Grand European Paintings of the NGV

A recent visit to Melbourne to hear an important oration by a distinguished international figure, upon fundamental rights and freedoms which are increasingly under attack and restriction in Australia, also enabled me to pay a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria International Galleries, where many fine pictures acquired under the Felton and other bequests are hanging. One of them is the great Melbourne Poussin, The Crossing of the Red Sea, of which I have written in these pages (Quadrant, April 2009). It is newly, proudly and centrally displayed, after a major conservation and restoration program undertaken by the NGV Conservator Carl Villis. This is an achievement with wonderful results and everyone should see it

The large pictures mentioned in this article are from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which are accommodated in the sequence of spacious galleries hung with green fabric, located on an upper floor of the NGV’s refurbished and redesigned interior of its main building in St Kilda Road. It is quite a trek through some smaller galleries to reach these pictures, but the ascent is well worth the trouble. It would not be going too far to say that these capacious galleries are simply the most impressive and satisfying picture galleries in Australia. The works so well displayed there include the finest in the NGV International Paintings collection and the best group of their kind in any Australian collection.

My visit was primarily to see the Poussin again, after its restoration, and I was not disappointed to see it now re-hung so prominently. This is after all, its due, as it is perhaps the most significant picture, in art-historical terms, presently to be seen in an Australian public collection. The work undertaken was sponsored and made possible by the generosity of BNP Paribas and the BNP Paribas Foundation. The picture’s last major cleaning was undertaken at London in 1960 by the art restorer Horace Buttery, immediately after its showing at the “landmark Poussin exhibition held at the Louvre in May of that year”.[1] It was briefly shown at the National Gallery in London, alongside its pendant The Adoration of the Golden Calf, before being returned to Melbourne in 1961. This latest work on the painting was greatly assisted by the re-emergence of a long-known but until then very privately held replica of the Melbourne Poussin, which entered the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Centre for Visual Arts at Stanford University in the United States in 2009. It had been last recorded in 1773, and in many respects it is in better condition than the Poussin original at Melbourne. As Villis notes:

This high-quality replica was painted to the same dimensions and proportions as the original. The transcription of composition and detail from the original is remarkably faithful but for one odd exception: the copyist completely omitted the red-brown “pillar of fire” along the far-right edge of the painting. The omission of this crucial detail—for it represents God to whom Moses appeals—is inexplicable yet deliberate.[2]

However, that perhaps reflects the point that many people have often dismissed, or disregarded, this important feature of the picture, under the mistaken impression that it is a mere artefact of some earlier “reframing”.

Villis’s work was assisted by a variety of other experts and included significant work on the elaborate and opulently gilded oak frame (Paris, c. 1710) which, apart from a brief period in 1983–84, has long been with the picture and forms a pair with that on The Adoration of the Golden Calf.

The results are very good indeed. Many details formerly obscured in the picture, especially in the upper-half portion of the sky and mountain landscape in the distance, stand newly revealed. In particular, the details of the cloud masses, which previously showed as a dense and very dark mass that rather overbalanced the pictorial details below, have now been brought back to a more nuanced and effective appearance. This has been one area where the Stanford replica has provided useful evidence of the picture’s original appearance. As well, work on the frieze-like figures in the lower half of the picture has again revealed a greater level of detail, and the colours, all very typical of Poussin’s work, stand freshly revealed in a way which is enhanced by the current lighting. The Australian public owes a debt to Carl Villis and his team for their conservation work on this internationally renowned picture.

Over the one weekend, I was able to revisit the NGV several times and not only see the Poussin yet again, but also to take in, with more time and attention than is usually possible for me, the other large-format paintings in the Sir John and Lady Reid Galleries. I now share this rewarding exercise with readers, whom I encourage to do likewise whenever they are able.

An austere and dignified atmosphere has been created in these galleries, restful due to the green hangings and with a few items of significant eighteenth-century furniture adding that extra touch. It is a pleasure to be there and the lighting is good. The arrangement of the hang has been very carefully thought out; for example, the placement of the various portraits and other works shows them to the best advantage and in a way that constitutes a coherent but suitably varied series across the time periods.

