The Courtauld Gallery

I have long promised posts about my arty adventures in London, so here we go!

The Courtauld Gallery is located in Somerset House and the adjoining Courtauld Institute is a prestigious centre for the study of the history of art. The Gallery is a treasure trove of European art, with displays spanning from Medieval and Renaissance works to the 20th century. I would recommend visiting on a Monday, as entry is cheaper then!

The Courtauld has a wonderful collection, below are some of my favourites.

In the Medieval and Renaissance rooms, I loved this painted wooden panel which had a portrait on the front and a painting of holly at the back. The portrait is of an educated man – he holds an open book, and his cameo ring shows an interest in antiquity, It is possible that the sitter is Guillaume Fillastre.


Workshop of van der Weyden, Portrait of a Man.


There was also a painting by Botticelli, which I didn’t know was in the Courtauld’s collection. I am more familiar with his mythological work, so it was interesting to see one of his paintings with a religious theme. Also – the paintings in this room had marriage chests displayed below them. I had read  about these marriage chests (which have scenes painted on them) before, but I had no idea they were so big! I liked how they were displayed beneath the paintings, as they probably would have been at the time.


Alessandro Botticelli, The Trinity with Saints


Adam & Eve, in a rather Gothic or Dutch style. I enjoyed all the exotic animals in this depiction of the Garden of Eden. There’s even a tiger!


Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam & Eve

I love this painting of Cupid and Psyche by Joshua Reynolds, largely because of the use of light. It captures the moment when Psyche sneaks a glimpse of her mysterious lover by candlelight. There is a glow of moonlight coming from the top right hand corner, further shedding light on the scene. It is quite a peaceful and intimate scene, however it is only a brief moment as a drop of burning wax wakes Cupid, who is enraged that Psyche has disobeyed him.


Joshua Reynolds, Cupid & Psyche

I was delighted to see these Cézanne paintings. The first, a still life, shows the artist’s distortion of perspective, demonstrated in the way the floor seems to tilt toward the viewer. The second painting was one of the highlights of the collection for me. The mountain shown here is Montagne Sainte-Victoire, which Cézanne painted many times in his life. The patterning of colour seen in the fields, and the beautiful purple shades in the mountain make it a joy to look at. The placement of the tree shows an influence of Japanese prints.


Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Plaster Cupid


Paul Cézanne, The Montagne Sainte-Victoire


And then there was a Renoir! It is a late work, and has quite a sketchy feel. I love the softness of Renoir’s style, and while this is not one of my favourites of Renoir’s work, it does capture his warm use of light, and creates an intimate moment. It reminds me of Degas’ works showing ballerinas backstage.


Pierre Auguste Renoir, Woman tying her shoe

I was also quite excited to see a Rodin sculpture. This small bronze piece was part of a collection examining movement, and it certainly captures a very dramatic pose. The bronze has quite a rough finish, and a greenish hue. It captures the power and physicality of the dancer in an unusual pose.


Auguste Rodin, Dance Movement


Isn’t this Monet painting beautiful? The brushwork is so light, resulting in a very soft impression overall. It almost looks like oil pastels were used. The way the flowers break out of the edge of the picture gives a sense of movement and energy, stopping the picture from becoming too static. It is signed in red on the bottom right hand corner.


Claude Monet, Vase of Flowers

Another Monet – quite similar to the one in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. I love the use of reflections in the water here, and the reds, browns and oranges of autumn seen on the left of the painting.


Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil

I was delighted to see a painting by Berthe Morisot, one of the female Impressionists. This work is quite polished compared to some of her other paintings which retain an Impressionist ‘sketchiness’ of finish. A favourite of mine is A Summer’s Day (currently in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin shared with the National Gallery of London).


Berthe Morisot, Portrait of a Woman

This Manet painting was one of the highlights (if not the highlight) of my trip to the Courtauld. I have studied it several times, and it was amazing to see it in person. It is a very arresting picture, and I spent a long time just taking it all in. We couldn’t find the signature at first, then my sister spotted it on one of the wine labels (see detail below). It is hung almost at eye level, allowing the viewer to engage with the painting. It is as though we are standing at the counter, waiting to be served by this sad-eyed barmaid. The mirror behind is fascinating, and gives a glimpse into the lively Parisian nightlife of Manet’s time.


Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies-Bergere


Note Manet’s signature on the bottle on the far left.

This Manet was one of his most ‘Impressionist’ works. It appears to be a plein air scene – the dappled light on the water and the thick short brushstrokes show a rare moment of Impressionism in the artist’s style.


Edouard Manet, Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil

I love this Van Gogh landscape, as ever, I think his handling of paint is amazing. I love how thick the paint is on the canvas, and his expressive brushstrokes. The different textures in the landscape are so exciting, and the self-portrait too is very compelling. The self-portrait shows his use of streaky brushwork, and the intensity and power so often seen in his paintings.


Vincent van Gogh, Peach Trees in Blossom


Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

I love Seurat’s Pointillist technique – it’s incredible, and fascinating to look at. The difference between viewing the painting up close and from afar is really striking. It is a very interesting painting in many ways – technique, composition and subject matter – the young woman in question is the artist’s mistress.


