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Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 17th August

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

A slight return; breaking up is hard to do. I have been looking at this painting for over thirty years, but the thrill has gone. Have we come to the point where is there is little left to say we haven’t said? Except of course that it’s been a good year for the roses.

What does one do after a breakup, go and find another painting to look at for the next thirty years? I’m feeling guilty about it but I have been drawn, increasingly so, to the Rembrandt room especially the ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’.

Rembrandt: ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’, 1669, oil on canvas, 86 x 71 cm. National Gallery

I am not quite that old yet, but the gloom and weariness around the eyes, the way in which the texture tells us much as the head that it composes; there is a lot to look at there. Rembrandt died within a year of painting this, Rubens within four years of painting Het Steen, the methods by which an artist can summarise experience, without resorting to iconography or narrative, are always fascinating. And it is next to that great painting of concupiscence (longing, lust, desire etc), of Heindrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt: ‘Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels’, 1654-6, oil on canvas. National Gallery.

So, back to Het Steen, is it imagination or does the painting look rather brown and tired? A young woman sits on the bench in front of it texting, she has a large purple bag with Etretrat printed on it. Fitting somehow that I should be saying goodbye to a painting that (through the collection of George Beaumont) influenced Constable who, won the Gold Medal in the Paris salon of 1824 for the Hay Wain.

John Constable: ‘The Hay Wain’, 1821, oil on canvas, 130 x 185 cm. National Gallery, London.

His broken brush work much influenced French romantic artists like Delacroix. Delacroix’s colours and evident brush strokes was part of the mix that leads us to Impressionism, along with Constable’s subject matter and his work directly from the motif that Pissarro and Monet studied whilst they were in London during the Franco Prussian war. Many artists painted in Etretat, both Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix: ‘Cliffs at Etretat: The Pied du Cheval ‘, 1838. watercolour on paper. 15 x 20 cm. Musee Marmottan, Paris

and Monet. Monet  in 1868 and 1883, but it was in 1885 that Monet developed his series ideas, painting fifty one canvases in this small seaside town.

Claude Monet: ‘Etretat, Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbour’, 1885. Oil on Canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Apparently he would work at up to six different sites at once, employing his children to walk behind him carrying the canvases between them. The young woman with the Etretat bag does not look at Rubens’ landscape before she leaves.

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

So do I change my relationship status? When you’ve lost that loving feeling, you need distance from a relationship before you can evaluate it; ‘you don’t miss your water till the well run dry’ as one reggae lyric puts it. So I just walk away, walk on by, that sun in the top right hand corner ain’t gonna shine anymore, but there’s always something there to remind me. Etc. etc.

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 10th August

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

Rising dawn, the sun chasing away darkness, brightness sweeping across the land taking the carter with it.

In any long-term relationship what do you see when you look at your co-relatee? When that relationship is with a painting you see (mostly) the history of your discoveries. For example when you tried to find figures on the tower. Or, thought about the role of the fallen tree trunk. Or, wondered about the walk to Malines (the tower on the horizon) and how long that walk would take (three or four hours if memory serves). Sitting down to see the work again becomes a reunion not an analysis.

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London. Detail The Trees

There are new things to find, in life as in paintings I’m sure. I’ve just noticed that the horizon is higher at one point, between the trees, without real reason; again demonstrating that this is a painting made for personal pleasure. How are the tallest group of trees today?

Leonardo, in his notebooks says that:

“All the branches of trees at every stage of their height, united together, are equal to the thickness of their trunk”.

Rubens does not quite follow that prescription, perhaps because they are mostly silver birches, Northern trees not following Southern idealised formulas. Although  Ruskin some three hundred and fifty years later writing in ‘Modern Painters’ said much the same thing:

‘First, then neither the stems nor the boughs of any of the above trees taper [oak, elm, ash, hazel, willow, birch, beech, poplar, chestnut, pine, mulberry, olive, ilex, carubbe and such others], except where they fork. Whenever a stem sends of a branch, or a branch a lesser bough, or a lesser bow a bud, the stem or the branch is, on the instant, less in diameter by the exact quantity of the branch or the bough they have sent off, and they remain of the same diameter; or if there be any change, rather increase than diminish until they send off another branch or bough. This law is imperative and without exception; …so that if all the twigs and sprays at the top and sides of the tree, which are and have been could be united without loss of space, they would form a round log of the diameter of the trunk from which they spring”

It’s no wonder Ruskin wrote so much, it took him some seven or eight hundred words to say what Leonardo put in twenty.

The gallery is empty this afternoon, a combination of the Olympics and the twenty five minute bag search queue to get in; the theatre of surveillance. Everyone in London seems to be wearing a lanyard around their neck with a huge laminated pass, the most important have several. Are the hunter and the carter and companion wearing their access all area passes to this celebratory pictorial space, the dog too? There are no visible gates and fences, is it an inclusive open area, retirement to a grand manor and vast grounds open to all?

How do you know when a relationship, with a painting anyway, has come to an end or needs a bit of space? I have been writing about this painting for years, ten or more, and looking at it for thirty maybe. But, sadly it might be time for a trial separation. How do you say to an art work: “It’s not you, It’s me”?