Exploring Portraiture And Identity!

On Wednesday 25 October 2017, The Courtauld welcomed a group of young people, from state schools and colleges across London, to take part in an Insights into Art History workshop focusing on portraits by the artist Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943). The Insights into Art History day tied in with the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys.

Art historian Dr Julian Freeman gave the students an introduction to Chaïm Soutine, a Russian migrant working in Paris during the early twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s Soutine produced striking portraits of people working in restaurants and hotels around the French capital.

In The Courtauld Gallery, we looked at portraits from the permanent collection. A painting that caught our attention was Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The group commented on the barmaid’s direct and powerful stance, unusual at the time of painting in 1882. By discussing composition and brushwork we explored how Manet’s artistic decisions have the power to alter how we perceive the barmaid. We also discussed Vincent Van Gogh’s expressive use of colour in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889.

Upstairs in the exhibition, we sketched the waiters, cooks and bellboys who feature in Soutine’s vibrant paintings. We were particularly drawn to the subject’s crumpled uniforms, because of the vivid tonalities of the red, blue and white brushstrokes

In a similar way to Manet, Soutine painted his subjects with powerful stances and vulnerable facial expressions. We learnt that Soutine would rework his paintings many times, repainting the same person until he was completely happy with how they were represented. You can find out more about Soutine in our new Artist and Sitter learning resource.

Back in the seminar room, students were able to produce portraits from life, like Soutine did. Ian, a security guard at the Courtauld, very kindly agreed to be the subject of the students’ sketches and paintings. Led by the artist and art historian, Matthew Krishanu, we learnt new experimental drawings and painting techniques which the students used in their own contemporary responses to Soutine’s work.

The first exercise involved making quick charcoal sketches of Ian, who sat on a stool in front of a blue and red backdrop. Matthew showed us how to use the side of the charcoal stick to create background shading. Then, by rubbing out small areas to create light, and layering darker lines to create shadow, the portraits of Ian really came to life.

We then introduced colour into our portrait studies by experimenting with layering oil pastel on coloured paper:

For the remaining few hours of the workshop the students produced a portrait of Ian using acrylic paint on canvas board. A light wash of one colour was used as the grounding for the paintings. After allowing time for drying, layers of acrylic paint in an array of colours were applied to the canvas.

We were also shown how to scratch paint away from the surface, and how to use different brushes for a ‘scumbling’ textured effect.

All of the portraits produced brilliantly captured Ian’s character through composition and brushwork. By exploring Soutine’s portraits and his painterly techniques, the students were able to look closely at the sitter to create their own artworks filled with energy and attention to detail.

Thank you to Matthew, Julian and Ian for such a fantastic workshop!

Our next Insights into Art History workshop Edgar Degas: Capturing Movement takes place on Saturday 18 November 2017.

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys
19 October 2017 – 21 January 2018


Written by Hannah Dixon

The Courtauld Gallery is top on Bill Nighy’s London list  

This summer we invited actor and Courtauld Gallery Friend Bill Nighy to give a tour of his favorite works in our collection.

Who better to show you around The Courtauld Gallery than beloved actor Bill Nighy?

We worked with the fantastic team at Chocolate Films to story board the film based on Bills favorite works in our collection.  Our aim was to raise the awareness of the gems in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, so far over 400,000 people have watched this video in a matter of months.


Follow in celebrity footsteps on this video tour from The Courtauld Gallery



Behind the Scenes in Prints and Drawings: Auditing the collection

The Courtauld Gallery’s collection of prints numbers over 26,000 individual works. While that doesn’t make it the largest such collection in the UK – to put this in perspective, the British Museum has over two million prints – it’s still an impressive number and a challenge to keep track of.

So how do we do it?

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper, and Rachel Hapoienu, Drawings Cataloguer: IMAF Project

May Fortune’s Faerie Barque by Wind and Wave Be Wafted Thee, hand-coloured print, Jessie Marion King (1875-1949)

Everyone who works with the print collection on a regular basis – curators, conservators, registrars and our team of postgraduate Print Room assistants – endeavours to be as careful as possible about returning prints to their correct locations when they’re taken out for study, conservation or loan. But every couple of years, we set aside a few weeks and undertake a survey of the whole, or a large portion of, the collection – an audit.

We recently completed an audit of our 11,000-strong collection of British prints. This was actually the first time we were able to survey our entire holdings in this area, as cataloguing was only completed two years ago. As usual in such a tight-knit team, many people pitched in to work through the boxes in pairs, checking their contents against what’s recorded on our collection database.

It might not be glamorous work, and reading off endless strings of numbers can swiftly lead to a condition we jokingly referred to as ‘print audit brain’, but not only is it necessary for the proper management of the collection, it can turn up unexpected delights – for example, some lovely hand-coloured prints by Scottish illustrator Jessie Marion King (1875-1949), a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s always good to be reminded of exactly how many treasures we have in store.

