Gallery blog

Belle Époque: Music and Art

13 August 2014 by admin


Tempe Nell, Public Programmes at The Courtauld Gallery

The period between 1870 and 1914 has been called by some La Belle Époque – or the Beautiful Era – a time when Paris grew as a hive of musical, literary and artistic activity.

French and international composers, artists and writers congregated in the bohemian cafes and dance halls of Montmatre, where they shared creative and political ideas.

I have put together a Belle Époque themed playlist ahead of this week’s Bohemian Paris Late

In this post I am going to look in detail at how composers, artists and performers came into contact with each others’ work through the café culture of Paris in the late 19th century.

I am also going to focus on how the sexuality of women became a major theme across the arts during this time.

Cross-fertilisation in the arts

Collaboration and cross-fertilisation between the arts was rich in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The poet Charles Baudelaire, who provided inspiration and friendship to many fellow creative professionals, called for the arts to portray modern life honestly in his influential essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863).

Modern Life is a theme synonymous with the French Realist and Impressionist painters, particularly for the work of Édouard Manet (Bar at the Folies Bergere), but modern life also characterises the lyrics of popular songs of the Café Concerts.

Baudelaire explored the interlinking of the sensory worlds of the arts in his poem ‘Correspondances’ (1857), writing:


“Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
Perfumes, sounds, and colours correspond.”

(translation William Aggeler, 1954)


Composers including Erik Satie and Claude Debussy immersed themselves in café life, enjoying their bohemian freedom and eclectic company. Satie wrote for and performed in the nightclub Le Chat Noir, although this was partly out of necessity to make a living (Satie – Gymnopedie (1888) and Gnossienes No. 1 (1890)).

Image representing "Project pour un buste de M. Eric Satie", Eric Satie, Date unknown

Erik Satie, Project pour un buste de M. Erik Satie, Date unknown


Satie also drew, playing with caricature designs for his own bust, which was never realised (see above). Debussy explored sound worlds that adopted the ephemerality and atmospheric qualities we associate with Impressionist art, although he was himself critical of such associations (Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) and Nuages [Clouds] (1899)).

The composer Saints-Saëns painted exquisitely rich imagery through his music ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ (including The Swan, The Fossils and The Aquarium).


Women and objectification in Belle Époque Music and Art

The role of women at the beginning of this period was still very much determined by their relationship to men.

Artists such as Degas, Renoir and Manet repeatedly portray women in various different guises, often betraying their own anxieties about the sexuality of women in the modern world. Female performers, prostitutes and courtesans in particular presented a challenge to men as they crossed the boundaries between private and public life.

Painting Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painted around 1892

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, c.1892


The Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir and Folies-Bergère played host to performances ranging from cabaret to acrobatics and versatile star performers, such as the dancer Jane Avril painted by Toulouse Lautrec (Room 7) enjoyed great celebrity.

Two other performers portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec were Yvette Guilbert (see below) and Polaire who performed comic and sometimes lewd songs often about the lives of performers, prostitutes and courtesans during Café Concerts.


View of Yvette Guilbert by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, around 1893

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Yvette Guilbert, 1893


Madame Arthur and Le Fiacre were written and performed by Guilbert, the first describing a courtesan with a trail of suitors and the second, a woman’s bumpy ride with a gentleman in a horse-drawn carriage.

Tha-ma-ra-boum-di-e (1891), an American song became a major hit for Polaire at the Folies-Bergère music hall, recounting the story of a young woman’s awakening sexuality. For a little light contrast, the song Frou Frou  humorously explores the dangers of women cycling in trousers (!).

Performers themselves often involved in prostitution, even the young ballet dancers from the Opera as painted famously by Edgar Degas would be preyed on by gentlemen audience members who could pay their way backstage.

Emile Zola’s novel Nana (1880) follows the story of a courtesan and theater performer, whose sexuality and powerful stage performances attract and repulse her audiences and destroy her pursuers. Manet used the title ‘Nana for his portrait of the theater performer and courtesan Henriette Hauser in 1877.

This painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, which remained a formal environment where such themes were unacceptable. Ballets and operas also addressed the sexualisation of women in a public arena, for example in the ballet Coppélia by Léo Delibes (1870) where the fantasy of an automated dancing doll threatens the relationship of a young couple, and in Bizet’s opera Carmen (1874) where the seductive title-figure expresses her sexuality openly.


View of Two Dancers on the Stage by Edgar Degas and painted in 1874

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874


It was not uncommon for female employees cabaret venues to sell their bodies to supplement their wages. In Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) he leaves open the possible interpretation that a negotiation of such a transaction is being made between the barmaid and a customer in the mirror reflection on the right.

Themes of prostitution and crime are dealt with more explicitly in the café song A Saint-Lazare by Artistide Bruant in the voice of a prostitute writing to her pimp from prison where she is being treated for a venereal disease. Even female audience members couldn’t escape objectification, for example in Renoir’s La Loge (1874) a gentleman audience-member ignores his companion, possibly his mistress judging by her make-up and bright clothing, and leans back with his binoculars to ogle another attractive woman in the audience who is out of view.


View of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Edouard Manet painted around 1881-2

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2



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The Courtauld: First for Impressionists

6 August 2014 by Hannah


This summer, you might have spotted our First for Impressionists campaign if you’ve been travelling by tube..

First for Impressionists tube campaign

Or train…

First for Impressionists train campaign

Or maybe you’ve spotted our beautiful new banner and shop windows outside Somerset House…

The Courtauld Gallery Shop - Strand entrance

We also now also have a lovely new video featuring our Curator of Paintings Dr Karen Serres as she discusses our world famous collection of Impressionist paintings – starring Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh amongst many others.


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Silver Stories

30 July 2014 by admin


Every object tells a story.

The Courtauld’s collection of 18th century silver is comprised of pieces designed and made by three generations of Courtauld silversmiths. They were the ancestors of Samuel Courtauld, one of the founders of The Courtauld Institute of Art.

New Silver Cases in room 4 at The Courtauld Gallery

Room 4, Installation View, The Courtauld Gallery

The silver has been redisplayed in new cases, thanks to the generosity of AkzoNobel, and now takes pride of place in Room 4.

Here are ten silver stories;

1.    Following French Fashion

During the 18th century, grand-scale dining in England closely followed French fashion. Successive courses were brought to the table – up to eight in France, only three in England – and each required dozens of dishes. These were set out in strict symmetry in the centre of the table, and diners helped themselves to what was within reach.

2.    Soups, Sauces and Sculpture

The popularity of new French foods such as soups and sauces required new shapes for serving dishes, such as the tureen and the sauceboat. This ornamented rococo tureen is a sculptural flight of fancy with naturalistic goats’ heads and delicately chased and chiselled flowers.

Detailed view of the lef of a Tureen, 1751-52, Samuel Courtauld I, The Courtauld Gallery, on loan from AkzoNobel.

Tureen (Detail), 1751-52, Samuel Courtauld I, The Courtauld Gallery, on loan from AkzoNobel

3.    A Hallmark Moment

A hallmark is a stamp guaranteeing the quality of the silver alloy and is still used today. The word derives from Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City of London, where in the 18th century silver pieces were brought to be tested and stamped.

4.    The Courtauld Women were fierce and successful in business

Louisa Courtauld, who ran the family business after her husband Samuel’s death in 1765, was one of a small number of successful women silversmiths in England at this time. Louisa Courtauld’s mark was an ‘LC’ set within a lozenge – the traditional shape for widows’ marks.

