Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was a French Symbolist painter who specialized in mythological scenes. Symbolism was a movement in the late nineteenth century that's a bit difficult to define. Basically, it's a movement about emotion rather than strict representation. There's a dream-like quality to Symbolist painting, which takes the interiority of Romanticism to new heights, by getting inside the brain! 

If you look at a painting by Gustave Moreau, you'll quickly realize that, well, there was a lot going on in the man's brain! Let's start with his Jupiter and Semele:

Jupiter and Semele (1894-1895) by Gustave Moreau. Musée Gustave Moreau (Paris, France). 

Jupiter and Semele (1894-1895) by Gustave Moreau. Musée Gustave Moreau (Paris, France). 

This painting is as chock-a-block as Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights! The story is relatively simple. Semele, a mortal woman, was tricked by Jupiter's jealous wife Juno (Hera) into asking Jupiter to reveal himself in all his godly splendor. He did so - and Semele was quickly incinerated by his lightning bolts! Jupiter manages to save his daughter with Semele, whom he named Bacchus (Dionysus), the God of wine, fertility and the harvest. This painting is therefore a painting of death - and birth. 

But how can we begin to make sense of Moreau - and reliably pick him out at a museum? Well, let's talk about his trademarks:

(1) His paintings are almost universally scenes from mythology or the Bible. Gustave Moreau lived alone in a home purchased by his parents in the 9th arrondissement of Paris - today his personal museum that I encourage you to visit even on a short trip to Paris - and he had only his books to keep him company. 

King David (1878) by Gustave Moreau. The Hammer Museum (Los Angeles, CA).

King David (1878) by Gustave Moreau. The Hammer Museum (Los Angeles, CA).

(2) Moreau could draw. His draftsmanship is on par with his contemporary Jean-Léon Gérôme. Unlike Gérôme, Moreau wasn't painting near-photographic scenes from his travels to the Near East, but rather snapshots from his own mind:

The Chimera (1867) by Gustave Moreau. The Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA). 

The Chimera (1867) by Gustave Moreau. The Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA). 

Look at that King David painting above and the sheer amount of detail that goes into every inch of the painting, from the sunlight's reflection off of thirty kinds of surfaces, from tile to stamped silver, to the shimmer of David's silks, to the architectural touches that another painter would just dash off.

(3) Moreau often used Renaissance compositions. This early Moreau painting is almost identical in composition to German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder's various Adam and Eve paintings:

Jason and Medea (1865) by Gustave Moreau. Musée d'Orsay (Paris, France). 

Jason and Medea (1865) by Gustave Moreau. Musée d'Orsay (Paris, France). 

You'll note that some of his figures have an elongated Mannerist quality as well.

(4) Moreau's paintings often incorporate Near Eastern elements. Unlike Gérôme, Moreau never traveled to the Near East, but that didn't stop him from painting it!

The Apparition (1876) by Gustave Moreau. Musée d'Orsay (Paris, France). 

The Apparition (1876) by Gustave Moreau. Musée d'Orsay (Paris, France). 

This eerie painting of Salome dancing for Herod while imagining John the Baptist's severed head looks like it takes place in some combination of the Dome of the Rock, Ashurbanipal's Palace and the Hagia Sophia! There's a mystical element in many of Moreau's Biblical works - and also a dangerous eroticism, in the forms of femme fatales like Salome and Bathsheba.

Now that you have a bit of a handle on Moreau and his mystical, extremely well-drawn, disturbing, erotic, bizarre paintings, it should not surprise you that André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was a frequent visitor to his museum in Paris. Moreau was very much a forerunner to Breton's movement.

Henri Rousseau

The undisputed king of naïve painters, Henri Rousseau was, for the first half of his career, a toll collector who only painted in his spare time. He came to some prominence - and more ridicule - in his own timewith his series of jungle paintings, the first of them being this one:

Tiger in a Tropical Storm or Surprised! (1891) by Henri Rousseau. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

Tiger in a Tropical Storm or Surprised! (1891) by Henri Rousseau. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

Many art critics of the day saw an inexperienced, childlike painting, but others, including none other than Pablo Picasso, championed Rousseau.

Recognizing a Rousseau is easy. Look for "flat," vividly colored, imagined jungle landscapes. Rousseau himself had never been to a jungle - he is said to have never left France! - so he cobbled together animals he saw at the Paris Zoo and plants he saw at the Jardin des Plants, making his paintings something of "jungle capricci," with flora and fauna that do not go together in any natural context. It's probably silly to use a term such as capriccio in the context of Rousseau though, given that he does not seem to have been much of a student of art history. Since he did not formally study under anyone, his paintings don't resemble some other master's. In fact, while one could argue that the flatness of his paintings and bold blocks of color seem to borrow from his contemporary Jean-Léon Gérôme and his imagined landscapes and anthropomorphic animals invite some comparisons to the great animal painter George Stubbs, it's not clear that Rousseau truly emulated anyone's style in particular. He is a painter unto his own. 

Another jungle scene:

Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908) by Henri Rousseau. The Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, OH). 

Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908) by Henri Rousseau. The Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, OH). 

And a jungle-y portrait:

Portrait of Joseph Brummer (1909) by Henri Rousseau. Private Collection.

Portrait of Joseph Brummer (1909) by Henri Rousseau. Private Collection.

Joseph Wright of Derby, part deux

Donald Trump just visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip. A bizarre photo of him posing with a glowing orb that resembled the witch’s crystal ball in The Wizard of Oz made its rounds on the Internet today. While I have no interest in a political discussion, I do find the lighting of the image to be eerily similar to one of Who Painted That’s favorite painters – Joseph Wright of Derby. Check it out!

The Alchemist (1771) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK). 

The Alchemist (1771) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK). 

Single artificial light source. Shadows at the edges (Tenebrism). Neoclassical, clearly presented figures huddled around a pseudo-scientific/industrial object. Check, check, and check! The only thing that the otherwise excellent photograph is missing is dynamism. It feels like a static photo-op instead of a Derby painting, with its figures huddling closer, on the verge of some Enlightenment discovery.

Here’s one last look at them, side by side:

 

Jan Steen

We haven’t discussed genre paintings a lot so far. Jan Steen is a name you may or may not know. He is a Dutch Golden Age Baroque genre painter whose own reputation has been eclipsed by his contemporary Johannes Vermeer, but who is still a huge figure in art history.

