#111. Ms. Ellen Knee Chooses Ten Great Figurative Paintings

Ten Great Figurative Paintings…

Most of these can be enlarged on your browser by clicking.


Jan van Eyck, “The Crucifixion”, 1440-41


Albrecht Durer, “Feast of the Rose Gardens”, 1506


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Harvesters”, c. 1565


Jacopo Tintoretto, “The Last Supper”, 1594


Peter Paul Rubens, “Venus Frigida”, 1611


Nicolas Poussin, “Echo and Narcissus”, 1630


Francisco Goya, “Majas on a Balcony, 1808-18


Gustave Courbet, “After Dinner at Ornans”, 1848


Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with a Teapot”, 1902-06


Henri Matisse, “The Piano Lesson”, 1923


  1. For me, one lesson of these paintings is the apparent difficulty of combining the kind of intensely articulated, “local” space dependent on our familiarity with objects and the human body, with the larger spaces of interiors and landscape, which tend to rely on various combinations of linear, aerial and scalar perspective.

    Most of these paintings avoid the conflict. Looked at closely, the round space between the resting peasants in the Breughel is illustrated but not articulated or tangible. The larger space of the landscape is overwhelmingly real, but the figures are only small and spatially insignificant, so no dissonance arises.

    In the Dürer the figures are more fully plastic but still do little more than passively occupy the dominant landscape space of the painting.

    The fully plastic Majas in the Goya create and occupy their own space, cut off (surely deliberately) from the larger space occupied by the far less plastic figures behind them.
    Something similar happens in the Rubens. The figures form their own intensely articulated space in the foreground, while the background is “a world apart”.

    The Tintoretto has (for the most part) fully plastic figures that define their own local areas of space, but they sit uneasily in the larger space created by the rather crude linear perspective of the table. As a result they seem almost as “ungrounded” and alien to the room as the insubstantial angels.

    I don’t think that the Poussin quite brings everything together either. It may be intentional of course, but it seems to me that each of the figures exists in its own bit of space within a subtly fractured landscape.

    I can’t see any dissonances in the Courbet. This painting seems to have an entirely coherent spatiality involving the figures, the table and the room.

    Matisse also avoids the difficulty. He makes no attempt to create the kind of local, highly articulated space of the Goya or the Rubens. He uses linear perspective to make the space of the room and situates his planar figures and surfaces at various depths within it.

    Cézanne’s space on the other hand is intensely, locally articulated around the cloth and still life, but instead of combining this with a conventional interior space, he actually reverses both scalar (those big brushmarks on the wall) and linear (the edge of the table) perspective to give the surrounding room the same kind of imminent presence as the still life. An entirely different way of combining local and surrounding space.

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    1. Cezanne would be about 8 years old when Courbet painted “After Dinner at Ornans”, yet it seems to lead inexorably to his organisation of spatial/painterly solidity in the still life paintings to come. The late work, with the lid-handle-less teapot, is a painting that makes a visit to Cardiff well worth while in its own right. Blew me away, first time I saw it. And second time.


  2. The van Eyck is in the MET, New York, measures about 56x40cm overall, and I cannot recall seeing it the single time I’ve been there (some time ago now). But I really like the look of how this painting is put together. If you go on the MET’s website you can get into really close-up details and see really well how things are built. The left-hand panel looks particularly brilliant to me in the way that each part is so precisely and singularly knitted together with its surroundings – and/or with its neighbours – as the whole thing steps up and back in space. Yet it does not destroy the integrity of the surface. I cannot fault it. There seems no good reason why abstract painting cannot aspire to sure assurances of complex and complete togetherness. Is there a reason?


    1. Your recent paintings!
      There’s a huge affinity with parts of the left hand panel – even a couple of quotes (?) – in the more clearly defined ones. It’s the colour mostly. “Precisely and singularly knitted together”.


      1. I’m flattered I’m sure, Richard! I didn’t look at (or quote) from the van Eyck when I did those paintings.

        Here’s another one knocking on the door:

        This terrific new painting by Noela James Bewry arrived on Twitter yesterday and made me feel very optimistic about abstract painting generally, and how it feels like it’s leaving behind some unnecessary conceptual and compositional baggage that has lingered a long time.


      2. Oh well.
        The best “quote” is Mary at the bottom left of the van Eyck and the bottom left of painting number 12 in your new catalogue.
        Somebody should tell the pope.


    1. Well, my pleasure. You are not the only one (in Brancaster), but you are making a significant contribution to the progress of painting; and, like others, your work as an individual has moved on in leaps and bounds in a few years.


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