Julian Bell

Julian Bell is a painter and the author of What Is Painting? He is now working on a book about early modern art.

The Ghent Altarpiece

Julian Bell, 16 April 2020

Arook​ alights on the turret of a four-storey townhouse, wings braking and feet outstretched to land. The blackbird already perched there stands his ground. Two rooks on another turret watch a fifth bird swoop off to the roofs beyond, while high and far above them in the pale morning sky, a kestrel wheels over the gables and pinnacles, seeing what I cannot, the countryside beyond the...

Gauguin’s​ 1893 painting of Tehamana, the teenager with whom he cohabited during his first visit to Tahiti, shows her seated facing forward, yet her eyebrows no more match than the share and handle of a plough: one is a stout black wedge, the other a long curving arc. The eyes beneath them slip sideways, evading attention, and if you look closely you’ll notice that their sockets...

At Tate Britain: Van Gogh

Julian Bell, 1 August 2019

Miners in the Snow(1880) was Vincent van Gogh’s first pictorial declaration of intent. Unable to hold down work in the family picture trade or as a preacher, he was persuaded by his brother Theo to turn his energies to drawing, and after some copying exercises he came up with this sheet. A large – roughly A2 – and scruffy affair, worked mostly in graphite with touches of...

The Clark Effect

Julian Bell, 7 February 2019

People talk​ of painted eyes in portraits that ‘follow you round the room’. T.J. Clark, in the third of the six essays collected in his new book, Heaven on Earth, strangely inverts this. Studying the hall depicted in Poussin’s Sacrament of Marriage (now in Edinburgh), he senses that a painted figure’s eyes – eyes that are out of sight – are moving across...

Kings and Collectors

Julian Bell, 5 April 2018

Perched​ on one platform, King Charles I; perched on another, the Dutch painter Daniel Mytens; lowered in between them, a canvas some two feet taller than the king, who was reportedly of small stature. If, as an inscription on the finished portrait insists, the likeness was painted ad vivum, then this might have been the way to do it. Beneath the freshly painted lifesize face there would...

In Cardiff: Gillian Ayres

Julian Bell, 12 July 2017

The huge canvases​ Gillian Ayres painted during the 1980s rush at you like Atlantic breakers. Bursts of orange, viridian, scarlet, yellow and cyan tumble forward and engulf you; convulsions of oil paint are thrown up at such a pace they seem weightless. Handfuls are grabbed from paint pots and thrust every which way, urging the viewer to fall in with the flux.


Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek

Julian Bell, 29 March 2017

Frogs​ could be heard croaking, one hot spring day in 1688, in a ditch beside a meadow where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek liked, as he put it, to wander ‘for my amusement’. Peering down, he glimpsed spawn clinging to the pondweed. A servant must have been at hand, for Leeuwenhoek wrote: ‘I then had some of this green plant to which these Eggs were attached brought to my...

A burnished pauldron​ – the cupped steel armour protecting a soldier’s shoulder – gleams at the centre of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, which in turn forms the centrepiece to the National Gallery’s exhibition Beyond Caravaggio (until 15 January). The painter keeps pace with the armourer. He flaunts an immaculate curving surface on which his own...

At the National Gallery: Delacroix

Julian Bell, 17 March 2016

A canvas​ begun in the autumn of 1848 and finished the following spring is, at four foot eight inches wide, one of the heftier items in Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, an exhibition at the National Gallery (until 22 May) in which paintings by Eugène Delacroix mingle with others by artists he influenced. In factual terms, Delacroix presents us with a September evening in a...

By​ the 1780s, when the German writer Pierce von Campenhausen visited the Ottoman dependency of Moldavia, its capital, Iaşi, belonged to an Orient that would be familiar to readers of Edward Said. A ‘degraded’ populace was mesmerised by ‘the constant expectation of the arrival of some fatal order’: the gorgeous costumes of the women rendered ‘their indolent...

At the Watts Gallery: Richard Dadd

Julian Bell, 29 July 2015

Portrait painting​ requires stillness. What, for the subject, is it like to be still? As far as one can tell, the gentleman facing Richard Dadd in 1853 had nothing that he wished to project: his attire was dapper, his red locks kempt, but his eyes did no more than attend, uninflectedly staring back at those that analysed him. At the same time the painter, adjusting the tonal weights that...