So how do you tell if you’re looking at a Jan Steen?

A lot of museums have a Jan Steen. Unlike Vermeer, of whose paintings only 34 survive, Steen was pretty damn prolific (his number is around 800!). First let’s start off with something a little stupid, but helpful all the same: painting dimensions. Jan Steen paintings are usually teeny to medium-sized (say, a foot-by-a-foot to 3-feet-by-three-feet). Let’s take two paintings from the Rijksmuseum as a quick point of comparison:

The Feast of Saint Nicholas (c. 1665-1668) by Jan Steen. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

The Feast of Saint Nicholas (c. 1665-1668) by Jan Steen. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

This is about as big a painting as a Steen will get. 33 1/2 by 27 inches.

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

This baby is 12 by 15 feet!

Plenty of Dutch/Flemish Baroque artists loved themselves some big canvasses. Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Frans Snyders, Rembrandt, you name it. Steen was not one of them.

The second thing to look for is a tavern. Jan Steen painted all sorts of scenes, including religious scenes (he was a Catholic), but his favorite thing to paint was a raucous tavern. One could say he was painting what he knew: his father was a relatively well-to-do brewer! Later in life, Steen himself opened up a tavern to supplement his relatively meager income as a painter.

In the Tavern (1660) by Jan Steen. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands).

In the Tavern (1660) by Jan Steen. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands).

In this painting, a lecherous old man seems to be trying to have his way with a scullery maid while men gamble, a dog bites away flees, a peasant drains the last of his beer, and the tavern itself sits in general disarray, possibly because of a recent brawl. Jan Steen’s paintings usually have a lot going on, and they are almost always funny.

Let’s face it: most paintings have zero sense of humor. I mean it: zero. And Jan Steen’s are almost universally human and funny. He doesn’t paint important people striking important poses. He paints peasants and common-folk going about their daily life, especially when they’re drunk. Steen’s bawdy sensibility, like Hieronymus Bosch’s before him, is at odds with the high-minded, grand paintings of his day. Steen’s paintings are often described as satirical or even farcical, but one could argue that Steen is painting life as it really is, and that everybody else’s paintings, of noblemen in purely ceremonial military uniforms and women in dresses so fragile they couldn’t wear them outside, were the stuff of farce. It’s as if paintings like Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, commissioned by an Amsterdam militia company hoping to look important, are the olden-day equivalent of Instagram, presenting a very filtered sense of a person, while Steen’s paintings are candid photographs. There’s more of a humanity to his paintings than even, say, the famous smiles in Frans Hals’ otherwise formalistic portraits that hint at an informal personality under all the pomp and circumstance. There is a lovable shamelessness to Jan Steen’s paintings. In fact, a “Jan Steen household” in Dutch parlance is a messy one. It is no wonder that Steen is seen as the forerunner to William Hogarth, the great British painter, humorist and storyteller who was the perfect antidote to over-the-top Rococo tastes.

In terms of actual style, Jan Steen is more difficult to pin down. Sometimes he’ll use the bright colors of Flemish painters like his contemporary David Teniers the Younger, as seen in these two paintings:

The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1650) by David Teniers the Younger. The Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia). 

The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1650) by David Teniers the Younger. The Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia). 

Peasants Before an Inn (1653) by Jan Steen. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH).

Peasants Before an Inn (1653) by Jan Steen. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH).

Steen and Teniers the Younger are quite similar painters in many ways. Teniers liked to paint people up to no good too, including drinking the day away and relieving themselves in the middle of polite company.

Yard of Peasant House (1640s) by David Teniers the Younger. The Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia).

Yard of Peasant House (1640s) by David Teniers the Younger. The Hermitage (St. Petersburg, Russia).

Tavern Scene with a Pregnant Hostess (c. 1670) by Jan Steen. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA). 

Tavern Scene with a Pregnant Hostess (c. 1670) by Jan Steen. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA). 

Anthony van Dyck

So we’ve talked about Anthony van Dyck before, specifically the way he influenced Sir Thomas Gainsborough in the composition of his portraits. But van Dyck, as a giant of the Baroque, deserves his own entry. Go to any museum, and you’ll probably see a van Dyck hanging on the wall. The dude was a prolific an artist as any but, say, his compatriot Peter Paul Rubens, who relied on a workshop to boost his output.

So how do you spot him?

Today we’re going to cover two easy, hilariously non-technical ways to pick out a van Dyck.

1) The Beard.

James Harden of the Houston Rockets, AKA "The Beard."

James Harden of the Houston Rockets, AKA "The Beard."

No, not that Beard!

This beard:

Self-portrait (1633) by Anthony van Dyck. Private collection.

Self-portrait (1633) by Anthony van Dyck. Private collection.

Behold, the van Dyke Beard! (Note: not a misspelling; the name was Anglicized van Dyke.) A medium-thick (often-upturned) moustache combined with a soul patch or a spiked goatee, such as this bad boy:

Charles I (c. 1635) by Anthony van Dyck. The Royal Collection (Windsor, UK).

Charles I (c. 1635) by Anthony van Dyck. The Royal Collection (Windsor, UK).

2) Charles I

van Dyck was the court painter to English king Charles I, which means he painted Charles a lot (before Charles was beheaded in 1649, anyway). That’s why Anthony van Dyck was knighted in England and is often listed as “Sir Anthony van Dyck.” Remember this painting from our chat about Gainsborough’s portraits?

Charles I and His wife Henrietta Maria with Their Eldest Children: Charles, Prince of Wales (Charles II) next to His Father and Mary, the Princess Royal, in the Arms of Her Mother (1633) by Anthony van Dyck. The Royal Collection (Windsor, UK).

Charles I and His wife Henrietta Maria with Their Eldest Children: Charles, Prince of Wales (Charles II) next to His Father and Mary, the Princess Royal, in the Arms of Her Mother (1633) by Anthony van Dyck. The Royal Collection (Windsor, UK).

If you see a painting of a Baroque English king with wavy brown locks and lots of swagger, you’re looking at a van Dyck of Charles I. I mean, look at this guy:

Charles I at the Hunt (c. 1635) by Anthony van Dyck. The Louvre (Paris, France).

Charles I at the Hunt (c. 1635) by Anthony van Dyck. The Louvre (Paris, France).

