The first stage of our National Gallery Workshop was an introduction by Colin Wiggins, Head of Education at the Gallery.
We started at the top of the stairs leading from the Sainsbury Wing entrance to the 2nd floor. I hadn’t realised that the Sainsbury Wing was specifically designed to house the (roughly) pre-1500 collection.
A series of archways through the Wing were designed to lead to one work in particular: The Incredulity of St Thomas, c 1502-4, by Giovanni Battista Cima de Conegliano. We discussed how the architects manipulated the size of the arches to extend the sense of perspective and give the viewer the same experience they might have had if they had seen the work in its original location.
In fact, surprisingly, given the number of Italian churches I have visited, it hadn’t occurred to me that artists would go and measure up the church for which they had been commissioned to paint an altar piece, in order to help them make the painting function with the architecture and the perspective of the space.
We then looked at Tintoretto’s Christ washing the feet of his disciples, c 1580. The key thing you need to know is that the painting was made for a small chapel, to be shown on the left hand wall, opposite a companion Last Supper. When you look at it from roughly the same place that a worshipper would have done, the distortions that are so distracting seen face on – the wonky floor tiles, the chubby man at the right hand edge – disappear.
Across the room, was a Veronese, The Family of Darius before Alexander c 1565. Colin encouraged us to ‘read’ the painting before he told us about it. My key takeaway is the idea that Veronese has put us, as viewers, in the some position as Darius’ mother who is begging for her and her family’s life and dignity: we aren’t entirely sure which of the young military men before us is Alexander.
Next, was this Rubens landscape, painted towards the end of his life and showing us his retirement home, Het Steen. Again, we practised our ‘reading the painting’ skills to identify the time of day and what the artist might have wanted to tell us about his life. A point about this work, which is obvious when someone tells you, is that it was painted on oak, it is quite large and far too heavy to have been moved outside the studio. Apparently, Rubens would go out into his estate first thing in the morning, do some sketching and then go back to his studio, which you can see in the painting, to continue working.
Finally, we went to see a Canaletto, Venice: Campo S Vidal and S Maria della Carità (The Stonemason’s Yard) c1728, in which can be seen, centre right, the white spire of San Trovaso where the Tintoretto used to hang.