First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the art gallery.

The Art Gallery – Introduction to Item 70

Painting of a young woman wearing a black cloak and a silvddr necklace, with hands crossed on her chestI like to visit an art gallery in a new place if I get the chance. It’s a great way to learn about the culture of the people, and to see how the town has changed over the years. There are often similarities in styles, particularly in European galleries, but it’s the differences that are most interesting.

I visited the Museum of Art in Hong Kong, and the recurring themes there were flowers, birds and butterflies. The only variation was of boats in the harbour, and for centuries artists painted nothing else. In Europe, religious paintings were popular for a long time, and one of my favourite (sacrilegious) things to do in a gallery is to look for depictions of Baby Jesus where he looks like an old man.

In the centre of Newcastle is the Laing Art Gallery, which my brother and I used to visit regularly. It’s now free to go, although you have to pay for special exhibitions. They have a number of John Martin works on display, and I was lucky enough to catch the special exhibit of his works when it came to town.

My favourite was ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’ by William Holman Hunt, a sappy depiction of a grisly event – Isabella’s wicked brothers have decapitated her lover Lorenzo, and his head rests in the pot. In recent years, though, I’ve become fond of The Penitent, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau and believed to show Mary Magdalene.

My brother preferred the modernist ‘Red and Blue’ by Thomas Bromly, which is exactly as the name suggests. We both loved Martin’s ‘The Bard’, a vast mountain scene with a tiny, enraged, bearded man perched at the very top. Waving his fist at the approaching soldiers before throwing himself to his death, the man is the last bard of Wales. Martin took inspiration from Thomas Gray’s Pindaric Ode which related the legend of all bards being put to death when Edward I conquered Wales.

The History of The Art Gallery

Unlike museums, which started as private collections, the ‘art gallery’ as a place to display paintings started out in religious buildings. The church was the biggest purchaser of artworks throughout medieval Europe, building up vast collections and often commissioning works as well.

In fact, the practice dates back to Roman times, when collectors of engraved gems and precious items donated them to the temples. It’s not certain if these were open to the public. In medieval churches, access was occasionally granted to ordinary people. During the Reformation, much of the collections were destroyed, or at least removed, from the monasteries and churches that housed them.

At the end of the medieval period, art was collected by the very wealthy and stored in castles, palaces and stately homes, and opened to the public on particular criteria. For example, at the Palace of Versailles, visitors had to be suitably dressed, although swords and silver shoe buckles were available to hire outside.

In England, King Charles I amassed a large collection of art, but the items were dispersed when the puritan notion of art as a corrupting influence became common in the citizens. In the 17th century, publicly-accessed but privately owned museums opened around Europe. In 1661, a collection of Hans Holbein’s work was purchased and put on display by the city of Basel.

Noblemen undertaking their grand tours of Europe bought sculptures and paintings to be shipped back home The Laing Art Gallery - a sandstone building with tower and a green glass entrance lobbythroughout the 18th century, and sometimes they allowed visitors to see their collections.

The Foundling Hospital made its art collection accessible to the public financial support from artist William Hogarth in the 1740s. Royal Academy exhibitions began in 1768, although they were expensive. Most galleries were privately funded for the next eighty or so years.

The English national government passed legislation in 1845 and 1850 to persuade local governments to provide art galleries and museums for the public. This proved successful, although again private funding was key to this. Both the Laing Art Gallery and the Great North Museum (formerly the Hancock Museum) in Newcastle were founded in this way.

Throughout the world, art collections are owned by schools and universities. My old senior school, now closed, owned at least one work by local artist Ralph Hedley, and the Hatton Gallery within Newcastle University is long-established. Many also operate small museums, such as the Museum of Archaeology at Durham University. Former pupils sometimes bequeathed their collections to help further study and understanding of cultures.

The Palace of Versailles

Versailles was built and expanded upon by successive kings of France. Louis XIII visited the area when still the Dauphin, in 1607, and was delighted by the forest full of game for his hunting. He visited again in 1617 and 1621, and in 1623 commissioned work for the construction of a hunting lodge, where he could stay on his way to and from his main residence and Paris.

Although Louis continued to make improvements to his lodge, with two small palaces ultimately being constructed, they weren’t really designed for family life – his queen never stayed overnight. His son, Louis XIV, who became king after his father’s death in 1643, visited as a teenager to hunt, and was captivated by the area. Louis XIV undertook a great deal of building work from 1661, adding a chapel, two wings and a forecourt.

Louis XIV’s death in 1715 saw the court relocate to Vincennes, and Versailles was neglected. Louis XV finally began its restoration in 1722, installing smaller chambers where people could go for peace and quiet. He visited frequently, but did not make it his permanent residence, preferring to move from palace to palace.

A blue, cloudy sky looms over the Palace of Versailles and its grounds

Pic ©Andreas H via Pixabay

Possibly the most famous resident, Louis XVI was born at Versailles in 1754 and became king 20 years later. He spent most of his time living at the Palace, along with his wife, the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette.

As well as undertaking renovations to the interior, he gave the Petit Trianon, the Grecian-inspired chateau in the grounds to his new bride, and she carried out a great deal of changes to the exterior of her private residence. Louis XV had put in botanical gardens when he had the castle built, and Marie-Antoinette replaced them with more fashionable Anglo-Oriental gardens.

The Palace at Versailles survived the French Revolution, although its royal occupants did not. Napoleon opted not to take up residence there, moving instead into the Grand Trianon. In 1833, Louis-Phillippe, ‘king of the French’ decided to reclaim Versailles as a museum ‘dedicated to all the glories of France.’

Louis XIV of France

Louis was born in 1638 and ruled for 72 years, the longest reign of a sovereign monarch in the history of Europe. Aged only five when his father died in 1643, minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin ruled in his place until his own death in 1661.

Known as the Sun King (Le Roi Soleil), Louis XIV cemented the family’s power for the next three generations. He cultivated relationships with military leaders and politicians, inviting them to his court, along with other significant people of the time. He was keen on warfare, leading France into five wars during his reign.

Louis also destroyed the Protestant community in France when he subjected the Huguenot minority to Louis XIV, wearing a long white robe.‘dragonnades’, a policy which forced them to convert or leave the country. Catholicism was enforced as the single religion in the country.

However, he was also a great patron of the arts, and encouraged monuments to be put up all over the country. He supported the writers Molière and Racine, and was known to influence artists to paint what he wanted. Versailles was home to much of his collection.

The Sun King (named either by himself or his subjects after making the sun his personal symbol) defeated Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in 1714, expanding his own empire hugely by the time he was 40. He had a brief spell of piety, and prevented his court from having fun too, after his mistress was involved in the “Affair of the Poisons”, when prominent people were accused of witchcraft. However, for most of his life, Louis XIV indulged himself wherever he could, and believed his own hype.


Encyclopedia: Art Galleries
Chateau de Versailles: History
Brittanica: Louis XIV