Women in the Garden - Claude Monet.

Women in the Garden was painted at Ville d'Avray using his wife Camille as the only model. The goal of this large-scale work, while meticulously composed, was to render the effects of true outdoor light, rather than regard conventions of modeling or drapery. From the flickers of sunlight that pierce the foliage of the trees to delicate shadows and the warm flesh tones that can be seen through her sleeve, Monet details the behavior of natural light in the scene. In January 1867, his friend Bazille purchased the work for the sum of 2,500 francs in order to help Monet out of the extreme debt that forced him to slash over 200 canvases to avoid them being taken by his creditors.

Lady with an Ermine - Leonardo da Vinci.

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s female portraits is the Lady with an Ermine which portrays an image of a woman identified to be Cecilia Gallerani who was the mistress of the Duke of Milan. Dated circa 1489 – 1490, this was the time when Leonardo da Vinci was under the service of Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.

The painting depicts Gallerani holding a weasel in its winter coat which is a portrayal of the sitter’s character as a chaste and wholesome lady. The ermine may also be a pun to Gallerani’s name since the Greek word used for the weasel is “galee”, a name to the family name of Cecilia “Gallerani”. Another meaning for the presence of the ermine may refer to the Duke himself who has a nickname of “Italian Moor, White Ermine” after receiving the insignia of the Order of the Ermine given by the King of Naples.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring - Johannes Vermeer.

The Story.

“Lick your lips, Griet.”
I licked my lips.
“Leave your mouth open.”
I was so surprised by this request that my mouth remained open of its own will. I blinked back tears. Virtuous women did not open their mouths in paintings.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. It is not a portrait, but a ‘tronie’ – a painting of an imaginary figure. Tronies depict a certain type or character; in this case a girl in exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear. Johannes Vermeer was the master of light. This is shown here in the softness of the girl’s face and the glimmers of light on her moist lips. And of course, the shining pearl.

Salome - Carlo Dolci.

Carlo Dolci was famous for his emotive rendering of religious subjects and his detailed and polished finish. Salome’s dancing so delighted King Herod that he promised to give her anything she wanted. Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This painting entered the Royal Collection as a gift from Sir John Finch to King Charles II. As English Resident at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinand II between 1665 and 1670, Finch met Carlo Dolci in Florence and had the opportunity to commission a number of works from him, including the self-portrait in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. From the evidence in Finch’s notebooks, written during his sojourn in Florence, we know that he admired and befriended the artist. According to Dolci’s biographer Filippo Baldinucci, Finch commissioned this work and two companion paintings, the Mary Magdalen, also in the Royal Collection, and a David with the Head of Goliath, probably the version in the Brera. According to Baldinucci, Dolci painted three versions of this subject, the first for Marchese Pier Francesco Rinuccini and the second ‘for John Finch, Resident in Florence for His Majesty the King of England, to whom the Resident gave it, and it was placed in the King’s own bedroom’. Of the third we have no evidence. The Royal Collection painting can be confidently identified as Dolci’s second version of the subject. Unfortunately the Rinuccini version was last heard of in 1870, and its whereabouts remain unknown. The subject quickly became popular with Dolci and his followers, and various subsequent versions of this composition exist. The good condition of the painted surface of the canvas reveals the meticulous attention to detail that characterises much of Dolci’s work. Although criticised by his contemporaries, such as Luca Giordano, for his laborious and time-consuming method of painting, here the artist’s delicate handling gives his subject an arresting naturalism. The story is told in two of the Gospels (Matthew 14: 3-12 and Mark 6: 17-29): St John the Baptist is in prison for denouncing the adulterous and incestuous liaison between King Herod and Herodias. Salome (Herodias’s daughter by a previous marriage) so delights the King with her dancing that he promises to give her anything she wants. Prompted by her mother, she asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Dramatically presented standing against a dark background, Salome holds out the platter as if presenting it to the beholder, and yet turns away herself. She is depicted as an elegant and luxuriously dressed young lady: Dolci gives detailed attention to the subtle textures of her costume, and his scrupulous rendering of the ornate jewels on the bodice of her dress, as well as her shimmering pearl jewellery, emphasises the richness and refinement of her attire. While the artist’s depiction draws attention to Salome’s lavish costume and elegant manner, he also captures her melancholy distraction as she appears unable to come to terms with the evidence of her own role in this brutal murder. Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007.

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Napoleon Crossing the Alps - Jacques-Louis David.

Having taken power in France during the 18 Brumaire on 9 November 1799, Napoleon was determined to return to Italy to reinforce the French troops in the country and retake the territory seized by the Austrians in the preceding years. In the spring of 1800 he led the Reserve Army across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass. The Austrian forces, under Michael von Melas, were laying siege to Masséna in Genoa and Napoleon hoped to gain the element of surprise by taking the trans-Alpine route. By the time Napoleon’s troops arrived, Genoa had fallen; but he pushed ahead, hoping to engage the Austrians before they could regroup. The Reserve Army fought a battle at Montebello on 9 June before eventually securing a decisive victory at the Battle of Marengo.

The installation of Napoleon as First Consul and the French victory in Italy allowed for a rapprochement with Charles IV of Spain. While talks were underway to re-establish diplomatic relations, a traditional exchange of gifts took place. Charles received Versailles-manufactured pistols, dresses from the best Parisian dressmakers, jewels for the queen, and a fine set of armour for the newly reappointed Prime Minister, Manuel Godoy. In return Napoleon was offered sixteen Spanish horses from the royal stables, portraits of the king and queen by Goya, and the portrait that was to be commissioned from David. The French ambassador to Spain, Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier, requested the original painting from David on Charles’ behalf. The portrait was to hang in the Royal Palace of Madrid as a token of the new relationship between the two countries. David, who had been an ardent supporter of the Revolution but had transferred his fervour to the new Consulate, was eager to undertake the commission.