But in painting – at least, until the birth of 'modern art' with the French realists and impressionists, which coincided the birth of photography – nothing is accidental. Even when the painting is done directly from a model, the exact composition is something completely unspontaneous and the details are as significant as the overall subject. Every inch of the canvass is contrived and predetermined, entirely 'unreal', if you like. It's worthwhile – and pleasant – to throw off your twenty-first-century perspective and to flex your observational muscles by delving into a painting's contrivances (though, oddly enough, now that Photoshop is ubiquitous, the notion of photographs supplying an unaltered account of reality is out of fashion, and a whole generation is growing up with much keener critical eyes than those of their parents).
In Room 18, which contains mid-seventeenth century French paintings, near the spectacular portraits of Cardinal Richelieu, there hangs my candidate for the most boring painting in the National Gallery. It would normally have bypassed my eye muscles, but something about it must have struck me as odd. Here it is:
|Allegory of Grammar (1650), Laurent de La Hyre|
Its subject matter is both nebulous and uninspiring, its composition clumsy yet static, its execution flawless and banal, and its style unoriginal – a sort of sub-Poussin classicism without anything in the way of poetry about it. Allowing that Laurent de La Hyre wasn't bad at perspective, we must assume that there is a compositional reason why the foreshortening of the figure's left arm looks so odd, but God knows what that might be, and anyway, who cares? The explanatory notes for this painting are so vague as to remove any last vestiges of intrigue it might yet invoke:
This is probably one of a series of half-length female figures of the seven Liberal Arts* which once belonged to Gédéon Tallemant (1613–68), apparently painted for his house in the Rue d'Angoumois, Paris. The pictures vary in size, and all are dated 1649 or 1650.It is 'probably' one of a series (although it might not be), and just in case you thought you could imagine them all handsomely arranged in identical frames along a corridor or library wall, we learn that they're all different sizes, with no clue as to whether this one is one of the bigger ones or smaller ones. There 'may' be more similar paintings, by him or by someone else, that also exist, at least one of which is exactly the same. Seldom has an explanatory panel cast more shadow over an already dull image. Art history will not help us here. We have to look at the painting.
Grammar is here personified as a woman. The essence of this art is explained in the inscription, which may be translated as 'A meaningful and literate word spoken in a correct manner'. A second series of the Liberal Arts, also by La Hyre or a member of his studio, may have existed in Rouen; and a total of ten paintings of these subjects survive today. An identical version, perhaps from the Rouen series, is in Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery).
Well, I'd like to see the other pictures in the series, to see if they subvert their subject matter in similar ways. It's always enjoyable to discover a hidden meaning that contradicts the stated one. There are plenty of these hidden meanings to be found, not just among the boring paintings in the stuffy old National Gallery, but among the visual and written material that surrounds us on a daily basis, perhaps even in this blog if you look hard enough ...
* The Seven Liberal Arts, as described by Martianus Capella in the 5th century AD, represented the pillars of medieval educational system, the equivalent of today's 'three Rs'. They were: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music.