… neither Virgin nor Venus …
Among all the Royal portraits and big dramatic pieces in this outstanding exhibition, there are some extremely fine images of women. The Academy rooms are teeming with spectators and the show has 140 works of art on view, so it pays to have an idea of what you are looking for. Here are five I wouldn’t want anyone to miss …
My advice would be to ignore the crowded first couple of rooms and make straight for Gallery VIII which holds pictures from “The Queen’s House” and take a look at this Head of a Woman (c.1630-35) by Orazio Gentileschi. It’s such an arresting work combining beauty and determination in a very penetrating stare – as her former owner said: “She’s no extra!” The painting sold to a private buyer in January 2018 for $1.8 million and there’s a brief Sotheby’s video about her here.
Then turn around and, diagonally opposite in the same room, is a painting by Orazio‘s daughter’s Artemisia Gentileschi called Allegory of Painting (c.1638-39). Artemisia joined her father and her brothers in London in 1638. Charles and Henrietta already owned at least three of Artemisia‘s paintings by then and she found steady employment here. Some suggest this is a self portrait though it is not listed as such in Court inventories and is perhaps instead a younger, more idealised version of her 46 year old self. It is probably more a declaration of her remarkable status: as a practising and successful female artist at this time – an image of a working painter not a fanciful allegory.
Travelling back a hundred years to the court of Henry VIII, the next picture is a portrait of Anne Cresacre ( c.1526-27) by Hans Holbein. This piece of fragile wonderfulness can be found in the next room along, Gallery IX, “The Whitehall Cabinet.” Charles’ Cabinet in Whitehall Palace was a private space decorated with more personal items from his collection; the core of which he inherited from his older brother, Henry, including these a set of drawings by Holbein. These sketches were made for a large group portrait of Thomas More‘s family – since lost. Anne was a ward of More’s and became his daughter-in-law around this time. The exquisite delicacy of this chalk drawing is truly arresting. It might just be me … but there’s a resemblance to the actor Louise Brealey who played Molly Hooper in Sherlock in the slight frown about her lips.
The next work executed about the same time but leagues apart in tone and handling. If there’s a Bronzino in a gallery I’m in front of it. The work is in “The Italian Renaissance” Gallery V and its understated elegance could be overlooked as there are Titians in the same room. There is some debate over whether Portrait of a Women in Green (c.1530-32) is actually a Bronzino or possibly a del Piombo or a Sarto. I have my doubts too – it’s not quite good enough but …. it could be a youthful work. Her direct gaze is typical of Bronzino’s portraits and she is an arresting example of a confident and self assured Renaissance woman.
The final painting in my selection is the Rembrandt. Again in any other exhibition, a work of this quality would be centre stage but again she is in a corner of Gallery IV, “The Northern Renaissance” and could easily be over looked. This Portrait of an Old Woman (c. 1627-29) is also called The Artist’s Mother as Rembrandt often used his mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, as a model at the beginning of his career. The painting is not a portrait but a tronie (a generic term for ‘face’). Such tronies move beyond imitation and become imaginative exercises using carefully chosen costume and dramatic illumination – a cross between a portrait and a historical painting. I was fascinated by the interplay between the lines on her face with the gorgeous lace and fabric detail, both picked out with a warm Northern European light. It is an amazing painting.
So there you are: my top five paintings of women from Charles I, King and Collector. Which paintings caught your eye?
Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018.
With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40. A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.
Head of a Woman c.1630-35 (Private Collection) Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639)
Allegory of Painting c.1638-39 (Royal Collection) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3)
Anne Cresacre c.1526-27 (Royal Collection) Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)
Portrait of a Women in Green c.1530-32 (Royal Collection) Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)
Portrait of an Old Woman c. 1627-29 (Royal Collection) Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)