Spotlight on a Masterpiece Archive

Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Toulouse-Lautrec's Au Lit

Whilst this summer’s show Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery has now left our shores, having been lovingly packed into bespoke transportation crates, it has found a very happy resting place at The Frick Collection in New York until 27 January 2013.

The exhibition has received some wonderful reviews including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

One of the masterpieces in the exhibition is Au Lit (c.1896) by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, so this edition of Spotlight on a Masterpiece will take a look at this work in more detail.

Toulouse-Lautrec: Au lit, c1896

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Au lit, c. 1896

Created using black chalk for the sweeping lines and graphite for the facial details, this drawing shows a woman, lying in bed, looking straight back out at the viewer.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s masterful foreshortening and energy keeps the eye dancing across the page but you keep getting drawn back to her face, in transfixing detail yet described in only a few, choice, graphite marks.

But what is she thinking about? This drawing is likely to have been made from life and the sitter is probably a prostitute from one of the brothels of Montmartre which he spent time in.

The confident, dynamic marks could suggest a dominance over the sitter and some commentators argue that his approach to female sex workers was exploitative, but her comfortable and un-sexualised pose suggests a familiar and friendly relationship to the artist.

She is abundantly aware of the artist’s gaze, and really doesn’t seem to mind or care.

Not only her expression, but also her crossed legs and unkempt hair capture her direct nonchalance.

The bedclothes pulled up to her chin, yet exposing her feet, only increase the enigmatic nature of her pose.

Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Modigliani's Female Nude

Regular visitors to The Courtauld Gallery may have noticed that Modigliani’s Female Nude is back on the gallery walls after its loan to The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Russia for an exhibition,  so it seems like a good opportunity to look into this painting further for this edition of  ‘Spotlight on a Masterpiece’

Gallery visitors looking at Modigliani's 'Female Nude'

Gallery visitors looking at Modigliani's 'Female Nude'

Female Nude was rather controversial when first exhibited.

Although the pose itself  was quite typical of what was being shown in the Salon in Paris at that time, the taboo of Modigliani’s explicit depiction of pubic hair in his nudes led to the police closing his first and only solo exhibition during his lifetime, at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917, on grounds of indecency.

Many of Amedeo Modigliani’s contemporaries found his combination of avante-garde and conventional methods an affront to the grand tradition of European painting.

The woman’s simplified features and elongated face derive from Modigliani’s knowledge of non-western art such as African, Oceanic and Egyptian sculpture.

His handling of paint was much rougher than the smooth, highly finished surfaces of most Salon nudes at that time.

In this painting, the paint is applied in short stabbing strokes, wet-in-wet, so that the brush and scratch marks are clearly visible particularly in the way that the model’s flowing hair is accentuated.

Modigliani 'Female Nude' c1916

Modigliani 'Female Nude' c1916, Oil on canvas, 92.4 x59.8cm, Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Gift, 1932










Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In the first in a new series of posts, we’ll be uncovering the history, stories and trivia behind masterpieces in The Courtauld’s permanent collection.

This month we are looking at Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

The artist Paul Gauguin joined van Gogh in the town of Arles in November 1888, to paint together in what van Gogh called the ‘studio of the south’, but they quickly started to quarrel.

Van Gogh had hoped to set up a thriving community of like-minded artists, of which he and Gauguin would be the first.

After an argument with Gauguin in December 1888, van Gogh famously mutilated his ear.

This disagreement signalled the end of van Gogh’s dream, and his disappointment is evident in this stark self-portrait; one of the first paintings he produced after his release from hospital in January 1889.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s disagreement with Gauguin was grounded on a dispute over whether the artist should work from nature or from the imagination.

Gauguin felt that an over-reliance on the external world marked a lack of creativity, whilst van Gogh drew rich meanings from his observation of nature.

This particular painting is clearly grounded in observation with the subject illuminated by clear daylight and exposed by contrasting colours and textures, and in this way it differs greatly from Gauguin’s simplified and abstract technique.

Notice the almost blank canvas to the left contrasted against the vibrant Japanese colour print to the right.

Coupled with the prominent bandage over the artist’s ear, this contrast seems to suggest a present fear of creative drought compared with hopeful dreams of the past.

It’s also worth noting that the colours you see today are in fact different from the colours that van Gogh originally chose.

Research at The Courtauld has revealed that the paints used by the artist were so cheap that their colour has gradually changed over the years.