Renaissance Watercolours : From Durer to Van Dyck. By Mark Evans. A review.

This magnificent book by Dr Evans, senior curator of paintings and water colours at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is a must for those interested in early modern and Renaissance art.  Published in July 2020, this catalogue accompanied an exhibition.  Sadly, I never made it to the museum in South Kensington due to the pandemic, but having read this I now feel I was there.

            The scope of the exhibition takes us through the various elements of how artists used watercolour to paint landscape and when they observed the natural world both in Europe and the New World. How portraiture in miniature evolved and in the final section, visual evidence of how the West interacted with India and the Far East during the time of global expansion by Portugal and Spain, all within the time frame of 1450 – 1640.

            Today we take it for granted that we can turn on our various electronic devices and be transported to different worlds via documentaries or travelogues.  Everyone takes photos of their everyday life and we have forgotten that before the invention of photography it was through the talent of artists that the ordinary person may have seen something different than what they experienced in their world around them.  It was more likely to be the wealthy who benefitted from the work of these talented individuals because employing artists was expensive.  The man in the street might own a piece of devotional art painted on wood by a jobbing artisan, or see a magnificent painted altarpiece donated to a cathedral by a wealthy patron, but it would be very rich who owned the liberally illuminated manuscripts or had their portrait painted, all of which cost a small fortune.

            Many of the artists will be familiar to the reader.  Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, my own personal favourite, Nicholas Hilliard – miniature portraitist to Elizabeth I, but we are introduced to lesser known, but equally skilled individuals such as Hans Hoffman who was inspired by and copied much of Dürer’s work; John White’s sketches of the Algonghuin tribes, Hans Burkmair the Elder’s hand coloured woodcuts illustrating Balthasar Spinger’s sea voyage to the Malabar Coast in 1505 – 06, and many more similar and previously less well known artists. 

            Dürer’s observations of the landscapes through which he travelled during his wandering in Europe between 1495 – 97 give us an insight into what Europe was like at the end of the 15th century.  His masterpiece of observation in ‘The Great Piece of Turf’ (1503) leaps off the page as if it is growing there.  Dürer’s ‘Hare’, painted a year earlier, crouches down in front of the artist. You can almost see the hairs quivering in the wind and the animal’s nose twitching as it waits to see whether or not it needs to flee. 

The Hare 1502. Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528). Albertina Museum, Vienna. Source Wikipedia

            Other, less well known artists, provide a record of now lost architecture, such as a watercolour of Nonsuch Palace by Anton van den Wyngarde (c1525 – 1572) gives Tudor fans a glimpse of Henry VIII’s now lost palace.  The museum acquired a rare sketch of the palace by Wyngarde in 2016 and for those interested in the sketch and how it was saved for the nation, here is a link https://www.codart.nl/museums/victoria-albert-museum-acquires-earliest-depiction-henry-viiis-nonsuch-palace-joris-hoefnagel/

            The 16th century saw the growth of individual portraiture, and this section covers portrait miniatures which are painted in a form of water colour.  A profile portrait of Louis XII of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily (d1456-65) emulates the profiles of Roman emperors seen on coins and medals.  This pen and watercolour was lent by the Bibliotéque Nationale de France, Paris, Cabinet des Estampes, Chambre de Mazarin, and is attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck (c1420 – after 1479). It is thought to be a copy of a lost original.  We travel through the 16th century meeting famous and not so famous faces in the works of Simon Bening, Lucas Horenbout, Hans Holbein the Younger, Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and his son Peter, and into the 17th century to the self portrait of Samuel Cooper to finally, the portrait of an ordinary woman by John Hoskins (c1590 – 1665) (possibly his wife?) of 1645.

Portrait of Unknown Woman (possibly the artist’s wife) c1645. John Hoskins (1590 – 1665)
Royal Collection Trust. RCIN 420061.

These images, so small they can be held in the palm of your hand, bring us face to face with those whose names litter the history books, making our literary encounters even more exciting.  It was the 19th century invention of the camera that allowed ordinary people to become immortalised because having your portrait painted by artists such as Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and others was not cheap, especially if they enjoyed royal or exalted patronage.  

            Prior to the invention of the camera the world relied mainly on verbal descriptions of far off places.  Aristotle, Herodotus, the Roman writer, Pliny the Elder all described the known world.  After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Portuguese and Spanish explorers increased their sea faring activities, but they were not the only nations to venture forth into the unknown.  The final section of the catalogue contains watercolours by John White, who sailed on the voyages to the New World in 1584 and 85 sponsored by the English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, and may have sailed with Sir Martin Frobisher’s expedition in 1577.  John White’s detailing of the native Americans way of life, plus the native flora and fauna are another element of the English history of New World exploration that is not familiar to many.  The French artist,  Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, had visited Florida in the 1560s (then claimed by the French) and White was familiar with his work.   

            The Venetians and Genoese republics had dominated the luxury goods trade for centuries, that had come into the Mediterranean via the Byzantine empire, and with the fall of Constantinople had to re-invent themselves.  Venice became a centre for artistic endeavour and in 1479 sent Gentile Bellini (1429 – 1507) to the Ottoman court to paint the portrait of Sultan Mehmet II.  This oil portrait now hangs in London’s National Gallery.  During Bellin’s time in the Ottoman capital, he did a watercolour study of a scribe, or possibly an artist, working while sitting cross legged on the floor.  

Seated Scribe1479 – 1481. Gentile Bellini (1429 – 1507). Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

We see this man is wearing a turban, but he is dressed in velvets and ornately woven textile that the artist has highlighted with gold. I am left with the nagging questions of why did Bellini chose to paint a scribe?  And why is a humble scribe wearing what can only be described as luxury and expensive fabrics even in Ottoman terms?  Unfortunately we will never know whether this man is actually a scribe, or perhaps Bellini has caught a young member of the sultan’s family at his studies.

            You might ask why water colours are so important.  My theory is that these delicate images painted on paper, but in the case of portrait miniatures the more durable abortive vellum, were easily transportable because they were light to carry.  Watercolour is quick to dry, unlike oil which was often painted on heavy panels of wood.  Very few working sketchbooks survive demonstrating the ephemeral nature of paper, plus they were often working drawings for a bigger painting, so why would these be of value to anyone other than the artist.  The camera might have killed off the market for the painted miniature portrait, but it is an important step towards our modern obsession with imagery, just as the ability to paint was necessary to record the world and the people in it during the period of global exploration during the Renaissance.

            For any student of history and art history, this is a must have book for your collection. It is published by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  ISBN 978-1-85177-977-2.

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