In Canberra for Botticelli to Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Australia

In Canberra for Botticelli to Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Australia

George Salting, born in 1835, was known to fellow students at Sydney Grammar School as a somewhat eccentric Classics scholar. When his Danish-Australian family moved to England, George developed an interest in European painting and embarked on an almost obsessive quest to find Old Masters and Chinese porcelain. Ignoring most gentlemanly pursuits, with the exception of the occasional hunt, George haunted London art dealers and stacked two rooms at his club with paintings and objets. When he died in 1909, Salting left his collection to the National Gallery, with pieces also sent to the V&A and the British Museum. Polite murmurs from Australia suggested a selection could be sent to here for permanent exhibition. This did not eventuate.

Now with the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition, some of the Salting Bequest is finally on display in the benefactor’s country of birth. It forms a significant part of a blockbuster show, first destined for Tokyo as a diplomatic contribution to the Olympic Games, and now in Canberra despite significant COVID-related delays. While international borders remain closed, the exhibition teleports visitors for a few hours to one of the greatest collections of Western European painting in the world.Carlo Crivelli’s large Annunciation greets Canberra visitors in the first room (detail)

The Italian Renaissance

Following a chronological trajectory, the exhibition is set in spacious rooms and is clearly organised by theme. We begin in Room 1 with the Italian Renaissance, faced with Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with St Emidius (1486), a well-known and loved work  that it is wonderful to see in Canberra at such close range (click here to listen to Academy Travel’s ‘fireside chat’ on this work). Crivelli adored detail – from a goldfinch in a bird cage, to a woman carrying groceries on her head, and a very prominent cucumber – and this bower-bird aesthetic is a strong part of his appeal.

Contrast this with the almost spare approach of Paolo Uccello, whose St George with the dragon (ca 1470) in this room is a reminder of Italian Renaissance hallmarks of perspective, proportion and accurate human anatomy. According to tradition, Paolo was quite eccentric, and there is an otherworldly sense to this work that pushes it into the realm of fairy-tale. Thoughtful curation means that paintings with a silvery glow, like Paolo’s, are linked across this room: from Savoldo’s glittering Mary Magdalene (ca 1535-40) to Moroni’s cool Portrait of a gentleman (1555-6), for example.

One reviewer has commented that Botticelli’s Scenes from the life of St Zenobius (ca 1500-05), also exhibited in this first room, is somewhat underwhelming. Late Botticelli is polarising, and critics remain divided on the extent to which problems with his sight (an astigmatism?), a large workshop of assistants and his extreme piety – he was a devotee of the End Times prophet Savonarola – can explain the notable late change in his style.

Miracles of St Zenobius, one of the two panels on the subject by Botticelli owned by the National Gallery, London

But look at a late Botticelli such as this – or his Mystic nativity  (1500-01), also in the National Gallery of London – and you will see that, regardless of motive, he is playing with form, colour and emotion in newly heightened ways (click here to listen to Academy travel’s ‘fireside chat’ on this work). Bodies are elongated, characters wail and throw their arms above their heads, and the hard, bright colours lend an unearthly quality to the work. At the end of his long life and career, Botticelli no longer sought to show the idealised world of Florentine beauties and their mythological playgrounds, as in Spring or The birth of Venus, but rather the dramatic end of the world that he was convinced was nigh.

This work came to the Gallery in London due to a personal bequest, and it’s interesting to track the role of individuals in shaping this national collection by keeping an eye on the provenance of the works displayed. Salting, our eccentric Australian, for example, developed the Gallery’s collection of Dutch Golden Age painting, which is showcased in Room 2.

The Dutch Golden Age

Thanks to Salting’s generosity, we can now admire Vermeer’s Young woman seated at a virginal (ca 1670-72), a gently theatrical work in which he quotes van Baburen’s popular Procuress (1622), a painting once owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law. When you know this, you begin to look at the quiet and luminous painting in a different way: what is the nature of this virtuous woman at the instrument? Does she simply have a baroque fondness for slightly outré genre scenes … or do still waters run deep?

Vermeer’s Young woman seated at a virginal was cut from the same bolt of canvas as the National Gallery’s other work by Vermeer showing a woman at the instrument.

Also from the Salting Bequest is Jan Steen’s Peasant family at meal time (ca 1665), a classic genre scene that was a popular set piece in Steen’s oeuvre. From the piety of the small child saying grace and the toys abandoned on the floor, to the father busily cutting bread and the family dog licking scraps out of the pot, this charming work has an intimacy that repays close inspection – and the lay-out of the exhibition and restricted numbers of timed tickets mean that even though the exhibition is already proving to be very successful, this is possible.

British Portraiture and the Grand Tour

The heart and soul of the show, in some ways, is the room exploring British portraiture (Room 3). It was the tastes and wealth of the aristocratic men pictured here, and the gifts they made to minimise death duties, that shaped the National Gallery in London. Their wives and daughters are here too, as in Sir Joshua Reynold’s sentimental Lady Cockburn and her three eldest sons (1773). The charming young wife of elderly Sir James is shown in the guise of Roman Charity, a theme explored in an earlier work by Anthony van Dyck that Reynolds is quoting. Van Dyck’s portrait of the former Misses Savage in this room is another highlight, the cooler tones of its circular composition warmed up by a detail of burgundy-brown.

Gainsborough’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, one of the most celebrated actors of her day

One stand-out work in this room is Gainsborough’s Mrs Siddons (1785), showing the tragic actress at the height of her career. She was a highly sought-after subject, as artists such as Gainsborough and Reynolds knew that portraits of her would always find a buyer. Siddons’ aristocratic pose and hauteur reflect perhaps the role of Lady Macbeth, in which she was engaged at this time. While sketching out her proud profile, Gainsborough is said to have commented, “Confound the nose, there’s no end to it!”

In a sensitive transition, Pompeo Batoni’s fine Portrait of Richard Milles (ca 1759) leads us from a room of British portraits into the Grand Tour (Room 4). Batoni was an Italian painter beloved by British tourists, his classicising style allowing these men to signal their erudition through the maps, portrait busts and artefacts that surround them.

There’s a theme here: the National Gallery, London, owns two near-identical views by Canaletto of this same subject

In reality, these tourists sought just as much hedonistic enjoyment as refined pursuits, and the small room allows for closer inspection of a number of such pleasures. There is Pietro Longhi’s charming genre scene of A fortune teller at Venice (ca 1756), and two of Venice’s most successful vedutisti or view-painters, Canaletto and Guardi, hanging alongside one another. From boat races down the Grand Canal to the classicising posturing of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Roman ruins with figures (ca 1730), the Grand Tour room reminds us of the privileges of wealth and mobility.

Landscape painting

England in the 18th and 19th centuries was rapidly changing, and there’s a sense of this in Room 6, which explores landscape painting. Claude and Poussin’s enormously influential works, where classicising figures cavort in a dark foreground that transitions to a glowing background, were a challenge to British painters. Early in his career, JMW Turner was keenly interested in what he called Claude’s “historic tone” – he is said to have burst into tears the first time he saw the National Gallery’s Seaport with embarkation of St Ursula, for example – and there is a work by both Claude and Poussin here.

It is worth studying them before moving to see Turner later in his career, delving deep into a fascination with light, colour and almost expressionistic brushwork. Following successful trips to Switzerland and Italy, he takes light as almost his sole subject and transforms British landscape painting, as we see in the exhibition’s Ulysses deriding Polyphemus (1829). We barely notice the triumphant Ulysses on his ship, holding aloft the torch by which he has blinded the Cyclops.

Caption: Look closely at Turner’s Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, and you will find the fallen giant collapsed atop his giant cave.

In the late 19th century, French artists such as Pissarro travelled to London and showed great interest in the work of Turner and Constable. Pissarro wrote that viewing works such as Constable’s Cenotaph to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1833-36, and one of the Canberra exhibition’s unexpected highlights) made him think of the “‘plein air’, light and fugitive effects” of his own French contemporaries. The final room of the exhibition (Room 7) introduces work by Pissarro, Corot and Degas, demonstrating how epoch-shaking artists, from Turner to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, have often relied on cultural pilgrimages.

