For the past six weeks I have been attending the National Gallery’s course, Stories of Art Online – A Modular Introduction to Art History. This was the second module of a six module course which will run until June 2021. Regrettably I missed the first module (1250 -1400), not being aware of it, but since the modules cover specific time periods, they can be enjoyed as stand-alone events.
This was my first experience of an art history course, and quite unlike any other online course I have attended, and I have attended many over the years. The delivery was didactic; a two hour lecture each week, with at least 50 slides being shown in each lecture. This might seem daunting, but the lectures were captivating. Not only was the lecturer, Jo Walton, impressively knowledgeable and easy to listen to, but she was also warm, friendly and infectiously passionate about the art history she was discussing. The slides she selected to show us were stunning. I linked my laptop to a large monitor for these lectures, so that I could enlarge the slides and see them in all their glorious detail. I took this screenshot as an example of one of the slides shown in the final week.
Despite each week being essentially a lecture, it didn’t feel overly formal. Most weeks there were one or two polls which asked attendees to vote on questions posed by Jo Walton, who then showed us the results of the poll. Each week we were emailed slide lists and a handout with some homework for the following week. These handouts included resources for further exploration, which usually involved visiting galleries’ websites to explore and examine some of the paintings that would be shown in the following week. In Week 5 the homework included a task which required submitting our opinion to a Googledoc, where we could then see how others on the course had responded. There was always a 10 minute break in the middle of each week’s lecture which was preceded by a question and answer session. Attendees could post questions in written form during the lecture. These were either answered by Jo Walton in the break, or in the final 10 minutes, or by a lecturer who assisted in the background by responding to questions as the lecture was being delivered. I’m not sure exactly how many people were on the course, but I think probably hundreds. The National Gallery team certainly worked hard to ensure that all questions were answered.
Too much was covered in this wonderfully enjoyable course to record here, so instead I will select an art work from each week, and post it here. The images selected are not necessarily my favourite images of the week, but rather have been selected to illustrate a point. There were so many wonderful slides in this course that it was hard to make these selections. (Clicking on the images will enlarge them).
Week 1. The idea of the Renaissance
As we know, ‘Renaissance’ is a French word meaning ‘rebirth’. At the time, people started looking to the past and taking an interest in the learning of ancient times, in particular, the learning of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was seen as a ‘rebirth’ of that learning. Painting, architecture, sculpture, music and philosophy all flourished during this time. Week 1 focussed on artists in Florence such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Masolino, Fra Angelico, Uccello and Piero della Francesca.
During the 15th century developments in art were influenced by new materials and techniques, an interest in subjects such as portraits, tales of myth and history, a delight in landscape and the depiction of realistic details. One of the new techniques was single point perspective. Uccello’s painting is an example of this. You can see it particularly in the bottom of the painting, in the lines created by the swords and lances on the ground.
Week 2. Bruges and the artists of Flanders
I particularly enjoyed this week, probably because I have visited some of the galleries in Bruges which were mentioned, whereas I have never been to Florence. The course did make me want to visit Florence though – maybe when this pandemic is over!
At this time Bruges was an important and wealthy trading city, as was Florence. Although Paris was a large city, its focus was on civil unrest, plagues, famine and war. Thus Bruges, Ghent and Brussels became the creative centres of western Europe, and through strong trading links with Florence, ideas, techniques and skills were exchanged between the artists of Florence and Flanders. In the wonderful Triptych above, Robert Campin uses his own version of perspective (look at the table top in the central panel). He also includes a lot of symbolism, the lily, the snuffed candle, the tiny figure with the crucifix, the copper vessel and the lions. In Florence, artists used fresco and tempera techniques, but these techniques are not suitable for wet climates like Bruges. Artists in Flanders therefore used oil paints. Oil paint is translucent and allows light to penetrate. It also dries slowly so can be manipulated. This changed the quality of the paintings.
Some of the other artists discussed in Week 2 were Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling.
