Category Archives: Uncategorized

An International Interlude: A Review of the Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun Retrospective in Paris

Just as Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun spent a productive period away from her native France after the Revolution, so our painting of the Countess Golovine – an aristocrat that Vigée-Lebrun met during her time in the Russian Empire – is taking an interlude from the Barber Institute to assume its rightful place among some of the artist’s best works in a landmark retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. This exhibition includes a phenomenal collection of work from across Vigée-Lebrun’s long career, revealing unexpected aspects of her production and confirming her primary place as one of the most accomplished and exemplary portrait painters of the late eighteenth-century.

The painting Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) as seen across multiple panes of glass and a bust of the artist by Augustin Pajou (1783)

It was emphasised from the outset that this is only the second exhibition devoted to Vigée-Lebrun’s work and the first to be held in France. With an expanded range of work compared to its predecessor, the 1982 retrospective held at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, this veritable homecoming exhibition offered the opportunity to express Vigée-Lebrun’s relatively underreported history in a nuanced and expanded manner. Alongside a loosely chronological structure, the display of the exhibition also featured sections of her paintings organised around her social circles, travel destinations, main themes and subjects and favoured materials. This effort to largely chronicle and contextualise the artist’s life was paralleled by staggered emphasis on its most important moments, relationships and works of art, creating a satisfying narrative balance aided by the display. The first room in the exhibition includes, for instance, a bust of the artist set in front of a glass pane that allowed the viewer to see across multiple display spaces directly to the back of the gallery, where one of Vigée-Lebrun’s best known paintings of Queen Marie Antoinette was hung. Seeing this painting from the outset of the exhibition and across a depiction of the artist herself allowed the curators to simultaneously highlight what is perhaps the most important painting of Vigée-Lebrun’s career while also emphasising her role, and the importance of art in general, in forming the image and reputation of both the Queen and the artist herself.

Peace Bringing Abundance (1780)

While examples of Vigée-Lebrun’s mastery of portrait painting abound, one of the most interesting aspect of the exhibition was the diversity of her production. Alongside her incredible pastel works, which rivalled her oil paintings and undoubtedly contributed to her virtuosity with colour, her rare historical and allegorical paintings were also given pride of place. This includes her painting Peace Bringing Abundance (1780), which Vigée-Lebrun submitted for acceptance to the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture after the Queen’s intercession on her behalf due to her exclusion for her husband’s work as an art dealer.

Vigée-Lebrun’s aptitude for the allegorical also sheds light on the particular depth of reference she brought to her portraits, an example of which is her famous self-portrait with her daughter, Portrait of the Artist with her Daughter called ‘La Tendresse Maternelle’ (1786). The new theories on education and childhood propagated by Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau created a rush to define the modern iconography of maternal love, with Vigée-Lebrun’s examples at the forefront for her creative interpretations of Renaissance portrayals of the Madonna and Child like Raphael’s intimate Madonna of the Chair (1513-14). The informal and personal quality of Vigée-Lebrun’s painting in fact represents one of the most radical and attractive aspects of her work, and is present in almost all of her most remarkable and successful paintings, including her famous Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (1783) and her portraits of Lady Emma Hamilton painted in Italy in 1792.

The landing leading up to the second floor of the exhibition

With a life set against extreme social and political turmoil, the two floors of the exhibition were justly separated into pre- and post-Revolution production. Forced to flee her homeland because of her proximity to the Royal family, her large personality and the ubiquity of her images, Vigée-Lebrun spent twelve years travelling the cultural centres of Europe while her family attempted to have her struck from the list of counter-revolutionary emigrés. Her renown and the quality of her work ensured a celebrated reception in each city she visited, and she was particularly popular in Russia, where she commanded huge prices for her portraits and circulated in high society. Her portraits also became consistently more daring during her time abroad, with her figures more naturalistic and their poses more dynamic than ever before; and the Barber’s portrait of the Countess Golovine (1797-1800), called ‘the most original’ painting of Vigée-Lebrun’s Russian period by the exhibition’s curators, is a perfect example of this. (Baillio & Salmon, p. 288) The relatively unadorned background and the octagonal shape of the canvas draws the viewer’s attention to the subject, who faces the viewer with an unwavering gaze while her hands dramatically gathers her neoclassical garb. The painting of the Countess Golovine was set among numerous other works of a similar size and composition in the exhibition, and Russia today holds one of the largest collections of Vigée-Lebrun’s work, showing her large and exceptional output during her time there.

