Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

Paradoxically, works of art are wordless meditations on life which highlight the inadequacy of language and frequently testify to the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. Two months ago I was on a return visit to London’s National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. I first saw the sizeable (292 x 246.4 cm) George Stubbs painting, ‘Whistlejacket’ (c.1762; image below), two rooms away and I was bedazzled by beauty (and emotion). Words would not do justice to this painting. I could prattle on about the blank olive background setting off the rearing racehorse as a solitary, almost metaphysical being, quivering with energy and readiness, his nostrils, eyes and ears on high alert. This radical treatment of an animal at the peak of his beauty came out of the period of the Enlightenment in Europe when nature and philosophy were the new buzz words. Yes, I could write that the painting of Whistlejacket (the horse’s owner, the Marquess of Rockingham, commissioned the painting) has a lively ‘line of beauty’, glistening coat, rich colour and majestic presence. Edmund Burke wrote in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (published in 1757) about those characteristics of beauty in nature and art that he believed engender emotion, and passion. Apart from the breathtaking physical beauty of Whistlejacket in painted form, there is a resonating psychological intensity.

George Stubbs, ‘Whistlejacket’, c.1762, 292 cm × 246.4 cm, NG London

Almost three centuries earlier the ‘divine’ Leonardo da Vinci (according to his contemporary biographer, Giorgio Vasari) was sketching horses according to his exemplary knowledge of anatomy. Leonardo was meticulous in his study of the movement of horses which resulted in many detailed sketches, particularly of the rearing horse. Stubbs would have seen Leonardo’s sketches and paintings of horses such as the red chalk drawing of ‘Rearing Horse’ (c. 1483-1498, now in the Windsor Castle Royal Library collection). This horse has similar proportions and rearing stance to that of Whistlejack in Stubbs’ ‘Whistlejacket’ painting. Both artists not only understood the anatomy of horses but also their electric energy and ageless beauty.

Fixed size image

I cannot leave London’s National Gallery until I’ve been to Room 51 and stood before Leonardo da Vinci’s compositional sketch, ‘The Burlington House Cartoon’ of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John (image above; about 1499-1500 but still being debated as a later work; charcoal heightened with white on brown paper mounted on canvas, 141.5 x 106.5 cms). The head of the Virgin Mary (the featured image alongside ‘Whistlejacket’) is ethereal and has always manages to dazzle me with its grace and beauty. Colour is strong in the Stubbs painting and increases the shimmering beauty of Whistlejacket but Leonardo’s cartoon has a ‘sketchy’ transparency which gives the viewer a sense that he or she is standing before a mystical and mysterious beauty. Leonardo da Vinci developed the soft outline or sfumato (which E. H. Gombrich describes as “a blurred outline and mellowed colours that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination”, ‘The Story of Art’). Although this technique contrasts with the application of oil paint in Stubbs’ ‘Whistlejacket’, there is a psychological intensity embodied within the shadowy beauty of Leonardo’s Virgin Mary in ‘The Burlington House Cartoon’.

Art is not tied to language and does not require a certain standard of literacy to understand the artist’s intention or to appreciate the beauty embodied within a work of art. Words are powerful and can ‘paint’ a picture (which Burke acknowledges, particularly words in poetry). But when it comes to capturing beauty, visual art has the advantage of stimulating an immediate sensation through sight. The downside is that those without sight can only imagine the work of art being described by someone else.

This discussion has been about conventional beauty, which, as artist Margaret Olley once said “is insignificant in the reckoning of life” … more of unconventional beauty (and the East’s view on beauty) another time, but Rembrandt’s portraits (and self-portraits) of lined faces come to mind. Seeking ‘pure’ beauty based on Burke’s formulae is certainly out-dated in an era of video and installation art; but who knows? Maybe allowing oneself to be bedazzled by beauty and the power of the sublime, where words and the worries of the world fall away, will be the future trend in art.


Categories: Musings on Art

Leave a Reply