Matthew Arnold's lines in The Scholar-Gipsy about 'this strange disease of modem life,/With its sick hurry' have now come sadly home to the city and the season he so greatly venerated. St Aldate's, the Cornmarket and the High Street choke in the rush of transport. The 'base and brickish' suburbs Gerard Manley Hopkins complained of have mostly been cleared away. It is traffic which now 'sours/That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded/Best in'. Only in the precinct around the Radcliffe Camera can one now walk and breathe freely in a central Oxford summer.
Outside this fortuitous island, one looks for a refuge from the modern pollution which not long ago eroded the faces of the ancient caesars around Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, so ominous in Max Beerbohm's 'Oxford love story', Zuleika Dobson. Such a refuge, and immensely more, may be found within the seemly Hellenism of Cockerell's Ashmolean Museum: at least until the unconscionably early hour of four in the afternoon, when an actual portcullis comes down with a brutal clang, to the polite astonishment of many visitors, on so much beauty. Cockerell's placid building confronts the troubled Ruskinian Gothic of the Randolph Hotel across the road. The Randolph also has its paintings, less august but possibly more inventive and dexterous than most of the contemporaneous works in the Ashmolean, since the ballroom is decorated with Osbert Lancaster's scenes from the life of Zuleika Dobson.
Like so much else in the past of Oxford, the history of the Ashmolean Museum is intricate and puzzling. Elias Ashmole's cabinet of curiosities (in the words of Joseph Addison, 'the trifling rarities of the virtuoso') has long been dispersed among several Oxford museums and institutes. The paintings by European masters, with which alone we are now concerned, include works lavishly but embarrassingly bestowed on the Bodleian Library, which had little room to display them. From 1850 onwards benefactors such as T.H. Fox-Strangways, later Fourth Earl of Ilchester, donated the forty paintings which are the core of the Ashmolean collection, as well as presenting thirty-nine more to the Christ Church Picture Gallery. The Ashmolean gallery has been in its present ambience since 1908, augmented by private gifts, such as the incomparable collection of Northern European still-life paintings presented by the husband of Daisy Linda Ward in memory of his wife, herself an accomplished painter in that exacting genre, and by pictures such as Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire, awarded by the National Art-Collections Fund.
The two best-known pictures in the gallery, a pair of bustling rectangles, face each other across the Renaissance Room. In the stir and rouse of Paolo Uccello's Stag Hunt gaudy mannikins, mostly in open-mouthed profile, curvet after their twisting hounds into a dark, watery forest, arched by its foremost trees into three vistas of green shadow. Because of Uccello's exactness in the art of perspective, decried though it was by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, the terrain seems to recede into a boundless distance.
Vasari also mentions in the spate of his gossip that Piero di Cosimo was afraid of lightning, the cause of the blaze in his Forest Fire. In spite of that, Piero recognised fire as a civilising force in the history of primitive mankind. Beasts fly from it but men use it. The Forest Fire is one of his ten dispersed panels which record the progress of early humanity. He may have picked up a crude notion of evolution from such classical sources as the Fifth Book of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura; hence, perhaps, the human faces of the stag and the brindled sow in The Forest Fire. According to Vasari, he delighted in wild creatures. Here he invented two of his own. Vasari's testimony is borne out by the large birds, some of them recognisable as herons, woodpeckers, pheasants and wood-pigeons, which hurl across many of Piero's skies. Man, half-bestial at first, as in The Battle between Lapiths and Centaurs in the London National Gallery, struggles from the light of physical fire into that of intellectual fire bestowed by Prometheus in the final panel of the series, now in the Strasbourg Musee des Beaux-Arts.
The earliest work in the room is an icon-like panel from the School of Giotto. A minute adult-like Christ climbs into his mother's smile and her narrow-fingered embrace. The picture has been attributed to Giotto himself, but the figures are too delicate to be the work of that cylindrical master. In tenderness it is matched by the long-eyelidded Madonna by Luis de Morales in the same room, painted about two hundred years later but in the same spare Byzantine tradition.