A Portrait of the Countess Golovine (1797-1800)

IMG_9668Four of Vigée-Lebrun’s plein air pastels (1820-1830)

Vigée-Lebrun was finally able to travel to France in 1802, but while her return was much sought after and anticipated it did not stop her from continuing her travels around Europe. With the Treaty of Amiens she was able to live and paint in Great Britain for three years, and during her travels she even began to participate in the vogue for plein air drawing with her pastel studies of the Swiss Alps – a rare collection of which are also present in the exhibition. This final burst of creativity shows Vigée-Lebrun’s ability to adapt to her time and master her medium.

This groundbreaking retrospective of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s work will be at the Grand Palais until 11 January 2016, when it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (9 February – 15 May 2016) and the National Gallery of Canada (10 June – 12 September 2016). The portrait of the Countess Golovine will travel with it, returning to the Barber in autumn 2016.

Baillio, J. & Salmon, X., Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (Grand Palais, Galeries nationales: Paris, 2015).

For more information:

Sara Tarter


‘The Eye Wandering the Ceiling – Ornament and the New Brutalism’

Professor Mark Crinson
(University of Manchester)

Wednesday 25 November, 4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre


‘The ceiling was a neutralised zone under modernism. If ornament was a crime it would never practice its dubious business in the hygienic light-filled spaces above our heads. And if ‘papering over’ was to hide the shameful, then not to paper was to show there was nothing to hide. So if we raise our eyes to the ceiling in a modernist building it is only because we might think the sky-god had come into the room. The ceiling, however, was reconceived by New Brutalists, both as part of the topology of rooms and as a parafoveal zone within space perception. Thus it was explored in some major works (Patio and Pavilion, Parallel of Life and Art, Just What Is It…), but also in some ‘minor’ ones (like Eduardo Paolozzi’s ceiling paper) that are the focus here. Equivalent to the ‘New Landscape’ of experimental science, the ceiling was ubiquitous yet outside normal vision, contemporary yet seen by New Brutalists as part of a deep history of dwelling. This paper considers how such re-animated ceilings relate to forms of situated aesthetic experience that fascinated New Brutalists – most especially, Anton Ehrenzweig’s ‘gestalt-free’ theories of the psychology of perception, which call upon wallpaper and ceilings as part of their arguments.’

Refreshments served

All Welcome!

Enquiries to Sara Tarter:


‘The Avant-Garde’s Alternative Professionalism’

Professor David Cottington
(Kingston University)

Wednesday 11 November, 4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

‘For a field of scholarly research that has experienced unprecedented expansion and development in the last decade, avant-garde studies is bedevilled by a surprising amount of confusion. After a hundred years of its increasingly ubiquitous currency, uncertainty over the definition even of its key term remains, at the most basic level. Thus, for instance, a slippage between the use of ‘avant-garde’ as a noun (the socio-cultural formation) and as an adjective (the qualities that define its common practices and characterise their products) that can be found in most discussions of it, with the result that the fundamental distinction between them is ignored. Moreover scholars of the avant-gardes have tended either towards the history of the formation or the theory of its ideology—when what is needed is an understanding which holds both in view at once. This paper is a resume of such an approach, which situates both in relation to the professionalisation of western societies over the last century and a half, but also grounds them in a concept of a professionalism alternative and oppositional to that of mainstream cultural practices.’


Refreshments served

All Welcome!

Enquiries to Sara Tarter:


‘Micro-Architecture: Eucharistic Tabernacles and Concepts of Church Reform’

Dr Rebecca Gill
(University of Birmingham)

Wednesday 28 October, 4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

‘This lecture takes as its focus three Eucharistic tabernacles designed by the Perugian architect Galeazzo Alessi in the mid-sixteenth century, for the churches of Santa Maria Assunta di Carignano, Genoa; Santa Maria presso San Celso, Milan; and the Upper Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi. Through an examination of the climate of early Church Reform in which Alessi was operating, this paper will explore the ways in which his designs for Eucharistic tabernacles can be seen to reflect a new found emphasis within the Catholic Church on the importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist and in particular the idea of transubstantiation, which had been heavily criticised by the protestant reformers. Particular emphasis will be placed on the innovative elements of Alessi’s designs and the ways in which an examination of these micro-architectural structures changes our understanding of the development of Eucharistic tabernacles during the Counter Reformation period in Italy.’


Refreshments served

All Welcome!

