The Greats: World Art Masterpieces at the Art Gallery of NSW

Raeburn Skater

Sir Henry Raeburn, Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddington Loch c1795 oil on canvas 76.2 x 63.5 cm © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

A thought provoking image of the elderly Reverend Robert Walker, minister of the Canongate Kirk and a member of the Edinburgh Skating Society skating on Duddington Lock in Scotland c1795 reputedly painted by Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) is one of many subtle references throughout the exhibition The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland now on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Pleased to be in Sydney over the Xmas period, I set aside two hours to give myself a real treat and view this amazing show. The paintings in situ are all extremely accessible and perfect for those who like to enjoy confronting such great works up close and personally.

Must say that I couldn’t help but think that if I had been viewing them elsewhere in the world, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to enjoy the feeling of intimacy that in some places seemed overwhelming.

I love the serenity of this work in the flesh so to speak. It depicts a mature male skater gliding silently across the ice in an elegant effortless manoeuvre almost balletic in style. It is highly sophisticated, a work of wonderful restraint and ethereal beauty.

Titian Venus

Titian, Venus rising from the sea (Venus Anadyomene) c1520-25 oil on canvas 75 x 56.2cm © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Always a subject of speculation as to its origins, The Skater is controversial among many academics endeavouring to debunk the notion it was actually painted by Scotland’s famous portrait painter Henry Raeburn during the age of Romanticism.

President of the Edinburgh Society of Artists and knighted in 1822, the security of Raeburn’s wife’s excellent dowry allowed him to explore his abilities as an artist during his lifetime,

Unlike any of his other portrait works in the show, The Skater was commissioned from an artist who was self taught, moving from being apprenticed as a goldsmith to turning his hand to miniature painting, before ascending to full-scale portraiture.

A meeting with great British painter Joshua Reynolds President of the Royal Academy whom he admired helped improve both his hand and his work and he was no doubt pleased when he was made a member of the Royal Academy in 1815.

It’s smaller than all his other works and lacks some of his other signature ‘characteristics’, which they say is significant. However there being no written evidence to support their claims, it retains its now famous attribution.

Venus Anadyomene, depicted rising from the sea confronts you first as you arrive in the gallery. She is a well known work by Italian artist Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488–1576), known as Titian.

Our Lady of the Rosary

Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin adoring the Sleeping Christ child (The Wemyss Madonna) c1485d, tempera, oil and gold on canavas, © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Venus stood for sexual love and for ruling the season of Spring, presiding over nature’s fecundity. Her many legendary love affairs had a particular appeal to the humanist courts of Italy and it was at this time she shed the hostile overtones of the Middle Ages, which associated her only with sinful lust.

The idea was that now the Goddess was spreading happiness before her.

She was painted in 1520 when the focus on well-rounded females who could perpetuate the family line was one of the most important aspects of the age of humanism in Italy. It is a powerful image.

She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleam’d upon my sight;
A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament…*

She symbolized love, which now ruled the world and the merging of nature with humankind as well as humankind with nature. In this way Venus also became symbolic of the giving and receiving of thanks.

This is a show of great depth, the works chosen represent many of the old masters a rare occurrence in Australia. Works by some of my favourite artists were here and so you can appreciate that I revelled in the wonderful opportunity to see them first hand.

The Virgin adoring the Sleeping Christ Child by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) reminded us it was Xmas, while revealing why he was considered one of the most outstanding painters of the second half of the fifteenth century in Florence.


Thomas Gainsborough, The Hon Mrs Graham 1775-1777, oil on canvas © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

All the paintings on show are an important aspect of our own cultural heritage, which is echoed in the sandstone façade of the Art Gallery of NSW itself where many of the great names of the artists who helped to shape the western world and its arts and culture are recorded.

They also represent the glory amassed by our nineteenth century counterparts, who were intent on saving the very best of our heritage in art as it reflects our changing attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions over the centuries; prompting us to remember harder times, lest we forget.

There are over some 70 paintings in this show, all finely and skilfully executed including works by such illustrious artists as Raphael, Lotto, Titian, Vasari, Veronese, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Constable, Nasmyth, Degas, Monet, Sargent, Watteau and on they go, far too numerous to name.

British portrait painter extraordinaire Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) endowed history with lyric faces, setting his sitters against a classical scene wearing the sumptuous fabrics of their time in their attire.

When recording his sitter The Honourable Mrs Graham c1777, Gainsborough preserved the intimacy and charm of his sitter while giving her a scale and presence in a fully blown society portrait.

Lovingly preserved by a husband distraught at his young wife’s early death in 1792, the portrait was gifted to the Scottish gallery on condition the painting should never leave Scotland.

Personally, I found it thrilling to stand only inches away from any of the wonderful works being showcased, enabled to study the way the artist’s brushes, crayons or pencils once caressed canvas, parchments and papers bringing to life either a story from mythology or a story from life.

Ladies Waldegrave 2

Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Ladies Waldegrave, 1780, oil on canvas, © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

British Artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) recorded the nieces of the celebrated connoisseur and art critic Sir Horace Walpole of Strawberry Hill, The Ladies Waldegrave c1780.

Lady Charlotte, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Anna were recorded in all their finery, wearing the fashionable white paint on their faces while attending to their feminine activities.

Whatever their sex, those who painted and powdered at the time were unaware the mercury water they used to whiten their skin was dangerous

The ceruse they besmeared themselves with contained white lead and ruined their skins, causing their hair to fall out and they either developed appalling gastric disturbances or got the shakes and even dying, a victim of the cosmetics they wore.

