A guided history of art tour of the National Gallery
Choose your date
Wednesday, the 17th of January 13:00 - 15:30
Friday, the 19th of January 18:30 - 21:00
Tuesday, the 23rd of January 13:00 - 15:30
Friday, the 26th of January 18:30 - 21:00
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to look at some of the finest paintings in the National Gallery and see beyond the initial beauty? To understand some of the depth, the history, the pioneering brilliance and the emotion that lies behind the bold but delicate brush strokes of the great Venetian art of a golden era. Wouldn’t it be great to start 2018 with a better understanding and appreciation of history, culture and art?
A step back in time to 16th century Venice and Venetian art
16th century Venice must have been an inspirational and exciting place and time. Its governance was stable and fair and for several hundred years, the Republic of Venice had been a powerful financial and maritime centre.
It was also a pivotal point for trade between Europe and the East and that inevitably meant silks, spices, new pigments and of course all the accompanying trappings and wealth.
A city to inspire
Perhaps because if its unique position and architectural beauty, rising up from the shimmering Venetian lagoon, by the 16th century, Venice was long established as a haven of talent and creativity.
Marco Polo and Casanova are some of the better-known writers of the time. Its beautiful glass trade had developed during the 13th century and by the 15th century it was the European capital for printing. Music too played a major cultural role in 16th century Venice and there was a collision of Gothic and Byzantine influences reflected so evidently in Venice’s architecture and sculpture.
With many wealthy families and merchants, Venice was also a magnet for intellectuals, culture and study. Although against this heady backdrop, it shouldn’t be forgotten that during the 14th, 15th and 16th century, the Republic also suffered under the atrocities of war and the plague. It short, Venice had a hedonistic combination of wealth and culture, beauty and tragedy.
A blossoming era in the history of art
Due to its prosperity, Venice could and did support many artisans. Wealthy Venetians were patrons of the arts not least as a result of their grand palaces and residences which needed suitable and grand decoration. But both the state and various religious communities also sponsored large amounts of architecture and art. And it can be no surprise that artistic talent was drawn to Venice and gradually gave birth to a golden era of Venetian Renaissance art and a unique era in the history of art.
A closer look at Venetian art
From the early 15th century, fine art had seen the beginnings and emergence of the use of perspective and three- dimensional effects, and Andrea Mantegna (brother in law of the Bellini brothers, see below) was an important influence in this area.
Meanwhile, Antonello da Messina (c 1430-79) introduced the oil painting technique. Previously artists had mainly worked in tempera, a fast-drying medium in which the pigments are suspended in egg yolk.
Oil paint was slow-drying, and this had many exciting new advantages. Artists were able to start building layers of paint, adding depth of colour as well as perspective and creating a greater sense of realism. The Venetian artists were fascinated with light and the shifting use of colour, shade and light to create depth. They explored rich colours and textures and even the use of glass to create different effects. It was a movement towards realism and natural beauty.
Getting to know the people and stories behind the paintings
Behind every artist and indeed every painting is both a story and a context. For example, imagine for just one moment, being part of the Bellini family. From the early 15th century they were one of the founding families of Renaissance and Venetian art, with father Jacopo, two sons and a son in law playing major roles in the development of the art in that period.
The Bellini family
The Bellini sons grew up in their father’s workshop. Gentile was highly regarded at the time and became the official portrait artist for the Doge. He travelled to Constantinople and eastern Europe and was one of the founders of the Orientalist style of painting as well as a pioneer of the new oil paint.
His brother Giovanni meanwhile, really revolutionised painting techniques, moving and evolving from the traditional tempera to the new oil, developing an atmospheric style with great use of rich colours and shades. He was also, for a period of time, conservator of paintings at the Doge’s Palace. And just as Messina had passed his oil painting techniques to Giovanni, so he passed them on to his students, Giorgione and Titian.
Enter into the scene then, Titian and Giorgione, who it is believed were both taught by Giovanni Bellini and may have lived at his house. Together they went on to found the distinctive Venetian School of Italian Renaissance painting.
Giorgione was sadly short lived, believed to have died at the age of about 32 (probably of the plague) but evidence suggests he was a charming and distinguished individual who loved music and whose work was sensual and almost melancholy. He developed the use of intense colours and was one of the first, if not the first, to paint scenes and figures without a religious or allegorical message but just to celebrate beautiful painting itself.
Titian was a giant of an artist, with a successful career that spanned many decades but not without personal tragedy (his first wife and several of his children died). As an artist he was successful almost from the start and he painted portraits, landscapes, mythological and religious subjects. Although his style changed, he remained fascinated with the use of colour and more subtle and loose brushwork styles. He was rumoured not to be a fan of Gentile and towards the end of his career could take up to 10 years to finish a painting!
One of the greats of the late Renaissance and sixteenth century art scene, Veronese came from humble beginnings (he was the son of a stone cutter). But even by his early teens, he was being commissioned to paint for some important churches. He was a great story teller through his paintings, with a natural style and complete mastery of colour.
A greater understanding of the history of art
Without knowing a little of the above context, it is perhaps difficult to imagine all the factors at work behind this period of Venetian art. This was a period of great opulence and splendour and to be involved with the Doge’s Palace must have been an immense privilege.
There was also a competitive spirit (and possibly jealousy) between artists, as they sought to outshine and outperform one another. There were the pressures of commissioned pieces and the demands of religious communities, views and fervour.
But it was also a melting pot of pioneering ideas, techniques and materials, sophisticated talent and ambition. It’s only when you understand the era, that you can understand the artists and the men that they were. And it’s only when you understand the men who were the artists and the context and environment that they worked in, that you can really understand the magnificent work they produced and quite how innovative it was.
When you do understand and get to know the people and the place behind the golden era of Venetian art, it starts to come alive. It becomes memorable and relevant and the paintings become much more than just pictures hanging in the National Gallery.
Learn more about Venetian art, the Renaissance and even fashion
This post can only provide a snapshot of this golden era and the people and paintings that made it so special. If you’d like to know more, you really need to get to know some of the great works of art produced, to see and understand the techniques and materials that changed art history. And so, this month, I’ll be running four tours which explore and reveal this era in greater depth.
Learn more about fashion past and present
I’ll also be joined on the tour by Olga Anderson, founder of the Anderson Club. Olga is a designer of haute couture fashion and she’s joining us to learn more about the colour, fashions and styles of the times and how they still influence us now. And that means, it’s a great opportunity for you to see into the mind of a designer and gain an understanding of how fashions of today and yesterday work together and what influence they have on Olga’s collections. I’m sure she’ll be asking some probing questions and scrutinising the paintings, colour and fashions we’ll be exploring.