Enquiries to Sara Tarter:

Departmental Research Seminar: Wednesday 7 October

Darkness in the Age of Enlightenment:
Cataract Surgery and Blindness in the Eighteenth Century – Rosalba Carriera, a case study

Dr Sophie Bostock

(Qatar Museums)

Wednesday 7 October, 4:10 pm
Barber Institute Photograph Room

There is a poignant and defiant self-portrait by the Venetian miniaturist and portraitist Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Traditionally it is held to have been made after she had temporarily recovered her eyesight following the removal of cataracts. This paper analyses Rosalba’s final self-representation and interrogates it in a number of ways: using the portrait as visual evidence to appreciate how it related to issues of Rosalba’s subjectivity and self-perception in the face of excruciating surgery which eventually resulted in blindness; understanding the artist’s disability in terms of the painful medical treatment which would have been available to her at the time, and in the light of the notes of the surgeon who operated on her on two separate occasions in 1749; through the examination of an eighteenth-century engraving depicting cataract surgery, and by considering cognate examples of contemporaries who underwent similar procedures, for example the composer George Frideric Handel and contextualizing blindness in eighteenth-century historical, philosophical and ideological frameworks.


Refreshments served

All Welcome!

Enquiries to Sara Tarter:

A Summer break

The Golovine team is going to be out of action for a few weeks until the new term starts in October, when we’ll be eagerly welcoming a new bunch of Undergraduates and Postgrads! Until then, happy Summer… here’s a Summery Bruegel for you to ogle.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Corn Harvest (August), 1565, oil on panel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Corn Harvest (August), 1565, oil on panel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Frank Dobson, Sir (Francis) Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, c. 1922, National Portrait Gallery

Frank Dobson, Sir (Francis) Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, c. 1922, National Portrait Gallery

The department’s annual MA exhibition is now open at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. A collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, this year’s exhibition – The Modernist Face – explores the work of sculptor Frank Dobson and painter Matthew Smith, focusing on the relationship between the artist and the sitter.

The exhibition is open until September 27th and is a great summer activity, in particular, if you are coming up for any of our open days this week.

More information can be found on the exhibition’s webpage:

If you would like to learn more about the exhibition there are also a number of complementary talks and events running:

Tuesday 30 June, 1.15pm

The People Behind the Portraits in ‘The Modernist Face’: Roald Dahl, Jean Simmons and Others

Josephine Male and Rachael Hill, MA students and co-curators


Wednesday 17 June, 1.10pm

An Introduction to Matthew Smith and Frank Dobson

Rosie Broadley, National Portrait Gallery

Wednesday 1 July, 1.10pm

The Birmingham Group: Icons and Ideals

Brendan Flynn, Freelance Curator

Wednesday 8 July, 1.10pm

The Sitwells: An Ornamental Modernism

Dr Deborah Longworth, Department of English Literature, University of Birmingham


Saturday 4 an 11 July, 11am – 4pm

Figurative Painting and Creative Colour

With artist Adrian Clamp


Saturday 18 July, 1.30 – 4pm

Body Language

With writer Jacqui Rowe

Sir Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith, Self Portrait, 1932, Estate of Sir Matthew  Bracy Smith

Sir Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith, Self Portrait, 1932, Estate of Sir Matthew Bracy Smith

Another Michelangelo whodunnit . . . one nun, one ex-Vatican employee and one ransom demand for a stolen Michelangelo letter

Etienne Duperac's engraving of Michelangelo's finalised scheme for the new St. Peter's

Etienne Duperac’s engraving of Michelangelo’s finalised scheme for the new St. Peter’s

Yesterday the Italian newspaper Il Messagerro reported that the Vatican has received a ransom demand for the return of an autograph letter by Michelangelo which, unbeknownst to the outside world, was stolen from the Vatican archives in 1997. The letter is one of two documents that apparently went missing and is said to be written entirely in Michelangelo’s own hand, which is fairly unusual, since Michelangelo often dictated his letters to assistants who transcribed them for him to sign.

The facts, which are sketchy, are as follows. The documents were taken from the Fabricca di San Pietro, the archive of the department that oversees the maintenance of St. Peter’s basilica, which Michelangelo re-designed. According to a Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, who issued a statement after Il Messagerro published their report, the cardinal in charge of St. Peter’s, Angelo Comastri, has recently received a ransom demand for a “certain price” in exchange for return of the letter; Il Messagerro gave the price as €100,000 and claims that the request came from ex-Vatican employee who could get the documents back for the Fabricca. Father Lombardi added that the theft was first noticed by a nun who, in 1997, informed Vatican officials that the documents were missing. The ransom demand was ‘naturally refused’.

