I don’t know about you, but one of the things I’m most looking forward to seeing when we’re able to travel internationally again isn’t even the actual world. It’s paintings of that world. Here are some of my favourites I’d like to share with you, from different galleries around the world. Some of them are well-known masterpieces. Others are smaller paintings often overlooked. Which makes a nice parallel to seeing famous sites while also heading off the beaten track!
La Primavera, Uffizi, Florence
Teeming with allegorical figures and exquisite floral passages, Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece is probably one of the most famous paintings in the world. I first encountered it on a record sleeve. The recording was Bach’s Violin Concertos. One is the concerto for two violins and orchestra, of which the slow movement is especially beautiful. The intertwining of the Three Graces’ fingers in Botticelli’s painting will for me be forever entwined with the voices of the two violins in that slow movement. So a very subjective response, yes. But it goes to show you how masterpieces can work their magic in very personal ways.
Las Meninas, The Prado Museum, Madrid
Diego Velasquez’s 1656 masterpiece is one of jewels in the crown of the Prado. The foreground figures include Philip IV’s daughter the Infanta Maria Theresa and her two ladies-in-waiting (from whence the painting takes its title). But my favourite figure is the beautiful dog in the foreground, who seems to tolerate a court dwarf’s tormenting foot with great forbearance.
An Architectural Caprice, National Gallery, London
Only slightly less famous than his contemporary Canaletto, Francesco Guardi also painted views, or vedute, of Venice. But it’s his smaller-scale architectural fantasies, of which An Architectural Caprice is one, which I love: the subjects, usually ruins, are more fantastical, the painting style is freer and the compositions are more inventive. Here, arches frame a sparsely-populated courtyard. The effect is dreamlike.
Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, Rijksmusem, Amsterdam
Among the greatest of the Dutch Golden Age masters, Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael is especially known for his painting of clouds. The main subject of Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede (c.1670) is a windmill on the Rhine, in a town just out of Utrecht. It’s a moody, atmospheric painting, the small group of figures to the right, the boats on the river to the left and the distant buildings in the centre dwarfed both by the windmill’s cylindrical form and those marvellous billowing clouds above.
Still Life with a Jar of Olives, The Louvre, Paris
Jean Simeon Chardin was a painter of the intimate, the fugitive and the ineffable. His still lifes are small, quiet masterpieces which draw you in and reduce you to a similar stillness. In the busy Louvre, they are tiny oases, and worth seeking out. Still Life with a Jar of Olives is exceptional for its restricted, muted palette, and for Chardin’s handling of the soft curves of the fruit and of the subtle modulations of light and dark as the tall jar and its contents seem to emerge from the shadows.