Of special note is the felicitous placement of the double portrait of Monsieur le Bret and His Son Cardin le Bret on a wall facing the Poussin, as it was a group of individuals likewise of the noblesse de la robe who were Poussin’s vital main patrons. Painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743) in 1697, it is the very type of courtly formal portraiture in the French School of its period. It thus fulfils its role admirably as an example of that kind of portraiture from France and balances the contexts of English and Italian portrait works and conversation pieces in these galleries. It is a superb and entrancing picture. Ursula Hoff wrote of it in her 1968 survey of the NGV collection:

the composition bears an unmistakeable likeness to a portrait of royalty; it is undoubtedly based on van Dyck’s majestic picture of Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria now at Buckingham Palace, a copy of which Rigaud knew. While his composition closely follows that of the Flemish painter, his manner of painting differs greatly. Instead of the thin, fluent brush of van Dyck, Rigaud uses a virtuoso high finish which adds glow to the saturated red of the elder le Bret’s robe; this contrasts tellingly with the white and black garb of the son, the green of the brocaded chairs and the golden yellow of the curtain and table. The lustrous colours, the pointed expressiveness of faces and hands, the lively arabesques performed by curtain and robes have a high-spirited, almost showy quality which differs utterly from the restraint of the van Dyckian model.[3]

On another wall nearby hangs Sir Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Rachel de Ruvigny, Countess of Southhampton, painted in 1640. Dr Hoff reminds us that she was the wife of “Thomas Wriothesley, fourth Earl of Southampton and son of the third Earl, who had been the friend and patron of Shakespeare” and that “in France she was called la belle et vertueuse Huguenotte … [and] … of a most sweet and amiable nature” but looking at the picture,

nothing in these accounts prepares us for the magnificence with which van Dyck has portrayed her. We see the Countess seated in Heaven, a large crystal globe is on her left, a skull under her right foot. Her picturesquely disarrayed dress and the billowing scarf remind us of costumes on classical antique reliefs. Behind her, rays of light break through clouds. This is a portrait “in the historical style”, showing the Countess triumphing over death and brittle fortune.[4]

Van Dyck (1599–1641) was a native of Antwerp and the most brilliant assistant of Peter Paul Rubens [and] received his introduction to aristocratic elegance among the great families of Genoa. He visited England and finally settled there in 1632 as principal Painter-in-Ordinary to King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. He was the first court painter to be knighted by an English king and he lived on an equal footing with the aristocracy to whom he owed his commissions. Blending artistic integrity with the highest social success, van Dyck’s fame has haunted fashionable portrait painters in all [of the] succeeding centuries.[5] Dr Hoff published a book on the collection of Charles I.[6] The NGV is fortunate to have such works for us to study.

Perhaps the most splendid of the portraits hanging in these galleries is that of Richard Grenville, Second Earl Temple (1762) by Allan Ramsay (1713–84). It is done in the familiar manner of a “swagger” portrait, and Dr Hoff described it as follows:

Richard Grenville appears here in the formal white [lined and blue] robes of the Order of the Garter, wearing sword and chain and badge of that Order [in fact, the “George”]. Feathered hat in hand, he is stepping out so that his robes float behind him. The striding pose, right arm akimbo and watchful turn of the head of Richard Grenville remind us of one of van Dyck’s most splendid and original portraits, the full-length standing Charles I of England in the Louvre.[7]

Dr Hoff also noted

the exquisite brushwork, undoubtedly Ramsay’s own, which distinguishes his more intimate and personal portraits. Taste and elegance combine with sobriety, naturalness, truth to observation and exacting craftsmanship to make this one of the finest of Ramsay’s official portraits. [8]

Ramsay studied at the Academy of St Luke in Edinburgh and later in London and Rome, published his Dialogue on Taste in 1755, and was appointed Painter-in-Ordinary to George III in 1760.

