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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Canaletto, room three, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust


The 7000 paintings in the Royal Collection form one of the most important holdings of Western art in the world. In contrast to a museum collection, which aims to provide a comprehensive representation of art, the Royal Collection reflects the personal interests of different monarchs over the last five centuries.

Masterpieces from the Royal Collection have been displayed in Buckingham Palace since the residence was acquired by George III and Queen Charlotte in 1762.

The paintings displayed were reinvented during the reign of their son, George IV, who commissioned the architect John Nash to renovate the palace in the 1820s.

A Picture Gallery was included to display the monarch’s exceptional collection of paintings.

Since then, the Picture Gallery has remained the focus for some of the most treasured Italian, Dutch and Flemish paintings from the Royal Collection.

In the last sixty years the Queen's Gallery, the main public art gallery of Buckingham Palace, the home of the British monarch in London, exhibited works of art from the Royal Collection on a rotating basis. The public can also see these works of art during Buckingham Palace’s short opening season each summer.

The exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace of 2021-2022 focused on the Dutch, Flemish and Italian painters.

In the first room of the exhibition all of the paintings were created in the Low Countries between 1630-1680 and all about two were acquired by George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, to hang in the sumptuous interiors of Carlton House, his London residence.

This works represented the so so-called Dutch Golden Age, they are modest in scale, the majority scenes of everyday life, with figures in landscapes or in homes, taverns and shops.

Probably George IV as the original purchasers, he admired this work for the comedy, their brilliant technique, their true to life, the fascination of the minute details, tactile surfaces, and the ability to suggest spaces filled with light and air.

One of the masterpieces A lady at the Viginals with a gentleman (The music lesson) by Johannes Vermeer was bought by George III, father of George IV, as a part of the collection of Joseph Smith, British consul in Venice.

Johannes Vermeer, A lady at the Viginals with a gentleman (The music lesson), ca 1660,The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust
Johannes Vermeer, A lady at the Viginals with a gentleman (The music lesson), detail,The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

This is one of the greatest Dutch pictures in the Royal Collection, only 34 paintings by Vermeer are known today and are difficult to date and any chronology has to be based on an interpretation of style and complexity of composition. A Lady at the Virginals was undoubtedly painted during the 1660s and the meanings behind the painting are similarly enigmatic. The inscription on the lid of the Virginal “MVSICA, LETITIAE CO[ME]S/ MEDICINA.DOLOR[UM]” can be translated as “Music, pleasure’s companion and remedy for sorrow”, probably referred to the couple who we interrupt, unnoticed; he continues to sing and she to accompany him on the virginals.

Vermeer in this painting shows his extraordinary skills of verisimilitude, his perspective construction and his manipulation of the effect of the lights to reinforce the composition’s structure.

Similarly, the mirror’s reflection looks optically correct but does not match the reality.

Only in the reflection in the mirror does the woman turn to the man, but their intimacy is undermined by a glimpse of the artist’s easel, reminding us that the whole scene is Vermeer’ sophisticated creation.

Pieter De Hoock, Cardplayers in a sunlit Room, 1658, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust
Jan Steen, A Woman at her Toilet,1663,The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

Another intrusion in an intimate world is the small painting A woman at her toilet by Jan Steen.

The elaborate treatment of subject-matter reveals a profusion of references that would have been readily recognisable to his contemporaries, attesting to the painter’s intelligent use of symbolism in this case Vanitas. Symbols of sensual pleasure are: a lute with a broken string, a skull intertwined with a vine, a candle with the flame extinguished, and a jewellery box with its lid wide open.

In Cardplayer in a sunlit room by Pieter De Hoock the viewer seems an intruder in the scene, without its characters being aware of it. Two players give the back to us and all characters are absorbed in the game. The scene doesn’t have the usual dark background closed as a stage, instead, the background becomes even lighter and more spacious, as if the painting is a tantalising prologue to something more interesting beyond.

Jan Steen, Interior of a Tavern, with Cardplayers and a Violin Player c.1665,The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust
Nicolaes Maes, The listening Housewife, 1655, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

Some works show the human folly and intemperance, depicted with indulgence and comedy as in The Interior of a Tavern, with Cardplayers and a Violin Player by Jan Steen or in The listening Housewife by Nicolaes Maes in which the mistress of the house descends slowly the wooden stairs in order to surprise her servants, who are misbehaving in the basement.

In the exhibition two of the smallest paintings took the attention of the visitors.

They are works by one of the pupils of Rembrandt, Gerrit Dou a genre painter and founder of the school of the so-called fijnschilders (fine painters).

Gerrit Dou, A Girl chopping Onions, 1646, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust
Gerrit Dou, The Grocer's Shop, 1672, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

In The Grocer’s Shop Dou has depicted a general store that sells eggs, dairy products, bread and meat products and exotics goods that show how open the Dutch economy was to imports. All these products perfectly arranged create a sense of verisimilitude, the products seem to lean out of the painting and into the real world.

Another delicious and small piece of Dou is A Girl chopping Onions. Dou played with the daylight and made objects appear “to breathe” in space with a young serving’s girl staring to the viewers.

The second room displays narrative paintings, commissioned portraits and ambitious landscapes with a symbolic or religious meaning.

This room is dominated by three artists of very different character but emblematic of the varieties of the profession of the artist in the Low Countries: Rubens, a diplomat and land-owner; van Dyck, a courtier; and Rembrandt, a professional serving the merchants of Amsterdam.

