Updated date:

Masterpieces From Buckingham Palace at the Queen’s Gallery

Frances has many years' experience writing about exhibitions in art galleries and museums.

Old Master paintings removed from the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace for the first time in almost 45 years in preparation for landmark exhibition

Old Master paintings removed from the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace for the first time in almost 45 years in preparation for landmark exhibition

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace presents Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace.

The exhibition brings together 65 prized treasures from the Royal Collection including outstanding works by artists such as Canaletto, Gerit Dou, Titian, Vermeer, Parmigianino, Jan Steen, Rembrandt and many others.

This is the first time these masterpieces have been shown in a gallery exhibition. Usually they can be seen in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace as part of the Summer Opening. However, at the present time, a major ten-year refurbishment is taking place in the Palace to ensure its future for generations to come. To allow this project to go ahead all the paintings have been temporarily re-located to the Queen’s Gallery.

The exhibition invites visitors to think about the artists’ intentions. It asks why were the works so valued, and what makes them ‘masterpieces’?

"The Shipbuilder and his Wife" - Rembrandt van Rijn

"Portrait of Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans", ("The Shipbuilder and his Wife") Rembrandt van Rijn. Image Frances Spiegel with Permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"Portrait of Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans", ("The Shipbuilder and his Wife") Rembrandt van Rijn. Image Frances Spiegel with Permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Highlights of the Exhibition

With 65 glorious masterpieces on view it is extremely difficult to decide on any particular highlights and every visitor will have their special favourites. These are mine:

"The Shipbuilder and his Wife" - Rembrandt

In looking at the artists’ intentions curators explore how artists used paint to create intricate and subtle effects. For example, "The Shipbuilder and his Wife", (1633) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) shows a married couple, Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans. The wrinkles on the face of Mr Rijcksen look as if they have been sculpted out of paint.

Rembrandt is telling a story. Rijcksen’s wife has interrupted his work to pass on a message. She appears full of energy, perhaps out of breath, whereas her husband appears just slightly irritated. Despite Rijcken’s irritation, Rembrandt creates an intimacy between the married couple as the wife leans into her husband’s space to hand over the message.

"The Grocer's Shop" - Gerit Dou

"The Grocer's Shop" - Gerit Dou. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"The Grocer's Shop" - Gerit Dou. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"The Grocer’s Shop" by Gerit Dou

Gerit Dou (1613-1675), genre painter and founder of the school of the so-called fijnschilders (fine painters), was one of Rembrandt’s pupils.

In "The Grocer’s Shop" Gerit tells an interesting story as he guides our eyes to the action at the rear of the shop.

At first glance the viewer seems to be invited into the grocer’s shop through an arched window with a ledge. But stop right there! By placing a number of items on the ledge Dou holds you back. The central scene shows two women weighing groceries but the story continues behind them where another customer is being served. Yet another woman, who looks directly at the viewer, holds a coffee pot as she leaves the shop.

The painting tells us about the success in trading enjoyed by the Dutch nation. The store also sells exotic goods and imports. The lemons placed on the ledge sit on a blue and white ceramic dish. Sponges hang in the arch and a jar on the ledge appears to contain confectionery.

"A Woman at her Toilet" – Jan Steen

"A Woman at her Toilet" – Jan Steen. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"A Woman at her Toilet" – Jan Steen. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"A Woman at her Toilet" – Jan Steen

"A Woman at her Toilet" (1663), by Jan Steen (1626-1679), shows a partially clad woman putting on, or removing, a stocking. It’s a slow deliberate and seductive movement and she looks directly at the viewer. We see her undergarments and this is unusual because seventeenth century paintings rarely show stays – the stiffened undergarment worn beneath a woman’s jacket.

A small dog lies on the unmade bed. A table is placed by the bed on which we see an open jewellery box and a candle with the flame snuffed out. These symbolise the temporary effects of sexual pleasure.

The painting is bordered in the foreground by a ledge. Steen places various vanitas objects across the ledge such as a lute with a broken string, a skull interwoven with a vine, and a book, thus extending this intimate story forwards into the viewer’s space.

Although the story projects into our space we are nevertheless kept out of the room itself by a magnificent arched doorway and two columns with Corinthian capitals. The arch is decorated with swags and cherub. According to the Royal Collection Trust’s website “The arch represents moral probity emphasised by the symbolism of the sunflower (constancy), the grapevines (domestic virtue) and the weeping cherub (chastised profane love).”

"A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman" – Johannes Vermeer

"A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman" – Johannes Vermeer. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman" – Johannes Vermeer. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"A Lady at the Virginals" – Johannes Vermeer

"A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman" was acquired by the Royal Collection in 1762. The painting is signed on the bottom of the frame: IVMeer (IVM in monogram), but the signature was misread and the work was originally attributed to Frans van Mieris. Théophile Thoré, French historian, journalist and art critic, correctly identified the artist as Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) in 1866.

Vermeer uses perspective to direct the viewer’s attention to the back of the room where a young woman sits at the virginals with her back to the audience. Her face is reflected in a mirror and a man stands watching her.

There is a certain privacy to the scene which the artist creates by forming a barrier between viewer and occupants. He places a chair and table on the right, and a viol on the floor. You see these items but you have to look beyond them to see the figures.

The scene is lit by gentle light through windows on the left, adding soft shadows to the intimacy of the scene.

Vermeer uses a lot of ultramarine - a deep blue pigment - one of the most expensive pigments in use at the time. It was originally produced by grinding lapis lazuli to a powder. We see it in the marble floor tiles as well as on the ceiling beams. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, tells us “it creates the affect that a very ordinary scene, an everyday scene, has a jewel-like richness to it.”

On the lid of the virginal an inscription reads: “MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS]” - translated as 'Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow”. Does the artist use the inscription to refer to the relationship between the man and woman? Does the inclusion of a second instrument, the viol, imply companionship and shared pleasure?

"Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel" - Titian

"Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel" - Titian. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel" - Titian. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

"Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel" - Titian

Tiziano Vecelli (1490-1576), known as Titian, portrays The Virgin and Christ Child sitting on the bank of a stream in a mountainous landscape.

The Virgin holds a single campanula, while Christ has chosen a red rose, the symbol of his Passion, and an allusion to Mary’s virginity and sorrow.

In the background we see Tobias carrying a fish, accompanied by his dog, and an Angel. The journey of Tobias and his guardian, the Archangel Raphael, is told in the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha. Tobias carries the fish, the entrails of which heal his father’s blindness and exorcise his future wife.

Visit the Exhibition

Tickets and further information are available from the Trust. Advance booking is essential as entry is strictly limited to ensure social distancing.

© 2020 Frances Spiegel

Related Articles