When we’ve become familiar with the great works in a museum space, we tend to be blasé—that Rembrandt (or Renoir, or Rousseau) is always there; I’ll study it next time. But pop the painting into a new context and suddenly it’s new, too. With renovation work to be done in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, the 65 masterpieces that call that space home have moved to the Queen’s Gallery, where they will stay for just over a year. Here, they are not grouped as before, in several tiers based on genre, but single-hung and reorganized—re-curated, you might say. Geography is one organizing principle: the paintings are Dutch, Flemish, and Italian. Other themes have emerged as well: realism versus idealism, experimentation with perspective and scale, hidden meanings, and up-to-the-minute relevance. AIR MAIL asked Isabella Manning, assistant curator of paintings at the Royal Collection Trust and a co-curator of “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace,” for an inside view.
LAURA JACOBS: Is there a painting among these that doesn’t usually get the attention it deserves and that we should be sure to notice?
ISABELLA MANNING: In the Picture Gallery, the paintings are usually hung on two tiers, and so several are displayed too high up to examine closely. This exhibition presents a unique opportunity to get close to brilliant paintings, such as Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Allori portrays a scene from the Old Testament, in which Judith of Bethulia has just beheaded Assyrian general Holofernes to save her city. It’s a gory subject with not a drop of blood in sight! Instead, the artist creates drama through contrast. The figures are thrown into bright light, highlighting the differences between the distorted, ugly head of Holofernes and the faultless complexion, radiant beauty, and triumphant expression of Judith. The matted tufts of his hair contrast with Judith’s dress, and I think the painting is worth looking at alone for the luxuriousness of the golden damask, which glints in the light.
L.J.: Do you have a favorite among these paintings, and what makes it so?
I.M.: My favorite changes all the time. I have a current soft spot for Parmigianino’s Pallas Athene—warrior, goddess of wisdom, and patron of Athens. The artist conjures the impression of an all-encompassing golden glow, which envelops Athena, extending from the jewels on her breastplate to her hair, which appears to have been spun from gold. My favorite detail is the hem of her cloak, which is exposed and slightly frayed, reminding us of her other patronages of spinning and weaving. It’s an incredibly human detail in a portrait of an otherwise untouchably beautiful goddess.
L.J.: In mounting this exhibition, is there a painting that you suddenly saw in a new way, because of the new context of this show?
I.M.: A cityscape of Venice by Canaletto depicting festivities on Ascension Day will be hung alongside a harbor scene by Claude Lorrain, master of 17th-century classical landscapes. In the Picture Gallery, the paintings of Claude and Canaletto are not usually hung together in this way, and the juxtaposition very clearly reveals the different ways in which the artists articulate atmosphere. Claude’s extraordinary observation of light places us directly in the scene, whereas we watch the festival atmosphere of Canaletto’s from a distance.
L.J.: What is your definition of a masterpiece?
I.M.: Our very aim with this exhibition is to ask what makes a masterpiece, and our hope is that the exhibition will encourage visitors to come up with their own definition. I would encourage visitors to ask questions. Some things that I ask myself when I’m looking include: What is going on in this painting? How is it painted? Does it force you to reflect on your own reality? Does it move you with powerful emotion? Does it conjure a person or personality that seems to occupy the same room as you? Another thing to look for is innovation. What is the artist doing differently? It often comes down to the way in which artists both structured their paintings and treated their materials. In other words, their design and their technique.
“Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace” is on at the Queen’s Gallery, in London, until January 2022