No further details have been made public at this stage. One BIG question, though, is why wasn’t the theft reported in 1997? The Vatican police are now investigating the theft, along with their Italian counterparts.




Dates for your diaries.

With the new semester in full swing, there’s no shortage of events to get yourself along to in the Barber Institute and elsewhere on campus. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Tuesday 27th January 2015 at 5pm in the Muirhead Tower Room 121.

The next CeSMA seminar is being given by Erica O’Brien, an art historian from Bristol University. Her paper is entitled ‘Family and faith: sensory experience and devotional memory in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy’.

All welcome!

This Spring the Barber celebrates the research of recent and current postgraduate students from the University’s art history department in this mini lecture series.

Pam Cox (4th Feb.)

An Open and Shut Case? An Exploration into Jan de Beer’s Joseph and the Suitors and the Nativity at Night

Faith Trend (18th Feb.)

Venice Through the Eyes of its Artists: Canaletto and Guardi’s Landscape Paintings

Jamie Edwards (4th March)

Il fiammingo in Italia: Netherlandish artists and the allure of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries

All welcome!

The return of the Institute's Jan de Beer

The return of the Institute’s Jan de Beer

  • Wednesday 18th March: Special Lunchtime Lecture ‘How many Brueghels make Four?’, Ruth Bubb (conservator), 1:10pm, Lecture Theatre 

Find out more about the mysterious ‘behind the scenes’ world of art conservation with paintings conservator Ruth Bubb, who has just completed the restoration of the Institute’s Peasants binding faggots by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

All welcome!

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

The Barber Institute’s full programme of events for January through to April is available here.

  • Monday 16th March: Cadbury Research Library’s Annual LectureCivic Life: Oliver Lodge and Birmingham, Dr James Mussell (Associate Professor, University of Leeds), 12:00-12:50, Muirhead Tower Lecture Theatre G15

Free and all welcome but booking is required. Please email to reserve a place.

  • Wednesday 18th March: Cadbury Research Library seminar: Ten Books that Changed Medicine, Professor Jonathan Reinarz (Director of The History of Medicine Unit, The University of Birmingham), 13:00-14:00, Cadbury Research Library – Chamberlain Seminar Room

Free and all welcome but booking is required. Please email to reserve a place.

The Barber Association

The Barber Association

The Barber Association’s programme for Spring is now available here! Highlights include: 

  • Thursday 19 February: BEDFAS at the Barber: THE INSIDE STORIES: The Real Stories behind the Most Intriguing Cases of Nazi Looted Art,  6-8.15pm (Gallery viewing and refreshments at 6pm; Lecture at 7pm) 

Free for Barber Association members (usually £10). No booking required!

  • Wednesday 18th March: Art History Speed Workshop: Sight and Sound, 2:30-4, Barber Galleries 

Free but booking is required. To reserve a place email

(To find out more about the Speed Workshop, see here and here.)

  • Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies research seminar schedule for the Spring term is now available. Seminars take place at 5:15 in the Barber Photograph Room. The line-up is as follows: 

Thursday 29 January

Rosalie van Gulick (University of Utrecht; Barber Institute)

“Utter lack of true dramatic feeling”: Exploring Jan Steen’s The Wrath of Ahasuerus

Thursday 5 February

Richard Taws (University College London)

Trickster, Charlatan, Apparition, King: Representing Royal Impostors in Post-Revolutionary France 

Thursday 26 February

Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham)

‘Better Than Before’?: Actor-Network-Theory and László Moholy-Nagy’s Occupational Therapy Courses 

Thursday 5 March TBC

Sophie Bostock (Qatar Museums)

Thursday 12 March

Gaby Neher (University of Nottingham)

Title TBC 

Thursday 19 March

Jamie Edwards (University of Birmingham)

Seeing Spiritually and Seeing the Spiritual: Seeking some Perspective on Pieter Bruegel’s Paintings 

Thursday 26 March

Abigail Harrison Moore (University of Leeds)

Palpitatingly Modern Luxury: Electrifying the Country House




From religious toleration to local regeneration: why a series of Zurbarán paintings is at the heart of Auckland Castle’s past and future by Lauren Dudley

