At the National Gallery

Charles Hope

For anyone wishing to organise an exhibition of his works, Veronese presents a particular challenge. He was exceedingly prolific and many of his best paintings are too large to be moved. He also employed a team of able assistants, whose contribution to individual pictures is generally hard if not impossible to assess. The Veronese show now at the National Gallery (until 15 June) is the largest devoted to him since one held in Venice in 1939, and it is striking that of the forty pictures not from the gallery’s own collection, half were also displayed in that earlier exhibition, not because in every case they are of exceptional quality, but because their owners are prepared to lend them.

That having been said, the exhibition does contain some extraordinary loans. The most spectacular is a huge altarpiece from Veronese’s native town of Verona, showing St George about to be martyred. This was painted when Veronese was at the height of his powers, and stands up to comparison with another of his most celebrated works, the National Gallery’s own Family of Darius before Alexander, displayed in the same room. Scarcely less impressive are a handful of other famous but slightly smaller altarpieces from Venice and one of the most beautiful of Veronese’s non-religious paintings, Mars and Venus from the Metropolitan Museum.

Inevitably, there are no examples of the type of picture for which Veronese is best known, his depictions of religious feast scenes, such as the Marriage at Cana in the Louvre. These works are too large to travel, but the Supper at Emmaus from the Louvre to some extent makes up for this, although it is a strange and not entirely successful work, untypical in the inclusion of about 15 members of an unidentified family gathered around the central group of Christ and the disciples, who are oddly smaller than a man serving them at table. Its appearance has not been improved by a radical and insensitive recent restoration.

Visitors to the exhibition will get a very clear idea of Veronese’s strengths as a painter, but also of his weaknesses. He is notable above all as a colourist who used a range of bright hues with a boldness unmatched in his time and scarcely equalled since; the effects would have often been much more marked than they are today because some of his pigments – the type of blue known as smalt, for example – have become discoloured over the centuries. Hence the grey and even colourless skies in some of his pictures. With his love of colouristic effects went a taste for richly patterned clothes and elaborate jewels, and this was combined with quite a narrow range of handsome, well-fed and poised figure types. The effect is sumptuous, seductive but ultimately excessive and a little monotonous, rather like a visit to a patisserie.

What Veronese most conspicuously lacked was an ability to create effective and dramatic pictorial narratives. This is partly a consequence of his use of colour, which was often calculated to create a harmonious overall effect rather than to single out the main protagonists. In early works such as the Magdalen Laying aside Her Jewels and the Anointing of David, the principal figures are half lost in a crowd of spectators and bystanders, many of whom seem to have little involvement in what is going on. And even in a major altarpiece such as the St George, the crowd of angels, Virtues, executioners and onlookers detracts from the drama. It is unsurprising that Veronese’s main influence on later artists was through prints, especially after his altarpieces, whereas his use of colour and costume was not much imitated.

There has been much speculation about whether Veronese visited Rome, and, if so, when. But the question is perhaps not very important, given that there is no obvious hiatus in his development that might reflect such an experience. If he did go to Rome there is nothing to suggest that he was much impressed by what he saw. The architecture in his paintings is instead inspired by the most modern buildings in Verona and the Veneto, especially by Sanmichele and Palladio, and his figures show almost nothing of the poses or expressions of the most admired ancient statues. Equally important, Veronese never adopted a method of working practised in Rome and inspired by the examples of Raphael and Michelangelo. This involved the careful planning of compositions in advance and of individual figures through the use of drawings. Veronese, by contrast, seems to have thought of his pictures largely as harmonious arrangements of forms on the canvas. The anatomy of the figures is often rudimentary, with arms and legs only approximately related to bodies, and objects or people inserted to fill the surface rather than to serve any narrative purpose. The figures or animals in the background often seem as if set on raised platforms rather than on the ground, for example in two very grand paintings of the Adoration of the Magi; even in the great Family of Darius the head of the horse inserted at the right implies that the animal was unrealistically tall. Veronese was at his best in paintings where little is happening, and excelled in allegorical compositions, showing one or more, usually female, personifications, normally not doing very much, as in his ceiling paintings in the Ducal Palace in Venice or his famous frescoes in the Villa Barbaro at Maser. The most enigmatic of such pictures, as one would expect, are those in which some narrative seems to be involved, notably the set of allegories in the National Gallery discussed by T.J. Clark (LRB, 3 April).

Given the difficulty of obtaining loans and the need to mount a large exhibition, in the National Gallery a strong selection of works of the highest quality is diluted by others of only marginal interest. This is true particularly of the last room, devoted to pictures supposedly dated to the last decade of Veronese’s life. Among them are two superb works uncharacteristically restrained in their colouring and unusually intense in their pathos: a small altarpiece from Venice painted just before his death and a Lucretia from Vienna. But most of the other canvases in the room are less successful, notably a large Perseus and Andromeda from Rennes, which does not look much like anything else in the exhibition, and an exceedingly dull portrait from Rome, which for unaccountable reasons has been much admired in the past and is enthusiastically praised in the catalogue. Whether Veronese, who died at sixty, was losing his powers or his interest in the last years of his life, or whether he preferred to produce pictures in collaboration with pupils and relatives, is unclear.

Even among the earlier pictures some scarcely merit attention, such as a dull ceiling painting of the Four Evangelists, or the small Rape of Europa belonging to the National Gallery, which looks very weak in this company. Particularly problematic are two small pictures in the first room. These have been considered either as later copies of early paintings by Veronese in Verona, or as preparatory works for those pictures. The idea that Italian artists produced highly finished small coloured pictures which then served as models for larger paintings has been understandably popular among collectors and dealers for well over a century. But when art historians looked for evidence of the existence of a practice of this kind they found none. The two little paintings in the exhibition must be based on Veronese’s pictures in Verona. One, which is related to an altarpiece, was sold to the famous Florentine collector Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici in 1669 as an independent and finished work by Veronese. Whether it and its companion were made as fakes, as seems most likely, or whether the unknown artist simply wanted an approximate record of pictures he had seen and admired, cannot be established; but they cannot realistically be attributed to Veronese.

The National Gallery decided to mount the Veronese exhibition on the main floor to take advantage of the natural top lighting, and as a result the pictures look much better than they would have done in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing, where temporary exhibitions are usually displayed. The downside is that many works from the permanent collection are now not on display and all the gallery’s German paintings, including those by Holbein, have been put in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing, where there is a substantial charge for seeing them in the form of an exhibition called Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. Some years ago, the trustees had a policy of not lending their paintings to exhibitions in London on the grounds that the public was entitled to see them in the gallery without payment. The German exhibition suggests that this practice has been abandoned. If so, and if the gallery decides to hold more large exhibitions requiring top lighting, it should consider a collaborative venture with the Royal Academy.