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December 09 2011

Hunters in the snow: Pieter Bruegel's pastoral idyll

Jonathan Jones continues his selection of favourite wintry artworks with Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting of a group of shivering hunters returning to home and hearth

October 10 2011

Iain Sinclair: my favourite painting

The author considers the great drama at the heart of this re-enactment of a scene from the gospel of Saint John, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565

June 11 2011

The 10 best summer paintings

The Observer's art critic Laura Cumming selects the paintings that best evoke the exhilaration and the languor of summer

1 Claude Monet Poppy Field (1873)

This is the summer you look at in winter, reproduced on millions of sitting room walls, the painting that transports you to the drifting, buzzing heat of those waist-high French fields through which pretty women stroll with parasols. The nearest poppies are disproportionately large to get across the impact of such intense red and parts of the painting hover on the verge of abstraction. The mother and child are probably Monet's wife and daughter. He showed the work at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and it's now one of the best-loved paintings in the world. See the painting here

2 Pieter Bruegel The Harvesters (1565)

Towering wheat, plump peasants, comic stooks: you wend your way through this fabulous late summer landscape like a roving peasant yourself, spotting ripe pears, scattering birds, noticing the distant monks bathing naked. The scythed path leads the eye into the faraway distance. The first modern landscape in western art is the claim for Bruegel's Harvesters – all reality, no allegory – from the Seasons cycle. It really puts you on the spot, makes you feel the soporific weight of all that warmth. It is, like the rest of the cycle, democratic, affectionate, atmospheric and almost proverbial. See the painting here

3 Edward Hopper Second Storey Sunlight (1960)

This is the dark side of summer – strange goings-on in broad sunlight, longing and isolation even in the heat. The house is typical Hopper, white clapboard, pitched roof, presenting itself silently against the cobalt sky. Sun strikes the old lady in black and the young girl waiting for someone or something. But between them is a lonely void. What is their relationship? Why is the house turned to the sun as if watching for something too? The trees gather menacingly behind the building and inside looks starkly empty as the sun hits the back wall of the room. See the painting here

4 Christian Kobke Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle (1834)

The marvellous Danish artist Christian Købke has climbed to the rooftops to take the summer view by surprise. Here is the dark ridge, the cool blue water beyond, the landscape repeating these horizontals in ever-hazier stripes beneath a motionless sky that fills three-quarters of the picture. It is a hymn to summer light and immense panoramas, the kind of thing no photograph can quite contain. And it's all witnessed by strange surrogates: a solid brick chimney and an elaborate spire turned gold and silver in the sunlight face the view amazed, like something out of Edward Hopper. See the painting here

5 Isaac Levitan Summer Evening (1899)

It would be hard to think of a more beautiful image of summer evening light turning field to fire than this delicately luminous painting. The parched road begins among the cooling foreground shadows, implicitly where we stand, and stretches across the still-warm field to the trees in the distance. It feels like the cusp of autumn, certainly the end of summer's lease. Levitan was master of the "mood landscape", which catch the understated beauty of provincial Russia with a tinge of melancholy. Close friend and favourite artist of Chekhov, he was dead months later at the age of 39. See the painting here

6 David Cox Rhyl Sands (1854)

A summer's day on the French coast, as painted by Boudin or Monet – that's what this picture looks like. And it never ceases to amaze that the subject is actually a day at the artist's favourite resort on the Welsh coast, that David Cox is English and that the picture was painted around 1855, before impressionism was a glimmer in the eye. The sweep of beach, so fresh and breezy it looks as though the sand might have caught in the paint, stretches away in that blurry miasma of light, air and liquid motion that so perfectly captures a day at the seaside. See the painting here

7 David Hockney A Bigger Splash (1967)

Which other living painter has created such a potent image of high summer, of a day so hot the only escape is to plunge into a cool pool? Hockney's swimmer has vanished into the depths, leaving only scattered water in his wake. It is a stunning diagram of 60s California, of blazing noon and pristine pool, of liquid blossoming into frozen chaos. "It took me two weeks," Hockney wrote, "to paint this event that lasts two seconds." Few works of British art have so completely entered the public imagination. See the painting here

8 Bridget Riley To a Summer's Day (1980)

Sky blue, rose, violet and sunshine yellow: stripes of summer colours twist this way and that, ribbon-like, across the horizontal canvas. The motion is somewhere between wave and shivering cornfield. And each fluctuation produces a slightly different optical hit and temperature. The whole painting vibrates in the mind and eye, which is very much the spirit of Riley's art, echoing the truth that nothing in the seen world ever stays still. Her title alludes to Shakespeare's sonnet, suggesting only a comparison with summer. Her picture presents an analogy with the exhilaration of summer. See the painting here

