Piero Della Francesca
1415/20- 1492, Italy
 
The Baptism of Christ, 1450s
Egg tempera on wood (poplar)
167 x 116 cm
National Gallery of London
 
Piero was both a gifted painter and mathematician. He studied in Florence in 1439 and Paolo Uccello was an early influence.  He worked in Rome, Ferrara, Rimini, and Arezzo where he completed a series of famous frescos in the Church of the True Cross. Little was known about Piero until a revival of interest in his work in the nineteenth century and much of his work has been lost. Surviving works like the baptism reveal a painter of great subtlety with a secure knowledge of perspective-he wrote a book on perspective. Pale colours and large spaces characterise many of his pictures. He worked within no particular school but his work is seen as re-discovering antiquity which he turned to his own ends as can be seen in the picture shown here.
 
The baptism is one of the London galleries major attractions it shows Christ standing in a much scaled-down Jordan River about to be baptised by his cousin John the Baptist. Christ, the Baptist and their attendant figures dominate the landscape together with a large tree under which the ceremony proceeds. The rest of the landscape is subordinate. A vertical line runs from the top of the arc in the picture’s frame through the centre of the dove representing the Holy Spirit bisecting Christ’s body and emerging through his right foot this severely-central construction adds weight to the picture and emphasises Christ in the composition.   Behind the figure's reflections can be seen in the river but the figures and their immediate surrounds are not reflected. This is a very “modern” picture with its changes of scale and the foreshortening of the dove and the bowl as mechanisms to attract our eye into the picture. The three angels are suitably awed by the proceedings as they wait to re-clothe Christ, the dove soars out to us and John is completely absorbed in his most important baptism. Here is harmony of purpose, scene, colour and composition.








Leonardo da Vinci
1452-1519, Italy
 
The Virgin of the Rocks, 1508
Oil on wood
190 x 120 cm
National Gallery London
 
Leonardo has been in the public eye since he first began painting. His “Mona Lisa” is the western world’s most viewed painting and his writings and books of drawings have held interest ever since he first published them. He relied on income supplied by patrons for much of his working life as working to schedules and time-imposed commissions did not suit his modus operandi. Collectors kept vigil at his door but were usually disappointed. Every one of his completed compositions has been revered since the time of painting and Leonardo never knew obscurity. His writings and notebooks of drawings covered the sciences and arts of his day and ours: art, architecture, engineering, optics, geometry, anatomy and anything else he found of interest. He was mildly jealous of his younger contemporary Michelangelo. Big pictures by Leonardo are scarce and London is fortunate to have The Virgin of the Rocks and a large cartoon (drawing) showing the Virgin and St Anne with Christ and John the Baptist. By comparison there is only one small oil by Leonardo in the whole of the United States.
 
The Virgin of the Rocks shows Mary with St John the Baptist sheltering under her cloak, the Baptist venerating Christ and receiving a blessing in return. An angel sits beside Christ. The Virgin gestures enigmatically towards us- is this just a device to encourage our eye to enter the picture where Leonardo wants us to? A strong left to right diagonal takes our eye around the right-hand side of the work and then into the top of the picture. We return via the angel’s brightly-lighted face and the luminous John.  Leonardo’s clients, worried that the Christ child and Baptist might be confused in the picture employed a later artist to add the staff carried by the Baptist, also the angel’s left hand behind Christ is not finished. The cave and landscape are a study of light and shape whilst the illuminating candle catches faces, hands and the boy’s bodies leaving the rest of the picture in tonal gloom presaging the development of Chiaroscuro painting a hundred and fifty years later.  The contrapposto twist of the Virgin’s body, her floating hand and the variation of light throughout the picture make an harmonious statement of Christ’s power and mission as he sends John the Baptist out into the world.  








Anthony van Dyke
1599-1641, Flemish worked in England
 
Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart, 1638
Oil on canvas
238 x 146 cm
National Gallery of London
 
Rubens described Van Dyke as his “best pupil” and he may indeed have quickly risen to the post of assistant, filling in the less important parts of the Master’s canvases. He travelled widely to accept work and is known to have painted in Italy before settling in England probably in the 1620s where he quickly established himself as court painter to Charles the First. Knighted for his talents he produced canvases in the grand manner and allowed copying of his work which had the effect of spreading his ideas, techniques and fame. His portraits show sitters regally dressed making eye contact with the viewer and leaving no doubt that having the portrait done was part of projecting position and gravitas. The informal poses and casual elegance of his subjects injected new life into seventeenth-century English portraiture. Sadly many of Van Dyke’s subjects did not survive the civil war which saw the king deposed and beheaded.
 
Two brothers John and Bernard Stuart, cousins of Charles the First are about to depart on a journey. The younger stands below his elder brother but is more finely dressed as if the reduce the difference in age and seniority. Van Dyke often used the double portrait to indicate friendship or sibling attraction as he has done here. The brothers are a study in family harmony both involved in whatever is about to happen. The younger boy clad in expensive, reflecting satins stands with his foot on the step leading to his elder brother adding spontaneity and movement to the composition. He makes formal eye contact with the viewer establishing precedence. Here is a young man very assured in his position and endeavours. Strong diagonals along the line of the heads and the line joining Lord John’s right hand with Lord Bernard’s left help hold the picture together. Both boys were to die in their early 20s in the civil war. Perhaps the elder boy’s reflective pose presages this.