When that pretty young woman, Lady Fortrose, Lady Harrington’s eldest daughter was ‘at the point of death’ Horace Walpole tells us, ‘killed like Lady Coventry and others by white lead of which nothing could break her’. His nieces, the Ladies Waldegrave….did not heed his advice either!

An understanding of mythology became so familiar to educated men and women of the early Renaissance in Italy and then in Europe, meant that it could be used as an allegorical language, conveying meanings not always obvious to our eyes today.

William Dyce

William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini, 1837, oil on canvas © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

19th century Scottish artist William Dyce (1806 – 1864) reminds us with his scene of two lovers, including Francesca Da Rimini daughter of the Lord of Ravenna. It is telling the story of the tragic love affair she had with her husband’s brother Paolo Malatesta, which meant their certain death.

They are depicted trapped at a moment of intensity, their story recorded in the work of Renaissance writer Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in his The Divine Comedy, written in vulgari, the language of the common people.


Detail: Jean-Baptiste Greuze, A Girl with a Dead Canary, oil on canvas, © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland photo Carolyn McDowall

Portrait of a Girl with a Dead Bird, by the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) recorded in 1765 was particularly poignant close up. You felt how unhappy she was at the death of a tiny friend and it is the sort of scene that would have touched the hearts of eighteenth century French viewers, who were in sync with their emotions.

Watteau Pastorale

Jean-Antoine Watteau 1718-1719, oil on canvas, Fêtes Vénitiennes © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was the most acclaimed painter of his age.

He developed a genre known as the Fete Galante, a highly personal style in which the sophisticated pleasures of the beau monde were rendered poetically.

His vision and preference for worldly elegance was a highly personal style.

It was all about the sophisticated pleasures of the beau monde.

They were rendered poetically with his delicate palette of colours and wonderful sensitivity, which was much admired during his short lifetime, influencing his colleagues and followers well into the future.

Boucher 3

Detail: Francois Boucher, A Pastoral Scene (La Jardiniére Endormie’) © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland photo Carolyn McDowall

Francois Boucher (1703 – 1770) was one. He was the pre-eminent painter during the reign of King Louis XV and his mistress Madame du Pompadour, who became his most influential patron, championing his prodigious talent.

His delight trio of amorous pastoral scenes reflect the mood of an independent, rich, less discreetly immoral society clamouring for novelty. It was above all about movement and mood, in an atmosphere of fancy, frivolity and fun.

Many of Boucher’s designs were sophisticated and enchantingly pretty and favoured for weaving tapestries during the Rococo period.

He also used a great deal of gold to highlight the use of bright clear colours, which helped refract the candlelight in the salons where they were shown.

Art Gallery NSW Red Room - The Greats

Red Room – courtesy Art Gallery of NSW Installation photo The Greats

I found the whole exercise of this show a moving experience, especially when I arrived in the ‘red room’, where gilded frames sparkled gloriously against the warmth of their background, highlighting the subjects and stories being told.

If we had to choose a colour that epitomised the period of historical events that encompasses the time span from the rococo to the romantics and revolutionaries it would have to be ‘red’, the colour of passion which not only symbolised romantic love but also later on, revolutionary blood.

I am pleased to report that judging by the comments and looks on the faces of all those viewing this show and a few that I talked to after, it is an exhibition much appreciated.


Allan Ramsay, The Artist’s Wife: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, 1726 – 1782, oil on canvas, © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Can’t tell you how happy I was to once again encounter the delicate portrait of the beloved new wife recorded c1758-9 of Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713-1784).

Now in maturity I can see much more than I would have as a young woman when I first encountered it some thirty years ago.

She has an uncommon beauty, her fine porcelain skin illuminates his work, which is rendered in subtle colouring.

Her costume features a fine rendition of silk that you can almost hear rustling its so real as is the glorious lace that embellishes it, flattering her fine features.

Her face draws you in, urging you to find out more about this his second wife, a woman of high society birth who displayed considerable strength by eloping to marry the ‘lower born’ artist, the man of her choice.

While Ramsay was known for portraits in the ‘grand manner’ this one is less formal, completely intimate, one painted for his own pleasure.

She has an unpretentious elegance of style and you can see that he’s been influenced by the asymmetric style of French rococo portraiture.

Lady of Lochnaw Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw 1892, oil on canvas, © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is also there, with Queen Victoria’s favourite painter Sir Edwin Landseer’s Rent-Day in the Wilderness, along with Frederick Edwin Church’s powerful image of Niagara Falls from the American side painted in 1867.

This latter work is by one of America’s most famous landscape painters, Church who studied with the founder of the famous Hudson River School of painting Thomas Cole.

Niagera Falls by Church

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, from the American Side, oil on canvas © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Church captures the breathtaking experience as the huge expanse of water thunders over the rocks at one of America’s greatest natural wonders and falls dramatically to the valley floor.

Set into a small room of its own this work’s powerful presence held captive a big audience on the day I was there, reflecting its popularity and their fascination with the artists brilliant ability to render falling water.

Sydneysiders and visitors to that city don’t miss the opportunity to see this very special show.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

The Greats: Masterpieces from The National Galleries of Scotland

Art Gallery of New South Wales

24 October 2015 – 14 February 2016

All Images: courtesy Art Gallery of NSW and  © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland


*William Wordsworth



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