At the RA: Rubens and His Legacy

Julian Bell, 5 March 2015

The apple​ hadn’t yet fallen on Newton when Rubens died in 1640. Bodies might have weight, but gravity made a local rather than a comprehensive claim on them. Minerva’s heel thrusts down on the hip of Sedition in a sketch for the Whitehall Banqueting House ceiling Rubens painted in the 1630s, but the hag she seeks to pitch into the depths has no means of support: won’t...

‘Proud’​ is an epithet that extends from the parade to the workbench. The swagger of troops marching down the street is transferred by the carpenter to the nail that juts out, no less cocky, no less full of itself. There’s much in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, British Folk Art (until 31 August), that straddles both forms of pride. It opens with a fanfare of stout,...

If you want to pick a quarrel with Cézanne, Cézanne and the Modern at the Ashmolean provides cues. Take his own quarrel with lines. Cézanne walks into the woods with a sheet pinned to a board. A tree trunk heads upwards, reaching for light. Cézanne’s pencil follows it. There is a line in nature and now there is a line on the sheet. But no, that won’t do....

At the RA: Daumier

Julian Bell, 21 November 2013

A Daumier lithograph of 1857 shows a marble statue on a plinth coming alive in the midst of the busy Salon. She clenches her fists and bawls in sheer frustration. No one hears her. No one sees her – and that is the reason for the ‘triste contenance de la Sculpture’, as the caption has it. In an out-turned circle, the top-hatted Parisian art-lovers turn their backs on the...

At the Royal Academy: Manet

Julian Bell, 21 February 2013

‘The Luncheon’, a canvas three feet nine inches high and five feet wide, dominates the opening gallery of the Royal Academy’s exhibition Manet: Portraying Life (until 14 April). In a sense it dominates the whole show, since the deep charcoal grey in which all the RA’s first-floor galleries have been painted takes its cue from the painting’s background hue....

How will we feel, seeing photographs hung for the first time in a temple dedicated to painting? That is the experiment the National Gallery has undertaken with Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present (until 20 January). A cautious experiment, in that Hope Kingsley, the curator, has selected only photographs consciously created in relation to the painting tradition – pictures she is...

In Margate: Alex Katz

Julian Bell, 8 November 2012

A selection of works done across sixty years by the New York painter Alex Katz has left Tate St Ives for the opposite end of southern England. The upper galleries of Margate’s recently opened Turner Contemporary (where the show continues until 13 January 2013) make a handsome destination. You pass from big windows that give onto the stark North Sea with its distant forests of wind...

Perspective’s Arab Origins

Julian Bell, 25 October 2012

‘A daring undertaking’, the German art historian Hans Belting calls his book. Florence and Baghdad is his attempt to get two civilisations to define each other in terms of their attitudes to eyesight and, more specifically, in terms of what Ernst Cassirer, writing in the 1920s, called ‘symbolic form’. A symbolic form is a cohesive set of symbols within which you might...

At Tate Modern: Edvard Munch

Julian Bell, 30 August 2012

You could mount an exhibition entitled ‘The Moment of Edvard Munch’. It would focus on the Norwegian who first hit Paris in 1885, aged 21, and who, energised by his immersion in contemporary French painting, became a linchpin of the Berlin avant-garde of the 1890s. A gatecrasher to the metropolitan party, playing havoc with its pictorial etiquettes – that might be the drift....

Diderot on Blindness

Julian Bell, 21 June 2012

That, I suppose, must be my mother’s eye, up there on the monitor: that bobbing dark yolk, fringed by wriggling capillaries and the stainless steel of the speculum that holds her lids apart. I’m down the corridor from the operating theatre, waiting to drive her home with her patch and new lens. On the live action screen, I watch a scalpel take aim at her pupil and pierce the...

At Tate Britain: ‘Migrations’

Julian Bell, 8 March 2012

‘Troubling’: that’s the word chosen by Penelope Curtis, the new director of Tate Britain, in her preface to the catalogue for Migrations, the gallery’s recently opened exhibition (it closes on 12 August). She’s referring to the name of the institution she heads. The launch of Tate Modern in 2000 gave Tate curators the thankless and well nigh incoherent task of...

At the Whitechapel: Wilhelm Sasnal

Julian Bell, 5 January 2012

The exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 1 January), surveying ten years’ work by the 38-year-old Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal, gets other painters arguing. Everyone has their dislikes. Mine is the largest and most recent canvas, Pigsty. Black lines pick out a long low agricultural compound – whitewashed walls pierced by thin black windows – that stretches some 13...

