The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons 20th October 2011- 8th January 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery. Adults - £11 Concessions - £9
While this exhibition may not pack the clout of this years blockbusters such as the Leonardo or the Degas it is equally unmissable. With its own helping of star names including Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds there is plenty to engage the visitor. I went with my father last Saturday and was shocked at the peaceful atmosphere of the exhibition, which enabled us to get up comparatively close to the works on display. A luxury that was particularly appreciated when it allowed a close viewing of the Hogarth print ‘The Strolling Players’ which gives the opportunity to revel in the intricate satirical details always to be expected in a Hogarth.
Hogarth The Strolling Players 1738
In our day and age the Hollywood actress is revered given an almost sacred status however this exhibition charts the seedy roots of the profession in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The erotic tones of the portraits of Nell Gwyn the Kings mistress are plain for all to see.
Simon Verelst Nell Gwyn c.1680 and, right, c.1680-5
However the actresses inclusion in the paintings some of which (particularly those in the third room) would have graced the walls of the Royal Academy demonstrates the elevated status of these women and to some extent a level of emancipation from their traditional roles. As well as allowing the painter to experiment with less conventional poses and types.
A particular favourite of mine which encapsulates this sense of experimentation and fun is The Three Witches from Macbeth by David Gardner 1775. Which includes portraits of various prominent women including the influential and fashionable Duchess of Devonshire.
David Gardner The Three Witches from Macbeth 1775
Should the exhibition merely whet your appetite then there is its contemporary counterpart also at the National Portrait Gallery. This is in rooms 41 and 41a and is a free exhibition. There is even a very tempting Catalogue with good quality images and some interesting articles.
I recently bought myself my much loved and incredibly cosy faux fur coat and it got me thinking about the long tradition of the representation of fur in art.
Donatello St John the Baptist c.1386-1466
Some of the earliest uses of fur in art are in paintings and sculptures of St John the Baptist such as this sculpture by Donatello. St John the Baptist was often clothed in fur, in Matthew 3:4 he is described thus, 'And the same John had his clothing of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.' This describes John during his time preaching in the desert before his baptism of Christ.
Jan Gossaert Portrait of Hendrick III c. 1517
In this portrait Hendrick III is represented wearing a fur shawl alongside his velvet hat and elaborately herringboned tunic. Here the rich materials are used for their symbolic value, representing the wealth and importance of the sitter in a dialogue of opulence. Additionally they celebrate the prowess of the painter and his mastery of complex painting techniques in the attempt to create naturalism.
John Currin Rachel in Fur 2002
From the Renaissance we turn to a painting with a more contemporary feel by the American painter John Currin. Here while the fur still speaks of opulence there is a newly glamorous edge, particularly when paired with the Nicole Richiesque dark sunglasses. It is a look that would grace the pages of Vogue.
Meret Oppenheim Object 1936
While here I deviate from clothing a look at fur in art simply wouldn’t be complete without this most notorious surrealist object. Supposedly deriving its appearance from a discussion between Oppenheim Picasso and Dora Maar at a Parisian cafe. Admiring Oppenheim's fur-covered bracelet, Picasso remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which she replied, "Even this cup and saucer" and with that an art work was born.