Growing up in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, I have spent many hours exploring the beautiful and mysterious palace grounds in the town centre, but I had never really wondered what was inside the house attached to them, which has been home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for the last 900 years. A few years ago, the palace’s art collection, notably its remarkable series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), came under scrutiny when they were at risk of being sold. Thanks to philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer the collection was saved and the palace has been granted charitable status as Auckland Castle Trust. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is now open to the public and is part of a considerable investment project led by Ruffer in the regeneration of the town. So, during a visit home I took the opportunity to have a look around…

My tour began in the impressive St Peter’s Chapel, the largest private chapel in Europe and formerly the Castle’s Banqueting Hall. The original chapel was demolished following the Civil War. In the 1660s Bishop John Cosin (1594-1672) began the renovation of the Castle, including the conversion of the hall into the present-day chapel. Much of the decoration dates from the 19th century – notably the beautiful stained glass windows.

Upstairs, in the Throne Room a gallery of Prince Bishops is shown through a striking collection of portraits, which includes paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) representing Bishops Shute Barrington (1734-1826) and William Van Mildert (1765-1836), one of the founders of the University of Durham. Barrington employed the renowned architect and Lunar Society member, James Wyatt (1746-1813), to make alterations to the Castle as shown through its neo-Gothic features.


Entering the Throne Room, a portrait of Bishop John Cosin hangs above the chair


Lawrence’s portraits can be seen on the top row, above the fireplace

From the Throne Room I went into the much anticipated Long Dining Room, which was specifically re-designed to house the series of Zurbarán paintings that have been the cause of so much talk in the town for the last few years. While some might find the paintings quite unusual, shocked that they were bought for £15 million, it is clear to everyone that they are rather special. Few Zurbarán paintings can be seen in the UK – the National Gallery houses some of the Spanish artist’s work and you can read more about it on their website here. The Barber Institute owns a painting attributed to the studio of Zurbarán, Saint Marina, c.1630s, which is an interesting comparison to the Auckland Castle series.


Dan VII, © Auckland Castle Trust

Zurbarán’s series at Auckland Castle is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It depicts larger-than-life individual paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The figures’ dress are somewhat theatrical and they are depicted in striking poses, almost like actors, and they tower over the landscape behind them. In fact, the artist depicted the figures in the dress worn during contemporary religious processions in his home town of Seville. The expressive gestures of the biblical figures is perhaps evidence of Caravaggio’s influence on Zurbarán. The interpretation in the gallery also highlighted the fact that his figures were based on Albrecht Dürer’s engravings.

Levi III

Levi III, © Auckland Castle Trust

The early provenance of the paintings is mysterious – with one story suggesting that they were destined for a wealthy Catholic buyer in the New World but that the ship carrying them was capsized by pirates! In any case, the paintings, dated c.1640-44, ended up at an auction house in London in 1756 and Bishop Richard Trevor (1707-1771) bought them for £124 (of his own money, in fact) to hang in Auckland Castle. He purchased the series as a deliberate political gesture – while the paintings can be considered as Counter-Reformation in style, produced in a Catholic culture, their reception in Britain was intended as a gesture of support for the toleration of the Jewish faith. In 1753 the government had passed the Naturalisation of Jews Act, but it caused outcry, and it was not until the following century that Jews were granted full civic liberties. In this context, the 12 Tribes of Israel depicted by Zurbarán represented the foundations of the Jewish faith and, indeed, its shared heritage with Christianity, which would have been a bold gesture in eighteenth-century Britain – showing the power of art patronage on the political stage.

Simeon II

Simeon II, © Auckland Castle Trust

Fittingly, an interesting temporary exhibition is currently on show in the room adjacent to the Long Dining Room, entitled, The Power and the Glory: How Religious Art made Tudor England and the objects on display are presented as ‘survivors’ of the destruction that would follow during the Reformation. The recent exhibition at Tate Britain, Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, showed objects that had been damaged during the Reformation (see my post about the exhibition here), whereas The Power and the Glory presents beautifully preserved, intact objects such as Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours and Elizabeth of York’s signed prayer book. The exhibition highlights how the political and religious landscape in Britain changed significantly as a result of the Tudor reign. Future plans for Auckland Castle include the establishment of a museum dedicated to the history of religious faith in Britain and extending its collection of Counter-Reformation paintings (find out more about the castle’s regeneration on their website). It would be an apt site for such a museum given the link with nearby Durham Cathedral and a little further away, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The Castle reminded me of the Palais des Papes in Avignon and a much smaller version of the Vatican, so it will be exciting to see what becomes of Auckland Castle in the coming years.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers

%d bloggers like this: