Fifty masterpieces of British art spanning six hundred years are currently on exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine), the first stop in a traveling exhibition organized by the Denver Museum. These treasures selected from the Berger Collection represent a fraction of the impressive holdings of William M.B. and Bernadette Johnson Berger’s collection, which is primarily devoted to British art, but also includes works by Francois Boucher and Winslow Homer.
Arranged chronologically, the Portland exhibit begins in the 15th century and embraces the works of masters who lived and worked in Britain, among them Holbein, van Dyck, Gainsborough, Lawrence, Constable, and Whistler, as well as lesser known artists such as Angelica Kauffman and George Stubbs. Subject matter varies, though portraiture - human and animal – and landscape are the dominant modes. And, above all, it is interesting to view these British artists in the context of their European and American contemporaries. For, wandering through the galleries, one is struck by a difference in scale. The British masters, though they work with many of the same themes and are influenced by many of the same trends as Continental artists, their paintings appear less grand, more personal, more secular, more domestic – more a product of a unique vision of the isle of Albion.
The exhibition begins in 1400-1700 in the Renaissance and Reformation, and the first painting, a 1395 Crucifixion from Norwich Cathedral, which somehow miraculously survived Henry VIII’s systematic destruction of the Roman churches and abbeys, is unique in its religious subject matter and European style. The raised gold inlay of the background, the elongated figures, and faces of the figures are products of the “International Style” of the late Middle Ages and derive from the earlier models of the great Sienese painters such as Duccio, Giotto, and Simone Martini.
This singular sacred subject is surrounded by a number of exquisite formal portraits, as well as an historical scene, The Battle of Lowestoft by Adriaen van Dienst. The range of portraiture is fascinating not only for its diverse handling of upper class and royal subjects, but also for the surprisingly intimate feeling of the works. Striking is Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1532 image of Edward Prince of Wales, which depicts the only son of Henry VIII, elaborately dressed in silks and brocades, in a formal pose with his right hand giving a blessing and his left holding a golden rattle which might be mistaken as a scepter. But, it is the boy’s face which rivets the viewer’s attention: it is exquisitely rendered capturing the plump, rosy countenance of a child and the sweetness and surprising serenity of the gaze. Unlike the medieval two-dimensional, decorative portraits previously popular, this work ushers in the more humanized, individualized depiction of sitters for which Holbein was famous.
The same three-dimensionality and individualizing of the sitters is evident in one of the earliest family portraits (1557) in British art, Alice Barnham and Her Sons, (attributed only to the “English School”). Here the children do not resemble miniature adults (as so often was the case), and despite the sedate poses, the attachment among the sitters is evident. As in most portraiture of the day various symbolic props add to the narrative, among them the Bible with an English text announcing her affiliation with the Anglican Church and affirming Christian family values, the document Alice writes, suggesting her own education and independence, and the window glimpse of an idealized pastoral landscape, hinting at the sitter’s embrace of wider horizons. The brick wall of the room and the lace details of the clothing hark to an earlier era of linear painting, but these are minor in comparison to the bold statement the picture makes.
Additional portraits in the gallery reflect many of the same concerns, tracing the influences of Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck on artists such as Cornelius Johnson and Sir Peter Lely. Even in these aristocratic portraits with their obligatory lavish dress, it is the sitters’ faces which engage the audience and which are painted with increasing freedom of brushstroke and contrast of lighting.
The second gallery grouping is entitled “Nature and the Nation” and is devoted to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment in which a new kind of portraiture vied with the rise of landscape painting – at first classicized, then increasingly moving toward Romantic rebellion. The influence of French painters such as Claude Lorrain with his ordered view of pastoral scenes or Watteau’s sentimentalized figure painting, in this pre-French Revolution period is evident.
One such canvas arrests the viewer with these themes: Joseph Wright of Derby’s Miss Frances Warren (c. 1762-64) in which the young girl is depicted as a mythical shepherdess, cradling in her arms an adorable, wooly, white lamb. The details of the girl’s satiny blue dress reference Gainsborough and Copley, while the chiaroscuro of the background suggests Lorrain’s influence and points the way to Wright’s later signature candlelight pictures. But perhaps what is most appealing in the painting is the clearly affectionate bond between the girl and her four-legged charge. Wright’s painting is a visual rendering of the notions circulating in the Enlightenment of the essentially harmonious structure of the universe and of pre-Romantic era ideas of the salubrious properties of nature and the innocence of both children and animals.
That same appreciation for animals and a tendency to anthropomorphize them gives birth to one of the most distinctive genres of British painting – that of animal portraiture. Several excellent examples of the genre are on display, among them George Stubbs’ Saddled Bay Hunter (1786) and James Ward’s Cossack Horse in a Landscape (1820). The difference in tone embodies the shift from late 18th c. classicism to the Romanticism of the early 19th century. Stubbs, who distinguished himself as an equine artist known not only for his skillfully composed portraits, such as this one, but also his sporting scenes of racing and hunting, places the majestic, muscled, elegant creature in an understated rolling landscape that suggests the pastoral ideal. Stubbs’ painting, moreover, is on a wooden panel, and his method of layering paint gives it an ivory-like surface sheen. In contrast Ward’s dappled white horse appears with windswept mane and tail, nostrils flared and eyes blazing in a background of swirling sky and bushes. The entire painting is characterized by rapid brush strokes reminiscent of Delacroix and infused with an unrestrained emotion.
These equine images segue nicely to the gallery devoted to “Rising Industrialism of the Late 18th and 19th Centuries.” These paintings reflect an England in transition not only from an agrarian to industrial economy, but from an island nation to empire. Artistically, these changes express themselves in the tension between Classicism and Romanticism, between painting in the grand academic manner or breaking free to articulate man’s place in the universe in a sweeping, individualized manner. Mythicizing battles with introspection, idealizing with introspection in some of the finest canvasses in the exhibit.
One need only study the 1787-88 Self-Portrait by Thomas Lawrence to get a sense of the shifts in artistic sensibility. Lawrence, who was born in 1769, the year after the Royal Academy of Art was founded, and who went on to become one of the preeminent portraitists of his age, depicts himself here as a soulful young poet with dark, searching eyes, who gazes mysteriously at the viewer. The neutral tones of the background and sitter’s clothing reflect the understated ideal of the classical style, but the brushwork has a new softness and naturalness and the subject is far too engaging to remain within the bounds of the canvas. A few years later (c. 1790), Lawrence’s unfinished study, A Portrait of a Lady shows the direction in which Lawrence’s painting was headed. The woman’s hair is a rendered in a series of floating brush strokes; her form is draped in filmy, flowing fabrics, and there is an inner glow in the cheeks of the lovely sitter.
The academic style is aptly represented by Benjamin West, an American who settled in London. His large scale canvasses which embodied Edmund Burke’s idea of “the sublime” – that which inspires awe” – have more than a little of the late century flair for the dramatic rather than the earlier tone of restraint, as evidenced in his 1801 Ascension with its chiaroscuro, twisting figures, and emotional-laden countenances of the figures. His heightened sacred history has little to do with his fellow academy member, Angelica Kaufmann’s roundel, Praetextatus Entreated by his Mother, a scene from Roman history, depicted with Neoclassical restraint and the intent to create a painting that is morally uplifting and historically instructive. These two demonstrate the forces in conflict in late 18th century British art.
Gradually, the interest in ancient Greek and Roman myth and in choosing Classical subjects for paintings subtly transforms itself into the Romantic notions of the seductive pull of Italy, the dichotomy between the South and North in European culture, and the Romantic and Victorian obsession with the obligatory grand continental tour for persons of education and refinement. One needs only examine William Marlow’s 1768 dramatic account of Vesuvius Erupting at Night with its lurid red glow and a landscape devoid of human beings to understand how myth readily becomes melodrama.
This tendency to diminish the scale of figures in the context of the larger force of Nature was a prevailing concept of all Romantic art, a dominating principle for the great American landscapists of the Hudson River and Luminist Schools, and a premise which increasingly appears in British paintings of the 19th century. Some stunning examples of this exist in the Berger collection, among them John Constable’s 1820-22 Yarmouth Pier, a canvas in which the tumultuous clouds and wind-whipped sea take center stage, despite the presence of two figures and a horse drawn wagon on the beach. Constable’s rapid brushwork and his interest in the effects of outdoor light point the way to later masters such as Whistler and the French Impressionists.
The logical extension of this type of nature painting is seen in Edward Lear’s 1860Nuneham, in which human beings have been completely eliminated from the landscape. The foreground is populated with recumbent sheep, and the canvas is dominated by the lush green foliage at center. The Nuneham estate is hinted at only in a tiny segment of the villa’s roofline seen through a break in the trees, and the spires of Oxford and the serpentine Thames are seen in the far upper left hand distance.
A small but excellent Whistler, Little Housemaid in a Doorway (1889), and John Singer Sargent’s sketch, Rosina Ferrarra (1878) give a taste of the late century Aesthetic Movement and provide a suitable segue to the final gallery, entitled “Modern Modes Late 19th-21st Centuries.” The dominant works in this selection are Sir Claude Francis Barry’s monumental 1919 canvas, Victory Celebrations, and Adam Birtwistle’s portrait of David Hockney. Barry’s painting which depicts the fireworks over the Thames and Houses of Parliament to mark the end of War War I is an arresting work in the pointillist style. Using dabs of shimmering, unmixed colors, Barry creates a gilded mosaic of swirling shapes and colors that recalls not only Seurat but also Klimt and the Vienna Secession.
The somber, provocative gaze of painter David Hockney confronts the viewer from Birtwistle’s spare tempera painting in which his colleague occupies the lower center of the painting against an unadorned flat charcoal background. The artist’s signature slash of pink paint flits across Hockney’s face, but otherwise there are none of Birtwistle’s usual whimsical background doodles and distractions. Instead, in a few spare but energetic strokes, Hockney is brought to life, the sitter allowed to speak forcefully for himself.
Hockney’s glance, like those of so many of the other portrait subjects in the exhibition, seems to follow the visitor as he leaves the gallery, pulling him back into the quiet, contemplative realm of these British treasures. There is something which this assemblage of works – for all its chronological and stylistic diversity – shares: an indefinable spirit of national identity and pride, a quiet and rooted sense of place, and an unspoken appreciation of what the great visionary poet William Blake hailed in his archetypal anthem, Jerusalem, when he sang of building the metaphorical holy city in England’s green and pleasant Land.
All photos courtesy Portland Museum of Art and Berger Collection