Detailed view of George III Cup and Cover by Louise Perina Courtauld showing the initials LC

George III Cup and Cover (Detail), 1765-66, Louise Perina Courtauld, The Courtauld Gallery, on loan from AkzoNobel

5.    A Chemical Reaction

The primary purpose of this two-handed cup was to show off its owner’s status and wealth. It would have been displayed along with other family silver. It was made as a posthumous tribute to the founder of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle (1627-1691) – most famous for Boyle’s Law and for inventing the vacuum chamber.

Viw of a Cup and Cover made by Augustin Courtauld around 1714, with inscriptions referring to Robert Boyle

Cup and Cover, 1714-15, Augustin Courtauld, The Courtauld Gallery, on loan from AkzoNobel

6.    Salt dishes

Like spices, pepper and mustard, salt was an essential condiment, and in formal table settings each diner would have had his or her own. The dolphin feet of these dainty salt dishes are suggestive of the sea, where salt originates.

Detail view of George II Pair of Salt Cellars (Detail), 1685-86, Augustin Courtauld, on loan from AkzoNobel

George II Pair of Salt Cellars (Detail), 1685-86, Augustin Courtauld, on loan from AkzoNobel

7.    Coffee vs Tea

In England tea drinking overtook coffee in popularity early in the 18th century. Reserved for affluent homes, tea was a luxury commodity. The Courtauld silversmiths specialised in domestic silver and benefited from this rise in tea-drinking. They were called upon to create an ever-increasing variety of shapes for tea canisters, caddies and sugar boxes.

View Tea kettle with stand, by Samuel Courtauld (1720-1765)

Tea kettle with stand, 1748-49, Samuel Courtauld, on loan from AkzoNobel

8.    Fox Mask Stirrup-cups

This kind of cup was used for drinking wine immediately before the start of the fox hunt. It was probably handed to a rider already mounted on a horse and with feet in stirrups, hence the cup’s name. Its shape was likely inspired by an Ancient Greek ceramic cup in the shape of a human or animal head, called a rhyton.

View of a Fox Mask Stirring Cup, Louisa Perina Courtauld (1729 - 1807)

Fox Mask Stirring Cup, 1773-74, Louisa Perina Courtauld & George Cowles, on loan from AkzoNobel

9.    Under lock and tea

Tea was precious and expensive commodity and was kept locked in chests, and ever more beautiful ones were made for it. This one is covered in shagreen, leather made from shark skin, a highly fashionable material during this period.

View of A sugar box and spoon, 1750-51, Samuel Courtauld, on loan from AkzoNobel

A sugar box and spoon, 1750-51, Samuel Courtauld, on loan from AkzoNobel

10.    Sugar and the Slave Trade

These objects are also part of the history of the slave trade, and the great profits to be made from it. Tea was imported into London by the English East India Company, and sugar from British plantations in the West Indies. The MP Charles Tudway, whose full length portrait by Gainsborough hangs in Room 4, made his fortune from sugar plantations in Antigua.


The new display of silver is now on display in Room 4.

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Bruegel to Freud: Work in Focus

21 July 2014 by Rachel


Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper

View of the print by Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619

We’re used to thinking of prints as objects to be framed and admired on gallery walls, or kept in a portfolio and perused at leisure. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Prints have been put to many different, and sometimes surprising, uses over the centuries: they’ve been used as maps, playing cards, and, in the case of this superb etching by Jacques Callot, as fans.

Callot (1592-1635) hailed from Nancy, in eastern France, although he spent the first part of his career in Italy. One of the most accomplished and innovative printmakers of his age, he soon found employment in the Medici court in Florence, where Grand Duke Cosimo II commissioned him to record – and enhance – the extravagant festivals and pageants for which both court and city were renowned.

One of these festivals was a mock battle staged annually on an artificial island in the River Arno by the rival guilds of weavers and dyers. In 1619, Cosimo asked Callot to design a fan to commemorate the event – the etched design would be printed, then cut out and stuck down on board before being distributed to 500 lucky spectators. (A thousand impressions were printed, so a large number of impressions – including this one – were never actually cut out and transformed into fans.)

As is often the case with Callot’s prints, the pleasure is in the details. Hundreds of tiny figures, their elegant costumes meticulously recorded, are massed along the riverbank, and the bridges, the battle itself and the distant city are depicted with exquisite care.

Detail view of Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (banks of the river and bridge)

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (Detail)

Callot had initially trained as a goldsmith, something which no doubt honed his ability to render figures on a miniature scale – and it’s worth remembering that the two most time-honoured intaglio printmaking techniques, engraving and etching, both evolved from the goldsmith’s craft.

Callot embraced the freedom and ease of the etching technique (drawing a design with a needle on a wax-coated plate is much less laborious than painstakingly incising it) but he didn’t want to give up the elegance and control of the engraved line, which typically swells in the middle and tapers gracefully at each end.

He found the solution in a tool called an échoppe, whose oval head allowed him to achieve the same effect. You can see how skilfully he used the échoppe to achieve the swooping curves that form the borders of the fan.

One of the distinguishing features of many of Callot’s prints is their playfulness, and The Fan is no exception. On the curling scrolls that form the lower border are perched several small figures.

One of them, just right of centre, is glancing back over his shoulder and brandishing a fan. One of Callot’s?

Detail View of Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (man holding a fan)

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1619 (Detail)


Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery runs 19 June-21 September.

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Work in Focus from Impress: MA Curating Exhibition 2014

15 July 2014 by admin


By Charlotte North, MA Curating Student


In Impress: Print Making Expanded in Contemporary Art, now showing at The Courtauld Gallery until 20th July, we have defined ‘print making’ as any physical act of pressure that leaves behind an indent or impression. For us, prints can be conceptualised in this way whether or not their production has involved a printing plate, ink or paper.

Two Richard Long works displayed in Impress illustrate the pressure and physicality involved in this expanded definition of printmaking: A Line Made by Walking (1967) and River Avon Mud Hand Spiral (1984).

Installation view of A Line Made by Walking in Impress: Print Making Expanded in Contemporary Art. Photograph by Jack Cornish.

Installation view of A Line Made by Walking in Impress: Print Making Expanded in Contemporary Art. Photograph by Jack Cornish.


A Line Made by Walking was created through the method that its title suggests. In a field in Wiltshire, Long walked repeatedly along a patch of grass until his action produced a visible impression in the landscape. Long then photographed his performative—and otherwise transient—gesture, making it permanent as an art object.

Long’s use of his own body in the natural environment to create a work that was both ephemeral and enduring was considered to be radical at the time. In fact, A Line Made by Walking is still considered to mark a seminal moment in art history, particularly because of the important role it played in the development of British Land Art.

To create River Avon Mud Hand Spiral, Long collected mud from the River Avon near his hometown in Bristol. He then dipped his hand in the natural material and impressed it repeatedly to a sheet of paper in the form of an immense spiral.

Installation view of River Avon Mud Hand Spiral in Impress: Print Making Expanded in Contemporary Art

Installation view of River Avon Mud Hand Spiral in Impress: Print Making Expanded in Contemporary Art. Photograph by Jack Cornish.


When viewed in the gallery, River Avon Mud Hand Spiral expresses a powerful sense of dynamism and energy; the force in Long’s movements can be seen in the splatter effect that surrounds his handprints. The repeated action also suggests a ritualistic routine and a sense of determination or even urgency.

Despite being visually divergent, these works by Long reveal several key similarities: they were both produced through a physical engagement with the landscape; they make use of simple, geometric forms; and they are both impressions that have been brought about by the weight and movement of the artist’s body.

It is this latter aspect of the works that made them integral to our thinking when planning this exhibition. Long’s works are not considered to be prints in the conventional, media-defining sense of the term, but they are the results of very direct and physical acts of impression. They can therefore be understood as compelling examples of expanded print making in contemporary art.


Impress: Print Making Expanded in Contemporary Art runs until 20 July 2014.
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