Swag for dayyyyyys.

And don’t get Charles I confused with his son, Charles II, who had jet-black, thick, curly hair and either a pencil moustache or a clean-shaven face. Also a villainous sneer.

Charles II (c. 1676) by John Michael Wright. The Royal Collection (Hampton Court Palace, UK). 

Charles II (c. 1676) by John Michael Wright. The Royal Collection (Hampton Court Palace, UK). 

Get a load of that hair!

Joseph Wright of Derby

We’re on a bit of a landscape tear, so let’s keep it going and jump back to the Brits, starting with Joseph Wright of Derby, a Neoclassical painter who was an important forerunner to the Romantic movement.

Wright is probably best known for his dramatic candlelit scenes celebrating the Enlightenment, including this one:

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

Or this one:

A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (c. 1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK). 

A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (c. 1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK). 

His cinematic use of tenebrism, or a very pronounced chiaroscuro, marked by jarring contrasts of light and dark, with darkness almost consuming the frame, recalls the paintings of French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour.

The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1640) by Georges de la Tour. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1640) by Georges de la Tour. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

Unlike Georges de la Tour’s paintings, in which a candle represents the religious – a votive offering to God – Wright’s light source represents the scientific. Man on the cusp of discovery, steaming headlong into the Industrial Revolution. Prayer has been replaced by study.

There’s an undeniable dynamism to Wright’s genre scenes. Compare them to this excellent but much “stiffer” double portrait by neoclassical giant Jacques Louis-David at the height of his powers:

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife (1788) by Jacques Louis-David. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife (1788) by Jacques Louis-David. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

It’s difficult to criticize David for a painting that was no doubt intended more as a society portrait than a fun chemistry genre scene, but little separates this rendition of a couple from the standard van Dyck format other than a few upturned flasks. David was a Neoclassical painter through and through, a rigid disciple of order, harmony and rationality. He’s similar to two painters from the Baroque we’ve discussed, the cityscapists Canaletto and Jan van der Heyden, inasmuch as he’s impossibly precise. David’s paintings are symmetrical, austere and cerebral.

If Wright is best known for his paintings of Enlightenment scientists – and I am not exaggerating when I say that An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump especially belongs on any list of the best paintings in the history of Western art – they may not be his most important.

Why? Well, his Enlightenment scenes owed much to Caravaggio in lighting and composition. What was radical and new was the way he applied tenebrism to landscapes. Unlike his genre scenes that had one foot in the Neoclassical and one foot in the Baroque of the Caravaggisti (the many followers of Caravaggio, from Utrecht to Venice), Wright’s landscapes prefigured an entire movement (Romanticism).

Romanticism was a reaction against the Enlightenment, a rejection of order, balance, and rationality; a shift into the personal, the imaginary, the elusive, the natural, the exotic, the dangerous.

Wright seems to have shifted from the Neoclassical to the Romantic with relative ease, painting many of his first landscapes based on his travels to Italy, including this beautiful moonlit scene of the Bay of Naples:

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private collection.

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private collection.

Now compare it to the same scene by Russian landscape painter Ivan Aivazovsky:

The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night (1842) by Ivan Aivazovsky. 

The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night (1842) by Ivan Aivazovsky. 

Two strikingly similar compositions, 70 years apart. Wright painted many scenes of Naples and Mount Vesuvius in particular (you’ll notice Vesuvius in both the Wright and the Aivazovsky painting).

Even though landscape painting was, at this time, a much-less popular and prestigious form of painting, Wright seems to have been drawn to it again and again, replacing the oil lamp with the sun and the moon. His travels to Italy must have inspired him to stop painting genre scenes of Man on the cusp of conquering Mother Nature in the midst of the Enlightenment. Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight has almost the opposite viewpoint: Man dwarfed by an active Vesuvius, threatening to engulf the seaside resort town any second.

Wright also loved to paint scenes of Italian caverns:

A Cavern, Evening (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA).

A Cavern, Evening (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA).

Ships skirt around a dark and foreboding cavern. Instead of shining a bright light into the unknown, as with the oil lamps in his genre scenes, these men are keeping their distance from the unexplored. The uncharted will stay that way. In this way, Wright is himself stepping away from the perfectly ordered world of the Neoclassical into the exotic lure of the Romantic.

Upon his return from Italy, Wright settled in Bath for almost two years, returning to portraiture without much success. He relocated to Derby, where he painted this Neoclassical potboiler:

Richard Cheslyn (1777) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

Richard Cheslyn (1777) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

It’s a perfectly good Neoclassical painting of one Richard Cheslyn, esquire, pretending to be reading a book and hoping he’ll impress his friends. And for all its technical mastery, it is very much been-there-done-that. Now compare it to a similar composition by Wright:

John Whitehurst (c. 1782-1783) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private Collection.

John Whitehurst (c. 1782-1783) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private Collection.

This painting is a perfect blend of Wright’s oeuvre up to this point in his career. It’s of John Whitehurst, a well-regarded Derbyshire geologist and hydraulic/pneumatic inventor. This isn’t just a society portrait. This dude is hard at work, thinking about how to tame Mother Nature, when a puffing, doom-and-gloom volcano sits right outside his window! As far as I know, there are no active volcanoes in Derbyshire. Or anywhere in the UK. Wright is injecting a Romantic capriccio painting into a Neoclassical portrait of an Enlightenment thinker. And the pose really sells the painting. Unlike Cheslyn, Whitehurst is not “posing” for his painter. He is “alone,” burning the midnight oil, lost in thought.

As you can probably tell, Joseph Wright of Derby was a seriously versatile artist. If you want to pick him out, look for his early genre paintings of industrial workers, scientists and pseudo-scientists gathered around a single, dramatic artificial light source in a crowded room otherwise cloaked in darkness:

An Iron Forge (1772) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

An Iron Forge (1772) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

Look for his mid-career landscapes of Italian bays, volcanoes and caverns lit by the moon or by fiery volcanic eruption, as well as English countrysides lit by the moon:

Dovedale by Moonlight (1784) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, OH).

Dovedale by Moonlight (1784) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, OH).

Finally, look for late-career Neoclassical portraits of Bath and Derbyshire nobles in a fairly dark room or outdoor setting, often combined with a distinctly Romantic touch, or a straight-up Romantic portrait:

The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband (1785) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK).