Georges Seurat, Young Woman Powdering Herself

This footman holding a lantern was one of a pair flanking a doorway.  I wouldn’t mind having some statues like this myself!


This is the original poster for the hugely influential Post Impressionist exhibition of 1910 arranged by Roger Fry that was to have such an impact on modernism. The image used is one of Gauguin’s. Many of Gauguin’s works were on display as part of a temporary exhibition.


Roger Fry, 1910 exhibition poster

Speaking of modernism, here is a painting by Vanessa Bell, sister of renowned modernist writer Virginia Woolf. A strong influence of art can be seen in Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse. Just as Woolf’s work offers an insight into the mind and mentality of female protagonists, we see in this painting a focus on the intellectual life of women. The women in the painting are engaged in discussion, perhaps not unlike Bell’s and Woolf’s experiences as part of the Bloomsbury Group. In this work, Bell makes simplified use of colour and form, showing her modernist style. The women are positioned right at the edge of the canvas; it is as though the viewer can join in the discussion.


Vanessa Bell, A Conversation

I was immediately attracted to this painting by the lime green background, and the jaunty hat which this young woman wears. Munter has quite an illustrative style, and uses very heavy outlines. The use of colour is bold and blocky, creating a very striking portrait.


Gabriele Munter, Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat

I was very interested to see some paintings by Kandinsky, I don’t think I’ve seen any of his works before. I was amazed by the variety shown in the paintings on display – the style (and indeed the signature) of each painting was completely different. I loved the bold forms and colours in this work – it really makes an impact!


Kandinsky, Red Circle


There was also a Picasso work on display! This however, was not a Cubist affair, and is very different from the kind of work for which this artist is best known. The brushwork is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s work, but overall it is quite traditional compared to Picasso’s later work.


,, Pablo Picasso, Yellow Irises

Unfortunately the Degas room (which I was really looking forward to) wasn’t open when we visited, but I think you can see from this small selection of works on show at the Courtauld that there are many wonders to be seen there!

Exhibition: Vermeer and Music

What: Vermeer and Music The Art of Love and Leisure.
An exhibition examining the role of music in 17th century Dutch painting, including 5 works by Vermeer.
Where: National Gallery of London
When: Until 8th September 2013
Cost: Entrance: £7, Audio Guides £3 – but definitely worth it!

Vermeer & Music, at the National Gallery, London

Vermeer & Music, at the National Gallery, London

This temporary exhibition in the National Gallery of London explores the theme of music in 17th century Dutch painting. The exhibition culminates in five beautiful works by Vermeer, and also features works by artists such as Carl Fabritius, Peter van der Hooch, Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu as well as 17th century instruments and songbooks. It’s well worth getting the audio guide (£3) as you’re going around the exhibition – as well as comments by the curator of the exhibition, it features music experts from the Academy  who discuss the instruments and play pieces of music from the period.

My ticket, and the exhibition leaflet.

My ticket, and the exhibition leaflet.

It’s a rare thing to see so many Vermeers in one room – the five paintings on show represent a seventh of the artist’s total body of work. Prior to visiting this exhibition, I had only seen one Vermeer in person (Woman Writing A Letter, in the National Gallery of Ireland); to see so many Vermeer paintings together was quite an experience! Three paintings of women playing music hang on the same wall, representing a popular theme in Vermeer’s work. One of these, The Guitar Player, is on loan from Kenwood House. Another painting on display is The Music Lesson. This is an interesting work in that the figures are at the very back of the painting, meaning the viewer is looking in on a very intimate scene. All these paintings showcase what is so wonderful about Vermeer’s style – his mastery of light and detail.

Vermeer goodies! Bag, catalogue and postcard.

Vermeer goodies! Bag, catalogue, leaflet and postcard.

When I visited with my sister and a friend, we spent two hours going around the exhibition. It’s really wonderful, the detail of the Dutch paintings is incredible, and the theme of music is certainly an interesting one. My sister is a music student, so she particularly enjoyed seeing all the instruments on display. The paintings in the exhibition are mostly genre scenes, but there are also portraits and still lifes featuring musical instruments. This is a fascinating exhibition, one that any fan of Vermeer, or Dutch art in general, should definitely see!

Barcelona Art & Architecture

I recently travelled to Barcelona for a few days with two very wonderful friends, who put up with my ravings about Gaudí and Picasso and all the other amazing works of art the city had to offer. This is a round-up of the attractions I visited, there are many more I hope to see on another trip to this beautiful city!

Sagrada Familia – Antoni Gaudí


The Sagrada Familia is arguably Barcelona’s most iconic building. Begun in 1883 by Gaudí, an architect whose modern buildings are among the best of what Barcelona has to offer, it is estimated that it will be completed in 2026 or 2028. Work was going on when I was in the church, which was an interesting experience. Before I visited, I was unsure about the idea of completing the church, rather than leaving it at the stage Gaudí had brought it to. My experience there made it clear that Gaudí intended the work to be continued by the next generations of sculptors, architects and artists, and I am excited to see the church when it is finished.

