Anna Campbell

August 2009


The National Gallery of Art Rocks!

This column is overloaded with pictures but they are worth a thousand words! There are thousands of magnificent items in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. but I’ve picked out a few pieces that really spoke to me. Honestly, how lucky are the people who live there that they have this fabulous gallery on their doorstep and it’s free!

MFTAug09-1I found this Bronzino portrait of an unknown young woman from the Medici Court in Florence in the mid-16th century completely hypnotic. First of all, you’re drawn to look at her by that beautiful red dress with its gorgeous brocade pattern. Then you’re transfixed by the sadness in her eyes. I did a tour of the Italian collection with a gallery volunteer. While she unfortunately didn’t feature this picture in her lecture, when I said how much I love it, she told me that the little boy was added later because he died before the original portrait was done. No wonder this beautiful woman looks so sad. I love portraits from the past – when you get a really good one like this, it’s really like talking to someone who is still alive.

MFTAug09-2Speaking of portraits, isn’t this a magnificent Rembrandt self-portrait? I love the progression of his self-portraits, from the cocky young man to the older, disillusioned painter, the man who knows about sorrow and failure and endurance. The man who lost a beloved wife and faced bankruptcy and had come to terms with his genius. When he painted this portrait, he was 53 and there’s such wisdom and humanity and compassion in those eyes, it makes me want to cry. How is it that an arrangement of colored pigment on a canvas can cut straight to my heart like that? I have no idea. The other interesting thing about Rembrandt is that he’s one artist who, for me, never really comes across well in reproduction. You need to stand in front of the actual painting to get that killer emotional hit.

MFTAug09-3Actually it’s only just struck me how heavily my selection relies on portraits. As I said, I love them. I love looking into faces from the past and imagining their lives and their feelings. It’s probably part of what turned me into a historical romance writer, that need to view the past as a living, vivid reality. This Whistler portrait is of another sad-eyed girl. It’s right at the end of a long corridor and the white is so startlingly clear, it just draws you nearer. It’s close to life-size too which makes it very imposing. So the girl is a powerful figure but she seems to shrink from that power. It has a very ambivalent emotional charge, this picture.

MFTAug09-4I love, love, love the Flemish painters of the late gothic era. Again, it’s the faces that call to me. Although I also love the details of clothing and furniture in these pictures. The rich oil paint colors really glow in these paintings like jewels. When I lived in London, I used to haunt the National Gallery there and one of my favorite paintings was Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Wedding’, the famous marriage picture with the convex mirror and the gorgeous little dog. Like the Arnolfini picture, this exquisite ‘Annunciation’ is small and richly detailed so you can get lost looking at patterns on carpets and the angel’s cloak. Aren’t the figures beautifully done? The body language is so evocative and look at how beautifully the clothing follows the contours of the figures. My favorite part of this painting, though, is the beatific smile on the angel’s face. It’s hard to tell in the print but in the actual painting, the smile just glows with heavenly joy.

MFTAug09-5I know, I know. Another portrait. But this one really touched my heart. The Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn painted throughout the Regency period and I find his faces so full of life and vitality and vigor. There’s a lot of his work in Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well as in the various Scottish stately homes. Something about the way he paints the eyes with so much intelligence and humanity always gets me. What moves me about this picture is the way he’s painted the old man in soft focus and in subtle colors so he’s fading into the background full of autumnal shades. Whereas the child is bright, almost in a spotlight, and stepping into the foreground of the picture. It’s a beautiful and apt visual expression of the old man fading into the end of his life and the child snatching forward towards the future. The symbolism is underlined by the fact that the child is reaching eagerly for the pocket watch. But the picture isn’t didactic and there’s no hint that these figures are merely allegorical. They retain their humanity throughout. Beautiful!

MFTAug09-6And just for something different, a landscape! Well, more a riverscape! This painting lights up the room it’s in. That moonlight is almost tangible, it’s so strong. It’s a painting about light, but night light – fires and lamplight on the boats, moonlight in the sky and on the water. It’s quite haunting when you see the real thing, partly because it’s a large painting so you really feel like you could fall into it. The blue is so deep and magnetic, you can feel the cold night air on the Thames and hear the waves lapping on the hulls of those wooden ships moored at the docks. So atmospheric!