At the Ashmolean: Claude Lorrain

Julian Bell, 1 December 2011

The exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford until 8 January, Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape, brings to one gallery three of the most haunting canvases of the 17th century. One belongs to the museum: Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Silvia, which was probably still on Claude’s easel when he died in 1682, just as old as the century. A second is the National Gallery favourite The...

Farmer Eliot

Julian Bell, 3 February 2011

‘In T.S. Eliot we find the poet as farmer’: now that truly is revisionist. If the pin-striped modernist with the ‘features of clerical cut’ ever put his hand to a pitchfork, the incident has gone unreported. And yet in Romantic Moderns, her provocative critical survey of English cultural life between 1930 and 1945, Alexandra Harris points to Eliot’s lines in...

Paint Serious, Paint Big

Julian Bell, 2 December 2010

The upright canvas, some 4’6’’ by 3’, stood on Salvator Rosa’s easel, prepared with a burnt umber ground. The painter first attacked it, as far as I can see, with a black-loaded brush, dragging a jagged stuttery line almost from top to bottom. That was to be the rock edge of Etna’s crater. Where the volcanic glow was to fall, Rosa slapped on a queasy mid-tone mix of sienna and smalt blue; capped it with brisk blurts of white; later, knocked the resulting rock planes back into readable order with red and yellow glazes. But that vertical divide of his, tumbling and forking in ever crazier lurches, still retains a lightning urgency. Here you meet the gestural painting of the 1660s, as vehement and imperious in its own way as the art of Clyfford Still.

Art and Its Origins

Julian Bell, 10 June 2010

‘God created man.’ There are various ways you might read those words even without looking beyond the scriptures. Set them in the context of archaeology and a different reading altogether suggests itself. Primates turn recognisably human when factors beyond the reach of the senses leave traces in their behaviour. It is an intrusion of the invisible that sets homo sapiens apart from...

Van Gogh’s Letters

Julian Bell, 5 November 2009

A prim and eager young clerk, working for his art-dealer uncle, is writing to his schoolboy brother. Pictures and books are the 19-year-old’s meat and drink: he soon adds Millais, Dickens and George Eliot to his love for Jean-François Millet, when in 1873, Goupil & Co, agents in lithographs, steel engravings and ‘modern paintings’, send him from The Hague to their...

Art and the Brain

Julian Bell, 8 October 2009

‘We’re confident it’s real’: Arthur Aron is a psychologist who has discovered that blood-flows in the brains of people claiming to be in love after decades of marriage resemble those of new lovers. Romance may authentically survive: ‘That’s what the brain scans are telling us. People can’t fake that.’ ‘Brain-Scan Lie Detectors Coming in...


Julian Bell, 3 January 2008

‘To my amazement, there were no paintings … but only packages, piled one atop another to the height, say, of Picasso … And do you know what there was inside? Banknotes! Yes, sir, banknotes, the largest denomination that existed in France then, which was enormous.’ Christian Zervos is recollecting the day that Picasso took him, as a favoured confidant, to his vaults in the Banque de France. The fortune Zervos was allowed to glimpse in the mid-1930s had ridden out the Wall Street crash, and had been accumulating since before the First World War.

At Tate Britain: John Everett Millais

Julian Bell, 15 November 2007

Millais was adept at many things. At theatre, for instance: in his 1878 Royal Academy showpiece, he cast the supposed murder victims of Richard III as two pretty, tremulous schoolboys poised on a dungeon’s downward-winding stair, their spotlit heads peering into the darkness confronting them, hands anxiously linking, blond chevelures merging into one. The casting, the lighting and the...


Julian Bell, 19 July 2007

At the corner of Marsham Street and Horseferry Road stands the new Home Office building, designed by Terry Farrell and Partners. It was opened in 2005 and everything still looks just as it should. Along the Marsham Street frontage big plinths present crisp rectangles of grass and brimming water, orderly packages of the organic. The long, grey slatted façade that rises above them is...

Spurling’s Matisse

Julian Bell, 23 February 2006

The subtitle Hilary Spurling has given to the second half of her biography of Henri Matisse is upbeat and triumphant, in line with orthodox interpretations of the painter’s career: ‘The Conquest of Colour’. To place the volume still more squarely in line with exhibition-poster stereotypes, she has capped that with ‘Matisse the Master’. These labels are deceptive....

