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Yetserday I attended a tour of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery curated by our art teacher at the local adult learning institute. She kindly invited me though I did not enrol on her course of Women in art. I regarded this too narrow.

Last term, on British Art in the Twentieth Century, we had just the one gentleman on the course who seemed enthusiastic and well-informed and he took the same decision.

So we were on her holy grail to find great paintings by women- or indeed any – in the Gallery.

It was not really until the twentieth century that artists like Freda Kahlo, Winifred Nicholson, Gwen John, Bridget Riley and more recently Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville made a real impact and sculptresses too, like Barbara Hepworth and Elizabeth Frink.

I do not buy into the argument that out there there were great female artists who went undiscovered because of male bias.

The exhibition dedicated to Sean Scully at the National Gallery reflects a very hard life of a working class painter who lived from lodging to lodging in South London doing manual labour and taking time to study works of art at the Tate Milbank, a painter in short who overcame great tribulations before emerging as an esteemed and successful abstractist.

In the absence of notable female painters we did have a valuable visual lesson in the history of art. We stopped in front of a Masaccio picture The Virgin and Child. It was he who in his 27 years ( 1401-28) transformed art through the new use of perspective.

Near to his was Pietro Uccello’s Battle of Romano, again a ground-breaking tableau of a battle scene but the horses – represented as rocking horses – as he painted the subjects far more realistically.

Finally we saw Jan van Eyck’s The Betrothal of the Arnolfini painted for the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini for his betrothal to Jeanne de Chemany.

The detail, rosary, slippers, brush housed in a domestic setting were all very new but most innovative was the mirror on which the artist as witness is portrayed.

Van Eyck was the father of the oil.

It’s this type of tour that really enhances one’s knowledge of art.

In the National Portrait Gallery I was interested to see the Van Dyck portrait of himself.

Van Dyck was not a Master but a pupil of Rubens recommended to the English court by him. Rubens as a diplomat was always on his travels and less available.

I had read in Colin Gleadell’s always informative column on the art market in the Telegraph on the train journey to London that we nearly lost this painting but it was saved for the Nation.

Art dealer Philip Mould acquired it for a Canadian client for £8.5m but £10m was raised publicly and it now hangs in the National Gallery.

Mould posited out that collectors often prefer a self-portrait as it is less formal and more expressive than a commissioned one. Certainly the Tudors ones in the gallery were regally stolid but dull.

One aspect of seeing the great artists of the past is their influence on the moderns: Picasso’s blue period was very much influenced by Titian.

David Hockney spent hours in front of Battle of Romano.

The other similarity between our age and the past is the massive studio.

Damien Hirst is sometimes panned for his 1,300 assistants but thus is nothing new.

Titian employed many and our teacher was quick to mention this included his four daughters.

You were lucky if the artist himself did much more than put his signature to your commission.

One valid criticism of the National Gallery and other museums is you never know till you arrive what will be on view and where.

I once happened to be in Melbourne and was anxious to see a Pierre Bonnard La Toilette in the Museum of New South Wales, only to find it had been lent out to an exhibition in Rome.

About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts