Beauty

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Beauty

In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Explore the theme of Beauty in our latest blog, from Jacob van Ruisdael's Landscape with a Village to the bronze Marly Horses after Guillaume Coustou's stunning marbles.

Studio of Agnolo Bronzino, Eleonora di Toledo, c. 1562–72

Eleonora di Toledo was the first wife of Cosimo I de Medici. She is portrayed half-length against a deep blue background, in a sumptuous Spanish brocade gown. Her beautiful dress has a high neckline with an exquisite net of pearls covering her shoulders and a bodice decorated with an elaborate brocade with a pomegranate pattern. Eleonora is presented as a beautiful, graceful, and elegant woman, emanating youth and good health.

Yet this is probably a posthumous, reduced replica of Bronzino’s famous Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo and her Son Giovanni, in the Uffizi Galleries. This is implied by the Latin inscription on the upper edge, ‘Favour is deceitful and beauty vain’ a reminder that all that is beautiful shall pass. The vase seen on the ledge behind her has been variously interpreted as a funerary urn or as an emblem of virtue and beauty. Indeed, when the Medici mausoleums were inspected in the nineteenth century, Eleonora was found wearing this same dress.

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Bust of an African woman, Rome, c. 1650

One of the most beautiful sculptures in the Wallace Collection, this marble bust shows a young woman with hair tied up, wearing a tunic and a headdress to which a posy of flowers is attached. She is full of elegance and dignity, and her allure is enhanced through her direct, but slightly dreamy stare.

It is a realistic portrait with a strong sense of individuality rather than the more common seventeenth-century busts of Africans, which emphasise the heroic or the exotic, and do not attempt to portray real people. Sadly, the identity of African people depicted in the early modern period can rarely be established.

Jacob van Ruisdael, Landscape with a Village, c. 1650–5

This beautiful atmospheric landscape may depict Steinfurt Castle in Burgsteinfurt, Westphalia. The compositional harmony, restrained palette and romantic mood are characteristic of Ruisdael’s work. In the foreground, the silhouette of a tree stands against a windswept sky. The transparent and fine filigree treatment of the trees reveals the accuracy and precision with which the painter observed the flora and fauna around him. In the background, burrowed in the verdant landscape, we see the solid, more densely painted castle. Ruisdael frequently depicted castles in his work, not just as landmarks but also as a symbol of strength and impregnability. The contrast between the almost transparent tree against the sky, and the stone castle, solidly entrenched in the landscape, successfully transmits the fragility of the landscape and solidity of the castle.

Upon closer examination, we can also start to appreciate the finer brushstrokes Ruisdael used to depict small details. From the broken branches at the foot of the tree, the two shepherds on the rocky hill and their herd in the valley below, or the tiny figure crossing the bridge over the moat, we discover numerous beautiful details of everyday life which are first hard to perceive within the vast Westphalian landscape.

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Cup and saucer, Sèvres, 1790

The central reserve on the saucer of this soft-paste porcelain set is decorated with a colourful scene depicting 'Beauty governed by Reason rewarded by Merit'. It is inspired by a painting by Angelica Kauffman which was engraved in 1782. Kauffman’s paintings and drawings were extensively used as sources for decorative art in the fashionable Neo-Classical taste of the late eighteenth century.

The original painting formed part of a series centred on the theme of Beauty. Here, Beauty is represented as a young woman in the middle of the composition. Sitting to her right is Reason, holding a bridle that symbolizes control over physical passions. Merit holds a laurel wreath over Beauty’s head as a symbol of her triumph over foolish impulses.

The intricate use of bright colours is testament to the imagination and artistry of Charles-Nicolas Dodin, one of the finest painters at Sèvres, who moved away from the subdued palette in Kaufman’s painting.

Les Chevaux de Marly, attributed to Pierre-François Feuchère, after a model by Guillaume I Coustou, c. 1800–15 (model 1743–5)

Rearing upwards, with flared nostrils, wide eyes and billowing mane, beyond the restraint of its groom, this sculpture (one of a pair) conveys the power and majesty of nature. They were originally carved in marble by Guillaume I Coustou between 1743 and 1745 to decorate Louis XV’s horse-pond at the Château de Marly. However, by 1794 they had been moved to the Champs Elysées in Paris (since 1984, they have been at the Louvre). They were widely admired for their beauty, and during the reign of Napoleon became a great source of French national pride.

Bronze reductions of the sculptures were produced from the mid-eighteenth century, although the vast majority were made after the French Revolution, as is the case with the pair in the Wallace Collection.

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