They also indicate the difficulties of changing monumental national collections such as this one. Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), a visionary collector at the helm of an industrial textile business, is almost single-handedly responsible for getting the innovative works in this room into the National Gallery’s collection. An early enthusiast of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, he established a generous fund that allowed for the purchase of works by Cézanne, Renoir and van Gogh – including Sunflowers, the most recognisable work in the entire Canberra show. His enthusiasm for and financial support of such artworks must surely have pushed the National Gallery towards the acquisition of more recent works, challenging the historic bias of the collection to that point.

Form is simply colour and directional brushstrokes, in Cézanne’s sharp departure from traditional landscape painting

Spanish Golden Age

There are other prompts in the Canberra show of how tastes change over time. Goya’s beautiful Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (1812-14), which opens a room dedicated to Spanish Golden Age painting (Room 5), is a reminder that it was 19th-century British involvement in the Peninsular War that finally saw British collectors and gallery-goers take an interest in Spanish painting. (European artists had long known and valued Golden Age painters such as Velázquez, as Luca Giordano’s somewhat unsuccessful and unfinished Homage to Velázquez (1692-1700) in Canberra indicates.)

Francisco de Zurbarán’s Margaret of Antioch (detail only shown here) a quiet triumph in the Canberra exhibition

Open any book on historic European art today and you will find a celebration of Spanish Golden Age painting: El Greco’s disruption of the canons of proportion, perspective, anatomy, colour and even brushwork, for example, as exemplified in the Canberra exhibition’s Christ driving the money-changers from the temple (1600). Or Francisco de Zurbarán’s adaptation of Caravaggio’s dramatic contrasts of light and shade to suit a quiet, personal and meditative view of spirituality.

And no one would question Velázquez’ combination of sophisticated technique and extraordinary humanity as one of the highest achievements of Western painting. Just look at his Christ in the house of Mary and Martha (1616-18) in Canberra: part still life, part bodegón (a genre scene set in a tavern or kitchen), and part religious story-telling, as Martha sits at Christ’s feet in the background. The rubbed-raw hands of the maid and her tear-streaked face, the stern admonishment of the older woman, the complex interplay of an image within an image: Velázquez is the Spanish master of such visual control, as he demonstrated again and again.

Velázquez’s Christ in the house of Mary and Martha is one of the indisuputable highlights of the exhibition. 

Velázquez produced extraordinary work within the constraints of 17th-century European society: he painted a sensitive portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved Moorish artist in his workshop, still one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking portraits in the entire collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (click here for a short video about the work). In another painting-within-a-painting, Maidservant with Supper at Emmaus (1620-22), Velázquez foregrounds a housemaid of mixed race quietly going about her work, while the ‘real’ subject of the painting is relegated to the background.

And here is one difficulty with monumental national collections such as this one from Great Britain: they can be monolithic, resisting change over time. Botticelli to Van Gogh does not include a single work by an artist of colour, nor one by a woman. In fact, of its 2,300 paintings, the National Gallery owns precisely 21 works by women. (The recent acquisition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria prompted last year’s wonderful exhibition.) This is a historic problem, and the wonderful exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists, 1900 to Now, just outside Botticelli to Van Gogh, is the NGA’s attempt to address the fact that only 25% of works in our national collection are by women artists.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, London, has said that Botticelli to Van Gogh tells “the history of picture-making in Western Europe.” This is true, and it is a very high-quality exhibition, each painting just as significant as the next, and beautifully curated. But when paired with Know My Name, it is also a reminder that the Western canon will only ever be one side of the story for a country with art-making traditions as diverse and as ancient as Australia’s.

Review written by Dr Kathleen Olive.


Dr Kathleen Olive

Has more than 15 years’ experience leading tour groups. She is one of Academy Travel’s most respected tour leaders, and is known to Academy Travellers as a skilled and sensitive presenter. Kathleen has a PhD in Italian Studies, speaks fluent Italian and lectures on the art, history and culture of Europe and Japan.


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