For me, this December's Old Master Sale is, above all, a treasure trove of surprises: it seems to be full of pictures previously overlooked, or recently rediscovered, or so transformed by recent cleaning it is as if they were painted yesterday.
All of those remarks might apply to Anthony Van Dyck's fresh and vibrant portraits of the Antwerp notary Jacob de Witte and his wife Maria Nutius. For many years these pictures were completely unknown, reemerging only at the great exhibition held in 1899 to mark the tercentenary of Van Dyck's birth - following which they returned to a relative obscurity from which they have, only now, emerged once again. Unfamiliar even to many of the most dedicated admirers of Van Dyck's work - and only exhibited once in the last 40 years - they are all the more striking now that the accumulated dirt of time has been removed to reveal their superlative condition.
The painter's capturing - or conjuring - of human presence and personality comes across in every detail: in her fragile smile and slightly wary eyes, in the sheen of reflected light in her smooth forehead, framed by wisps of dark hair; in the insouciance of his raised eyebrow and assertively pursed lips, and the effortless virtuosity with which Van Dyck has laid in, stroke by stroke, each blonde hair of his straggly beard and moustache. This husband-and-wife pair must be counted among the masterpieces of the painter's second Antwerp period. They strike me as just the sort of pictures over which the great collectors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have fought one of their transatlantic battles (had they known of their existence). They certainly would not look out of place on the walls of the Wallace Collection, or the Frick.
According to one of his early biographers, Van Dyck made his first trip to Italy on a horse given to him by his teacher and master, Peter Paul Rubens. So it is a nice coincidence that the present sale should include a picture by Rubens himself on the theme of a young man being transported elsewhere - not, admittedly, to Italy on horseback, but into the heavens in the clutches of an eagle. The Abduction of Ganymede, an oil sketch on panel done in preparation for a major series of mythological paintings for Philip IV of Spain, is a perfect demonstration of why so many collectors, for so many centuries, have prized Rubens's best sketches just as highly as his finished paintings.
It is a picture that perfectly captures the impetuous eroticism of the myth that inspired it, famously retold by Ovid in his Metamorphoses: Jupiter, inflamed by his desire for Ganymede, a prince of Troy, took on the guise of an eagle and carried the hapless youth to Olympus to become cup-bearer to the gods. In Rubens' sketch the story is distilled to its absolute essence, rendered with a speed of handling that perfectly conveys the speed and rush of the story itself. The boy's pose is derived from that of one of the struggling sons of Laocoön, in a famous Hellenistic sculpture greatly admired by Rubens during his formative years in Rome. Yet his Ganymede seems less distressed than amazed, stretching out his arms in a gesture that speaks of acquiescence rather than resistance. He is a study in pink: pink face (relieved only by the startled white of one staring eye), pink buttocks and pink drapery, one fold of which, caught in the eagle's beak, might almost be taken for the bird-god's slavering tongue. This might "only" be an oil sketch, but it goes straight to the heart of Rubens' genius as the most unashamedly sensual painter of the Baroque age.
Another surprise of the sale - given that it is a auction of Old Masters, a term which itself reflects the fact that painting was long a male-dominated profession - is that one of its stand-out lots should be a picture by a woman. And what a wonderful picture it is: Still Life with Flowers in a Vase with a Bird's Nest upon a Marble Ledge, by Rachel Ruysch. The "Amsterdam Pallas" and "Art Goddess", as she was described by her contemporary, fellow-painter Jan van Gool, painted the picture in 1738, when she was 74 years old and had been a practicing artist for some 60 years.
