Arts feature

The National Gallery's Veronese is the exhibition of a lifetime

He's been called the greatest colourist of all time. This show is not merely enjoyable; it's awe-inspiring

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) is one of the great painters of the Venetian School, often joined in an unholy trinity with Titian and Tintoretto. But he was not Venetian, and only arrived in the city when he was well into his twenties. His formative years were spent in Verona, hence his popular name (he was also known as Paolo Caliari, and before that as Paolo Spezapreda, in reference to his early training as a stonecutter, following his father and grandfather), which suggests a very different background from his two most famous confrères. He has also been categorised as a Mannerist, but this is more art-historical pigeonholing than useful elucidation. Veronese deserves to be looked at on his own as a painter of quite extraordinary originality and invention — which is precisely what the glorious new exhibition at the National Gallery, Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (until 15 June), achieves.

Veronese has been called the greatest colourist that ever lived. Certainly he is one of the subtlest, with a sureness of touch and an eye for new harmonies that beguile the viewer whatever the ostensible subject of his paintings. For example, I found myself looking with great enjoyment at a figure group of much dynamism (in the gestures) and wonderfully contrasting textures of flesh and fabric, before realising that the subject was actually rather a gruesome one. This was in fact a scene of beheading, and I was looking at the pre-emptive strike that Judith makes on Holofernes in order to protect her home. But the crux of the tableau — virtuous woman defending both her honour and her homeland chops off head of lecherous Assyrian general — takes place at the far left of the picture, and the main focus is upon the palely luminescent Judith and her much darker female attendant.

These two dramatic figures are pictorially bound together by a brilliant interweaving of drapery and emotional and colour contrasts. In other words, the narrative is secondary to the interest of the main painted forms: the way Veronese has handled his composition, and the pure pleasure he obviously derives and transmits from the movement and colour in cloth. The gestures of his protagonists help to articulate what would otherwise be quite a confusing space, but one of the most important elements in the painting is colour as it reacts to the fall of light. His extreme sensitivity to the moulding of form through light is amply borne out in the authority with which he composes and controls this dramatic unity. The pyramidal composition, reaching its apogee in Judith’s bejewelled topknot, confers stasis on the complexity. It’s a thrilling piece of painting.

Veronese is known for his mural and ceiling decorations, for his lavish feast scenes, his portraits and altarpieces. Frescoes and ceiling decorations don’t travel easily, so this exhibition builds on the National Gallery’s substantial holdings of his work and rounds these out with a group of portraits, some fine allegorical, biblical and historical subjects, and a muster of paintings from his last decade. Besides being a great colourist, Veronese was a superbly convincing painter of human flesh, as can be seen in the first room where the viewer is greeted by ‘Supper at Emmaus’, an ambitious early work, flanked by portraits of Iseppo da Porto and his son, on the right, and Livia da Porto Thiene with her daughter, on the left. The portrait of Livia is especially fine and affecting, painted in what I regard as the quintessential Veronese palette of peachy apricots juxtaposed with a range of leaf greens.

Veronese was a key influence on a number of later painters, especially Rubens, Watteau, Tiepolo and Delacroix, and it was Delacroix who observed that the Venetian master had the gift of not doing too much. Delacroix called it ‘that apparent disregard for detail that makes the work look so simple and straightforward’, and it is evident in Veronese’s mastery of pictorial organisation and design that make him such a grand all-over painter. His paintings, with their gorgeous concerts of colours, their sensual and imaginative pleasures, are ultimately believable because they are rooted in observation as well as in classical models.

This is a deeply beautiful, memorable exhibition, sponsored by Credit Suisse, all the more so as it’s hung in the upstairs galleries (rather than in the Sainsbury basement) and thus benefits from natural light. Veronese’s paint glimmers in the tall rooms, though some of the paintings are so big (such as ‘The Conversion of Saint Pantaleon’ and most especially the magnificent ‘Martyrdom of St George’) that you have to stand a long way back to see them properly; in fact, around the middle of Room 3 if you want to see the top of ‘St George’ in Room 4. Among the exhibition’s other highlights are the three portraits in Room 2, particularly the gentleman in the splendid lynx-fur-lined coat; the altarpieces featuring ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit’, and ‘The Consecration of Saint Nicholas’ (note the extraordinary design of this painting and what you might call its pattern power); the ‘Four Allegories of Love’ in Room 6, which draw the viewer into their narratives by their tilting and vertiginous compositions (what Vasari referred to as Veronese’s ‘most extraordinary perspectives’); and the darker, more classical but also more erotic ‘Venus, Mars and Cupid’ in the last room, along with the oddly spiritual and very blue night painting ‘Agony in the Garden’.

There are various publications timed to coincide with the exhibition, of which I’ve sampled three. There’s a hefty picture book, seemingly designed to make the coffee table creak, written by Alessandra Zamperini and titled simply Paolo Veronese (Thames & Hudson, £60). Despite the reputation of Italian art historians for obscurantism, this book seems clearly composed and informative, but its chief merit must be the 300 colour plates — it really is sumptuously illustrated. At the other end of the market is a small paperback called Lives of Veronese (Pallas Athene, £8.99), containing three biographies of the artist written in the 16th and 17th centuries. This nicely produced book is illustrated in colour and contains nuggets of interest among the lists of works Veronese produced. But the best Veronese publication currently on offer is the exhibition catalogue, written by its curator Xavier F. Salomon, the fruit of five years’ intensive research (£19.95 in paperback). Here you will find detailed analysis of the individual paintings in the exhibition as well as an overall discussion of Veronese’s life and achievement, all freshly re-examined.

Walking around this intensely enjoyable and even awe-inspiring exhibition, of just 50 paintings displayed to good advantage on traditional ‘museum red’ walls, alternating with a deep warm grey, it felt rather impertinent to attempt to review it. So I have tried to write an appreciation of some of the remarkable pictures on display, and I hope you will hasten along to enjoy such rare and lucid treasures. What a relief to visit an exhibition that is not forcing paintings to fit an argument, but is simply trying to give the best account of the artist under examination. This exhibition succeeds triumphantly. Such a marvellous collection of Veronese’s works is not likely to be rivalled in our lifetimes.

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