From only slightly later, the NGV has the charming and elegant portrait of Lady Frances Finch (1761–1838) painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) in about 1781–82, as well as the portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren as “Hermione” (c. 1781) by Johann Zoffany (c. 1734–1810). Hoff comments that painted at almost exactly the same time, the two pictures are examples of two portrait types very characteristic of English eighteenth-century portraiture—the natural and the elevated [respectively]. Reynolds depicts his sitter in a natural yet graceful attitude against an English country house garden which symbolizes her social status. Zoffany has elevated his sitter by immortalizing her in her favourite role of Shakespeare’s Hermione, who acts the part of a statue gradually coming to life.[9]

Reynolds was President of the Royal Academy and “together with Gainsborough, was the leading portrait painter of the eighteenth century in England”.[10] Zoffany came to London about 1761 from Germany and “he was taken up by the actor David Garrick and became famous for his conversation pieces”.[11] Of the latter type of picture, the NGV has some very good examples. These two pictures make a telling contrast in the styles of the artists.

Equally, if indeed not more, imposing as the Ramsay of Richard Grenville, is the magnificent portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) of The Right Honourable Charles Wolfran Cornwall (1735–89) seated and in his robes as Speaker, painted in 1785–86. This is very much an “official” portrait, but not of any swagger. Once again, Dr Hoff points out:

Cornwall became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1780 and retained this office until his death. His robes effectively set off his imposing figure, fine head and commanding deportment. Though a state portrait, the work is imbued with the easy naturalness so characteristic of Gainsborough’s approach. The delicate open brushwork, particularly evident in the lace, wig and flesh tones, reminds us of Reynolds’s famous appraisal of his rival’s technique: “those odd scratches and marks … this chaos, this uncouth and shapeless appearance, by a kind of magic, at a certain distance assumes form and all parts seem to drop into their proper places”.[12]

Next, a picture that has long been a favourite of the public who visit the NGV—Reynolds’s portrait of Miss Susannah Gale (1764). Dr Hoff describes it for us well:

Clad in a rose-coloured skirt with a white front, the figure of Miss Gale has been set effectively against a subdued background of a brown and grey-green park landscape. The well-balanced composition, the happy organization of light and shade give the picture a decorative and animated character, which would have lent dignity and grace to the walls of any of the large eighteenth-century mansions. Attitude and setting are reminiscent of various of van Dyck’s portraits. Yet Reynolds did not, like Lely, borrow a formula, but he understood the value of effective “staging”, and he combines with it the use of warm tones and a low key sometimes reminiscent of Rembrandt. Miss Gale is presented in a dignified pose, perfectly befitting her worldly rank.[13]

Dr Hoff quoted the Irishman and scholar Edmund Burke (who in 1757 wrote his Treatise upon the Sublime and the Beautiful) on Reynolds thus:

he communicated to portraiture a variety, a fancy and a dignity derived from the higher branches. In painting portraits he appeared not to be raised upon the platform, but to descend to it from a higher plane.[14]

The fine “old rose” held by Miss Gale is a central motif in the picture’s composition and very much a part of its wide appeal.

From portraits, we must now turn to the related field of the “Conversation Piece”, for this is an area where the NGV is strong and the Reid Galleries are rich in examples, which are most appealingly and well displayed. As connoisseurs and art history scholars (including the likes of Sacheverell Sitwell[15] and Mario Praz,[16] in their books both so titled) note, the “Conversation Piece” was a special and much loved format, deriving in part from more formal portraiture and in part from the humbler “genre” pictures of the kind much loved on the Continent and especially in Dutch painting and also in the work of many French painters. Indeed, around the time of Praz’s book, Luchino Visconti made a film of the same name, which gave a modern twist to this quite venerable theme. If the film was fairly far from the eighteenth-century conception, it was at least in conformity with the basic idea—a group of people, portrayed most often as a family in a domestic, or an idyllic, setting and often with some attributes of their personal lives, their homes, or in their avocations.