'Rachel Ruysch showed such skill that she was able to vault the considerable barriers to gender that existed in her time and pursue a long career which culminated in her appointment as court painter to the Elector Palatine'
A pupil of Willem van Aelst, Ruysch is rivalled only by Jan van Huysum among the still life painters of the later Golden Age. The daughter of a distinguished botanist and anatomist, Frederick Ruysch, she had been encouraged to collect and study scientific specimens - especially flora - from her early years, and showed such skill that she was able to vault the considerable barriers to gender that existed in her time and pursue a long career which culminated in her appointment as court painter to the Elector Palatine. The present picture, one of the most ambitious of her later compositions, is a bravura demonstration of the skills that led to her work being so highly prized, both by her contemporaries and by posterity. She captures not only the distinctive forms and colours of the blooms, but also their softness and incipient decay: note the browning at the edges of the furled pink rose. The unkempt bird's nest, a feather caught in its ragged weave of drying grasses, their stray strands catching the light, amounts to a painting within the painting: a miniature masterpiece in its own right.
Historians of Dutch art are fond of discerning allegorical meanings in such pictures, finding intimations of mortality and vanitas associations in the fading of such flowers. But I wonder if a different kind of narrative might lurk in this particular still life arrangement. To my eye its most striking contrast is between the bird's nest below, with its cluster of eggs, and the bold form of a striped tulip above, soaring over the rest of the flowers. Might this have been the artist's way of depicting her own trajectory? Ruysch had been a mother as well as a painter, with no fewer than ten children in her own little nest; yet she had risen to fame and fortune. I like to think she would have wanted us to remember all that.
'While reminding us of Turner's roots in the tradition of romantic topographical painting, it also shows us where he was destined to take that same tradition during his incandescent maturity: towards an art focussed above all on the mysteries and magic of light, in all its emanations and reflections...'
Lastly, I would like to single out two English Romantic surprises. First, the recently reassessed second version of Turner's Cilgerran Castle. Once dismissed as a mere copy - on entirely false grounds - it now stands confirmed as a tremendous essay in the sublime, not only by Turner's hand but worked on by him at two very distinct periods of his life. Originally painted around the end of the eighteenth century it was, as new research indicates, re-acquired by the artist some twenty years later and extensively reworked, especially in the area of its spreading, explosive sunset. In its complex history lies part of its deep fascination, because while reminding us of Turner's roots in the tradition of romantic topographical painting, it also shows us where he was destined to take that same tradition during his incandescent maturity: towards an art focussed above all on the mysteries and magic of light, in all its emanations and reflections.
Secondly - an even more remarkable find, in my view - is the recently rediscovered compositional study by Turner's contemporary, John Constable, for one of the most poignant of his later compositions, The Glebe Farm. I count myself as something of a Constable obsessive but I was completely oblivious to the existence of this picture until I learned of its inclusion in the sale - and it is a revelation. Animated throughout by the freest and lightest handling of paint - Constable at his most Gainsborough-like - this is a truly significant addition to his oeuvre, in part because he painted it at one of the crux moments of his life: less than a year before the death of his wife and lifelong sweetheart, Maria, and just two years after the death of one of his closest friends, John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury.
'Painting is but another word for feeling'
If it was Turner's revolution to transform landscape painting into an exploration of light, it was Constable's revolution to make it a vehicle for the expression of the deepest human emotions. In the case of the newly rediscovered version of The Glebe Farm, the foremost of those emotions is surely grief. The picture is an elegy to Constable's departed friend, Fisher, and all of its elements have been selected and arranged by the artist to communicate sorrow, mingled with love: the felled tree-trunk by the dry river-bed; the fast-moving sky in which heavy rain clouds threaten; and, most obviously of all, the tower of Langham Church, where Fisher had been priest in his early life, which Constable has contrived - against all the facts of topography - not merely to include but to raise up like a monument to his friend's memory. Within a year he would take this nakedly emotional form of landscape painting to its furthest extreme, in the two, almost unbearably desolate depictions of Hadleigh Castle - one is in the Tate, the other in the Paul Mellon Centre - with which he marked the bleak despair that engulfed him after the death of his wife.
"Painting is but another word for feeling," Constable wrote in a letter of 1820. It is a remark which I consider to be both the bluntest and most original artist's statement of the entire nineteenth century. And to whom did Constable write those words? To the man whose memory he wished to preserve in The Glebe Farm - to his friend, John Fisher. In a sale full of surprises, the presence of this picture is, for me, the greatest surprise of all.