Tuesday 18 August 2015

Finished and Unfinished at the Courtauld

The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House - its fine rooms radiating from one of London's great staircases - is always a joy to visit, and the more so now that I carry a National Art Pass and get in free. It's a gallery on a manageable scale, famously strong on French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, but with some very fine paintings from most periods (check out the exquisite Annunciation by Francesco Pesellino in the Medieval to Renaissance room). And the Courtauld always has an interesting temporary exhibition or two on the go. Yesterday I paid a visit to take a look at a couple of the current ones.
 Jonathan Richardson By Himself, in the drawings gallery, is a display of little-known self-portraits by the elder Jonathan Richardson, a big figure in the 18th-century art world as portraitist, theorist, collector and (rather weak) poet. Towards the end of his life, he became fascinated by self-portraiture, drawing himself in a range of poses, formal and informal, sometimes taking inspiration from other self-portraitists, especially Rembrandt. The drawings on show range from delicate images in graphite on vellum to larger chalk drawings (black, white, sometimes red) on paper. The best half dozen of them - large chalk drawings on rough blue paper - are quite extraordinary in their intense and unflinching self-examination, and surely deserve a place among the great English self-portraits. The rest are really little more than interesting background material - but those half dozen are alone worth the entrance money (if you've paid, that is).
 Unfinished is a more ambitious exhibition, though again it's a one-room affair. As the title suggests, it's a display of 'unfinished' paintings - either clearly unfinished (as in the star attraction, Perino del Vaga's Holy Family) or more debatably so (as with Manet's dashing Au Bal) or finished but regarded by a stunned art world as surely unfinished (as with Matisse's fauvist The Red Beach). All the paintings on show are from the Courtauld's own holdings, so I already knew most of them, but it was a good idea to bring them all together and use them to explore the 'unfinished' theme and the old, always important question of when a picture is finished.
 There is, to our modern eyes at least, a great charm in unfinished works.  Our current taste doesn't demand a high degree of finish and tends to prefer painters who show their workings and leave space for the imagination to fill in what is left suggested rather than fully worked out. But it's more than a matter of taste: the unfinished areas throw into relief the fully worked passages and emphasise their quality, while also casting light on the artist's working methods. Nowhere is this more spectacularly so than in the unfinished Rembrandt etching of The Artist Drawing from the Model, about a third of which is full worked, with the rest freely and lightly sketched in.
 Unfinished includes a ravishingly beautiful, very nearly finished Parmigianino Virgin and Child and a lovely Reclining Woman in a Landscape by Palma Vecchio, much of the background merely blocked in, the figure beautifully finished. There's also a Monet Vase of Flowers, which looks to me seriously overworked - less a case of not finishing the work as of not knowing when to stop. The Manet mentioned above (Au Bal) seems to have been regarded by the artist as 'finished' - he signed it, after all - and the same surely goes for Degas's extraordinary Woman at a Window, which must be one of the darkest contre-jour paintings ever executed. Degas allowed it to go on sale - and it was promptly snapped up by Walter Sickert, who treasured it as 'Degas's finest work'. It could almost, couldn't it, be a Sickert?


  1. Loved the Pesellino, the Del Vaga, the Parmigianino and the Palma Vecchio. Many thanks for these. How does one acquire a National Pass?

  2. The second Richardson arresting too.

  3. I'm afraid you have to buy the pass Guy - costs around £45 but can soon pay for itself.