In the NGV, a good example is The Leigh Family (c. 1768) a group by George Romney. Dr Hoff described it thus:

Sitting on the far right is Mr Jarret Leigh, a Proctor in Doctors Commons and an amateur painter. Immediately to the left, his wife and only son look at him with affection, His two elder daughters play with the baby [who] in turn gazes at the two younger girls, one of [whom] is occupied with paper dolls while the other, like her father, half-absentmindedly directs her gaze at the spectator. The canvas was seen in Romney’s studio by the actor Garrick, who is reported to have exclaimed, “Upon my word, Sir, this is a very regular, well-ordered family, and that is a very bright, well-rubbed mahogany table at which that motherly good lady is sitting, and this worthy gentleman in the scarlet waistcoat is doubtless a very excellent subject—to the State I mean (if all these are his children), but not for your art, Mr Romney …”. The homeliness of the sitters and precise attention to costume and accessories which seem to have irritated Garrick, were, as [Professor] Joseph Burke has pointed out, pre-requisites of the English conversation piece which, consisting mostly of family groups and usually small in size, showed relaxed figures in natural attitudes engaged in playful activities. Garrick seems to have been intuitively aware that Romney’s style was more suited to elevated portraiture than to the genre-like conversation piece; nevertheless when Romney exhibited the picture in 1768 it was much admired by the public and the freshness and charm of the youthful heads, the fine clear colours of the garments and the splendid pose of the central figure make it a notable example of group portraiture.[17]

Romney (1734–1802) was active in London “where he ranked next in importance to Reynolds and Gainsborough as a portrait painter”, famously painting Emma Lyon, later Lady Hamilton, in various roles, such as Iphigenia and Saint Cecilia.

Akin to a “conversation piece” but really a group portrait and in the Italian manner, is another remarkable work hanging in the Reid Galleries. This is the outstanding painting by Giacomo Amiconi, of the Italian opera singer Carlo Broschi (known as Farinelli) (1705–82) seated with his friends in a rural bower. This picture came into the NGV’s collection in the same year, 1949, as the Melbourne Poussin. (In addition to the major role of Sir Kenneth Clark in regard to both of these pictures, Sir Owen Dixon was the Chairman of the Felton Bequest Trustees at the time these two very fine works were acquired for the NGV. Hence, their acquisition is another example of the manifold services which that great jurist and classical scholar rendered to Australia.) Broschi sang to great acclaim at London, Paris and elsewhere in Europe. In 1737, he was appointed to sing at the court of King Philip V of Spain.

Dr Hoff has described the picture in these terms:

The artist portrays himself here to the right of Farinelli [Broschi] affectionately placing his arm around his shoulder. To the left is the singer Teresa Castellini, whose beauty Farinelli greatly admired. At the far left is the Abate Metastasio (1698–1780) poet and librettist and a childhood friend of Farinelli, who wrote the text[s] for many of the singer’s arias and who remained in constant correspondence with him for many years. On the far right are Farinelli’s dog [wearing a diamond-encrusted collar bearing the letters C.B.F., standing for Carlo Broschi Farinelli] and his page, who is holding Amiconi’s palette. The four friends are shown relaxing in an ideal rural setting, remote from courts and cities. Only three of the sitters were together in Madrid in 1750 when this group was painted. Metastasio was far away in Vienna and Farinelli had to send for engravings, medals and even a painting of his face, so that he could be included in this group. Unusual in Amiconi’s work, this group portrait makes a telling contrast with the group portrait by Romney. In the English picture the figures enact little scenes among themselves and all but two figures are oblivious to the spectator, who may feel he is intruding on an intimate family event. By contrast Amiconi’s figures display themselves to the onlooker with the confidence and skill of actors before an audience. All look out of the picture, turning their faces and figures towards us; and the Castellini might be expected presently to perform for us the song, the music of which is in her hands: Canzonetta: Ecco, quel fiero istante Nice mia Nice addio … (Nisa, the dreadful time is come to bid adieu …).[18]

Broschi wears the insignia of the Order of Calatrava, as conferred upon him by King Ferdinand VI of Spain in 1750.

