William Holman Hunt was born in London in 1827. He started off his working life as a clerk but moved away from the life of commerce and studied at the British Museum and National Gallery. He, along with Dante Rossetti and John Millais, all members of the Royal Academy, formed the Pre-Raphelite Movement in 1848. This newly formed group sort to reform art by emphasising the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to the truth. They took on board the spiritual qualities of medieval art in opposition to the rationalism of the Renaissance personified by the likes of Raphael. In 1854 Hunt went to the Holy Land to portray scenes from the life of Christ, aiming to achieve total historical and archaeological truth. He returned to Palestine in 1869 and again in 1873. Hunt died in London in 1910, aged 83.
Today’s painting is Our English Coasts which Hunt painted in 1852 and was commissioned by Charles Maud. This painting, which featured sheep, followed an earlier painting of his which featured sheep in the background and was very well received, The Hireling Shepherds . Hunt used the cliffs of Fairlight, east of Hastings, as the background for this work. As with a lot of Pre-Raphelite work, there is an element of symbolism in their paintings. Art historians believe that the use of the cliffs at Hastings, overlooking the English Channel, symbolised the fear of a possible French invasion of England. The brilliance of the colours Hunt used made it the most remarkable of Hunt’s landscapes.
The painting can be found in the Tate Britain gallery, London.
Alfred Sisley, born in Paris to English parents in1839, was sometimes called the “Forgotten Impressionist”. At the age of 18 his father, a silk trader, sent him to London to study business but life as a business man similar to that of his father was not for him and he soon moved back to Paris. His family supported him in his ambition to become an artist and sent him to Gleyre’s studio where he met and worked alongside Monet and Renoir. In 1867 he became a pupil of Corot and a number of Sisley’s works reflect that tutelage with the way in which he has a passionate interest in the sky which became a dominate facet of his paintings
He still rates as one of the greatest Impressionists who ever lived and was regarded as an exceptional en plein air (outdoor) landscape painter. Landscape painting was his favourite genre and he rarely attempted portraits. Similar to another great English landscape artist John Constable, Sisley liked just to concentrate on painting places he knew well such as the Seine and Thames valleys.
The painting on display to today is one of his later works, The Bridge at Moret, which he completed in 1893 and is now exhibited in the Musee d’Orsay. Alfred Sisley died in Moret-sur-Loing at the age of 59, just a few months after the death of his wife. Moret-sur-Loing is a small and charming historical town in the Seine-et-Marne department of north central France and which was a source of inspiration for Monet, Renoir and Sisley.
On October 12th 1654, a gunpowder store exploded destroying much of the Dutch city of Delft. More than a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand were injured. One of the casualties was a thirty-two year old local artist Carel Fabritius, who at the time was painting in his studio close to the gunpowder store. Many of his paintings were also destroyed . Fabritius had trained in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam and was a contemporary of Vermeer.
Today’s Art Display is Carel Fabritius’s A View of Delft. He painted this in 1652 and the view shows part of the Dutch town of Delft. The actual view is looking north west from the corner of the Oude Langendijk and Oosteinde. In the centre of the painting is the church, Nieuwe Kerk, behind which is the town hall. In the foreground is the booth of a musical instrument vendor. It is thought that the painting may have been formed using a perspective box giving rise to an exaggerated perspective. To the left of the lute one can see the painter’s name “C FABRITIVS 1652” scrawled on the wall
Whilst walking around the National Gallery in London a short time ago I happened to enter one of the rooms in which a talk was being given by one of the curators of the gallery. His small audience and I were mesmerised by his fascinating tale regarding Caravaggio’s painting Supper at Emmaus which was hanging on the wall behind him.
The subject matter of this painting is based on one of the stories from the gospels of the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke (24:13-32) tells of an encounter whilst on the road to Emmaus, two days after the crucifixion, , between Jesus and two of his disciples, one of which was thought to be Cleopas. At the time they did not recognise him as Jesus and they persuaded the stranger to take supper with them. It is at this supper when Jesus “breaks the bread” that they recognise him.
The painting by Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio shows that moment of recognition with Cleopas, on the left, half rising from his chair in shock. Caravaggio’s innovative treatment of the subject makes this one of his most powerful works. The depiction of Christ is unusual in that he is beardless and great emphasis is given to the still life on the table. The intensity of the emotions of Christ’s disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. Caravaggio used many devices to create depth in the painting and brings the figures closer to the viewer. The elbow of the disciple on the left with its white patch, the basket of fruit finely balanced on the edge of the table and the outstretched left hand of the disciple on the right which almost goes off the edge of the picture all create the illusion that we are almost at the table ourselves.
I have a large framed print of this painting on my dining room wall and it is often the subject of many conversations of the diners sat around the table. I saw the original painting when I visited the Staatliche Museen in Berlin many years ago and was fascinated by the amount of activity going on within the painting. Along with the print of the painting which I bought there was a small black and white copy of the picture on which the various parts of the scene were numbered so that one could look along the corresponding number on a list of proverbs the painting was depicting. This has been a God-send when viewers of my print have tried to work out the possible meanings of the various scenes.
The painting depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs some of which are not in use any more or have somewhat lost their meaning when translated into English. More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified describing “topsy-turvy” ways of behaviour. This explains the other name occasionally given the painting, that of The Topsy-Turvy World.