Category Archives: art history

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Reading press coverage this morning about Catherine Zeta-Jones receiving the CBE, I was struck by the fact that she always looks like a visitor from another, more glamorous age, when women enjoyed being well-dressed, rather than deforming themselves into some sort of infernal amalgamation of streetwalker and sideshow freak. I suspect that not only would she have felt perfectly at home in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but even in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is no stretch to imagine what a “Portrait of the Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, CBE” by John Singer Sargent might look like, or indeed, to stretch back even earlier and envision a portrait by the subject of today’s blog post, the great but often sadly under-appreciated Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The Yale Center for British Art has just opened a new exhibition entitled “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance”, which will run through June 5th. Would that I might find myself among the ivy in order to enjoy this group of remarkable paintings by this equally remarkable painter. Though characterizing Lawrence as a painter of the Regency period, which gave us Jane Austen and John Keats among other notables, is a bit limiting with respect to understanding the sweep of his career.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769 and died in London in 1830, which is important to keep in mind in looking at his art. Admittedly I write this often when discussing artists or architects, but when I provide correlations to general history my hope is to give my readers a general point of reference to the time in which the person lived. Too often art history tends to operate in some sort of vacuum, in which the viewer is not given an idea of what was taking place historically around the same time. Thus, when I point out that Lawrence was born roughly around the start of the American Revolution, was a young man when the French Revolution took place, was entering middle age when Napoleon reached his zenith, and died in the year that train travel between cities first became possible, it should give you some idea of the changes that he observed, first-hand, working during this age of tumult and great changes.

For someone so capable that he eventually rose to be President of the Royal Academy, back when that meant something, readers may be surprised to learn that Lawrence was basically a self-taught genius. Beginning as a child, his facility in capturing people’s appearances using pastels on paper gained him increasing attention, and apparently his accompanying good manners and self-effacing nature charmed many of the society people with whom he gradually came into contact. They in turn would allow him to study the Old Master paintings, drawings and engravings in their private collections, so that Lawrence created his own home-schooled academic experience in studying the history and techniques of great artists.

Lawrence arrived in London when he was 17, and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy, but later left it because he was not interested in drawing and studying classical sculpture. He received his first royal commission, to paint Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, when he was only 20 years old; she didn’t like the picture, but the king did, as did the members of the Royal Academy. This launched his association with the royal family, which was to continue for the rest of his life, and brought him into close contact with many of the most famous and influential people of his day. In 1792, when the great Sir Joshua Reynolds died, he was made President of the Royal Academy when he was just 23 years old.

My Catholic readers may be particularly interested to know that in 1819, George IV commissioned Lawrence to paint a portrait of Pope Pius VII for the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. This may seem rather surprising at first, but King George wanted to honor all of the European leaders who had banded together to help defeat Napoleon. Erring on the side of fairness, he had to include the Pontiff, whose excommunication of Napoleon and subsequent imprisonment had inspired many Catholics to come to the aid of those allied against the little dictator.

Lawrence had a great talent for bringing out what was most attractive about his sitter, often managing to flatter them despite some of their worst features. This is what earns him the sobriquet of being a “society painter”, but too often that term is bandied about by art critics who think that Gilbert & George are anything other than a pair of peasantly perverts. It must be said that Lawrence had his failings as a painter – in particular some of his images of children are not quite right – but when he is good, he is very good indeed. His combination of capturing the personality of his subject and at the same time incorporating elements of landscape painting and details such as the drape of fabric or the texture of a flower through rapid, almost Manet-like brushstrokes, make his images irresistible to all but the most black-hearted of patrons of the arts.

As this blog’s patron Count Castiglione would certainly argue, it is a sign not only of personal self-respect but also of good manners to want to look one’s best, whether when with intimate friends or out and about in public. There is of course a tipping point beyond which we should not go, but Catholics sometimes need to be reminded that even when we are suffering through penance, Christ tells us to look our best:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

(St. Matthew 6: 16-18)

I will freely admit that it is perhaps more than a bit of a stretch to turn from society portraiture to Christian thought, but when we are considering the purpose of art when at its best, I do not believe the connection is really so tenuous. Great portraiture can give us an insight into the character of the sitter, true, but it can also inspire us to be better than we may be at present. The painter who celebrates virtues such as heroism, grace, and intelligence in his art can, when he is good at what he does, cause the viewer to aspire to these virtues as well, even if there is some idealization going on.

And in celebrating these virtues in paint, Lawrence is not behaving in a way foreign to our natural instincts to put forth our best efforts. For example, are you a good cook? Then chances are, you make the food look attractive when you serve it to a guest, so that they will enjoy the meal more than if you simply slopped it out of a pot, even though it would taste the same either way. Because we are not creatures of pure spirit, presentation matters to us: it is a reason why iconoclasm never really makes sense in a full understanding of Christianity, and also why a simple but reverently celebrated mass is usually better at drawing our hearts and minds toward the Divine than either a slapdash “quickie” mass or some bacchanal of tambourines, drums, and hymns like “Rain Down”.

Lawrence may have prettied up his sitters a bit, but in so doing he also showed the people of his day, and indeed shows us now, that whether you are tall or short, fat or thin, handsome or not-so-handsome, you can still be attractive. No one of us is perfect, but putting your best foot forward, whether you are fasting during Lent or receiving an award from your government, is something that can draw people to us and to follow our example. Those of my readers called to be ascetics like St. Mary of Egypt can certainly ignore such advice, but for the majority of us who are not detached from the world, young Catholics need to be aware that we attract others to ask about our way of life if we are not only attractive on the inside, but also on the outside: the former is infinitely more important, but the latter is an opportunity that we can and should take advantage of.

Charles William Vane-Stewart, Marquess of Londonderry
by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1812)
National Portrait Gallery, London

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Filed under art, art history, Catholic, Church, England, Napoleon, portraiture, Thomas Lawrence

>Shades of Meaning

>Press reports on “A Year with MI-6″, a superb new exhibition at the Mount Street Galleries in London, drew my attention this morning, for they just happen to have coincided with the very significant fact – for this scrivener – that today is Tuesday. If you happen to follow me on Twitter, then you know from previous tweets that I am incommunicado on Tuesday evenings from 9-10pm. For this is when the MPT2 channel airs “MI-5″, the enthralling BBC spy drama which in the U.K. is titled “Spooks”, after the slang term for “spies”.

However this new exhibition by British artist James Hart Dyke moves out of the world of fiction and into the reality of that other legendary branch of the intelligence services, James Bond’s home base of MI-6. Mr. Hart Dyke was approached and given the unusual opportunity to become embedded with the service for a year, without being able to tell his family what he was doing, natch, and to accompany the spooks as they went about their shadowy business in Britain and abroad. The end result is an extraordinarily appealing collection of oil paintings, drawings, and lithographs that are unquestionably modern, but which simultaneously hearken back to some of the great English and American painters of the 19th century, and even those of 17th and 18th century Spain.

For example, take perhaps my favorite painting from the series, “Espionage 2010″. In a palette of grays and blacks ranging from pale silver to deep, jet black, with occasional highlights of red and green, Hart Dyke beautifully evokes a city sidewalk on a rainy day. If this was merely an urban landscape painting, it would be an attractive and appealing painting in and of itself.

Yet we know from the title and the context of the show, that something else is going on here – and what is it, exactly? The man in the leather jacket, shown from the back to the left of the center of the picture, seems to be approaching the short figure in the upper central portion of the painting. This second figure is wearing a white raincoat, and seems to have locked eyes with the man as he strides in that direction. What is about to happen, we wonder? Are they going to attack one another, or perhaps exchange some information?

Compare the palette and the enigmatic subject matter of this work to John Singer Sargent’s 1882 painting “A Street in Venice”, now here in Washington at the National Gallery. It has always been one of my favorites among Singer Sargent’s works, showing a woman walking down a rather run-down street in Venice, far from the grandeur of its squares and baroque churches and palaces, wrapped in a fringed shawl and observed by two men. Here again, we do not know exactly what is going on, or what has or is about to happen, but the effect is the same: an urban landscape with intriguing figures, using a very stripped-down but sophisticated composition and color choice to highlight the mystery of what we are observing.

Another aspect of Mr. Hart Dyke’s series on MI-6 which I particularly like we might refer to as the seemingly innocuous quality of everyday objects, carefully observed. His “Doughnut on Stripes 2010″ for example, is a very tempting doughnut indeed: Hart Dyke manages to capture and evoke the quality of the pastry. It is glossy and crumby, and we can almost feel the stickiness of the glaze on our fingers. Again, if this was simply a still life of a doughnut, it would be an impressive painting for all of the aforementioned qualities.

As it happens, however, the painting is also highly symbolic, in the world of spook shorthand. The British Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham, near the Cotswolds, is a structure built in a circular shape with an open space in the center, not unlike the Pentagon here in Washington, and is often referred to as “The Doughnut” in the espionage community. In this sense “Doughnut on Stripes” has a clear relationship to the “bodegónes” of the great Spanish still life painters, such as Zurbarán or Meléndez. For not unlike his artistic ancestors, Hart Dyke manages to evoke a sensual quality from a single piece of food, which has a deeper meaning if one is willing to consider what that piece of food represents, in context.

It is encouraging to note that there are highly competent and talented artists in Britain such as Mr. Hart Dyke and his contemporary Rupert Alexander, whom I have written about previously [N.B. and whom, I am pleased to add, I will have the privilege of meeting up with soon], who are able to continue the artistic traditions and standards of representational art into a new century, creating captivating and memorable works using actual skill and an understanding of the techniques of drawing, line, and figure – unlike *some* people I have written about recently.

I am disappointed that I will not be able to see this show first-hand, but should you happen to find yourself in London in the next week or two, gentle reader, I encourage you to visit the Mount Street Galleries and take a look at these pieces, in this brief show which opens to the public today and runs through February 26th. And afterwards, it would seem more than appropriate for you to pop across the street to Scott’s, (my favorite London bar-restaurant), where Ian Fleming used to hold court back in the day. Would that I could join you, but I must be content for now watching Lucas, Ros, and Sir Harry this evening on the tele.

Mr. Hart Dyke in his studio, from The Guardian article.

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Filed under art, art history, Britain, MI-5, MI-6, realism, spies, Spooks

>My Article for Georgetown

>The gracious and helpful Shaun Courtney, Editor of Georgetown Patch, very kindly asked me to write a piece for their St. Valentine’s Day edition, which appears here. Thank you to her and also to the equally gracious and helpful Alison Luchs, Curator of Early European Sculpture at the National Gallery, for taking the time to answer a question I had regarding the provenance of a piece described in the article. These ladies are my valentines, today.

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Filed under art, art history, Georgetown Patch, National Gallery, St. Valentine's Day

>Of Interest To My Readers – One Hopes

>Gentle reader, I have some suggested events and reading material for you this morning:

- If you are in the Washington area, I encourage you to join me and drop by the Young Conservatives Coalition’s “Reaganpalooza” this Saturday at the Teatro Goldoni bar-restaurant on K Street. You must RSVP on the event website, and there is a $5.00 entry charge at the door. This year marks what would have been President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, and there will be numerous events around the country this year to reflect on his life and legacy. This event in particular will be a fun and stylish evening in celebration of the great man, as well as a fantastic opportunity to meet new acquaintances – and of course, if you spot me in the crowd please do come up and introduce yourself!

- Hearty congratulations to my friend Matthew Alderman of New Liturgical Movement and Shrine of the Holy Whapping fame, whose art will be featured in the forthcoming new edition of The Roman Missal. Fifteen of Matt’s illustrations will be included in the publication, which is available now for pre-order. Those of my readers of a priestly vocation know that the new translation will be coming into effect this Advent, so why not order your copy today? And of course drop by Matthew Alderman Studios to see the wide range of past, present, and future projects by this gifted young man.

- Congratulations also to the ever-gracious Diana von Glahn from The Faithful Traveler, who along with her producer-husband David and their crew will be accompanying Philadelphia’s Cardinal Rigali on pilgrimage to the Holy Land next month, and filming their adventures for a new series on EWTN. Regular readers know that I much enjoyed the first season of The Faithful Traveler, and that Diana’s example encouraged me to start my ongoing Catholic Barcelona project. I am looking forward to seeing the results of their filming.

- Some amazing sculptures dating from the early 3rd Century A.D. were found yesterday during archaeological excavations on the Via Anagnina, in the outskirts of Rome, as shown in this slideshow released to the Italian press. They include a statue of a male god (probably Zeus), and a number of portrait busts believed to represent members of the Severan Dynasty, the family of the Emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla, which ruled Rome from the murder of the Emperor Commodus in 193 A.D. – he of “Gladiator” fame – until the year 235 A.D. The statues were found together in a cache, carefully buried in the grounds of a villa belonging to a wealthy supporter of the imperial clan, though why they were hidden this way is unknown. They have now been taken to the National Museum in Rome for conservation and study before being put on display.

And finally:

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Eulalia, patroness of Barcelona, who was martyred in the city on February 12, 303 A.D. under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The city’s Cathedral is dedicated both to her and to the Holy Cross, and her tomb is a magnificent shrine located directly beneath the high altar. Readers may not be aware however, that the story of her martyrdom produced one of the most striking Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the later 19th century.

As it happens, yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the English Royal Academician John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), who continued to develop Pre-Raphaelite painting into the 20th century through a mixing of the ideals of the Brotherhood with classical and Impressionist styles and techniques. Probably Waterhouse’s most famous painting is his 1888 masterpiece “The Lady of Shalott”, now in the collection of the Tate Britain museum. This is a haunting image and one which, in reproduction, I suspect a number of my readers may have hung on their wall at one time or another.

