Friday, 25 February 2011

Artistic delights in SE21 - from Rockwell to Rembrandt and beyond

  I visited Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday for the very first time (well, I’ve only lived in London for half a century, and I don’t like rushing into things). My real reason for going was to catch the Norman Rockwell’s Americaexhibition, which is due to finish on 27th March. It’s brilliant.

One long wall is devoted to all his Saturday Evening Post covers, in chronological sequence, and this alone would be worth the price of admission, but you get a large number of the original paintings thrown in as well, plus – for once - some truly informative accompanying text.   

But I’ve been a Rockwell fan for over thirty years, so there were no real surprises – and I’ve already written about this great illustrator.
What did astonish me was the permanent collection. In particular three paintings by Rembrandt, which I had only previously seen reproduced in books, made a huge impression. Now, Rembrandt has been my favourite painter for decades, so I’ve often been transfixed by his pictures in galleries (I’ve spent more time staring at his work than that of any other artist) – but one of them, A Girl at a Window, is, even by Rembrandt’s sublime standards, one of the most magical, beautiful, haunting paintings I have ever seen. 

The picture was acquired by the art critic – and spy for Louis XiV – Roger De Piles (I’ll fetch you a cushion, sir), who claimed that when Rembrandt placed the painting at a window, passers-by assumed it was a real serving girl.  But that’s sort of missing the point – the portrait is only “real” in the sense that seeing it for the first time is like meeting an actual human being, because she is so utterly chock-full of humanity and personality: you can almost read her mind. 

Capturing a pretty young woman’s somewhat formless, chubby, round face can’t be easy, but Rembrandt manages it triumphantly. Renoir was no slouch at this either, but his pretty girls tend to be “types” – more Vargas cartoon than High Art - whereas Rembrandt’s girl is an utterly distinct human being. I’m no art critic, so let me quote the gallery director, Ian Dejardin: “The sheer painterliness of its surface is fascinating: the girl’s face contains green, blue, yellow, apricot and hot red – and Rembrandt’s use of red reminds me of Cezanne’s use of blue. Where Cezanne’s blue suggest air, Rembrandt’s touches of red suggest warmth, and through warmth, life itself.”

I’d buy that.

The painting has recently been cleaned, and apparently this has fully revealed the artist’s brilliant use of colour. It’s hard to tell from the reproduction here, I know – but seeing the painting in the flesh is a wonderful experience. (It now joins at least two dozen other Rembrandt masterpieces on my list of all-time favourites.) 

There are three other major Rembrandts at Dulwich, including his portrait of Jacob III de Gheyn and A Young man, perhaps the Artist’s Son, Titus.

The rest of the collection represents a series of delights, (including a number of impressive Poussins and Watteaus). Apart from the Rembrandts, here are some of my other favourites: Gainsboroughs’s The Linley Sisters, Lefebvre’s Portrait of a Man, called Michel Baron,  Lely’sNymphs by a Fountain, and Reni’s St John the Baptist.

As if that wasn’t enough, the gallery is running a Masterpiece a Month feature, consisting of pictures on loan from around the world. This month, it’s one of my favourite paintings, Velasquez’s Portrait of Sebastian de Morra (jester to Philip IV of Spain), courtesy of the Prado.

In my mind it’s a sort of companion piece to Ribera’s The Boy with the Club Foot, which I’ve already eulogised – both paintings show the ability of the human spirit to triumph in the face of hardship: in both pictures, the pride and dignity of the subjects, who both refuse to be defined by their deformities, is extraordinarily moving.

If you find yourself in the vicinity of SE21 in the near future - and you haven’t ever visited the gallery - do give it a try: it’s magnificent (and Sir John Soane’s building is worth a gander as well). 

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