Crikey! Not another exhibition of portraits? Two months ago, we had the BP Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. A month ago, there were the Hockney Portraits at the RA, and currently at the NPG is the Picasso Portraits exhibition. Well, you can relax. The subject is broader than the title suggests, and the exhibition has been broken down into four main chapters, namely Producing and Collecting Portraits of Artists,The Artist at Work, Playing a Role, and The Cult of the Artist. The most contemporary picture on display is a close-up and personal selfie by David Hockney created on his iPad using the Brushes app in 2012 on the occasion of him being appointed to the Order of Merit, while Lucian Freud’s powerful etching commemorates the same honour in 1996. The straight self-portraiture includes those by Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, the two Carracci brothers, Annibale and Agostino, Daniel Mytens, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, William Hogarth, with his pug dog, Trump and a searching one of Sir Joshua Reynolds. This shows him wearing glasses, four years before his death and two before he went blind. Previously, a severe cold, contracted while in Rome, left him partially deaf, and he is seen in the highly-detailed canvas The Academicians of the Royal Academy, by Johan Joseph Zoffany with a silver ear trumpet. Interestingly, the two female founding Academicians, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann, are shown as portraits on the wall, as it may have been deemed as being improper for them to be present at a life-drawing class with nude male models, of which two are depicted in the painting. His other elaborate painting is of The Tribuna of the Uffizi, crammed to the gunwails with paintings, painters, sculpture, connoisseurs, diplomats and wealthy travellers, including a self-portrait.
Sir Edwin Landseer was a fine animal painter, and a favourite with Queen Victoria. In The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs, the amusement springs from the way his dogs are peering over his shoulder at his sketch pad with critical eyes, whilst doing a self-portrait. There are two delightful drawings by two friends, Francesco Bartolozzi and Giovanni Battista Cipriani, side by side, each drawing each other. “The Artist at Work” is the theme of the next gallery, with the Austrian Eduard Jakob von Steile’s St Luke Painting the Virgin dominating the room. As the patron saint of artists, St Luke had by tradition this honour. There is a charming little drawing by Pietro de’ Pietri c. 1700 of Alexander the Great’s court painter Appelles painting his favourite concubine Campaspe. Legend has it that while painting her, he fell in love with her, and Alexander intuited this from the painting, so he kept the painting but gave Campaspe to the painter. Thomas Rowlandson has a hand-coloured etching of a lecherous Joseph Nollekens sculpting a beautiful young woman as Venus Suckling Cupid, and another entitled Chamber of Genius, in which the artist is so absorbed in his work, he has failed to notice he has knocked over the chamber pot, the cat clawing at his legs, his indolent wife asleep, while one child is pouring wine and the other working the bellows. Apparently Queen Victoria destroyed all of the erotic material avidly collected by George IV after a serious bout of humour-fade.
There is a very loose portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh on board Britannia painting on deck during his 1956-7 world tour by Edward Seago, and the Prince has repaid the compliment by painting the painter in a cabin. Judith with the Head of Holofernes has been a popular subject with artists, and Cristofano Allori’s composition is a belter, with an alluring Florentine beauty in a shimmering cadmium yellow robe holding a sword in one hand and the severed head in the other. The model for the Jewish heroine was Maria di Giovanni Mazzafirra, with whom the debauched Allori was having a passionate but stormy relationsghip. At the end of the affair, he grew a beard and painted himself as the decapitated Assyrian general. Hanging on the same wall is a stunning self-portrait of Artemesia Gentileschi, who also painted the same subject, with herself as Judith, but with even more brutality and gore. This may have had something to do with the fact that she was raped at the age of 17 by the artist Agostino Tassi, a close friend of her father Orazio. When Tassi failed to marry her, as the social dictates of the time demanded, her father sought recourse in court. During the trial, Artemisia described her struggle against Tassi and her attempt to attack him with a knife. Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) follows the the description of Pittura in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, ‘with full black hair, dishevelled . . . a gold chain from which hangs a mask of imitation,’ and other allegorical details about dress.
A Vanitas is a masterpiece of still-life by Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten, with coins, a silver ginger jar, a pocket watch, a book open at a print of a laughing Democritus and a skull. Hanging above is a glass sphere, a bit like M C Escher’s, reflecting a tiny figure of the artist looking towards the viewer. In the same gallery is the astonishing, and enormous, Cimabue’s Madonna Carried in Procession by Frederic Lord Leighton painted over two years as his submission to the Royal Academy in 1855, where it was seen by Queen Victoria and purchased for 600 guineas. There are many fine treasures in this exhibition, including a series of 224 miniatures commissioned by Lord Cowper and painted by the Italian-born painter Giuseppe Macpherson of ‘Painted Portraits in the Florentine Gallery’, but it worth going to see it for the Gentlieschi alone. There is an excellent publication to accompany it for a special on-site price £19.95.
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