The life and art of William Coldstream

Julian Bell, 2 December 2004

‘People of all generations just stood around, uncertain of what to do next … It sort of petered out.’ Bruce Laughton’s William Coldstream is an attempt, 17 years on, to gather up the tatters of a wake held at University College London. The unnamed participant touches on a more general diffidence about how to remember or appraise William Coldstream. He has a niche in...

The Suspect Adrian Stokes

Julian Bell, 21 August 2003

Adrian Stokes’s Stones of Rimini is an extended obeisance performed by a young Englishman before some marble panels in an Italian church. The panels were carved in the 1450s, mostly by a Florentine called Agostino di Duccio, who was working in Rimini for the local warlord. Three dozen illustrations punctuate Stokes’s reissued text of 1934. Many show astrological figures: Aquarius...

Western art

Julian Bell, 13 December 2001

David Hockney’s new study, Secret Knowledge, sets out a thesis with vast implications, both for the way we look at Old Master paintings and the way we think about painting’s relation to photography. The more attention you give the thesis, however, the more Hockney’s presentation starts to frustrate you. What you get is, first, a brisk illustrated lecture explaining how he...

Walter Sickert

Julian Bell, 20 September 2001

‘I regret to say that I must interrupt the logical continuity of this article. I have been lunching with some friends in one of the most beautiful houses in a Bloomsbury square, and …’ Walter Sickert came to art journalism with his instincts intact from the stage, on which he had passed his youth. Lose the thread of your argument by all means, but never lose your audience....

Francis Bacon

Julian Bell, 19 October 2000

Somewhere in London, two heads would be nodding together: one tall like the boulder topping a cairn, the other broadened like a Hallowe’en pumpkin. Two lordly sensibilities, the heterosexual critic and the homosexual artist, had converged to discuss painting and the human condition. The thought that David Sylvester and Francis Bacon were caught up in this dialogue seemed at once...

Sitting for Vanessa

Julian Bell, 13 April 2000

My grandmother was the painter Vanessa Bell. She died aged 81 when I was eight. I loved my grandmother, but 39 years later I have few memories of her. If, that is, a ‘memory’ is some kind of private mental property. The picture I have of her may be faintly tinted by first-hand experience, but its contours come from public documentation. Through biographies, critical writings and the tourist phenomenon of her home at Charleston, Vanessa has become a cultural commodity, and it’s this commodity I chiefly address if I think of her. Perhaps this is more or less the pattern of memory for anyone growing up in a home with a well-thumbed photo album. Looking over the snapshots of your childhood, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the savour of your primary experience from all the parental talkovers that have developed and transmuted the family story. With Vanessa, with Charleston, I’m not sure how to peel away the private colouring from the public lines, and to date I’ve felt no great urge to try.‘


Julian Bell, 15 July 1999

With Rembrandt, as with other totem figures of the arts (Shakespeare, Mozart), longstanding reverence from fellow practitioners coincides with immediate appeal to the community at large. In Rembrandt’s case this appeal comes chiefly from his treatment of the human figure, in his portraits especially, and above all, the self-portraits he painted in his old age. In the current exhibition in the National Gallery basement, seventy-odd likenesses of the artist have been brought together. Its central hall, holding more than a dozen of the late self-portraits, compactly presents the case to be made for Rembrandt.


You’re right

17 February 2011

I must come to the defence of Nick Clegg. The deputy prime minister is not, like John Lanchester, a white man in his forties with a humanities degree from Oxford (LRB, 17 February). He is, like me, a white man in his forties with a humanities degree from Cambridge.
John Lloyd is wrong. It is shameful that, in 2003, our Government lied to us about a non-existent threat from non-existent weapons of mass destruction; shameful that, as a result, hundreds of British and American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians died in an illegal, unnecessary, unjustified, immoral war; shameful that the President of the United States should now take credit for...

Selfie with ‘Sunflowers’

Julian Barnes, 29 July 2015

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh.

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Art, Past and Present

Peter Campbell, 29 November 2007

Julian Bell has written a tremendous history of world art, one that will inevitably be compared with Gombrich’s The Story of Art, published nearly sixty years ago. Since then image-making...

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James Hall, 25 January 2001

According to the catalogue for the National Gallery exhibition of Rembrandt self-portraits, the artist’s portrayal of himself is ‘unique in art history, not only in its scale and the...

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