The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband (1785) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK).

Maybe next time you’re at your local museum, you’ll not only be able to pick out a Wright painting; you’ll be able to pick out when he painted it!

Salomon van Ruisdael and Jacob van Ruisdael

Salomon van Ruisdael and his nephew Jacob are the two giants of Dutch Golden Age landscape art. They were both versatile painters. If you stroll through a museum and see a Dutch Baroque landscape of a harbor, with or without boats, Dutch cottages along waterways, watermills, snowscapes, ruined buildings, fortress or churches in a wood, you could be looking at a painting by Salomon or Jacob van Ruisdael.

Hold on. That’s not very specific. That sounds like every seventeenth-century Dutch landscape! Well, believe it or not, it’s a good start. There are plenty of Dutch Baroque landscape guys who paint other topics entirely. For instance, Jan van der Heyden, apart from the occasional still life and bucolic scene, painted almost entirely cityscapes, such as this view of a church in Amsterdam:

View of the Oude Kerk (1675) by Jan van der Heyden. The National Gallery (Oslo, Norway). 

View of the Oude Kerk (1675) by Jan van der Heyden. The National Gallery (Oslo, Norway). 

The van Ruisdaels may hint at a city or port town in the distance, but their interest is in the Dutch countryside and villages. In terms of their subjects, the van Ruisdaels were much more traditional, and van der Heyden was a pioneer. van der Heyden’s interest was much more in architectural details and the man-made, which you’ll see even more obviously in his precise interiors, especially of churches.

Another example of a very different Dutch Baroque landscape is the pure seascape, such as this one, by master seascapist (it’s a word; I looked it up) Willem van de Velde the Younger (the Elder was a master seascapist himself!):

Sea Battle of the Anglo-Dutch Wars (c. 1700) by Willem van de Velde the Younger. The Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT). 

Sea Battle of the Anglo-Dutch Wars (c. 1700) by Willem van de Velde the Younger. The Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT). 

Not only is this a military scene, which the van Ruisdaels do not paint, it takes place in the middle of the ocean. A van Ruisdael painting may be of ferries or boats (not big ships), but it’s always from a vantage point from on land, as if the van Ruisdaels only painted what they saw en plein air. (Painting outside was a common practice for Impressionists much later, but not during the Baroque; my guess is that the van Ruisdaels did sketch on location and painted in their studios, first in Haarlem and then in Amsterdam.)

So far, we’ve narrowed a van Ruisdael to a bucolic countryside or harbor, painted as if “on location” (read: not in the middle of the ocean and not from, say, a bird’s point of view or “God view” farther up).

How do we narrow down whether it’s a Salomon or a Jacob? Let’s do the easiest thing first: look at the water. If the water is still, it’s probably a Salomon. If it’s choppy – or if there’s a waterfall – it’s a Jacob. Jacob was more of the draftsman, and he was obsessed with getting the smallest botanical and natural details, including white-capped water, correct. His paintings capture the violence of water crashing on rocks or cascading down a waterfall. His seascapes show choppy waves even in a harbor. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

View of the Town of Alkmaar (c. 1650s) by Salomon van Ruisdael. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

View of the Town of Alkmaar (c. 1650s) by Salomon van Ruisdael. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

The water in a Salomon van Ruisdael is still as can be.

Now look at his nephew’s take on sailing:

Rough Sea at a Jetty (c. 1650s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, TX).

Rough Sea at a Jetty (c. 1650s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, TX).

That’s some choppy water! At a dock, no less! It’s a bit of an unfair comparison to the river scene in inland Alkmaar, but Salomon painted more placid river scenes and Jacob painted more harbor/sea scenes.

Here are some Jacob van Ruisdael waterfalls:

He’s interested at the moment the water crashes against the rocks and itself. The painting “ends” at the bottom of the frame right at the moment of greatest violence. Unlike his uncle, he’s not interested in the calm river another quarter mile off.

Salomon and Jacob, for my money, have totally different viewpoints on the relationship of man to nature. Salomon seems to think that humans have mastered nature. His boats float on calm water. His animals do their masters’ bidding unattended:

A Draw-Well with Cattle before Beverwijck Church (mid-1600s) by Salomon van Ruisdael. The Ashmolean (Oxford, UK).

A Draw-Well with Cattle before Beverwijck Church (mid-1600s) by Salomon van Ruisdael. The Ashmolean (Oxford, UK).

Jacob’s boats struggle against the surf. And his animals must be herded:

Mountain Torrent (1670s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

Mountain Torrent (1670s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

All that separates this farmer from falling into a powerful waterfall and the rocks below is a rickety wooden bridge. His – and humanity’s – relationship to nature is precarious at best.

Even the clouds in the two painters’ works betray this theme. Salomon’s are almost universally white and puffy. Jacob’s are just as often dark and foreboding, threatening rain at any moment.

Landscape with the Ruins of the Castle of Egmond by Jacob van Ruisdael (c. 1650-1655). The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL). 

Landscape with the Ruins of the Castle of Egmond by Jacob van Ruisdael (c. 1650-1655). The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL). 

Get a load of those clouds! And that ruin. This is Jacob’s vision of humanity’s never-ending – and ultimately fruitless – struggle to fight entropy, to conquer nature. It’s no wonder that Salomon, he of the sunnier paintings, never painted any ruins.

Finally, look for lightning-“blasted” trees in Jacob’s works that sit at 45-degree angles against the frame:

Landscape with a Half-Timbered House and a Blasted Tree (1653) by Jacob van Ruisdael. Speed Art Museum (Louisville, Kentucky). 

Landscape with a Half-Timbered House and a Blasted Tree (1653) by Jacob van Ruisdael. Speed Art Museum (Louisville, Kentucky). 

In the painting above, one is left to wonder if the home behind the tree is the next to be struck by lightning.

Odds are the museum you’re going to has a van Ruisdael. They were fairly prolific painters – and their work was sought-after, even in their own time. If you see a painting that looks like it might be one of theirs – Baroque landscape, specifically Dutch countryside or harbor, low point-of-view, etc. – take a second before you read the plaque and ask yourself if it’s a Salomon or a Jacob. If you get it right, pat yourself on the back without hitting the statue behind you!