Week 3. Portrait, people and gods
The Renaissance was underpinned by humanist ideas, moving away from the idea that all was ordained by God, towards a greater sense of individuality. This in turn promoted the development of more realistic portraits and sculptures, as seen in the work of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Durer and Giovanni Bellini.
The study of ancient texts, which was a feature of this time in art history, also led to an interest by artists in the stories of gods and goddesses, lovers and nymphs, myths, legends and past heroes. See, for example, the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo and, of course, Sandro Botticelli’s painting ‘Venus and Mars’, which you can see in Room 58 of the National Gallery, and on the gallery’s website, which features a talk about it – https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/sandro-botticelli-venus-and-mars
But, I have selected these amazing murals in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, as an illustration of the content of this week. These murals, depicting the journey of the Magi, were painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. The detail in these paintings is extraordinary.
There were also slides, this week, of many wonderful portraits, in paintings, sculpture and on cameos, medals and coins. The latter depicted portraits in profile, since these poses were easier for working in metal, leading to many artists painting portraits in profile. Throughout this period, painters, such as those I have mentioned above, explored many different faces and emotions which they expressed with some stunning results.
Week 4. Secular and domestic
At this time in art history painting landscape for it’s own sake didn’t really exist. So this painting by Albrecht Durer in 1496 was unusual.
Where landscapes were painted, they were secondary to the main subject of the painting, such as a historical, religious or mythological event. Paintings of such events were considered the most important of the time, followed by portraits of prestigious people and then paintings of ordinary and everyday life. Landscape painting didn’t become a genre in its own right until the early 1500s. Urban landscapes were also included as backgrounds to portraits, and these, together with the interiors in which subjects for portraits were painted, provide a lot of information about life in the time. For example, wardrobes had not yet been invented, so households kept all their belongings in chests, which could be very ornate and exquisitely painted (see, for example, Cassone with a Tournament Scene in the National Gallery).
Week 5. Arts of court and state
This week focussed on the second half of the fifteenth century art in different cities. The lecture began with the story of Rome. At the beginning of the 1400s Rome was a very depressed place, with various families fighting for control of the city and the Pope was based in Avignon in France. But by the late 1440s, the Pope had returned to Rome and the Papacy began the work of creating a modern city, and commissioning and collecting modern and classical art. At this time the Sistine Chapel was built and the Vatican decorated with opulent interiors and wonderful frescoes. Artists in Venice, Florence, Nuremburg and Rome, continued to develop their understanding of linear and aerial perspective and their fascination with the human body. Drawings were rare at this time because paper was very expensive, but Jacopo Bellini began to make drawings for his own interest, and Pisanello began drawing horses and wildlife. By 1450 artists were making sketches from life, particularly of the human figure, and print making, and engravings became important, as demonstrated by the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea Mantegna,, Martin Schongauer, Piero della Francesca and Albrecht Durer.
Week 6. The artist as ‘star’
Today we accept as the norm, artist as ‘star’, an isolated individual working on art of intense personal meaning. This was not the case in the 15th century, when art was a more collegiate experience. Artists worked alongside other craftsmen such as shoemakers, and worked in many different disciplines. For example, Botticelli started as a goldsmith.
But, by the end of the 15th century some stars were rising, notably Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and later Raphael. All three raised the status of the artist in society, and still inspire us today. Jo Walton suggested that Leonardo was more interested in engineering than painting. He didn’t complete a great many paintings. In fact, he rarely finished anything. More important to him were his notebooks, which I was fortunate to see in an exhibition at the British Library in London in 2019.
I have not been able to do justice to the content of this course. For example, Jo Walton talked a lot about sculpture, which I haven’t included here. I also realise looking back through the portraits that I haven’t mentioned how artists began to work so effectively with light and the direction of light as depicted in this painting by Bellini. There were many illustrations of this during the course.
But hopefully there is enough here to spark an interest in the art of 1400-1500 Renaissance art.