I had heard about the show ‘Botticelli to Braque – Masterpieces from the Scottish National Galleries’ through the advertising around San Francisco and other places. I hadn’t investigated it too much though, and it wasn’t until some family came in from out of town that I made it to this truly fabulous show at the De Young Museum. The museum has had so many of these traveling shows (usually made up of selections from a museum that decided to do some renovations and has shipped part of its collection out to finance it) in the last few years that I have grown a bit tired of them, and a touch weary. They usually have no more than about 5 superstar paintings and the rest of the exhibition is made up from medium to good works by lesser known artists, hence my initial hesitation. That I was pleasantly surprised by the show is a bit of an understatement. There is so much quality work here that I wonder what is left in the museum galleries in Scotland to see.
We are greeted by Sandro Botticell’s stunning ‘The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child’, c.1490 in a baroque era frame (original frames on paintings this old are rare, but they are out there). This large painting is an unusual depiction of this type of scene because the Christ is rarely ever shown sleeping as a child. The other reason a work like this is unusual is that he painted it on canvas during a period when this type of support was still new to painting, most paintings were still on wood supports. Botticeli’s manner of painting is very stylized, especially with how he paints flowers and foliage in the scene, let alone how he distorts and elongates the human form. Not long after this the halos in Italian Renaissance paintings disappeared from around the heads of Christ, Mary, and the saints too.
Heading around the entrance wall, I was surprised to find a Vermeer hanging on the wall. ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, 1654-1655 is one of the largest paintings by the Dutch master from Delft. Including disputed works, there are only 37 surviving paintings by Vermeer and with a third of them residing in the United States, it is not often that they cross the pond. A few years ago ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ came to SF in a show like this one and is not likely to leave her newly renovated home for the foreseeable future. While not as dramatic as the girl is, this work is contains the beginnings of the luminous lighting that has become his trademark.
Similarly, seeing ‘An Old Woman Cooking Eggs’, 1618 by Diego Velazquez held my attention for several minutes. Most of the paintings by Velazquez are in the Prado Museum in Spain, with only a view examples in the United States or elsewhere. The most amazing thing about this painting is how lifelike the figures are. You literally feel like they could turn to you and ask a question. This Spanish master from the Baroque is a bit of an anomaly, in that he lived and worked primarily outside of major painting centers of the period, and that the only comparison I can muster for his level of realism is that of Rembrandt, whose ‘A Woman in Bed’, 1647[?] was just down the wall. Looking at them in comparison, it is plain to see the Velazquez drew his influences from his trip to Italy and the works of Caravaggio and others he saw there. This is evident in the use of real people from the streets, and using a dull color pallet of browns, dingy whites, and dull reds to contrast with the sharp black outfits of the patrons in the background.
On the opposing wall I found a lovely painting of ‘Venus Rising from the Sea’, 1520-1525 and the splendid ‘Venus, Cupid and Mars’, 1580s by Paolo Veronese. Titian’s work is cool and sumptuous in is coloring, as befitting the pinnacle of Venetian Renaissance painting, with the lithe body of the goddess of love on display for our pleasure. Veronese’s work here is not nearly as drama filled as some of his other images, but is certainly a fine example of his brilliant coloring. Similarly, ‘An Allegory’,ca. 1585-1595 by El Grecco, which is just past the Veronese, is not the finest example of this celebrated Spanish painter. But, it is an interesting image in that it is a total puzzle to figure out. No one really knows the meaning of the work, since the subject is not very clear. I also enjoyed the use of what I believe is a baboon as character in the drama between the man and woman.
While there is a humerous Frans Hals and a big depiction of ‘Saint Sebastian Bound for Martyrdom’, 1620-1621 by Sir Anthony van Dyck, the last painting in the room really caught my attention. ‘Young Man in Yellow’, 1630-1631 by Jan Lievens is a gem of work, done during the end of the period when he and Rembrandt shared a studio in Leiden. It has all of the drama of lighting and flair for sumptuous fabrics that Rembrandt would later capitalize on in his portraits. Rembrandt’s and Leiven’s works from this period have been miss-attributed to the other painter in the past since their styles were so close to one another.
All of that, and a little more, is just in the first room of the show. I was quite curious to see what the other galleries would hold with so much bang at the opening of the show.
