A thornless rosebush and a rocky outcropping form a hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden — a symbol of the Virgin’s purity — where the young mother kneels in adoration before the slumbering Christ Child nestled on the hems of her gown and mantle. This masterpiece of Botticelli’s later years — known as the Wemyss Madonna for its longtime past owners, the Earls of Wemyss and March — is unusual among the artist’s religious works for being painted on canvas rather than wood panel. Highly meditative and intimate in character, it may have been intended for private devotion in a domestic setting. The modern tabernacle frame is a reproduction of the type in which the painting would have originally been housed.
This enigmatic scene recalls Pliny the Elder’s description, from the first century c.e., of a painting depicting “a boy blowing a fire, which . . . throws a light upon the features of the youth.” In recreating, or rivaling, this lost work from antiquity, El Greco displays his virtuoso treatment of light and shadow. The embers and the boy’s face and fingertips glow against the surrounding darkness, and ridges of white paint sparkle along his collar, cuff, and nostril. The presence of the monkey evokes the classical notion of art as the ape of nature while the man, whose toothy grin and red and yellow attire identify him as a fool, may allude to the ultimate folly of the painter’s aim of reproducing the visible world — or, perhaps, of imitating the ancients.
In this work painted by Velázquez when he was only eighteen or nineteen years old and living in his native Seville, the figures and household objects stand out forcefully from the dark ground. The slightly disconnected gazes and suspended gestures of the old woman and the boy infuse tension into the scene. The artist showcases his remarkable technical skill through his differentiation of the textures of a wide variety of materials — from the wooden table and spoon and gleaming brass containers to the glazed earthenware and the eggs congealing in oil. The realism that Velázquez achieved in this painting and other early kitchen scenes (known as bodegones) was new in Spanish art at this time and earned him renown. By 1623, at the age of twenty-four, he was invited to the court of Madrid, where he spent his career in the service of King Philip IV.
An especially sensual nude sculpture overlooks a gathering of elegant people in a parkland setting at dusk. To the tune of a musette (small bagpipe) played by the musician in shepherd’s dress at far right, a man in exotic costume and a woman in the elegant fashion of the day perform a stately dance. Rendered in fine brushstrokes and soft, sparkling tones, this celebrated work evidently had personal meaning for the artist. Technical analysis shows that at a late stage in its execution, Watteau gave the features of his close friend the Franco-Flemish painter Nicolas Vleughels to the strutting male dancer and his own to the lovelorn musette player — perhaps an allusion to a competition between the two men for the affection of the same woman, or a risqué joke.
This early work by Gainsborough presents a carefully composed scene stretched across a wide canvas, possibly intended to hang over a mantelpiece. Beneath an expanse of pale blue sky, a river winds through a valley toward a sunlit village. A path mirrors the river’s curves, and the rings of clouds echo the rise of the small hill at left. Gainsborough animates the scene with an encounter — possibly amorous — between traveler and milkmaid, along with a barking dog and other rustic figures and animals. Although the view is drawn largely from the imagination and informed by examples of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, Gainsborough’s rendering of the soft earth of the riverbank, the dense foliage and crumbling bark of the trees, and the reflective surface of the water reveals his dedication to the direct study of nature.
Ramsay produced this sensitive portrayal of his wife in London, most likely after the birth of their second surviving child. With painterly brushstrokes, he defines the lustrous pleats of her silk gown and the patterned lace of her sleeves and mantle. Margaret’s exquisite attire conveys her status as a daughter of a Scottish baronet and the spouse of a wealthy and successful artist. Pausing as though interrupted from her task of arranging flowers in a Chinese porcelain vase, she turns her gaze and delicate features toward the viewer. This natural action, a hallmark of Ramsay’s mature depictions of female sitters, represents a departure from earlier, mannered portrait conventions.
This large-scale informal group portrait, or conversation piece, depicts the Waldegrave sisters, the grandnieces of the author and antiquarian Horace Walpole, who commissioned the work for his celebrated country house, Strawberry Hill. Reynolds’s gift for creating sophisticated compositions and rendering graceful gestures — at its height here — helped to establish him as one of the foremost English portraitists of the eighteenth century. The eldest sister, Laura, seated at center, winds a card with silk thread from a skein held by her sister Maria, at left, while Horatia, the youngest, embroiders netting stretched in a tambour frame. An admirer (like Walpole) of the ancient past, Reynolds endows his sitters with a classical elegance emphasized by their pale muslin gowns and columned enclosure.
This magisterial painting by Edinburgh’s foremost portraitist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presents one of the most colorful characters of the era. Displayed to acclaim at the Royal Academy in London, the portrait secured Raeburn’s membership in the organization. An eccentric, larger-than-life figure, Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry, the fifteenth Chief of the Macdonell Clan, devoted his life to preserving and perpetuating the customs and traditions of the Highlands. Adopting a commanding pose and arrayed in his clan’s tartan, with rifle in hand, he asserts his proud allegiance to a vanishing past. His friend the novelist Sir Walter Scott referred to him as “a kind of Quixote of our age, having retained in its full extent whole feelings of Clanship and Chieftainship elsewhere so long abandoned.”
A definitive treatment by Constable of his home territory and lifelong source of inspiration, this sweeping view of the Stour Valley combines compositional elements from a long-admired work by Claude Lorrain (Hagar and the Angel; National Gallery, London) with specific features of the area: the fertile farmland along the winding river, the Stratford toll bridge, the tower of the village church of Dedham, and the estuary at the horizon. In the foreground, a woman cradling her child by a fire next to a temporary shelter humanizes the landscape. With deft touches of his brush and palette knife, and even his fingers, Constable conveys the luminosity of the scene. Patterns of light and dark sweep over the glistening ground, reflecting the movement of billowing clouds that fill the upper half of the canvas.
This portrait of the renowned society beauty Lady Agnew (née Gertrude Vernon) was commissioned by her husband, Sir Andrew Noel Agnew, a Scottish barrister. Through her direct, frontal gaze and the informality of her pose, the subject forges a compelling connection with the viewer. The colorful, patterned upholstery of the eighteenth-century French armchair and silk Chinese wall hanging harmonize with her elegant white gown trimmed in lilac. Sargent’s fluid brushwork conveys a sense of opulence and ease. The artist completed the work in six sessions, later saying that he sometimes obtained his best results with only a few sittings. The outpouring of praise the work received when exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1893 launched Lady Agnew as a society hostess and the painter’s reputation as the most fashionable portraitist on both sides of the Atlantic.