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10 European pictures: 17th to the 20th centuries


Rubens 1577-1640
Daniel in the Lions’ Den: c1615
Oil on Canvas: (560 x 825cm)
National Gallery of Art Washington DC
Flung into the lions’ den for worshipping his Christian god rather than the Persian alternative, Daniel is discovered the next morning in rude health and giving thanks for his deliverance. Early Christians took this as an allegory for the resurrection of Christ.
This huge canvas-typical of Rubens-is alive with drama. The scene is dramatically lighted from the front left and the viewer is drawn into it by being included in the menacing gaze of the lions. The beasts are recorded life size and the detailed painting of their fur and movement was probably perfected from sketches made at the Brussels Zoo. The heavily contrasted lighting and somewhat overdone “prayerful” attitude of Daniel add to the viewer’s appreciation of his ordeal.
Rubens was one of the greatest Flemish painters. He lived most of his life in and around Antwerp though visited cities as far south as Rome. He painted in the Baroque style and set out to rival the Italians in the History Painting genre. He was also a very successful portraitist. Fluent in several languages, he enjoyed success as a Diplomat. Rubens was very successful during his life time and was able to afford a large studio complete with many assistants to help him work on his larger commissions.


Adelaide Labille-Guiard: 1749-1803
Self Portrait with Two Pupils: 1785 (211 x 151cm)
Oil on Canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York
Labille-Guiard never left Paris; staying throughout the Revolution. She began her artistic life as a painter of miniatures which may explain the wealth of detail and brilliant palette in her larger works including this triple portrait. She was a most accomplished artist in the romantic French style and a supporter of woman painters. When she was admitted to the Academy the number of woman students was restricted to four at any one time. This picture of the artist and two of her pupils has the political implication that the two girls might also one day be admitted.


David: 1748-1825
Napoleon in His Study: 1813, (201 x 123cm)
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art Washington
David painted many portraits of Napoleon and his career rose and fell along with his famous subject. Here Napoleon is shown standing in his study after a night of hard work- his clock reads 4.13 AM. His untidy appearance contrasts with the formality of his surroundings and the fruits of his labour are clearly visible on the desk. His sword lying across the chair alludes to military success. The powerful stance of the subject and his cool gaze are typical of the means David used to imbue his sitters with the power which they saw themselves as possessing.
Born in Paris David brought new grandeur and brilliance to the craft of painting. He was a committed supporter of Napoleon and the revolution and painted important pictures charting the course of the revolution from the viewpoint of the victors. His portraits are usually without too much detail except that needed to define his sitter’s status and position, and were designed to emphasise both


Turner: 1775-1851
A Mountain Scene, Val d’ Aosta c 1845 (92 x 122cm)
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne
This late masterpiece moves with an energy of its own. Our gaze down at a valley through swirling cloud is launched by a brown swag of upland to the left. The valley alternately appears and disappears giving us an indelible impression of nature’s power, thickly applied paint adds to the ambience generated by the picture.  Colours in the depths of the valley shine through the mist. Turner pre-empted the Impressionists who followed 20 years after. His late pictures glow and twist with the play of light and he used light itself as subject matter. This is a very “modern” picture for 1845.
Turner’s painting style changed continually throughout his long and successful career. Early works are strongly representational. Later pictures are more concerned with effects of nature and suffuse colouration is used to show the effects of light. Turner often completed pictures on the walls of the exhibition in which he was showing and there are many uncompleted works in public collections.


Manet: 1832-1883
The House at Rueil 1882 (93 x 74cm
Oil on canvas
National gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
Manet exhibited with the Impressionists but was not one of them. He was interested in their experiments with colour theory and variation of painting technique. In this picture he evokes the effect of strong sunlight by juxtaposing complementary colours, eg bright yellow walls with the more subdued blue of the shutters and pink/mauve of the fascia. This colour placement heightens the yellow making the wall startlingly bright. The picture is cropped at the top and right hand side increasing intimacy-there is no sky- and the artist shows us the handiwork of nature and man side-by-side. 
We know that Manet was terminally ill when he rented the house in 1882 and that it was painted in the last year of his life.  This allows a more sombre interpretation. He was restricted mostly to his own property and would sit outside painting views of the house and garden. This picture is unusual in that it is divided by the tree- a dangerous compositional device as it may result in the picture being disrupted into two separate halves. However Manet has used the tree to shield the door which is represented simply as a black opening. There is possibly an allusion here to the artist’s impending death an event which he presumably sees as entering some very-unknown state. The blackened window cuts out a view into the house as though the artist was conscious of leaving earthly things behind. Whatever his motives Manet has left us a vibrant composition which flows with colour and light and shows more possibilities of the use of both in painting.


