Old Walton Bridge itself, which may look at first like it was built by a talented child out of matchsticks but was actually brand new and one of the engineering marvels of the age, its central span the largest in Europe. There is a marvellous comedy cow and, just beside it, an artist looks out at us exactly as if he has caught us taking a photo—it is Canaletto himself, on Candid Camera.
Gainsborough became friendly with the Linleys after his move to Bath in 1759. This is a celebrity portrait; the two girls were part of a family musically gifted to an extraordinary degree. Elizabeth, the elder girl (in blue), was one of the foremost sopranos of the day, and Mary had a successful career as a singer and actress. Gainsborough's work on this painting was interrupted by Elizabeth's elopement in 1772 with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the future playwright and politician. This portrait exudes affection between painter and sitters; Spring flowers mirror the girls’ youth and beauty. Mary’s glance at the artist (and us) is fully engaged and full of personality; her sister dreamily surveys a distant horizon. Both embody the principle of sensibility so beloved of the late-eighteenth century; they are one with their romantic landscape.
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