The Courtauld is a wonderfully intimate gallery. It’s small and often very quiet, and there are no rope barriers around the paintings, so you can get very close to them. Because it’s so small, you can easily see all or much of the collection in one day. When I go to the National Gallery, I usually have an idea of what I want to see, and so I might go to the Van Eycks, and then to the Van Goghs and then to the Titians, hopping about from place to place and from period to period. In the Courtauld it’s quite different: I start in the medieval gallery on the ground floor and then work my way through time, upstairs to the Early and High Renaissance and then through Mannerism, Baroque and the 18th century, and then into Impressionism and the birth of modern art. In this way, the gallery distills the chronology of western art into a few rooms, and you get a really good sense of change and continuity across time. Its size also means that I’ve got to know most of the paintings on display as I’ve re-visited over the last few years, and when walking into a room, I get the lovely feeling of recognising every painting on display and feeling the excitement of getting to spend time with them again. The layout and size of the gallery encourages you to spend a good amount of time with each work, to get to know them, and to return to see them again. It makes it easy to experience the way that great artworks continue to prove spellbinding, even after multiple viewings.
These are five of the artworks which I particularly enjoyed looking at.
Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic and a Papal Saint, attributed to Benozzo Gozzoli, c.1440-45
This painting is in the medieval room, the only gallery room on the ground floor of the Courtauld. This means that it is set apart from the rest of the gallery, and has its own special atmosphere. With medieval art, I am always aware that it should really be seen in the context of the holy building for which it was produced, because ( in the words of John Berger) “everything around [the image] confirms and consolidates its meaning”. However, although the art here is obviously displayed unlike the way it would have been in its original context, the quietness, darkness, small size and uniqueness of the room gives it a kind of reverential solemnity, which in some way makes up for this.
This little painting is probably by Benozzo Gozzoli, painter of the famous Journey of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. His art is wonderfully decorative, blending elements of the medieval with Early Renaissance proportion and perspective. Here, this takes on a jewel-like quality, with the rich colours of the Virgin’s robe beautifully accompanying the gold of her halo. I love the delicacy of the faces, especially that of the gently smiling papal saint to the left. The vegetation that forms the background doesn’t have the meticulous quality of Northern art of this time, but there is something enchanting about the tiny, carefully placed strokes of pale green and red paint, which mirror the colours of the Virgin’s clothes.
Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
After the ornately dressed, ideally beautiful Virgin Marys of the medieval room, the Mary of this painting seems surprisingly ordinary. Her red robe means that she stands out against the blues and greens of the landscape, but beyond that, she could be any ordinary traveller. The baby Jesus in her arms is barely visible, his tiny face turned in towards his mother. There’s a real sense of tenderness in the way that Mary looks down at the face which we are left to imagine.
The vastness and monumentality of the landscape dwarfs the Holy Family – like in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the most significant part of the painting is almost incidental. Although the landscape is vast, it invites you to not step back, but to step forward, and to get lost in the delicious detail. Your eye wanders through the little town (with what look like anachronistic church spires!), up the rocky mountain crags and into the trees and bushes. This detail isn’t crisp and neatly delineated; instead, it has a blue haziness which fills the scene with the atmosphere of a soft winter’s morning.
Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, Claude Monet, 1873
Whenever I see autumn trees against a blue sky, I think of this painting. I like the way that it is called ‘Autumn Effect’, because it is this evocation of an effect which makes it so memorable. The water is rippling, the clouds are swift in the sky, and the auburn leaves of the trees are bright and full of life. There is no emphasis on one particular element: the painting is completely holistic. The colour of the leaves reverberates off the blue of the sky, the water moves with the clouds, the reflections merge into the world above the water.
An aspect of Impressionism which I love is the way that its different atmospheres and weathers are often very familiar. They form part of my way of experiencing the weather, and mingle with my memories of times and places when the weather or atmosphere has been a certain way. Looking at this painting, I am reminded of bright, warm autumn days when the sky has been sharply blue, and the wind has been ruffling the leaves of the trees and making the air feel clean and fresh.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet, 1882
This is one of those paintings which changes every time you look at it. It is both full of mystery and completely familiar. The bored, tired, daydreaming face of the barmaid is recognisable as the expression of someone doing a mundane, tiring job, or being in the midst of merriment but not feeling part of it. She could be staring blankly at a computer in a modern office, or be the only sober one at a party who has to drive all her friends home. At the same time, there is that layer of ambiguity. What is she thinking? Is she just bored, or is there something more unsettled in her expression? Does she feel vulnerable? There is perhaps something of Degas’ L’Absinthe in her distant gaze and sense of dislocation from her modern, urban setting.
The famous mirror, deliberately painted incorrectly, is also very interesting. Why has Manet painted it like this? My (wonderfully patient) gallery companion suggested that it might be to show the contrast between the way that the barmaid should look – engaged, listening to the demands of the customer – and her reality – disengaged, lost in thought, perhaps unsettled.
Mont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cézanne, c. 1887
There’s something mysterious about Cézanne. I can’t quite put my finger on why this painting of the mountain that he loved is so beguiling and so unforgettable. Perhaps it’s something to do with the way that the branches perfectly but naturally frame the mountain, or the way that everything is painted with those patches of soft colour which suggest light and shade, but always seem to evoke permanence and physicality. Maybe it’s the way that the landscape continues into the mountain with no sense of any disconnection, or the way that the pine needles are suggested with the same brushwork that is used to portray the sky behind them.
There’s a very exciting show on a the National Portrait Gallery –Cézanne portraits – which I’m hoping to get a chance to see. It’s asking how and why Cézanne’s faces are painted as if they were landscapes or still lives, with that calm, calculated sense of solidity and tangibility.