Monet: 1840-1926
Rough Weather at Etretat: 1883, (65 x 81cm)
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
This is a quintessential Impressionist picture. Small slicks of colour side-by-side give the impression of varied reflection of light from the sea and land. A moment is captured as the pounding surf blots out the sound of the two men talking, though we are aware of conversation by their gestures. Nature, monumental nature, is celebrated here by the rearing bluff to the right and the power of the sea thrown into relief by the diminutive figures of mere men; though human scale and presence is preserved by the walking tracks on the hill. Monet was a great exponent of Plein Air painting: painting out-of-doors at the actual site of the picture and essentially completing the painting on site. This picture contains embedded grains of sand as proof that, some of it anyway, was completed out-of-doors.  Monet was a leading figure in the Impressionist movement along with Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley. He survived, as they did, the ridicule of the Salon in the 1860s to become a celebrated, revered painter in his later years.


Cezanne: 1839-1906
Still Life With Apples and a pot of Primroses: c 1890s (73 x 92cm)
Oil on Canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York
Cezanne, sometimes referred to as the father of modern painting, lived and worked with the Impressionists from time to time but, like Manet, was not one of them. He was certainly interested in their theories of colour and light representation but chose to experiment with and study composition as well. He was a strong influence on the cubists; Picasso and Braque. Cezanne was interested in the “geometry” of his subjects. 
In this picture we see one of Cezanne’s many still life pictures. The objects are collected on top of a table and arranged within the folds of a cloth. Typically for Cezanne the table top has non-parallel sides and the primroses appear to be falling towards the front left of the picture. The apples stay uncertainly in place though we are left with the quite strong feeling that they will soon roll and the careful stack on the far left must surely soon collapse. Cezanne built tension and interest into all his pictures using compositional devices and he was very interested in how the nature of the same arrangements of objects or landscape changed depending from where it was viewed.
This picture was once owned by Monet.


Matisse: 1875-1963
Nasturtiums with “Dance 1”, c 1912 (192 x 115cm)
Oil on Canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York
Here Matisse shows us a view of his studio with an earlier canvass leaning against the far wall: this is “Dance 1”. Figures and space are flattened in the painting, perhaps to echo the flatness of the picture in the composition. Our eye is lead into the picture along the arm of the chair and the right leg of one of the dancers: thus we use the picture within-the-picture to travel around the composition. As if to provide a link between the present composition and Dance 1 (which obviously preceded it), a leg of the stool is shared by both. Perhaps here Matisse is indulging in a little time travel!
Matisse lived a long and productive life mixing with the Impressionists, Cezanne and younger painters with whom he founded the Fauves movement. Fauves was a name given to the group when their pictures were first exhibited. The strident colours so upset one critic that he called the group “Animal” painters: Fauves. Like Manet, Matisse kept working right up to the end of his life finally producing large arrangements of paper cut-outs prepared by his students. He also designed scenery for the stage and ballet.


Picasso: 1881-1973 (92)
Weeping Woman 1937 (55 x 46)
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
Picasso lived through all of the 20th century’s art movements and co-founded at least one of them: Cubism. Cubism examines the intimate structure of an object by viewing it from all angles and altitudes. The results can be very challenging pictures. Often painted in muted tones (though not our example) cubist pictures repay thoughtful viewing though some experience is often needed to disentangle meaning.
Weeping Woman is a detail from Picasso’s large picture of an atrocity committed during the Spanish civil war: the bombing of Guernica. The town was demolished and victims were mostly women and children. Picasso was appalled by what had happened and painted a large panel to register his opposition to war and violence. The picture toured the world after its completion and is now on display in Madrid.
Weeping Woman shows two views, at least, of a weeping, screaming woman. One view is profile the other front-on. The views were then superimposed to complete the picture. The effect is a disturbingly undisguised, shocking, realistic painting of not just the woman but her horror and grief at what has just happened. This is a powerful anti-war statement. The colour scheme also relentlessly forces home the strident emotion of the work.
The painting was stolen a few years ago from the Melbourne gallery by a group wanting to draw attention to local artists. After negotiation with the gallery director it was found in a train station luggage locker and returned to the gallery where it still is, though with enhanced security.


Francis Bacon: 1909-1992
Study From the Human Body: 1949 (147 x 134cm)
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
Bacon painted despair, agony and destruction in pictures which range from crucified figures to bloodied chunks of meat. He was a perfectionist and destroyed many of his paintings because he felt that he had become too used to the image. His figures are often distorted to ram home his version of the Human Condition. Despite his melancholy subject matter, Bacon became an important influence on later 20th century painting.
The Melbourne gallery’s picture shows a nude man passing through a gauze curtain to reach a black, impenetrable space beyond. Even though the man has been able to see through the curtain to the unknown, he still has to pass through regardless of what is in store. It is ironic that such a hulking figure is so helpless.
Here Bacon is painting vulnerability. Our man is nude and he is stepping into blackness. What impels him to do so? What will happen on the other side? How like this figure are we at times? Lost, though with an idea of our circumstances we can only continue with life and hope for the best.