The Science of Art – Making Colour, The National Gallery

The Sainsbury Wing is looking different. The walls are almost black and there are backlit photographs of vibrant explosions and placards with neon lettering. Is this the right place? Have I accidently come to the Science Museum? For an art show, there are a lot of mineral samples in cabinets and apothecary’s mounds of colourful powders. This is not South Kensington, but for its summer show, the National Gallery has turned to science or, more accurately, chemistry.  Making Colour, which runs until 7 September, is about just that, and in a collaboration between curators and the gallery’s science department, who have been given a rare pass out of their labs and into the exhibition space, the gallery’s paintings are being taken back to their elements. If the curators had to dust off their GCSE chemistry while putting together this display, so will you, with rocks and minerals (remember, they are different) and old friends from the periodic table, cropping up throughout the exhibition.

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The show has been arranged anti-clockwise around the colour wheel, from blue to purple. A bonus room at the end looks at gold and silver which, with no place on the spectrum of white light, are not strictly colours; but try telling that to an International Gothic or Renaissance painter. It was Isaac Newton who devised the first colour wheel in the 1660s, although his circle was not that colourful, and so it is a later version by Moses Harris which the National Gallery has used to demonstrate the concept. Continue reading


Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance – The National Gallery

A review of the National Gallery’s new exhibition, the critics’ mixed reactions and what the Victorians made of it all…

“Beauty, like supreme dominion

Is but supported by opinion”.

Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1741)

“What exactly makes a work of art beautiful?” asks the press blurb to the National Gallery’s latest show, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, which opened in the Sainsbury Wing on 19 February and runs until 11 May.  The gallery, I am afraid, does not at the end of the exhibition’s final room reveal the answer to this particular question.  Nor is this really the theme of the current show, which considers how and when the National Gallery built up its collection of German Renaissance pictures, as well as changing attitudes to these paintings over time.  The gallery would have been better off looking to David Hume, who in 1742 in his Essays, Moral and Political, wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”, for this is the exhibition’s real point.


Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), Raphael, The National Gallery
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The title of the show is closer to the mark and in the first room, where the raw emotions and juddering forms of Hans Baldung Grien’s The

The Trinity and Mystic Pietà (1512), Hans Baldung Grien, The National Gallery

The Trinity and Mystic Pietà (1512), Hans Baldung Grien, The National Gallery
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Trinity and Mystic Pieta (1512) hang next to the smooth sumptuousness of Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), it  becomes easier to understand the attitudes of many Victorians, who at least until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, found little to admire in German Renaissance art.  It is not that Baldung’s work is ugly by comparison to the Raphael.  Rather the beauty of the Trinity is less conspicuous: to find it, the viewer must work harder.

Today’s visitors may delight in seeing works by the big shots of the German Renaissance (your Holbeins, Dürers and Cranachs), as well as by the period’s other important artists (Hans Baldung Grien, Matthias Grünewald and Albrecht Altdorfer, for example).  But when the National Gallery was founded in 1824, its initial collection included no German paintings, and thirty years later, at the beginning of 1854, the gallery had acquired just three German works, two of which were, in all honesty, a bit Dutch.[1]

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