Amiconi (also known as Jacopo Amiconi) (1675–1752) was born in Venice and died at Madrid. He was influenced by Ricci and Solimena and worked around Europe including, from 1729, London, “where he carried out commissions for country houses and also for Covent Garden Theatre … where Farinelli sang”.[19] He was also active in Paris and in Venice. At his death, he was still the Court Painter to King Ferdinand VI of Spain. Dr Hoff noted in her European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria that this picture hung in Broschi’s house at Bologna in 1761, and there is also some suggestion in the art-historical literature that it was later owned by the great sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822). It is an immensely appealing work, obviously of great historic interest, and it is fitting that it now resides in the hometown of Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian singer, who sang so many Italian arias and was as celebrated in the Europe of her day as Broschi was in his. This being in the NGV Collection is an example of its breadth and depth. It also has resonances with other works from the Italian School in the NGV such as the Batoni, and the Veronese/Studio work, discussed below, as well as a delightful painting of Boccherini by an anonymous artist.

There is only space left to discuss three more works from the period before 1800 exhibited in the Reid Galleries. The first is the portrait of Sir Sampson Gideon and an Unidentified Companion depicted whilst on the Grand Tour at Rome in 1767, by Pompeo Batoni (1708–87). This work is absolutely typical of the many portraits done by Batoni of young English “milordi” visiting Italy with their tutors or “bear-leaders” in the mid-eighteenth century. Indeed, it is a very good example of its kind, for its composition and colour and for the depiction of Sir Sampson, who was the son of an English financier and later became a member of parliament. Wearing a blue coat, waistcoat and breeches, he is seated beside a bust, after the antique, of Minerva the Goddess of Wisdom and he shows to his tutor or guide (who is wearing a red coat and breeches with a grey waistcoat and sword) a miniature of a lady (possibly his bride Maria). The tutor or guide’s small dog is also featured and is sitting at their feet. This picture came to the NGV under the Everard Studley Miller Bequest in 1963, from Leggatt’s in London, where it had been sold by Sotheby’s earlier that year in an offering which happened to include another picture, a portrait or Sir Sampson’s wife Maria.[20] Thus, the portraits of husband and wife were briefly united again. It is also of some interest, as Dr Hoff notes, that “the collection of master paintings that Sir Sampson inherited from his father included Murillo’s Immaculate Conception, now at the NGV”.[21] Once again, the benefit of the care with which pictures have been acquired for the NGV shows through in these special interconnections among the various works.

The penultimate work for discussion here is the group by Veronese and his Studio, entitled Nobleman between Active and Contemplative Life. This variant upon the traditional classic theme of the Choice of Hercules, was acquired from Agnew’s in London under the Felton Bequest in 1946 upon Sir Kenneth Clark’s advice. The work has been much discussed in the literature:

Berenson in 1936 called the picture “Tentazione del filosofo”; Hoff et al in 1949 stated that the female figures depicted are allegories of active and contemplative life. Tietze-Conrat, comparing the picture to representations of the Choice of Hercules and the Judgement of Paris, stresses the fact that the nobleman is making a choice, and identifies the female figures in the picture as, from left to right, Minerva, Juno and Venus, the goddesses who were subjected to the Judgement of Paris. These three goddesses were described in allegorical terms by Fulgentius, in the fifth century AD, as Vita Contemplativa, Vita Activa and Luxuria, respectively … The solid square block on which rests the foot of Minerva … and against which the sleeping cupid—who covers his “shame”—presses his feet, is the emblem of stability (“squareness”). [The picture] is then close in meaning to a Judgement of Paris with allegorical connotations; it is also close in type of representation to the theme of the Choice of Hercules wherein Hercules is traditionally shown flanked by Vice and Virtue [and choosing between them the latter].[22]

This allegorical work is an important keynote.

Our last work is the great Tiepolo, which is the culmination and centrepiece of these Reid Galleries, The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743–44). It was acquired in London through Colnaghi’s, from the Hermitage, under the Felton Bequest in 1932. It is a large painting on canvas (248.2 x 357.8 cm.) and as a major example of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s work it is extensively documented and discussed in the literature. Hung at a central position on the axis of the Reid Galleries, it makes an immediate impression on the viewer. Dr Hoff comments on the scene depicted:

Pliny’s account stresses the tension of the scene, the curiosity of Antony, and the restraining action of Lucius Plancus, who was umpiring the wager and who prevented the destruction of Cleopatra’s second pearl. Told by Pliny disapprovingly, as an instance of extraordinary profligacy, the story was to be understood by Tiepolo as the height of splendid extravagance. The Melbourne Banquet, which at one time was thought to be largely a studio work, is in fact completely autograph except for the architecture; like other decorative architecture in Tiepolo’s work, it was probably painted by Girolamo Mengozzi-Colonna (1688–c.1766).[23]

This major work by Tiepolo is thus the high point of the NGV’s collection as displayed in the upper galleries, where it has a place akin to that occupied in the Louvre by Veronese’s great picture of The Marriage at Cana. The placing by the National Gallery of Australia of its Cornaro Ceiling by Tiepolo, upon loan to the NGV, has added more context, as did the discovery in 2010 that the NGV’s picture The Finding of Moses, previously thought to have been by Ricci, is in fact an autograph work by Tiepolo.

Of course, other galleries at the NGV contain much more, including works by Rubens, Rembrandt and El Greco among so many others,[24] as well as superb collections of Oriental art and European ceramics and prints. It would require more than one article even to sketch briefly those holdings.

So ended my recent visit to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Galleries at the NGV. As always, it was an uplifting experience and my later return to Canberra, despite its scenery and other benefits, was depressing due to the various shenanigans recently enacted in the Commonwealth Parliament and in federal politics. They recalled Waugh’s comment, “Here, where wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity. Quomodo sedet sola civitas.”[25]

On a more positive note, it was something of an antidote to view at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the Diamond Jubilee Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II by Australian artist Ralph Heimans (b. 1970). This large work depicts the Queen standing in her Robes of State in the Sacrarium at Westminster Abbey, on the Cosmati pavement “where English monarchs have been crowned since it was commissioned by Henry III in the thirteenth century”.[26] It has a monumental quality. Alongside this was displayed Dargie’s (replica) “Wattle Portrait” of 1954, from the National Museum.

My visit to the NGV occurred just at the time when the “blockbuster” Napoleon exhibition had closed and the crowds occasioned by it had thus abated. Earlier in the week, our distinguished international visitor had hoped to explore all the NGV, but he also had other engagements at the Victorian Parliament, and so was able to see just the vestiges of the Napoleon exhibition as they were being packed up for return to the Louvre, and to take tea in the very pleasant restaurant setting on the first floor; but he hopes to return to Melbourne one day to see the Poussin and other works. Every visitor to Melbourne with an interest in the great art of the West should visit these International Collections of the NGV at St Kilda Road.

[1] Villis C, Poussin – The Crossing of the Red Sea – A Conservation Project NGV 2012

[2] ibid page 20

[3] Hoff U & Plant M, National Gallery of Victoria – Painting, Drawing and Sculpture

Cheshire, Melbourne 1968 p. 74.

[4] ibid p.62

[5] ibid

[6] Hoff U, Charles I, Patron of Artists Collins, London 1942

[7] ibid p.94

[8] ibid

[9] ibid p. 96

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] ibid p. 98

[13] Hoff U, (ed) Masterpieces of the National Gallery of Victoria Cheshire Melbourne, 1949 p. 64

[14] ibid.

[15] Sitwell S, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of English Domestic Portraits and Their Painters Batsford London 1936, (and reprinted in 1969)

[16] Praz M, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait in Europe and America Methuen London 1971

[17] Hoff U, op cit (1968) p. 100

[18] ibid p. 84

[19] ibid

[20] Davis F, Sotheby’s 219th Season 1962-1963 in The Ivory Hammer, London xxiii

[21] Hoff U, European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria NGV Melbourne 1995 p. 7

[22] Hoff U, op cit (1995) p.303

[23] Hoff U, op cit (1995) p. 286

[24] Gaston V, The Long Portrait Gallery: Renaissance and Baroque Faces NGV 2010

[25] Waugh E, Brideshead Revisited Penguin Harmondsworth 1962 at page 271 (from “Orphans of the Storm” Ch 1. in Book 3, “A Twitch upon the Thread”)

[26] Eccles L, Abbey and Glorious in the Daily Mail (UK) of 28 September 2012

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