I found myself back in Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery once again. Last week I came to know that they do short guided tours of the Gallery for new members every few weeks and so here I am.
Mathew was our guide. His first stop was in front of a painting by Titian, “Diana and Actaeon”. As he gave us an introduction of how the Gallery came about, I cast my eye over the painting. A few naked women getting ready to have a dip around a stone structure.
The Gallery was founded in 1823-24 and the current building was opened in 1938. Early in the nineteenth century it was noticed that compared to Paris we did not have an art gallery. The treasury did not have the necessary funds. Luckily, during this period, Austria paid back their war debts which was just the right amount of money needed and the Gallery was born. It was built on a location where both the rich in the West of London and the poor in the East could come and see the paintings for free. Art was considered in those days as a way to enrich the mind and make one a better person. One of the first paintings acquired by the gallery was Sebastiano’s ‘The rising of Lazarus’ which has the inventory number NG1.
By the time he had talked about how the Gallery came into existence, the significance of the picture was slowly dawning on me. A hunter with his dog had stumbled upon these women, who were having a private moment and you could see the surprise on some of their faces. Mathew then explained the story behind the painting. It was based on a poem ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid, where Actaeon a young prince stumbles upon the goddess of Hunt ‘Diana’ and her nymphs. According to the story Diana flicks water onto him in fury and Actaeon tries to run away from this scene. He then realises that he was running faster than he normally could and transforms into a stag which then gets killed by his own hunting dogs. The next two paintings in the sequence are hung next to this one.
Mathew then takes us through the significance of the painting and it’s contents. Why pick that particular moment, when the story is just starting to unfold? Does the facial expressions of the ladies mean more than just the startled expression towards this unwanted intrusion. Why are they not protecting their goddess? Was there any other message that the painting was trying to convey? Like this carefree prince getting into trouble because he feels that nobody can touch him. Was the artist trying to warn us to be wary of the consequences of our actions.
I have never looked at a painting in this context and it certainly was an eye opening talk.
We then move on to the next painting…