In this series, we whisk you around some of our favourite museums, galleries and sculpture parks across the UK, and select works and objects from each that relate to family life, home and nature.
The Courtauld Gallery closed its doors in 2018 for a grand refurbishment and is due to reopen them in spring 2021. Situated in the splendid 18th-century Somerset House on the Strand, the gallery is home to the private collection amassed by the textile magnate Samuel Courtauld a collection stretching from the early Renaissance to the 20th century.
You no doubt know the big hitters: Van Gogh's late self-portrait, bundled up in blue and green, with his bandaged ear; Degas' ballet dancers, rehearsing on a stage, with bell-shaped tutus and roses in their hair; Manet's girl behind the bar at the Folies-Bergre, caught in a daze, her cheeks blushing, her eyes unblinking. But these Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces are only the beginning. The gallery is also home to early Italian art, paintings and decorative arts produced by the Bloomsbury group, and fine examples of German Expressionism. There are enchanting landscapes, tender family portraits and intricate pieces of furniture.
Over the past few months, certain works within the collection have taken on new meaning. Images of nature, like Czanne's Montagne Sainte-Victoire or Lac D'Annecy, have heightened my longing for the wilderness, says Alixe Bovey, head of the research forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Others have become more poignant take Rubens' portrait of Jan, Catharina, Pieter and Elisabeth Brueghel. During lockdown, members of my household have been together as never before, with domestic and professional life entangled, adds Bovey. It's made me think again about the premodern household and especially the domestic setting as a site of work, as it was for so many artists.
Here we bring you a handful of works to admire from your living room and seek out when the Courtauld Gallery reopens.
Adam and Eve (1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder
It would be hard to be more at one with nature than Adam and Eve in Cranach the Elder's 16th-century painting. The pair stand in a forest glade in front of the Tree of Knowledge, their naked bodies luminescent amid the lush greenery. Eve plucks a buffed-up red apple from the tree and passes it to a puzzled Adam. Looking on from the branches above is a silvery snake, and surrounding our protagonists are birds and animals. Tucked away behind Adam is a grazing lamb, while in the foreground a young deer laps water from a puddle bearing its reflection. This is Paradise for the time being.
A Conversation (1913-16) by Vanessa Bell
From one furtive act to another. There's something secretive about Bell's painting of three women conversing. The bulky trio huddle towards one another, their backs curved. Are they gossiping friends? The dipped eyebrows of the pair on the right suggest something more sinister. And yet, the limp left hand of the third woman implies that she's at ease in their presence. They're engrossed in the words spilling from her parted lips; she commands their attention, her neck craned forward and her right hand outstretched. Bell gives us a sense of familiarity and, by squeezing her forms up against the front of the picture, invites us to be a part of it. But like the garden of bright flowers in bloom, glimpsed through the drawn curtains, we're looking in from the outside, the conversation tantalisingly out of earshot.
Young Woman Powdering Herself (1932) by Georges Seurat
Seurat too played with perspective in this oddly personal portrait of his mistress, Madeleine Knobloch, with whom he had two children. We catch her in the intimate act of applying make-up, a powder puff in hand. There's also something comical about the work in the similarity between her rounded hairdo and breasts, and the way her figure dwarfs the flimsy dressing table and mirror. Crafted from small dots of colour, the composition is a carefully considered study of light and shadow, angles and curves. Originally, the Post-Impressionist painted a face supposedly a self-portrait in the frame on the wall, before replacing it with a vase of flowers. Knobloch was known only to his closest friends and her identity was kept secret.
Female Nude (c.1916) by Amedeo Modigliani
Modigliani took the time-honoured tradition of the female nude and made it modern. In many ways, his paintings of female flesh were more natural than the others on display at the annual Salon in Paris. Instead of creamy white and silky smooth, the skin he depicts is a blotchy pink and ochre, built up with roughly handled paint and a stiff brush. His nudes have body hair a taboo that sparked outrage and the shuttering of his exhibition at Berthe Weill's gallery in 1917. But there's also something decorative about this sleeping beauty, whose head lolls to one side, with her long narrow nose and pursed lips. Something in her elongated limbs and simplified features. In the Italian-born painter's hands, she's both real and represented, sensual and serene.
Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet
Monet was a master at capturing the seasons on canvas and here he gives us autumn. The water a branch of the river Seine is dappled with golden reflections. The trees boast a profusion of colours: yellow, purple, pink and green. The most famous of all the Impressionists painted the scene from his bateau atelier (a studio on a boat). In the distance is the town of Argenteuil, northwest of Paris, with a cluster of white houses and a church. The smoke from a factory chimney wafts into the sky and gets lost among the billowing clouds. There are no solid outlines, except for the blue stripe the main stream of the river that runs in front of the town. Like the seasons, the shapes and patches of colour are in flux.
Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c.1887) by Paul Czanne
If it's a view you're after, look no further than this simplified impression of the landscape surrounding Czanne's hometown. The open expanse is framed by the gently curving trunk of a tree, whose branches like fingers held to a forehead prevent the sun from shining in your eyes as you take it in. They also echo the form of the mountains in the distance, rising above the patchwork quilt of sketchily outlined green-and-yellow fields dotted with local farmhouses. Paving the way towards Abstraction, Czanne turns the countryside around Aix into a study of geometric shapes and colours, all bathed in a warm light his modern touch mirrored in the inclusion of a railway viaduct.
The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1613-1615) by Peter Paul Rubens
A celebration of family and friendship, this portrait by Rubens show his good friend and frequent collaborator together with his wife and two children. Brueghel's second wife, Catharina, sits at the centre, with her arm around their son, Pieter, and her hand holding that of their daughter, Elisabeth. Brueghel stands behind, watching over them while also looking kindly at Rubens. It may be a display of the Flemish family's wealth marked by their lavish clothing and jewellery but this is also a tender portrait whose close grouping recalls that found in Rubens' depictions of his own family. Rubens and Brueghel made several paintings together, Rubens taking care of the figures and Brueghel the animals.
La Loge (1874) by Auguste Renoir
All the world's a stage Shakespeare said it and Renoir surely agreed. This portrait of his brother Edmond and Nini Lopez, a model from Montmartre, on display in a theatre box epitomises the Impressionists' fascination with the spectacle of modern life. While Edmond raises his opera glasses to his eyes, scoping the audience, Nini lowers hers, allowing others to admire her in turn. In the 19th century, the theatre was at the heart of cultural life in Paris a platform for social status, relationships, fashion and wealth. Renoir's couple are elegantly dressed, Edmond in evening dress, complete with a starched cravat and gold cufflinks, and Nini in softly draped layers of fabric, diamond earrings and a pearl necklace.
The Haystacks (1932) by Paul Gauguin
From fashionable Parisians seeing and being seen to humble country folk working the fields. It was during his third sojourn in Brittany that Gauguin painted this vibrant harvest scene. The artist does away with perspective, presenting the haystacks and bushes like Czanne as acidic patches of flat yellow and green. The diagonal brushstrokes visible across the canvas evoke blustery weather conditions while the pair of oxen parading across the bottom might belong on a Classical frieze. Meanwhile, the hunched backs of the traditionally dressed women hint at the physical labour involved in haymaking and in echoing the curves of the haystacks highlight the connection between the people and the land here.
Peach Trees in Blossom (1889) by Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh too had a thing for haystacks and peach trees. He painted this view of the countryside outside Arles several times after settling in the south of France in 1888. The broken-up brushstrokes infuse the work with energy and yet, there's also a sense of calm. Perhaps it's the linearity of the work, the horizontal layers of earthy fields, grass verges, upright fencing, blossoming trees, open fields and looming mountains. In its decorativeness, it recalls Japanese woodcuts, and the snow-capped mountain peak on the far right is surely a nod to Mount Fuji. The only figure is hard to pick out; stooping, topped with a yellow sun hat, he tends to his orchard.
Words by Chlo Ashby
All images The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.