Meindert Hobbema

So far we’ve covered Italianate landscapes by two Frenchmen – Claude Lorrain and Hubert Robert – as well as an Italian, Giovanni Paolo Panini. We’ve also looked at some British landscapes, by John Constable and to a lesser extent, animal painter George Stubbs. Today we’re going to shift into Dutch landscapes to keep you on your toes, starting with Meindert Hobbema.

Sorry, Meindert Whobemma?

Well, he’s not exactly a household name, but he’s one of the finest landscape artists in history. I mean it! He was a pupil of the more-famous Jacob van Ruisdael, working in Amsterdam at the tail-end of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Like so many other great artists, he wasn’t really appreciated in his lifetime, and it took about a hundred years before he came to any kind of prominence, with the English especially snapping him up for their collections. You’ll see more Hobbemas in English museums today than any other for that reason. For many years, Hobbema’s signature was replaced by art dealers with Ruisdael’s, in order to get better prices, even though Hobbema is arguably the better painter. For my money, Hobbema has more atmosphere, and his subtle use of chiaroscuro gives his dark woods and sunny streams nothing short of a poetic, fairy-tale quality.

So how do you pick out a Hobbema? Start with the subject matter. Does it look, well, Dutch? You won’t see ruins from antiquity. You won’t see Tuscan houses with terracotta roofs. You’ll see thatched or shake-shingle cottages and farmhouses, with trees like oaks, birches, maples and beeches, not palms or ferns or any kind of Mediterranean plants. The painting should be set in spring through fall (unlike, say, Avercamp or Brueghel before him, Hobbema did not seem to have an interest in snow!). Is it of a road leading to a pond, a stream, a mill on a pond or a stream, the woods, or a hedge? Is the perspective from, say, about ten to fifteen feet above the road, at a distance of about one to two hundred feet from the nearest building or trees?

Example:

Outskirts of a Wood by Meindert Hobbema (c.1665). The Wallace Collection (London, UK). 

Outskirts of a Wood by Meindert Hobbema (c.1665). The Wallace Collection (London, UK). 

Summer. Aerial perspective. Stream. Road. Building a hundred-plus feet away. Check,  check, check, check, and check!

But that’s not even the easiest way to tell a Hobbema. It’s the trees. The man painted some squiggly trees. Don’t believe me?

Check this out:

Get a load of those trees!

Apart from subject matter and idiosyncratic trees, Hobbema is doing something interesting with the focal points of his paintings. In a lot of landscape paintings, you can sort of look anywhere. But Hobbema’s roads and streams “make” you focus down them, usually to buildings or a grove of trees in the back. (This is called linear perspective.) There’s an architectural quality to his paintings, which are almost all of wild countryside only partially tamed by man. In many Hobbemas, you’ll see small figures, usually in the center of the painting, going down the charted road, stream, etc., staying away from the “wild” edges of the frame.

As a final “cheat code,” look for clouds in his paintings. If there’s a Hobbema without puffy white clouds, I haven’t seen it!

 

Giovanni Paolo Panini

While Canaletto and Guardi were painting in Venice, Giovanni Paolo Panini was painting in Rome, offering views of Roman monuments from the inside and out. In some ways, he is a perfect combination of Canaletto and Guardi, in that he produced both real and imaginary views of his city. He was even trained as an architect and a theater designer, combining the exacting detail, especially in his interiors, of Canaletto, with the fanciful capricci of Guardi. Even the painting style is a perfect blend, somewhere between the impossibly precise “rendering” of a Canaletto cityscape with the more improvisational pittura di tocco of Guardi.

Let’s take a look.

Interior of the Pantheon, Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (c. 1734). The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.).

Interior of the Pantheon, Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (c. 1734). The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.).

Here we are inside the Pantheon in Rome, as if inside a Canaletto. (Canaletto himself painted interiors, from the Doge’s Palace to Westminster Abbey, but not nearly with the same frequency as Panini.) Much like Canaletto’s work, Panini’s was gobbled up by Grand Tourists in the eighteenth-century making their way to Rome, essentially as pricey souvenirs. Imagine Canaletto’s paintings depicting the moment you enter the city (in his case Venice), with much of it in view, and Panini’s depicting what happens fifteen or so minutes later, when you’ve gotten closer to the city (in his case Rome), walking around and inside the buildings.

Now let’s try another.

Roman Capriccio: The Pantheon and Other Monuments (1735) by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Indianapolis Museum of Art (Indianapolis, IN). 

Roman Capriccio: The Pantheon and Other Monuments (1735) by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Indianapolis Museum of Art (Indianapolis, IN). 

Architectural precision inside a Roman capriccio? Check!

It should not surprise you that Panini’s greatest pupil was Hubert Robert, who studied under Panini in Rome. They both loved themselves some sun-drenched ruins!

 

Canaletto or Guardi?

Walk into most halfway-decent museums, and you’ll see a cityscape of Venice, especially the canals, from the late Baroque or early Rococo. You might think to yourself, “Oh look, a Canaletto!” After all, Canaletto’s name is the easiest “cheat code” for paintings of all. Basically all he did was paint canals and his name was “Little Canal” in Italian! I’m reminded of that old “dad joke”: “what are the odds of Lou Gehrig getting Lou Gehrig disease?!” But Canaletto was actually born Giovanni Antonio Canal, the son of painter Bernardo Canal. What are the odds?!

But next time you walk past that Venetian canal painting from the 1700s, check the plaque. It might not be a Canaletto. There was another canal-painting giant from this time, and his name was Francesco Guardi.

So how do you tell them apart?

Let’s start with Canaletto. Canaletto often likes to use wider views of the canals. The painting below of the entrance to the Grand Canal is probably about as close-up a view as his paintings will get. He is also incredibly exacting, capturing every detail, with near-photographic precision, of the waterways and architecture of the city. His images are crystal-clear. He was absolutely painstaking in getting the architectural perspective correct. You can imagine him penciling out every new composition with a ruler before getting down to the paint. Note the church in the background, the Santa Maria della Salute.

The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice by Canaletto (c. 1730). Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, TX).

The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice by Canaletto (c. 1730). Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, TX).

Now compare it to a modern photograph from the same angle:

As you can see, this is no imagined landscape. This is Venice. No disrespect to Canaletto, but I like to imagine his paintings as early postcards of the city. In fact, that’s sort of what they became, as Englishmen shipped them back home while on their Grand Tour of Continental Europe.