Lizards on the side of the church

Lizards on the side of the church

You may have to queue up a while for this one (I waited 50 minutes) but it is well worth it, as is getting the audio guide. But when you’re waiting outside, take a good look at the exterior. It’s wonderfully detailed. I spotted some snakes and lizards on the side, as well as some star-shaped openings, horseshoes and organic mouldings. There’s so much to see! But of course there’s also the spires, and the richly sculpted facades. So far the Nativity facade is complete, and work is continuing on the Passion facade. What really surprised me, was that the main facade (the Glory facade) hasn’t even been started yet! Judging by what’s already there, it should be stunning.

Presently, you enter the church through the Passion portal. The sloping columns and blocky sculpture are really modern, as are the metal doors by Josep M Subirachs which are decorated with the gospels of St Mark and John in blocky letters, reminiscent of a printing press, telling of Jesus’ last days.

Passion facade, with angular sculptures

Passion facade, with angular sculptures

The stained glass inside is really luminious, the colours are dazzling. Gaudí was very specific about the light, and how important it was that it be just right. Too much or too little light would blind the viewer. At the Passion entrance, the stained glass windows have themes of water and light. Joan Vila Grau was responsible for the windows, closely following Gaudí’s instructions.

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The columns are really interesting, they’re like tree trunks that then branch out into a ceiling which is like a cover of leaves. The columns are encrusted with medallions, of glass and gems, some with evangelist symbols. The medallions are like knots in the trees.

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The Nativity facade is more traditional in terms of sculpture, not as blocky as the Passion facade. This is more naturalistic, but also extremely rich and symbolic. It is packed with sculpture – I loved the figure playing the harp, who can be seen on the right of the image below.

Sculpture on the Nativity facade

Sculpture on the Nativity facade

I’m so glad I went into this building, it was absolutely stunning. I’m definitely going back to see it when it’s completed!

Park Guell – Antoni Gaudí


This is a great place to spend the day, wander around and relax in the sun. It’s free in, and there are many exciting things to see. The main entrance is flanked by buildings that have been described as ‘gingerbread pavilions’, and they really are like something out of a fairytale.


Up the sweeping staircase is the market or the Hall of 100 Columns (which actually has 86 columns). Inspired by classical temple architecture, it uses an abstracted version of the Doric. The ceiling is beautifully decorated with shimmering medallions. Also – there are great views from the roof, and a lovely bench (see below).

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The frieze is really interesting – I love the teardrop shapes. These water droplets echo the function of the columns in collecting rainwater.

Loved the details of this abstracted frieze!

Loved the details of this abstracted frieze!

There’s a cave, with wonderful bugnated columns, and this caryathid. This is the only human figure in the sculpture in the Park.


The Park Guell has many examples of Gaudí’s trencadis or mosaic technique – including the famous dragon, another iconic aspect of his work. The long serpentine bench on the roof of the market has lots of colourful mosaics, and again some great views.

A bit of mosaic that reminds me of Ireland!

A bit of mosaic that reminds me of Ireland!

With Gaudí's famous dragon at the Park Guell

With Gaudí’s famous dragon at the Park Guell

Casa Batló – Antoni Gaudí


I didn’t get into this house, but the exterior is amazing. It is designed to look like a dragon, echoing the legend of St George (the city’s patron saint). Take a look at the windows in the picture here, the columns are like bones. And the surface of the walls are beautiful, they shine like scales.


Picasso Museum

This was really interesting as it houses a lot of Picasso’s early work. It was fascinating to see how his work developed, from studies in art school, to the influences of movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, to the consolidation of his own style. I was surprised to see a Pointillist influence in a few of the works, and overall I really enjoyed my visit. There was plenty to see, and lots of great information panels. A really interesting insight into the development of one of the most recognisable artistic styles.

Postcards from the Picasso Museum

Postcards from the Picasso Museum

Barcelona Pavlion – Mies van der Rohe


I studied this building during my first year of college, so I was really excited to see it in person! What I love about this building is the materials and the continuity. The lines are really crisp, and the colours inside are amazing. The cruciform piloti (columns) are also really interesting, as is the open plan and the minimalist structure.

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I really enjoyed my visit, there were lots of students sketching and I got talking to some architects from Hong Kong. There was a real sense of wonder and enjoyment, it’s a very special building and as the pictures show the bright day enhanced the experience. The glass allows a lot of light in, and the onyx and marble really gleamed.

Calder Sculpture (outside the Fundacio de Joan Miró)


I didn’t go in to the Miró museum, but I did spot this great Calder sculpture outside! His work is quite distinctive, but I was still proud of myself for recognising it. There is a Calder sculpture on the campus of the university I attend (Trinity College Dublin) , and I have also seen his sculpture (and his mobiles) at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. Has anyone else spotted his sculptures? I’d love to see more, I love the curving lines, and the bright colours, and how recognisable they are.

It was a great trip; plenty of art, architecture and sun. Barcelona is a fascinating city, and one I would definitely recommend visiting!