Earlier, in 1885, Waterhouse painted a disquieting work of particular interest to me and to other Catalans: his “Saint Eulalia”, which is also now at Tate Britain. It depicts the pious legend that, after the teenaged martyr was killed and her body left exposed in Barcelona’s Roman Forum, as a warning by the Emperor Diocletian against those who would practice Christianity, a miraculous snow fell, modestly covering her body. No doubt, it is not exactly a pleasant image, but nevertheless it is certainly a most arresting one. We are accustomed to seeing tidied-up images of the early martyrs, but the stark realism of what actually happened to them should give all of us pause, and an opportunity for reflection on our own level of faith.

“Saint Eulalia” by JW Waterhouse (1885)
Tate Britain, London

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Filed under art, art history, Barcelona, EWTN, Matthew Alderman, painting, Pre-Raphaelite, Rome, Ronald Reagan, sculpture, The Faithful Traveler

>Even My Email Is Nerdy

>At a recent party which I have mentioned previously, various guests took turns to recite bits of poetry for the entertainment of all. When it came his turn, one of the guests apologized for choosing his favorite passage from The Iliad, as perhaps being too nerdy for a party. “Don’t worry,” said our hostess, “we’re all nerds here.”

Case in point is the following email exchange, which I reprint for your…I hesitate to say delectation. Amusement is probably the better term. Though this writer does spend plenty of time doing very ordinary things, he also does have a habit of allowing the mind to run away with him at times, taking the clickety-clacking fingers and keyboard with it. The reader is of course, free to disagree with my conclusions with respect to the panel in question, but I do hope it is an example of how much we may overlook to our peril the subtleties of the Biblical text when examining works of art – against which malady, ongoing efforts of self-education is the best remedy.

[N.B. The name of my correspondent has been removed to protect his being stained with the scarlet letter of nerdiness.]

+ + + + +

Sat, Jan 29, 2011 at 9:23 PM
From: A.
To: William Newton


I’d be curious about your take on The Baptism of Christ, part of the 14th century Master on the Life of Saint John the Baptist (artist unknown).

See NGA’s picture here:

It is an incredibly rich painting that seems to capture everything that occurred during Christ’s Baptism – except for one element: the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ as a dove.

Any thoughts as to why this was not included?

Have a great weekend


Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 6:50 PM
From: William Newton
To: A.
An interesting question, but I suspect there is a simple solution:

We note that there is a small figure in the heavens, whom we can
presume to be God the Father. Jesus is just in the process of being
baptized by St. John. Now note the timing in the following

St. Luke says:

21 After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been
baptized and was praying, heaven was opened
22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a
dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you
I am well pleased.”

Note that St. Luke says AFTER Jesus had been baptized, the heavens
open and then the dove comes down while Jesus is praying.

St. Matthew writes:

16 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove (and) coming upon him.
17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved
Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

So again, the heavens open and the dove is seen coming down AFTER the
baptism is over and Jesus is out of the Jordan, not during the Baptism

St. Mark writes:

10. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn
open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

Again, the Baptism itself is over and Jesus is getting out of the
river when the dove comes down.

St. John the Evangelist does not recount the Baptism as an event, but
he has St. John the Baptist talk about it the next day, and writes
that he – i.e. St. John the Baptist – saw the dove come down after he
had baptized Jesus.

We’ve become accustomed to “all at once” imagery, for example the
Three Kings and the Shepherds all appearing at the same time in the
same painting, even though we know they did not arrive on the same
evening. But in the Middle Ages, artists often took a Biblical story
and studied each nuance of it, from line to line, before painting it.
The Annunciation, for example, had numerous “moments” that an artist
could choose to portray for meditation purposes.

A well-trained eye could detect exactly where in the story the painter
was setting the scene based on things like gestures, such as where the
Virgin Mary places her hands. For example, she would have one gesture
for “How can this be?” and another “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Unfortunately this is lost on most of us now, and eventually artists
abandoned trying to paint these subtleties.

Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:18 PM
From: A.
To: William Newton
Hmm, I originally considered your explanation, but then I noticed that many of the other paintings of that time impose multiple historical scenes onto the canvass, without consideration for a linear timeline.

Consider, for example, the execution of John the Baptist, in which you have a soldier beheading him, Herod’s daughter dancing, and the presentation of St. John on a platter.

Further, if the historical compactness explanation was correct, then God wouldn’t need to be included in this painting. As you pointed out in the various Scripture passages, it was not until after the baptism that God the Father or the Holy Spirit make their entrance into the drama.

I remain unsettled :-/


Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:23 PM
From: William Newton
To: A.

But the issue is not what everyone else is doing, it’s why did this
artist portray this event in this way. The vast majority of artists
do in fact show the dove simultaneously, but this is a possible
explanation for its absence in this particular work.

The Baptism of Christ by the Master of the Life of St. John the Baptist (c. 1330-1340)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Filed under art, art history, Bible, nerd, St. John the Baptist