Now let’s try a Guardi.

Santa Maria della Salute by Francesco Guardi (c. 1770). Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh, UK).

Santa Maria della Salute by Francesco Guardi (c. 1770). Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh, UK).

Same subject from almost an identical angle and yet, a totally different painting. Its airy brush strokes give it a much more impressionistic feel (a shift from the Baroque to the Rococo). The loose brushwork and small dots combine to give Guardi a unique “touch.” In Italian, it was referred to as pittura di toccoHis paintings have a much more atmospheric quality. On the surface, his views of Venice are far less accurate than Canaletto’s. And yet, they may capture the city much better than his contemporary does. Anyone who has been to Venice can testify to its beauty; but they might also point out its decrepitude. Its waterways choked by algae and polluted by human sewage; its crumbling stone; its smell. None of that is captured in a Canaletto painting, and it is in a Guardi.

Think of a Guardi like the first three Star Wars films. The sets were dirty; lived-in. Here’s a still of Luke Skywalker next to his busted old landspeeder on Tatooine:

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

And compare them to the next three Star Wars prequels (Episodes I, II and III). Here’s a still of a Naboo royal starship on Tatooine:

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). 

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). 

This thing looks like a shiny new concept car!

Make no mistake: I am not trying to compare Canaletto to the worst of Star Wars and Guardi to the best. But I do think that one can admire Canaletto’s technique, precision and commitment to craft without being as emotionally invested in his paintings. To put it simply, Guardi had more fun, and I think his paintings reflect that. Like Hubert Robert, he even took a lot of architectural liberties himself, painting many “capricci” of Venice. Here’s an example:

Venetian Capriccio by Francesco Guardi. The Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena, CA).

Venetian Capriccio by Francesco Guardi. The Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena, CA).

As a final note, Canaletto’s paintings almost always take place in the dead of afternoon, with a bright sun reflecting off the waters. Guardi’s paintings take place at all times of the day, the most atmospheric of which during the gloaming.

Now, just as a Hubert Robert painting is like being “inside” a Lorrain painting, so too is a Giovanni Paolo Panini painting like being inside a Canaletto or a Guardi. What do I mean by that? Well, you’ll have find out next time!

Thomas Gainsborough, part deux

Like Joseph Wright of Derby, Thomas Gainsborough painted portraits out of financial necessity but preferred landscapes.

John Constable may have been the first major British landscape-only painter (if you don’t count guys like Richard Wilson and George Lambert), the forerunner to the master of the genre, J. M. W. Turner; but Gainsborough was the first major British landscape artist. You might remember that Gainsborough basically copied van Dyck’s compositions for his portraits of rich people (so many decorative rocks, randomly placed draperies, and giant pots!). Well, he borrowed from the Dutch for landscapes too, specifically from two of our good friends, Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Let’s first compare Hobbema and Gainsborough:

Woodland Road (1670) by Meindert Hobbema. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Woodland Road (1670) by Meindert Hobbema. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Aerial angle. Linear perspective (with your eyes focusing down the road). A building a couple hundred feet off. Squiggly Lorax trees (especially by the cottage). Small figures. Puffy white clouds. Hobbema!

Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (1748) by Thomas Gainsborough. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (1748) by Thomas Gainsborough. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Same traits here. Just less-squiggly trees.  This is an early work by Gainsborough, and even the painting style is Hobbema. There’s a lot less air in this painting than is typical of a Gainsborough. Even the colors are darker. More earth-toned. The details meticulous. It has the feeling of a Dutch Baroque landscape, and upon first glance, one would not suspect that it’s by the leading light of the English Rococo movement.

Here’s another, in the more typical Gainsborough style:

Road from Market (1767-1768) by Thomas Gainsborough. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH). 

Road from Market (1767-1768) by Thomas Gainsborough. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH). 

The colors are brighter, the feathery brush strokes more visible. Even the paint looks thinner, perhaps mixed with turpentine.

Now let’s have a gander at a Jacob van Ruisdael:

Winter Landscape with Dead Tree (1670s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. The State Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg, Russia).

Winter Landscape with Dead Tree (1670s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. The State Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg, Russia).

A dangerous natural scene with dark, ominous clouds and a “blasted tree,” often seen in Jacob’s work.

Let’s see how Gainsborough flips it:

Carthorses Drinking at a Stream (c. 1760) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

Carthorses Drinking at a Stream (c. 1760) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

It’s a van Ruisdael, all right, but without the sturm. Or the drang.

Compared to their Dutch muses, Gainsborough’s landscapes are a bit more idealized, the colors brighter, the brush strokes looser but hardly sloppy. For lack of a better word, there’s a “daintiness” to Gainsborough’s work that is just lacking in the Dutch catalog. It’s less careful, more spontaneous. And for my money, a little more lively. In this way, despite paying homage to the Dutch Masters before him, Gainsborough puts his own stamp on his landscapes, and it’s no wonder that his work enthralled the likes of John Constable, who lived just sixteen miles from where Gainsborough was born. Together, they made the landscapes of Suffolk famous.

George Stubbs

George Stubbs is no doubt the least-famous painter so far on Who Painted That, but he’s worth knowing about – firstly, because he’s a very fine painter, and secondly, because his work neatly combines elements of three painters we’ve discussed so far (Gainsborough, Reynolds and Lorrain). Stubbs was a British Romantic painter and engraver who is most famous for his portraits of animals. Let’s start with his crowning achievement:

Whistlejacket (c. 1762) by George Stubbs. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Whistlejacket (c. 1762) by George Stubbs. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Whistlejacket is a life-size or just under life-size portrait of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse. It’s a seriously big painting, and it’s arguably the most eye-catching piece in a room of the National Gallery (room 34) that includes J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and John Constable’s The Hay Wain. This painting is every bit the Grand Manner portrait of a Gainsborough – but of a horse! Stubbs’ Romantic rendering of the animal gives it personality and soul, stopping just shy of anthropomorphic portrait. (Stubbs, like many great artists, died broke, but I have to imagine that today he would have at least made a killing illustrating children’s books.) Notice that there is no background here but a solid color. Horses were so long relegated to the background in paintings – or, at best, in the case of a royal equestrian portrait, a Hollywood extra. Stubbs is finally giving the horse its due; making it the star of the show.