By Dr Rachel Sloan

William Henry Hunt: Country People

Mention William Henry Hunt to most watercolour enthusiasts and you’re likely to hear something along the lines of ‘Oh, the one who did all the birds’ nests.’ Not for nothing was Hunt (1790-1864) nicknamed ‘Bird’s Nest’ Hunt; both during his lifetime and after, he was best known for his luminous, richly detailed still lifes of flowers, feathers and bird’s nests.

However, there’s another side to Hunt’s work, every bit as fascinating, that’s overshadowed by the birds’ nests: a remarkable series of single figure studies of rural labourers produced mostly during the middle of his career, in the 1820s and 1830s. William Henry Hunt: Country People (on view in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery until 17 September) sheds light on this important aspect of his work. At the heart of the show are two works in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, one of them exhibited here for the first time, depicting two gardeners on the estate of Hunt’s patron, the Earl of Essex.

The cast of characters – gardeners, gamekeepers, farmers, millers, kitchen maids and more – might strike us as appealingly nostalgic, capturing a lost golden age. In fact, the English countryside was undergoing tremendous social change while Hunt was painting its denizens, and some of these tensions are apparent in his choice of subject matter. Among the prosperous-looking gamekeepers, we find a poacher – a figure who undermined the age-old order the gamekeeper represented.

Hunt’s portrayals of country people are notable for their sympathetic dignity and their meticulous detail. Many of them come across as portraits of distinct individuals, but in some cases we now know he worked from a costumed model: sometimes the same figure appears in different guises, as in The Kitchen Maid and The Orphan, both modelled by his wife; in another instance, a ‘gamekeeper’s’ incorrect (and dangerous!) hold on a gun reveals that he is more likely a model than the professional of the title.

Whether records of actual rural workers or studies of a posed model, however, all of Hunt’s watercolours suggest a close encounter with his subjects. Disabled from birth and unable to work as freely out of doors as his peers, Hunt made a virtue of necessity by concentrating on figures and still lifes, closely observed in indoor settings. He insisted on working entirely from life and the vivid naturalism of his figures suggests his tireless engagement with the world around him. John Ruskin, a great admirer of Hunt’s work, called his watercolours ‘virtually faultless’. Come to the Drawings Gallery and see for yourself!

By Dr Rachel Sloan

Illuminating Objects: Borrowing specimens from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Illuminating Objects intern Natasha Gertler tells us about her research.

The art of identifying decorative stones, such as those in the Courtauld’s Baroque frame, is achieved through observation, connoisseurship and comparison with other stones of known identity, rather than scientific analysis. Composed of exactly 1000 polished stone slabs of uniform shape and size, the extensive Corsi collection was established in Rome in the first quarter of the 19th century and is now housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Most of the stones are of known provenance and hence the collection is an excellent resource for decorative stone identification.

As soon as we were introduced to the collection, we immediately contacted Monica Price, the author of the comprehensive Corsi collection website as well as the Head of Earth Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She kindly agreed to visit the Courtauld to view the frame and her extensive knowledge of decorative stones proved to be invaluable.

What was previously thought to be a wine-coloured variety of jasper, Monica identified to be in fact most likely an inlay of the mineral amethyst backed with a red metallic foil. This became very apparent when the segment was illuminated and viewed through a microscope, producing a reddish orange glow through the translucent purple amethyst, as shown below.

Amethyst probably backed with red metallic foil

Amethyst probably backed with red metallic foil, illuminated and viewed through a microscope

From a very early stage of my Illuminating Objects internship, I decided to display the frame alongside specimens of rocks and minerals that correspond to the stones present in the frame. I wanted to do so in order to emphasise the beautiful results of the interplay of man and nature, by highlighting the stones’ transformations from rough to cut and polished, revealing the true beauty of nature’s wonders.

Having already accumulated samples of lapis lazuli and amethyst from private collections in London, Monica kindly offered to lend us a variety of Sicilian jaspers and agates from the Earth Collection of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Sicilian jaspers are now depleted and no longer quarried, so it is very fortunate to be able to include a selection in my display.

Enthusiastically accepting her generous invitation, I readily booked my train ticket and off to Oxford I went. The stone slabs of the Corsi collection are splendidly preserved in drawers away from public display, and remain in Corsi’s original arrangement. His arrangement is very significant as he was one of the few collectors of his time who attempted to order their collection according to the geological properties of the stones rather than superficially by aesthetic similarities.

The Corsi collection is magnificent. Almost bursting in awe, I perused the stones, locating brilliant samples of my favourite rocks and minerals whilst discovering new colours and patterns I thought only to be imaginable.

I could have continued for hours but work had to be done. Monica kindly showed me the agates and Sicilian jaspers from the Earth Collection that I could choose to borrow. Having made my selection with Monica’s helpful guidance, and filled out the necessary paperwork, I returned back to the Courtauld Gallery with the specimens under my fierce protection. Glowing with joy, I now had everything I needed for the display.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The Corsi Collection

Natasha Gertler and Monica Price with the Corsi collection

Stone slabs of Sicilian jaspers from the Corsi collection, corresponding to those present in the Courtauld frame