 
 
Salomon van Ruysdael
1600/03- 1670, Dutch
 
River landscape with boats
1640-50
Oil on canvas
NVG (I) Melbourne
 
Ruysdael is amongst the best known of 17th century Dutch landscape painters. He introduced an element of naturalism into his work and painted many scenes involving rivers and estuaries. Broad brush strokes and strong colour characterise his later works. In pictures involving water the main elements often lie along a diagonal. Ruysdael’s pictures may be thought to be a little too formulaic however they have given pleasure to viewers since they were painted and he is well represented in the world’s major galleries.
 
Boats, a large tree, horsemen, people and animals on barges all lying along a strong left to right diagonal mark this work as a typical Ruysdael landscape. We view the scene from a low viewpoint, looking along the water. Here is a harmonious, restful picture with well-loved, expected elements, a secure path for the eye to travel and the usual cloud-study. However there is at least one features of this picture which is not easily explained. The boat on the left is flying the national flag upside down- an international signal for distress however the figures around it do not seem agitated. Also there appear to be figures in the water on the right.  Perhaps the picture was painted for a patron who wanted a recording of a particular scene. We will probably never know.
 





John Constable
1776-1837, English
 
Wivenhoe Park, 1816
Oil on canvas
56 x 101 cm
National Gallery of Art Washington
 
Constable sold only twenty paintings during his lifetime. He was however a successful businessman and farmer- not activities for which he is known today! Mostly he based his pictures on sketches-often in oil and full size thus predating the Impressionists.  These would be done directly from nature and note carefully the effects of light and cloud forms at different times of the day. His pictures were not popular largely because the prevailing fashion of the day was for idealic landscapes involving mythical and biblical subjects. Constable’s painting was too close to home. Constable’s pictures have become iconic and are amongst the most reproduced for domestic decoration today. Painting locations in his native Suffolk have become tourist attractions. Towards the end of his life he came into an inheritance which allowed the family to move to London where he established himself near Hampstead Heath using its spaces for his subjects. Interestingly whilst enjoying very limited success in England one of his pictures- The Hay Wain -won a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1921. His work greatly influenced painting in France, especially the Barbizon School.
 
Here is a typically harmonious Constable picture. Our eye floats in over the fence, across the animals to the water and then to the sky. Clouds drift across the picture probably from right to left opposing the direction of the composition on the ground. We return to enjoy the right-hand side of the picture via the reflections in the water.







 
Frank Lloyd Wright
1867-1959, American
 
Two Clerestory Windows from Avery Cooney Playhouse, Riverside, Illinois, 1912
Colour and clear glass
119 x 221 cm
Museum of Modern Art, New York
 
Wright was one of America’s pre-eminent architects. He believed that fundamental geometric forms offered universal communication and was a suitable response to the machine age in which he found himself. He designed the interior fittings for most of his buildings, including-as here-stained glass for the playroom windows, thereby controlling the whole visual impact of the structure. 
 
Wright has used brightly coloured balloon shapes as though they are on parade. They seem to float in front of the tightly ruled grid behind them. They were designed for clerestory (high up) windows in a children’s play house in a private home. The lively patterns on the windows are softened as the “balloons” drift across harmonising the space.
 
 
 

 
 
Paul Klee, Swiss
1879-1940
 
New Harmony, 1936
Oil and tempora on canvas
93 x 67 cm
Guggenheim Museum, New York
 
Paul Klee did not belong to any one group or school of art. He also studied music, mathematics, nature and science all of which influenced his various painting styles. He once said, “Colour and I are one” and colour is the tool he used predominantly to indicate time of day, rhythm, pattern and the influence of music. Klee was very interested in transcribing patterns and rhythm in music to painting as in the present work. Although working within various art movements, Klee maintained that he remained independent of them and that his work was entirely his own and owed nothing directly to external motivations. He fell foul of the Nazi regime in the late 1930s Germany was accused of being Jewish (he wasn’t) and many of his works were confiscated and destroyed as being degenerate,
 
New Harmony owes its form to music. Except for the black paint used to prepare the canvas and the neutral grey, Klee has used twelve different complimentary colours to link up with the twelve-tone scale sometimes used by composers like Schoenberg. Complimentary colours are those which occur furthest apart on the colour wheel. In this composition Klee has also used warm and cool colours, e.g. reds and greens to introduce rhythmic depth into the picture. Warm colours seem to advance toward us whereas cooler colours recede. Also the right-hand side of the picture is an inverted reflection of the left-hand side. So in this picture Klee is painting gently pulsating harmony. The arrangement and choice of colours is strongly influenced by modern music and as our eye wanders around the picture we appreciate the settled nature of the composition, its rhythm and geometrically satisfying arrangement of colour and shape. The picture also seems to fall off to the right, perhaps as a result of derivation of the right-hand side from the left half by reflection.
 