Stubbs was an expert draftsman who did dissections of dead horses to better understand their physiology. In a way, he is improving upon the pseudo-exact animal studies of, say, da Vinci and Dürer, and combining it with the portraiture of Gainsborough and Reynolds.

Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht Dürer. (There are copies of this woodcut in museums around the world.)

Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht Dürer. (There are copies of this woodcut in museums around the world.)

But wait, there’s more! Stubbs often situated his animals in idealized landscapes. So for a moment, close your eyes and imagine a uniquely British Gainsborough portrait of an animal combined with an ideal Lorrain landscape. Do you have it in your mind? Okay, now take a gander at this painting:

The Kongouro from New Holland (1772) by George Stubbs. National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, UK). 

The Kongouro from New Holland (1772) by George Stubbs. National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, UK). 

Okay, once more, with feeling:

A Lion Attacking a Horse (1770) by George Stubbs. Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).

A Lion Attacking a Horse (1770) by George Stubbs. Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).

So, in summary, if you see a Romantic portrait of an animal (especially a lion or a horse – or a lion attacking a horse!) painted with simultaneously exacting detail and a borderline anthropomorphic quality (especially the eyes!) in a Lorrain-like ideal landscape, odds are, you are standing in front of a George Stubbs!

Titian

Tiziano Vecello, also known as Titian, was a late Renaissance Venetian painter who, unlike many painters, had a gift for portraits, landscapes, and history paintings alike. So how do you tell if it’s a Titian? Titian is a big topic. Today we’re only going to discuss his use of color – and really, just one color. After all, he invented one – Titian red! Titian red is a brownish-orange or golden red color that Titian used in women’s hair, as seen in the painting above, housed at the Met. The little square of color in the bottom left is a “swatch” of the color, if you’re deciding to paint your house Titian red (I don’t recommend it).

Madonna and Child (c. 1508). The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Madonna and Child (c. 1508). The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Seriously, post-Titian, this color is everywhere in paintings. Check out this painting by pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Bocca Baciata (1859) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA). 

Bocca Baciata (1859) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA). 

For my money though, “Titian red” could just as easily apply to the distinctive color Titian often used for clothing and drapery – a much deeper red that appears to be a combination of a blood-red mineral-based pigment called realgar, lead white, and black, as seen in the painting of Charles V below (Titian was famous the world over within his own lifetime, first painting for Charles V, then Philip II). In fact, despite using a dizzying array of pigments over his long career, Titian was rumored to have said that a painter only needs three colors: white, black and red.For my money though, “Titian red” could just as easily apply to the distinctive color Titian often used for clothing and drapery – a much deeper red that appears to be a combination of a blood-red mineral-based pigment called realgar, lead white, and black, as seen in the painting of Charles V below (Titian was famous the world over within his own lifetime, first painting for Charles V, then Philip II). In fact, despite using a dizzying array of pigments over his long career, Titian was rumored to have said that a painter only needs three colors: white, black and red.Pre-Raphaelite painters loved using Titian hair – or even wilder reds – for their mystical femme fatales.

To give you an idea of Titian red’s enduring appeal, behold! It’s even found its way in a Barbie doll!

For my money though, “Titian red” could just as easily apply to the distinctive color Titian often used for clothing and drapery – a much deeper red that appears to be a combination of a blood-red mineral-based pigment called realgar, lead white, and black, as seen in the painting of Charles V below (Titian was famous the world over within his own lifetime, first painting for Charles V, then Philip II). In fact, despite using a dizzying array of pigments over his long career, Titian was rumored to have said that a painter only needs three colors: white, black and red.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (1548) by Titian. Museo del Prado (Madrid, Spain).

Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (1548) by Titian. Museo del Prado (Madrid, Spain).

Mined realgar.

Mined realgar.

Hubert Robert

Hubert Robert was a French Rococo painter famous for his landscapes and “capricci,” or imagined architectural scenes, especially ruins. In fact, Diderot nicknamed him “Robert of the Ruins.” 

View of Ripetta (1766) by Hubert Robert . École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (Paris, France). 

View of Ripetta (1766) by Hubert Robert . École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (Paris, France). 

So how do you tell if it’s a Robert? Well, you already got the gist of what makes a Lorrain a Lorrain. So now imagine being “inside” a Lorrain painting. Getting a close-up of the buildings that are always just out of reach in a Lorrain. Compare this painting above, View of Ripetta, with Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba.

Robert’s painting is almost a mirror image, looking back at the port, not at the ocean. Robert takes the sunlight on Lorrain’s ocean waves and shows you instead the interplay of light and stone instead, focusing on the buildings themselves. Robert was especially interested in shadows and how they interact with architecture, so his paintings typically take place in the late afternoon, when shadows will be the most prominent.

Unlike a Lorrain, there typically is no grand vista in a Robert. And while Robert’s paintings have a mythic quality much like Lorrain’s, they are also a bit more grounded in reality. For instance, in View of Ripetta, Robert is offering a view of a real street in Rome, the Via di Ripetta (Robert made his start in Rome before painting for the French Court). You can clearly see the Pantheon in the center of the painting. However, it is an imagined Pantheon. The real Pantheon, which sits catty-corner to the Via di Ripetta, is not situated on a harbor. It’s the focal point of the Piazza della Rotonda. Here is a view of it by Piranesi:

Of course, Robert could have been painting the now-defunct port of Ripetta in Rome and just threw the Pantheon on top of it. Now you’re getting the sense of a capriccio. It’s all imagined anyway!

Now let’s do one more Lorrain and Robert comparison. 

Ideal View of Tivoli (1644) by Claude Lorrain. New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA).

Ideal View of Tivoli (1644) by Claude Lorrain. New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA).

Huge, idealized, Italianate landscape with small figures in the foreground, set at sunset? It’s a Lorrain! Note the ruined temple in the distance…

Banquet in Temple Ruins (1795) by Hubert Robert. Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT). 

Banquet in Temple Ruins (1795) by Hubert Robert. Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT). 

Bam! You are now inside that temple – “inside” the Lorrain! This painting by Robert still hints at a greater landscape beyond, but the focus is on the building itself. It’s also very much a painting of its time, with a little “fête galante” inside the ruined temple. If we went “inside” this painting, we’d probably end up with a Fragonard!

