Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

Vermeer: The Astronomer

Inspiration and Rivalry

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 22 February-22 May 2017)

Vermeer is one of the few artists whose mere name can prompt a stampede. Nowadays he’s seen as a kind of lone genius, but this show restores him to the context of his age, showing him exchanging ideas and themes with his peers. It has proven to be one of the most popular exhibitions in the Louvre’s history, forcing the museum to introduce timed entry and forcing visitors to book in advance. Tickets cover both this and the Valentin de Boulogne exhibition and, though my heart lies with Valentin, I found myself captivated by these jewel-like pictures of the Dutch Golden Age.

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Le Baroque des Lumières

Jouvenet: The Magnificat (The Visitation)

Chefs-d’œuvre des églises parisiennes au XVIIIe siècle

(Petit Palais, Paris, 21 March-16 July 2017)

Spare a thought for French history painters of the 18th century. They’re overshadowed on one side by their glamorous 17th-century predecessors, bathed in the reflected glory of the Sun King and, on the other side, by the tousled, poetic 19th-century Romantics. If people associate anything with the 18th century, it’s frills, furbelows, plump putti and simpering shepherdesses. But this isn’t actually representative of what people would have seen at the time. The concept of the public national gallery hadn’t yet taken hold, but the French could still admire splendid works by the leading artists of the day – not in the secular cathedral of the museum, but in the literally hallowed spaces of Paris’s churches. This splendid show reunites some of the period’s great religious canvases, many of which have been restored. Vibrant colours shimmer on the walls, dismantled schemes are reunited, and a generation of virtually forgotten artists is brought back to the public eye.

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Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin: David with the Head of Goliath

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 20 February-22 May 2017)

Around 1610, a French teenager arrived in Rome, hoping to study as a painter. His name was Valentin. Although he was just too late to meet Caravaggio, his artistic formation took place in a community beholden to the sharp contrasts and uncompromising realism of the older artist. Valentin would become known as one of the most gifted of the ‘Caravaggisti’, but this exhibition gives him credit as someone who was able to develop and transcend his sources. We move from rowdy Roman taverns, full of cardsharps, fortune tellers and impromptu concerts, to face-to-face encounters with brooding saints. Every room testifies to this underrated painter’s flair and intensity.

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Defacing the Past

Head of Germanicus

Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome

(British Museum, London, until 7 May 2017, Room 69a)

We all know what it means to deface something, but pause a moment and think about the word in greater detail: to de-face, to erase identity, to obliterate the memory of a person. It is one of the most profound punishments that history can inflict, for it either condemns a man to oblivion or associates him eternally with the shame of his downfall. This small but carefully curated show, focusing on coins and medals with some pieces of sculpture, looks at how defacement was used as a political punishment in Ancient Rome, and how it grew out of preexisting traditions of damnatio memoriae that have continued in various forms right up to the present day.

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Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity

Romney: Emma as Circle

(National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017)

If you aspired to be anyone in the 1790s, one of the mandatory stops on your Grand Tour would be the villa of Sir William Hamilton, British envoy in Naples. You would enjoy Hamilton’s learned conversation, admire his remarkable collection of antiquities and, perhaps, take a trip up Vesuvius to admire the steaming crater. And, if you were especially fortunate, you might have the chance to see Lady Hamilton perform her famous Attitudes, a series of tableaux vivants representing famous women from the Classical world. Yet the appeal was as much due to Lady Hamilton’s notoriety as her talents.

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Beyond Caravaggio

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ

(National Gallery, until 15 January 2017)

Dark black shadows are split by waterfalls of cloth, dyed in deepest blood-red crimson. Light falls starkly on white flesh from an divine source, or peeps warmly through the fingers of a hand that shields a candle. Saints become brooding youths or old greybeards with seamed, unidealised faces and dirty feet. Musicians and cardsharps preen in fancy brocades, carrying a rogue ace tucked into the backs of their belts. This exhibition at the National Gallery leads us into the underbelly of Baroque Rome and Naples, to explore the works of Caravaggio’s followers. It’s an absorbing journey, which emphasises just how good Caravaggio himself was, and how hard it was to equal him.

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De Vouet à Watteau

Le Brun: Flora

Un siècle de dessin français: Chefs-d’oeuvre du musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon

(Musée du Domaine départemental de Sceaux, until 12 February 2017)

I should have written about this some weeks ago, but the exhibition is still on for about a month and I’d love to flag this to anyone who might have a chance to see it. While the museum at Besançon is closed for restoration, some of its treasures have gone on tour, including a portion of its superb collection of works on paper.

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A curator’s tale

French Portrait Drawings: Exhibition Layout

Or, a newbie’s guide to preparing an exhibition

Last week I wrote about the forthcoming French Portrait Drawings show at the British Museum. Today I thought it might be fun, a few days before it opens on 8 September, to tell you a bit about the planning process from idea to installation, from a very personal point of view. The entire experience was new to me and, since many of my friends don’t seem quite sure what a curator does, I thought this might be of interest.

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French Portrait Drawings from Clouet to Courbet

Courbet: Self Portrait

(British Museum, 8 September 2016-29 January 2017)

I’ve been debating whether to write about this exhibition here. In the act of doing so, I’m banishing mystique and bringing the blog and the real world together for the first time; but my desire to write about this show was too strong to resist. It’s my exhibition, you see. I’ve been working on it ever since I joined the British Museum in late 2014 and now, to my mingled delight and terror, it’s on the brink of opening to the public.

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Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe: Oriental Poppies

(Tate Modern, until 30 October 2016)

I had great intentions to see masses of exhibitions during my summer break, but didn’t make it to quite as many as planned. I did, however, head over to Tate Modern (not a place I go often enough), where I explored their new wing, admired the panorama of London from its viewing deck and, most importantly, visited their current exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe. As I’ve said before, my knowledge of modern artists is sketchy to say the least – I generally deal with artists who’ve been dead for at least a hundred years – and I knew very little about O’Keeffe, but the exhibition did a great job of introducing me to her innovative, colourful and elegant paintings.

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