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My visit to the Scottish National Gallery

I want to take you on a little tour of the Scottish National Gallery today by telling you about four of my favourite pieces from this marvellous haven of fine art.

Located in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland, I can highly recommend a slow walk around the Gallery to anyone visiting the city.

I’ll start with a portrait… Lady Agnew of Lochnaw’.

lady agnew of lochnaw John Singer Sargent portrait from scottish national gallery edinburgh

Painted in 1892 by American Portrait artist John Singer Sargent, her strong gaze was designed to create the impression of intimacy with whoever gazes upon her portrait. It’s a striking oil painting and has a distinctly sassy air about it. Her smile is very mysterious and has a glorious look of knowing I think. Apparently, the subject was suffering from the flu at the time of sitting for this portrait but in my opinion, this only adds to the dreamy expression on her face. You can see in her right hand that she is clutching what appears to be a handkerchief so I can imagine this story to be accurate.

The beautiful floral pattern on the chair behind her, the expensive jewel around her neck and the blue Chinese silk in the background add to a sense of glamour and luxury that oozes from the painting, a sense of swagger if you will in the English Upper Class at the time. The painter apparently loved women and I feel this really comes across in this painting. It feels like the artist has taken the time to really study her form and capture her sensuality, the way she grips the chair seems to indicate her power and is quite a contrast to the delicate flowers on the left of the painting.

Next on our tour is a wonderfully dark oil on panel painting called An Allegory of Melancholy,’ a German painting completed in 1528 by Lucas Cranach.

An Allegory of Melancholy lucas cranach artist scottish national gallery

I found the description attached to this painting fascinating;

“Although melancholy is now usually understood as a lack of cheerfulness or tendency to depression, its meaning in Cranach’s time was more complex. Melancholy was one of the four humours making up the human temperament and determining character. Here, Melancholy is represented by the female figure in the foreground, whittling a stick and accompanied by other symbols. The group of witches riding in the sky alludes to the melancholic propensity for magic and devilry.” - Scottish National Gallery

Everything about this picture is macabre, from the black fruit bowl and glasses on the table to the demons and witches riding wild beasts in the sky. The look of cheek and malice on the faces of the babies as they pester (and possibly attempt to murder) the dog, all add to the sense of gloom in the picture. Melancholy in the 16th Century was represented as black bile which could explain the darker colours in this painting, I think.

The four humours that made up a person, according to early Western beliefs on this subject, were phlegm, choler, blood and melancholy, and each were said determine their character and temperament. People in the 16th Century believed that if your humours were imbalanced in some way, this would lead to illness so it was vital to maintain balance in these four fundamental fluids. Melancholics were said to be dark and creative too which seems to fit quite well with the brooding artist stereotype.

Skipping forward a couple of hundred years to France, 1765,Girl with a Dead Canary is an oil on canvas painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

girl with a dead canary Jean-Baptiste Greuze scottish national gallery

Despite it being a sad tale, I cannot help but admire the subtle beauty of this painting. The artist depicts the sadness of a young girl who is experiencing her first encounter with death in the form of her dead canary. Whilst sympathising with the young girl, I cannot help but feel like the one eye that we can see seems to be taking a peek at the dead bird below. It strikes me that possibly the artist was hinting at a fascination with death and that although upset, the girl couldn’t resist the urge to gaze upon the most fundamental of natural states.

The caption tells that the yellow pigment of the canary has faded over time to leave a white bird, which seems to fit so well with the colour scheme of the rest of the painting (her dress and the pastel flowers) that I can’t help but think it looks better white. The lovely gothic flowers around the mahogany cage match the girl’s headband in a striking shade of blue, or so I thought. Research on this painting has revealed that the blue foliage was actually originally green in colour and has turned to blue over time. I know that such a rich blue was incredibly prized during the 18th Century and I can’t help but think that if the blue in her headband was painted blue originally, it nods at a certain wealth and status of the young girl.

Derived from the previous mineral lapis lazuli, lazurite was the most prized pigment during the Renaissance. It was imported to Europe via Venice and because of its hefty price tag, this rich blue was reserved for the wealthiest of figures. I certainly take for granted as an artist that I can have all these wonderful colours pretty much ‘on tap’ and it’s so fascinating to learn about the history of colours across time.

Last but by no means least, we jump forward another hundred years or so and land in Scotland in 1894 to see George Henry’sGeisha Girl’.

George Henry’s Geisha Girl scottish national gallery japanese geisha girl

This dazzling oil on canvas painting was painted in Scotland after the artist returned from an extended tour of Japan the previous year. The gorgeous jewels of colour in the painting and the ruby red lips of the girl must have been a very different sight for late 19th Century eyes. Somehow the darker colours around her head at the top of the painting balance brilliantly with the softer pinks towards the bottom half. Her eyes are facing down, supposedly demonstrating the submissive nature of the girl.

The original role of the geisha was as an assistant to incredibly elite courtesans. By the time Henry visited Japan though, the country was rapidly becoming Westernised. In the decade before his visit, there was a shift away from these untouchable courtesans towards geisha girls and by the time of his visit, geisha were the central providers of entertainment and hospitality at gatherings.

Perhaps it was this new Western Japan that Henry found himself so able to relate to. Even though the geisha girl would have been, and still is, deeply entrenched in Japanese culture at the time, I cannot help but wonder what he would have painted if he had visited a 100 years prior to when he did. Who would have caught his eye and what would he have rushed home and painted?

Thank you for joining me on this little tour. If you have any recommendations for which art galleries I should do a mini tour of next, I'd love to hear them.


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