The next room was primarily full of landscapes by French or English painters, including a good, though small Watteau. The best of the landscapes are by two of the pillars of the English painting – Constable and Gainsborough. Constables ‘The Vale of Dedhan’, 1827-1828 is full of atmospheric drama. The clouds are full of impending weather and feel as if they are storming across the sky. Gainsborough’s ‘River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village’, 1748-1750, is by comparison light and airy. In this work, Gainsborough’s sky is luminous, while the land is fully in shadow. The coulds are so wonderfully rendered that I wish he had dispensed with the little mound of earth in the foreground and just painted the sky and its reflection in the water.
In this room we also encounter the first of the Scottish painters that have a significant role in the show. ‘Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch’, ca. 1795 by Sir Henry Raeburn is an amusing painting to view from the vantage point of today. Dressed in severe black socks, britches, coat and large hat, his Reverend Walker is a stark contrast to everything around him. What is most amusing is the stiff posture he has while skating. With his right leg extended back to push himself forward, arms tightly crossed across his chest, and a serious look on his face, his attitude is the total opposite one would expect from exjoying this liesure sport.
Heading into the next gallery, I found two more life size portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn. The one that caught my eye the most, however, was that of ‘Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, 1st Baronet’, mid- to later 1790s. It drew my attention for the fact that he is wearing plaid “trews” (pants). Ulster is in Scotland, so the use of a plaid is not surprising, but the fact that he isn’t dressed in a kilt is. Looking at the wall label I discovered that Sinclair wanted to assert that trews and not the kilt was the most ancient and correct form of Highland dress. I had never heard of such a thing. Fashion followers should take note!
On the opposing wall sits ‘The Ladies Waldegrave’, 1780-1781 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds, another pillar of English painting, was the first president of the Royal Academy. Here, Reynolds has taken the three sisters and arranged them in a manner that alludes to the three graces. The most interesting aspect of the work for me, however, was the manner in which he painted the three grey wigs these ladies wear. It’s as if each hair is done individually, and the movement they convey completely takes over the painting.
The English painters bleed into the next gallery, where I found a most curious work by Richard Dadd. I had never heard of Dadd before, but is painting of Sir Alexander Morison from 1852 struck me for what it is not. Dadd’s style of painting is completely outside of the great movements of the day. Dadd suffered a metal breakdown after a trip to the Near East in 1842, killed his father, and was committed to an psychiatric institution for the rest of his life. Despite his institutionalization, Dadd continued to paint. In man ways, this work could be a predecessor to Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’.
The main star of this room, however, is the portrait of ‘Lady Agnew of Lochnaw’, 1892 by John Singer Sargent. While Sargent was American, he spent most of his career painting in Europe for Americans on the grand tour. This painting alone is worth the exhibition, as it is one of Sargent’s best. The looseness of his painting, yet shear attention to detail where it counts, draws us into Lady Agnew’s gaze and leaves us enraptured by her beauty.
One other work of note here is Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s ‘The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania’, 1847. Though not a large painting, the composition is packed full of faeries, nymphs, and other figures from the forest. So much so, in fact, that even after spending several minutes looking at it, I still feel I haven’t seen the entire picture. Plan to give this one a good amount of time in order to take it all in.
In the final two rooms of the show are all the usual suspects one expects to find in a show of early European modernism — Corrot, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Seurat, Bonnard, Gauguin, Vuillard, Picasso, Braque, Matisse. Each of the works by all of them are of good quality if not better. Gauguin’s ‘Three Tahitians’, 1899 holds pride of place here, as it is a masterpiece of his later style. Andre Derains ‘Collioure’, 1905 is a tour de force of Fauvist expression, with the bright colors shining out from the canvas.
What I was not expecting to see, based on the title of the show, was the inclusion were works by Kirchner, Jawlenksy, Mondrian, Leger, or Max Ernst. But, the best surprise in these last rooms is the ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’, ca. 1921 by Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell. Cadell in one of four artists known as the “Scottish Colorists”, who brough mediterrainean hues into their paintings. Cadell’s style after WWI moved away from loose impressionistic paint handling to the use of more geometric forms and the use of acidic colors, which allude to the Art Deco painting style happening across the chanel.
This is a show to get to before it leaves town, which it will soon!
Botticalli to Braque – Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland closes on Sunday, May 31, 2015 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118; Hours: 9:30 – 5:15 Tues. – Sun. Open late in the Summer on Fri. until 8:30.