Rubens is present in the exhibition with his extraordinary self-portrait offered to Charles I, with The Portrait of a Woman, The Assumption of the Virgin and some landscapes.

Pieter Paul Rubens, Winter: The Interior of a Barn, ca 1618-19, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

One of them is Winter: The Interior of a Barn. This scene is a rare example of Rubens exploring the mundane technology of farming, with several allegories and a message of the Nativity without depicting Bethlehem.

It is possible that Rubens attached the 60 cm strip to the left-hand side here (adding everything to the left of the upright just behind the farmer leaning on his fork) in order to make the widths identical to Summer (Royal Collection), that seem to have been a pair in the collection of the Duke of Buckingham.

Anthony Van Dyck, Christ Healing the Paralysed Man, ca 1619, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

The young Van Dyck in Christ Healing the Paralysed Man, was 20-year-old and working in Rubens’s studio and very possibly executing a Rubens design, under the supervision of the elder master. Similarly, to Caravaggio’s compositions Van Dyck encourages the viewer to participate in the drama, as if we are the next in line, waiting to be healed.

In the exhibitions there are several paintings by Rembrandts but one for sure will attire the attention of the visitors as it is one of the most beautiful portraits in the Royal Collection, it is the portrait of Agatha Bas.

Rebrandt Van Rijn, Agatha Bas, 1641, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust
Rebrandt Van Rijn, Agatha Bas, detail, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

This painting was done in the highest point of his career and success as the most important painter in Amsterdam but also the most creative and innovative painter in Europe.

Rembrandt in his paintings is always anxious in recreate effect of reality, real and tactile reality. Rembrandt introduced a new compositional device in this painting: the figure is posed within a painted ebony frame which blurs the boundaries between the imaginary space within the composition and the real world outside. The lace, the fan and drapery have this intense, crisp and vivid reality, instead the depiction of the face is much more veiled and allusive with light and shadow. One of the most interesting aspects of this painting it is the way Rembrandt depicts a wife in 1641: she is not turning towards her husband; she is staring directly at the viewer in an extremely powerful way. This is rare even for men portraitures but for women even more.

This particularity shows how maximally more in power were women in the Low Countries than elsewhere in Europe.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, The Shipbuilder and his Wife, 1633, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

The next painting is the extraordinary double portrait The Shipbuilder and his Wife": Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans, with Rembrandt’s trade-marks: light, texture and humour.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, The Shipbuilder and his Wife, detail, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

Married couples are usually shown at this date as two separate portraits; here we are to imagine that Griet Jans has burst into the room (her hand still on the door), interrupting her husband with a message which seems to her (if not to him) of the utmost urgency. Everything about her expressions breathless anxiety; he seems simply irritated because he was interrupted during his inspiration.

The paintings in the last room of the exhibition were created in Italy, in various artistic centres and over a period of two hundred years. Bringing together this great range of painting evokes something of the first displays at Buckingham Palace, during the reign of George III.

As the best European collections there were paintings by Titian, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Parmigianino, Lotto, Guercino, Guido Reni, Artemisia Gentileschi and Canaletto.

Canaletto, The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day c.1733-4, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

In the Royal Collection, there are several views of the Gran Canal by Canaletto but the most famous is The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day. The scene depicted is the return to the Molo of the Bucintoro, the ceremonial vessel principally used for the Sposalizio del Mar, the Wedding of the Sea, held on Ascension Day and thus otherwise known as the Festa della Sensa, commemorating their city’s strong alliance with the Adriatic. This is Canaletto at his most recognisable and the composition was painted many times by the artist and his followers.

Another work by the Venetian Lorenzo Lotto is considered one of the most innovative and dynamic portraits of the Italian Renaissance, the portrait of Andrea Odoni.

Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea Odoni, 1527, The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

The sitter, Odoni, with his eyes looking directly out of the painting, dynamically invites the viewer into a conversation. Odoni was a renewed 16th century collector of paintings, sculpture, coins and gems. Here he is surrounded with versions of well-known classical statues, demonstrating his collecting credentials. To capture these objects, Lotto experimented with a landscape format usually reserved for a double portrait. This design accentuates Odoni’s presence and the bulky gown he wears fills the painting, brought to life by Lotto’s masterful suggestion of the play of light on its surface.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) c.1638-9,The Queen's gallery, @ Royal Collection Trust

The portrait has aptly been described as one of the finest and most ambitious of all of Lotto's portraits and a deliberate challenge to Titian's supremacy in the field.

It is not possible to leave the exhibition without stop in front of the Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Artemisia was the most successful female artist of her day. In this confident, energetic painting she presents herself boldly as the allegory of Painting. Her loose hair indicates her creative fervour, the mask on a gold chain signifies imitation, and her iridescent dress demonstrates mastery of colour. Artemisia does something none of her male contemporaries could: she gives the allegory of Painting her own features, creating a uniquely self-referential image.

Depicting herself in the act of painting in this challenging pose, the angle and position of her head would have been the hardest to accurately render, requiring skilful visualisation.

Artemisia Gentileschi was invited to London in 1638 by Charles I, and probably produced this sophisticated and accomplished self-portrait in England.

This exhibition is an unmissable event that allows to see closer and outside of the usual limited summer opening of Buckingham Palace, one of the world’s most spectacular collection.

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