Worcester Art Museum highlights portraits of London gallery masterpieces
WORCESTER – A magnificent 1864 portrait of the famous English actress Ellen Terry is one of the most requested paintings by visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in London, but now you don’t have to travel so far to see it.
George Frederic Watts’ delicate and sensual painting of young Terry smelling a camellia flower is one of the masterpieces of “Love Stories from the National Portrait Gallery, London”, an exhibition recently opened at the Worcester Art Museum. The exhibition, which includes works by renowned painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Hockney and Angelica Kauffmann, among others, will run until March 13.
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The love stories in the title include works that depict real couples from 16th century romantic relationships to popular modern couples like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The exhibition also includes portraits which skillfully reflect the bond between painter and model – mostly men painting women, but also women painting men, women describing themselves, as in a touching self-portrait of the painter. of Bloomsbury’s Dora Carrington, and of men painting men – or photographing as in Welsh photographer Angus McBean’s striking images of his muse, Berto Pasuka, a Jamaican-born dancer who ignored his family’s wish to become a dentist, instead studied ballet and founded the first all-black ballet troupe in Europe in the 1940s.
Following: Faces of Love: The Worcester Art Museum displays works from the National Portrait Gallery in London
As you walk through the gallery, you can immediately understand the principle of the exhibition – that love and desire are fundamental elements of the portrait. The thematically curated exhibition examines a variety of ways in which love is artistically expressed but is based on the very traditional idea of artist and muse, most often that of a male artist trying to capture this obsession. of his feminine muse.
A magnificent portrait of the Duchess of Cleveland with her infant son (circa 1664) by Sir Peter Lely, who was a Dutch artist at the English court, is an example of the genre’s rooting in the Romantic impulse. Lely was so fascinated by the Duchess that other women he painted often shared a resemblance to her that did not go unnoticed by courteous observers.
“Contemporary critics have explained that, fundamentally, every woman Lely paints looks like the Duchess of Cleveland,” said Claire Whitner, European art curator James A. Welu of WAM, during a recent tour of the ‘exposure. “They saw a bit of his face in all of these portraits.”
Not only was the Duchess a muse for Lely, but she was also King Charles II’s favorite mistress, which makes Madonna and Child-style composition paintings particularly bold. “It’s actually a portrait of the king’s mistress and their illegitimate child, which was particularly sassy for a Protestant nation at the time,” Whitner said. “This is really meant for the inner circles of the royal family. This Court was known to be particularly licentious, but it was still quite a bold statement to describe. “
In GF Watts’ famous painting of Terry with a Camellia Flower on His Nose, the classic muse’s obsession clashes with the staid social mores of the mid-19th century. Watts has fallen deeply in love with Terry even though he is 30 years his senior and considers himself a man of moral eminence whose mission is to save her from the decadent life of the stage.
In “Choosing”, the flowers have an allegorical value for them. Terry smells of a red camellia, a flower that is beautiful but odorless, meant to represent the stage’s decadent vacation, Whitner said. In her other hand, she holds violets, a symbol of purity and authenticity. “Hs thinks that by marrying him she is choosing the truest sort of thing over the stage vanity,” she said.
Terry ends up marrying Watts, but the union barely lasts a year. “Back then, if you were a professional woman and got married, you had to give up your profession,” Whitner said. Watts had thought he would somehow tame his wild spirit, but that didn’t happen and after their split, Terry became one of the main actresses of his time.
It was a three-year renovation project at the National Portrait Gallery that led to the decision to allow works of this exceptional caliber to cross the pond for exhibition in Worcester. The museum will remain closed until spring 2023 while extensive renovations and reimagining of its galleries continue.
The Worcester Art Museum had begun to forge a relationship with the National Portrait Gallery when WAM loaned its iconic double portrait of the Daughters of Gainsborough to their exhibition ‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’, which ran from November 2018 to February 2019.
“I think that’s why they came to see us to see if we were interested in this exhibit,” Whitner said. “It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because this collection will probably not travel again in my lifetime.”
Another reason is probably due to the fact that WAM has an excellent – but not necessarily a large – collection of British portraits from the 18th and early 19th centuries, the golden age of British portraiture.
“I thought it would be interesting to expand on that, to think more broadly about ‘What is the British portrait in the widest range of things? What is it now? What does it mean to have a portrait gallery now in the 21st century? ‘ She said.
One answer to these questions is that portraiture is a genre where you have two people responding to each other in very different ways. The fascinating results of this type of dialogue can be seen throughout the 500 years of portrait making covered by the exhibition.
“There’s always a negotiation between artists and models,” Whitner said. “Models have certain expectations, the artist has certain desires and then he tries to figure out how you fix it when in many cases these are conflicting desires, especially from an artist who doesn’t like it. necessarily the person they represent. . “
In the case of the WAM exhibition, the theme was love and the way in which portrait painters crystallize this intangible aspect in the moment. “One thing the exhibition looks at is, ‘How do you go from a special moment to something that speaks more broadly of a relationship that has lasted a lifetime? “And I think that’s something we care a lot about in the 21st century as well,” Whitner said.
This fleeting but transcendent quality is particularly difficult to convey in a static image, which all of the works in the exhibition are with one exception: a video portrait of English footballer David Beckham sleeping soundly in a Spanish hotel after a Real Madrid training session. Madrid.
Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video (known as Sam Taylor-Wood when it was shot in 2002) at first glance looks like a static portrait. Then, after a while, it moves – very slightly, as the sleeper subconsciously makes minor adjustments. There’s no intermittent back-and-forth here, however, but rather a calming portrayal of chiseled, shirtless exhaustion in peaceful rest.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester Art Museum spotlights portraits of masterpieces from London gallery