You may, of course, run into Roberts and Lorrains that don’t play by these rules. But as a general rule, if you see a painting that is “about” the architecture, it’s a Robert. If you see a painting that is “about” the landscape, it’s a Lorrain.

Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain, also known as Claude Gellée, or simply Claude, is famous for his pastoral and antiquarian landscapes. Lorrain is a staple of the Great Museums. So how do you spot him? Look for wide, idealized and usually Italianate landscapes, with small figures in the foreground. Look for ruins. Lorrain loved himself some ruins! He also, as you can see from this painting, loved scenes from antiquity, often at harbors.

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) by Claude Lorrain. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) by Claude Lorrain. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

Look for a scene in the early hours of the morning or at dusk. Those times of the day probably interested Lorrain the most so that he could paint the poetic light effects on the water, for which he often employed a rare, deep blue ultramarine color that was prized during the Renaissance. It’s no accident that Lorrain, although he was a towering figure of the Baroque, used Renaissance pigments. Like his French compatriot Nicholas Poussin, he made his star in Rome. Lorrain went on to inspire countless landscape painters over the coming centuries, including Hubert Robert, who took the beauty found in ruins and decay to new heights. But that’s for next time.

Thomas Gainsborough

So how do you tell it’s a Gainsborough? Look for full-body portraits in the tradition of van Dyck. Like van Dyck, Gainsborough managed to take potboiler commissions of forgotten nobles to new artistic heights, with delicate Rococo colors and airy brush strokes. Also like van Dyck, Gainsborough employed many of the same or similar backdrops over and over again in his paintings (lots of decorative vases, balconies, rock formations, thick-trunked trees and velvet curtains that weirdly seem to pop out of the landscape). In fact, he often had the backgrounds done before he put the figures in – before he was even commissioned – which gives them a bit of a “floating” quality that one might see in a movie with low-budget CGI (I’m lookin’ at you, Gods of Egypt!).

The Honorable Frances Duncombe (c. 1777) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Frick Collection (New York, NY).

The Honorable Frances Duncombe (c. 1777) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Frick Collection (New York, NY).

With all due respect to Sir Thomas, imagine him for a moment as a glorified school photographer, and all that landscape behind the lady Duncombe as that weird felt background you sat in front of for your school picture. Basically, if you’re looking at a Rococo van Dyck, chances are, it’s a Gainsborough. Of course, it could be a painting by Gainsborough’s arch-nemesis, Joshua Reynolds, or even one by George Romney, but we’ll come to them another time.

Note how similar the two family portraits below are. One is by Gainsborough and one is by van Dyck.

Can you tell which? They are essentially the same composition, with families “floating” in front of a broad landscape, anchored only by a pillar and so much randomly billowing velvet! Or maybe it’s some sort of apparating satin, it’s difficult to tell. It’s not uncommon for an artist to emulate his forebears, and there is no doubt that Gainsborough found his muse in van Dyck. If you are looking at these two family portraits and wondering who is who, here are two tips that have nothing to do with painting technicalities: 1) Look at the clothes. The one to the left is a Gainsborough (The Baillie Family (c. 1784) at the Tate; the one on the right is a van Dyck (Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary (1631-32) at Buckingham Palace). You can pretty reliably pick out what clothes are from the 18th century and which are from the 17th. Things get less ruffly, billowy and silken as you march through time, especially for the men. 2) Look at the colors. If you see mustard, it’s almost certain to be a Baroque painting. Only in the 17th century – and maybe the 90s (see photograph below) – did people actually think they looked hot in mustard.

Joshua Reynolds

Thomas Gainsborough’s main rival in the Royal Academy was Joshua Reynolds, who painted similar “Grand Manner” portraits. So how do you tell a Reynolds from a Gainsborough? Sometimes it’s not easy! Despite having a better reputation than Gainsborough in his own day, Reynolds, unlike Gainsborough, was no draftsman. In fact, it was rumored that Reynolds couldn’t draw a lick. His paintings tend to be far less airy than Gainsborough’s, with important people striking important poses. His paintings also tend to be a bit darker, earthier-toned (read: drabber) than Gainsborough’s (whose own reputation, incidentally, has almost inarguably eclipsed Reynolds’ over the past two hundred years). If you’re really in a pinch trying to figure out who is who, know that Reynolds experimented with red pigments (esp. carmine) that faded during his own lifetime, giving many of his early portraits ghostlike faces, as seen in the painting below:

Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (1758) by Joshua Reynolds. Goodwood House (Chichester, UK).

Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (1758) by Joshua Reynolds. Goodwood House (Chichester, UK).

John Constable

A British Romantic painter, Constable painted many scenes of the Suffolk countryside. A mill-owner's son, he especially loved to paint local waterways. For Constable, very much unlike the British painters who came before him, the landscape was not the mere background of the painting; it was the star of the show. Painters at the Royal Academy looked down on landscapes for generations, even if there was demand for them, as wealthy Brits were buying up landscapes by Salvator Rosa, Karel Dujardin, Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain on their Grand Tours of Continental Europe. But Constable offered something different: a uniquely British, not Italianate, landscape. 

So how do you spot a Constable? Watch out for paintings at eye-level perspective, with some combination of a river in the foreground, often being forded by oxen or horses, with Salisbury Cathedral in the background. (Rainbows are optional.) This painting happens to have all those things in one neat package!

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) by John Constable. National Museum Wales (Cardiff, UK).

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) by John Constable. National Museum Wales (Cardiff, UK).

This painting happens to have all those things in one neat package!

Also look for small human figures, if any at all, in his paintings. He is well-known for his watercolors as well as his oils. He also employed a palette knife in his later career on snow and clouds, giving his landscapes a less mannered feel, putting him on the cutting edge of art (palette knife, cutting edge - get it?!). Have a gander:

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-1828) by John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts (London, UK)

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (Rainstorm over the Sea) (1824-1828) by John Constable. Royal Academy of Arts (London, UK)

In paintings such as Seascape Study, Constable shifted from Gainsboroughesque, idyllic views of the Suffolk countryside to proto-Impressionist scenes of sea and sky, stepping away from nostalgia for a rural England that was rapidly disappearing in the Industrial Age. He was, just the same, moving away from the centuries-long influence of Dutch Golden Age landscapes into something entirely new - the seeds of modern art. The sudden transition may have found its root in Constable's rivalry with J. M. W. Turner, the master of atmosphere. But that's for another time!