Art History Refresher #2: Some Baroque and Some Impressionism

It’s the weekend and thus it’s the perfect time to look at some more of my favorite art. Short update on what I’ve been up to: my parents visited me here in Cambridge and we visited all the sights I’ve been talking about on this blog, which was fun. I also walked to Grantchester with my Dad, which I hadn’t done before. Grantchester is a village to the south of Cambridge, and apparently also the place around which a TV show is centered. The walk there is very nice, since you constantly follow River Cam and the area is very picturesque and offers nice views of the typically British countryside. Also, I’m visiting Holland again for a few days from May 20th-25th, and I’m excited to see everybody again!

Anyway, today I wanted to discuss two paintings that can both be viewed at the National Gallery. First of all, I want to draw your attention to this portrait of William Fielding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck from the early 17th century.

William Feilding was a courtier in the early 17th century, and like many courtiers did at the time, he got this portrait painted of himself by Anthony van Dyck. It looks like the Earl is hunting for the parrot that can be seen in the top right corner of the painting. The boy on the right, the Earl’s servant, is pointing out to him where the bird is. Of course, what strikes the viewer straight away is the exotic features: the palm tree, the Indian boy, the parrot, the Earl’s clothing. William Feilding visited Persia and India from 1631-33, and this painting was probably made in memory of that trip.

This is of course a nice idea, but in line with last post’s painting, Renaissance artists did not necessarily prioritize the realistic accuracy of details in their paintings. Look at the palm tree, for example. It’s pretty obvious van Dyck had not spent much time studying palm trees before painting this: the leaves look more like fern leaves than anything else. Furthermore, the trees and shrubbery on the left look more like some German forest than an Indian landscape. This might remind you of Altdorfer’s painting I talked about last time, in which the painter depicted the Middle Eastern setting mostly as a European landscape.

Anthony van Dyck was a famous Flemish painter who was very much influenced by Rubens. He worked a lot in Antwerp, his place of birth, and Italy, but is mostly remembered from the many depictions he made of the court of Charles I, and the king himself.

Now, we’ll have to make a considerable jump in time to arrive at the second painting I’d like to discuss. This work is much more well-known than the ones I have discussed so far, so you might recognize it.

This is The Waterlily Pond by Claude Monet, who we of course know as one of the founders of impressionist painting. I absolute love this painting, due to the clever use of colour in this beautiful nature scene. Monet made this painting of his own garden, which he planted himself after settling in Giverny, France in 1883. He once said: “Aside from painting and gardening, I’m good for nothing.” In 1899, Monet started on a series of paintings depicting this pond, of which several can be seen at the National Gallery.

I want to draw your attention to the pond itself. What do you see? You might say: I see water with some lilies floating in it. True, but look again: do you actually see water? No! Monet cleverly created the illusion of seeing water by painting the reflection of the trees that you see at the top of the painting. Look how skillfully this has been done, and what a sophisticated understanding of vision, reflection, and perspective this would have required. In fact, Monet seemed to interested in creating such complex depictions of his garden, that he would later on paint the same pond again multiple times, but only the water surface, without the bridge or the trees. This theme appears to have been very important in the development of impressionist art, as the rippling motions and the reflections of the water offered a perfect subject of study for those interested in capturing natural, fleeting moments in time. Also note how much purple was used to paint the Japanese bridge covering the middle of the canvas and how it creates the illusion of shadows. This must have required in-depth knowledge of human color perception.

As a final note I would like to leave you with this clip from the classic ‘Black Books’, which I have been rewatching this weekend as the entire series is available for free on Channel 4’s iplayer 🙂

3 thoughts on “Art History Refresher #2: Some Baroque and Some Impressionism

  1. Hi Paula, interesting analysis of “The Waterlily Pond”. I might use this as an example of potential pitfall in one of my lectures on medical imaging….

  2. Love your blogs……I read 1 or 2 at a time when I have time. Just spent a month traveling through Italy with my niece Andrea.
    You are incredibly a very bright woman. I am so proud to having you in our family!!!!
    You know about art, about history and lots about life in general. Keep sending me your blogs, I really enjoy reading them.
    Elena from Miami, Florida.
    Your moms first cousin…

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