Queen’s Dutch and Italian masterpieces go on display

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A Girl Chopping Onions by Gerrit Dou 1646

Dripping wet from a heavy downpour I was very relieved to step inside the rarefied atmosphere of the Queen’s Gallery to see Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace. The exhibition is the latest offering from the Royal Collection with sixty-five priceless Dutch and Italian works on display.

The first blue room presented paintings from the Low Countries created during the Dutch Golden Age. Domestic scenes abound in judiciously lit interiors. Like most, I was already familiar with Johannes Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman early 1660s showing a woman having a music lesson with her back to us (it must be one of the most reproduced images, seen on museum tea towels and place mats throughout the world), but how wonderful to have it at eye level in the gallery, and to be able to peer at it up close. I noticed the woman’s face in the mirror, it was a little indistinct in that dim interior, not like the pale blue vase which the slanting light through the window has caught. Jan Steen’s A Woman at her Toilet 1663 also appeals, but the thoughts that came up such as, how pretty her feet were, and her mules dainty, were hardly profound. Puzzling was the upturned lute on the floor at the entrance to her room. A musician would never leave their precious instrument lying there unless it was a moment of passion. The musician was however absent from the frame.

Games were also in evidence. Parlour and card games. I loved this room, it contained all of Dutch society, merchants, servants, soldiers, fishermen, the idle young. 

From the servant quarter, I homed in on A Girl Chopping Onions by Gerrit Dou. Such a simple idea but a great domestic chore to immortalise. The poor girl has a whole vat of onions to slice and miraculously hasn’t shed a tear! In this painting, as with other Dutch works of this period, it’s all in the detail, the objects which surround the subject. We can see an upset jug or tankard in the foreground – has her husband or master turned to drink? 

As far as domestic narratives were concerned, there is none better than The Listening Housewife 1655 by Nicolaes Maes on display in this room. I had seen it at a show devoted to this master painter in March this year at the National Gallery. It was good to revisit this housewife with her finger on her lips, who seemed ready to pounce on her cheating husband in a back room. The map however suggests worldliness. Is the housewife regarding this as a game? The messages are mixed in this painting.

Before leaving the blue room, I had to stop before one of the Rembrandts. Self Portrait in a Flat Cap 1642 is magnificent, showing a quietly confident Rembrandt in his hey-day, sporting fine red hair and a moustache and of course a stylish coat and cap. This portrait was purchased by George IV who acquired three of the five Rembrandts in the Royal Collection. 

The most wonderful Rembrandt of all was to be found in the adjoining green room. Agatha Bas 1641 is infinitely better viewed up close. You can see her green eyes for a start and appreciate even more, her candid expression. There is great trust between sitter and artist. Her husband and her were friends of Rembrandt. What is so extraordinary is that up close, the eyes hold you, but stepping back you appreciate the finery of her bodice and fan, the lacework of her sleeves. Most importantly too, you see part of her hand resting on the right edge of the painting, thumb exposed, as if she was about to burst out of her oily confines or conversely, she could be inviting you into her 17th century abode!

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Di Bacino de San Marco on Ascension Day 1733-34 by Canaletto

It is fitting that the crimson room, the Nash Gallery, should house the warm-blooded Mediterranean artists. Not a great lover of religious art, I gravitated towards the Canelettos, notably Di Bacino de San Marco on Ascension Day 1733-34. The festival of the marriage of the sea provides the perfect narrative for this magnificent view of the Grand Canal. It is such a luminous painting, the canal, the buildings, the gondolas and people brought to life by the warm weather, breezes, festivities and Canaletto’s fine brushwork. Having viewed all the Dutch interiors and Northern landscapes, this painting of light and movement was the perfect way to round off the exhibition.

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace was a joy and probably the most effortless way of viewing the world’s finest artworks, no stairs, and just three rooms to navigate. Highly recommended.

KH

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace is on until the 31st December 2021. https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/masterpieces-from-buckingham-palace/the-queens-gallery-buckingham

https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/masterpieces-from-buckingham-palace/the-queens-gallery-buckingham

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