9 Paul Gauguin Tahitian Landscape (circa 1893)

Everyone knows the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, painting super-fertile scenes of sultry girls, primitive statues and strange fruit. But Gauguin also celebrated the landscape around him with an unrivalled intensity of colour that would inspire the fauves. Here, the path turns red-gold in the heat as it runs between viridian trees towards a mountain of sun-baked rock. Up close, the paint is inert, dry and pressed flat into the canvas. But stand a few inches away and the image bursts with brilliance and graphic power. See the painting above

10 Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin Basket With Wild Strawberries (1761)

Not just a heap of summer fruit, but a whole glowing mountain of pleasure. Chardin's great masterpiece of wild strawberries is full of latent heat, his paint mimicking the warm, soft flesh of the berries as miraculously as it conjures the silvery condensation on the glass of cold water. His brush smooths round and round the peach, round the cellophane-bright cherries, shaping the fruit with circular relish. Chardin loves what he paints and makes you love it too. Diderot called him "the Great Magician". Proust revered him for bringing inanimate objects to life "as in The Sleeping Beauty". See the painting here © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 06 2011

Bruegel's saviour: the public

Against expectation, Bruegel the Younger's late Renaissance masterpiece is to remain in Britain thanks to public donations

It's great news that Pieter Bruegel the Younger's painting The Procession to Calvary is to stay in Britain. This morning, the campaign to save this late Renaissance masterpiece for the nation was able to announce victory, after generous public donations were topped up by a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Bruegel's painting – which we celebrated in G2 and an online interactive last autumn – is a rich and surprising work. It is a picture from the time of Shakespeare that has an epic sweep reminiscent of one of his history plays. Just as Shakespeare's histories are crowded with ordinary people making or witnessing history, mingling the high drama of politics with earthy humour, so the tragic scene of Christ's journey to the hill where he will die is imagined as tumultuous, abundant and resonantly human. Peasants, children, merchants and vagrants witness a procession on the outskirts of what is manifestly a contemporary Flemish town: thieves on carts and – above all – soldiers who sternly resemble Spanish forces occupying the low countries bring this story right into the heart of Bruegel's era.

The Art Fund and the National Trust came together to appeal for donations to keep the painting on public view in Britain. It has been on display in Nostell Priory in Yorkshire and will continue to do so, permanently. But it is now more famous than it ever was, owing to a cleverly managed campaign that saw it exhibited in the National Gallery.

This is an interesting victory because it defies expectations. First, art lovers have given money to this cause even in difficult economic times. And second, they have done this for a painting that is not of astronomical celebrity, by the younger Pieter Bruegel, less famous than his renowned father.

But none of that stops The Procession to Calvary being a powerful work. It is about human cruelty and human theatre – a biting work of art in which we can recognise our own world. It is also a demonstration of something vital: the history of art is a delicate web of connections, influences and lesser-known achievements, and a civilised country must value every old painting on its merits, and honour the collectors of the past who enriched stately homes as well as national museums. All in all, a lovely piece of news with which to start the year. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 12 2010

Ruth Padel on Bruegel

The poet considers Pieter Bruegel the Elder's evocation of the archetypal refugees in Landscape with the Flight into Egypt

January 06 2010

Art that makes your blood run cold

Bruegel the Elder's chillingly realistic Massacre of the Innocents is full of the bleakness of midwinter

Snow before Christmas is Christmassy (however hard the news purveyors work to make it a scare story). But snow and ice in January are bleak. It makes me wonder: what is the bleakest snow scene in all art?

Let's put away all the heartwarming Dickensian Christmas-card pictures of peasants playing in the snow. Instead, what is the bitterest winter's painting? My candidate is The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Breugel the Elder, in the Royal Collection. There is another version of this painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, but Her Majesty's is the one that startled me when I first chanced on it in an exhibition. It still haunts me.

Armoured horsemen bear down on a frightened crowd of peasants in the main street of a snowbound village. A soldier is kicking at a door while another man brings a battering ram. Mothers are pleading, fathers begging. Red-coated officers supervise the slaughter.

It could be a scene from a 21st-century war. But it portrays a realistic moment in Bruegel's own 16th-century Flanders. The painter is picturing the wars that ravaged the country in his time, wars in which the Spanish Catholic armies of the Habsburg empire tried to crush Protestant resistance.

He is the master of snow, this painter who gave us the lovely Hunters, but here he deploys that whiteness in the blankest way imaginable. The emptiness of the white covering, the deathliness of the stripped trees, the frozen ground, suggest a world betrayed and nature itself turning on the innocents.

You feel winter's cruelty in this painting: you feel the pain of those peasants when they tried to dig into the frozen earth, their hunger when there were no birds to catch and the streams were locked with ice. And then this final assault, this murder by soldiers with no pity, no compassion. Men with snow in their hearts. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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