 
 
 
Constantin Brancusi, Romania, worked and lived in Paris after 1904
1876-1957
 
Bird in Space, 1925
Marble, stone and wood
345 cm high
National Gallery of Art, Washington
 
 
Brancusi was strongly influenced by the native folk-art of Romania and it was there that he learned to carve in wood and stone. Brancusi carved and cast his own sculptures rather than having craftsmen do the carving and casting for him from plaster models. This delegation was the accepted way in which sculptors worked up to the arrival of Brancusi. He saw the process of carving as “liberating” the shape from the stone. Some critics have labelled Brancusi’s work as abstract art, a claim which he strongly denied. His work is in fact greatly simplified realist art. He saw his sculptures as showing the fundamental geometry and form of what is happening. Brancusi also designed and made the bases on which his works rests. Thus he retained control of how the work was exhibited and the base is always part of the art work itself.
 
“Bird in Space” captures the fundamentals of flight in stone. The work defies gravity soaring away from its wooden and stone base. The simplicity of the sculpture adds to its communicating power. The longer we look at “Bird in Space” the more remarkable it becomes. Here modelled in the most dense of earth’s materials is the harmony of flight itself.
 
 



 
Godfrey Miller, New Zealand then Australia
1893-1964
 
Nude and the Moon, 1954-58
Oil on canvas
62 x 104 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales
 
Miller trained as an architect in New Zealand and this early study has informed his work ever since. He was a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign and travelled extensively in Europe between the two world wars. A very private man he communicated with his friends largely by mail discussing his philosophy of life, the world and the universe. His style is unique. Light is shown in the way it reflects from objects. This is achieved by ruling the canvas into tiny rectangular, rhombic or parallelogram shapes then meticulously filling in the shapes with paint to show the flickering variation which the light causes when it strikes the surface. In the process the light appears to become fragmented and this can have the surprising affect (to us- not to Miller) of creating movement and different, but simultaneous views of the subject.  Miller’s canvases were very labour intensive.
 
In “Nude and the Moon” Miller paints a figure lying on a settee holding a flower which she gently twirls. Light is tightly controlled and reflects and modulates across the canvas. The nude seems to gently and harmoniously float up from the bottom of the picture and hover half way up. She looks at the fractured moon surface which is supplying the only light to the scene and is harmoniously immersed in her light-filled surroundings.  The moon lights the rest of the canvas in unexpected ways with small fragments of reflected colour. The picture has depth and the small colour flecks help take our eye around it. 

Copyright The John Henshaw Trust.  With thanks to the trust.



 
Roy de Maistre, Australian, died England. Worked mainly in England
1894-1968
 
Syncrony, Berry’s Bay, 1919
Oil on plywood
25 x 35 cm
NVG (A), Melbourne, Joseph Brown Collection
 
De Maistre studied art and music in Sydney and one of the pioneers of modern art in Australia especially Post Impressionism and Cubism. He mostly worked in England returning to Australia from time to time to work and exhibit and he was greatly interested in the connection between music and art. His lyrical compositions often show flattened space and high colour enhanced by gothic shape and style. De Maistre was also one of the early cubist painters in Australia but ended his career painting in a more realistic vein.
 
Writing in 1919 de Maistre said that for some people “…colour brings a conscious realisation of the deepest underlying principles of nature , and in it they find deep and lasting happiness- for these people it constitutes the very song of life and is, as it were, the spiritual speech of every living thing.” (Quoted from “The Joseph Brown Collection”, NVG (A) publication). In this landscape we see de Maistre interpreting what he sees, mostly using non-realistic colour to produce a flattened simplified landscape. A gothic-proportioned house stands on the side of a hill with a colourful valley peeling away and down to the right. Other tall houses stand further down. We see a harmonised structured series of shapes- both houses and fields- held in the picture by the colour yellow.
 
 


 
Charles Blackman, Australia
B 1928
 
Lovers, 1960
Oil on composition board
152 x 137 cm
NVG (A) Melbourne, Joseph Brown Collection
 
Blackman came to public notice for his series of paintings of school girls which explored the psychology of the subjects and how they interacted with their environment. Blackman’s wife Barbara was blind and observing how she perceived her surroundings helped Blackman to formulate his imagination-fired, slightly-abstracted pictures in which the psychological state of his subjects is as much a part of the work as what is obviously visible.  Blackman’s work is often moody and always exploring intellectual states as he probes the psychology of his subjects.
 
“Lovers” shows a couple silhouetted against a background of green verticals with green horizontal marks painted at the bottom to anchor the composition on the ground.   The only other patches of colour are in the flowers which the man is holding. The couple stand close together with the man’s arm protectively around the woman and both figures are shown in three-quarter length which creates the perception that they are floating in their space aware only of each other. The simplified surroundings mean that the couple have our undivided attention whereas ironically they are completely psychologically separate from us and unaware of us. Here is harmony in human relations.


Test Picture

Does this picture suggest harmony?