The tight restrictions of a predella, like those of a sonnet, often promoted a taut brilliance of expression, as in Bicci di Lorenzo's panel, in which St Nicholas of Barri rescues the passengers of a tiny globular caravelle beset by rough weather: bright-hued elfin beings within the cracked eggshell of their ship. A plump young woman, one of the earliest nudes in fourteenth-century painting, has jumped overboard and, her bush of blonde tresses streaming behind her, swims away, needlessly, since St Nicholas has settled the waves. The murk of the storm withdraws from a cerulian sky patterned all over with golden stars like opening chestnut buds.
Nearby, a staid Madonna somewhat in the manner of Giovanni Bellini, with a spiritless view of Venice as a background is, surprisingly with the support of several scholars, attributed to Giorgione. Even in the present disputes over Giorgione's canon, nobody has put forward a similar picture of an isolated, conventional Virgin and Child as his work: he was too adventurous. The picture is ill-drawn but sharp in its outlines. Giorgione's pictures are expertly drawn but glowingly fuse the edges of adjacent shapes. Berenson may well have been right in his dissenting judgement that the panel is the work of Giovanni Cariani. If there is a touch of Giorgione in the gallery, it is in the St Jerome cautiously assigned to the circle of Giovanni Bellini. The aureoled beard, the honey-tan limbs and the sand-golden light all insinuate Giorgione, although the thick outlines of the village in the background lack Giorgione's suffused radiance. Is this yet another of Giorgione's orphans, fostered by another less artful but still capable hand? The lion at the entrance to St Jerome's cave pulls the same long face, as if bored by humans and their habits, as its counterpart in Cima's St Jerome in the London National Gallery. A distant village is equally heavily painted in Cima's Sacra Conversazione in the Louvre. Cima was active in Venice for seven years after the death of Giorgione. The painting may have been started by Giorgione and completed by Cima. Indifferent to such speculations, St Jerome continues, in a smiling landscape, his mild perusal of the Scriptures.
Venetian painting is further represented by Francesco de' Francesci's pair of blonde-ringletted good-schoolgirl saints; Jacopo Bassano's canvas of Christ among the Doctors, in which the Jewish scholars are so hard-pressed in argument that one Pharisee tries to shout Christ down whilst another frantically leafs through his references in the Old Testament; Moretto da Brescia's panel of the Madonna with St Jerome who, his hindsight confirming her premonition of her infant's fate, looks deep and pityingly into her foreboding eyes. The climax of the Venetian sequence is Tintoretto's Resurrection, a skirmish of darting elongated figures from which Christ, irradiated by angels, ascends the dark air.
Pintoricchio worked for a time in Siena and, antiquarian as he was, may have harked back to such Sienese masters as Sassetta in the sap-green and rose flesh-tints of his enamel-like Madonna, delicate as the foliage which surrounds her. The piquant-hued landscape enhances the choice severity of her sable mantle. Now attributed to Ghirlandaio is the portrait of a young man, weary in the sharp air of an alpine landscape. It was formerly considered to be by Pintoricchio, which was the opinion of Berenson, supported by Enzo Carli. The portrait closely resembles in style and setting Pintoricchio's Portrait of a Boy at the Dresden Gemaldegalerie, and looks more like the work of the visionary Pintoricchio than that of the homelier Ghirlandaio, who rarely ventured into portraiture.
The panel, persuasively attributed to Michelangelo, of the Holy Family, an underpainting in effect a bistre drawing on a ground of green gesso, confirms that Michelangelo habitually sketched his figures in the nude, shaping their draperies to their basic forms as he went along; a practice followed by Raphael, as may be seen in his sketch in the Ashmolean print-room for the Madonna of the Meadow, now in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Their fellow-perfectionist Ingres adopted the practice too, but not for his portraits of the wives of Second Empire bankers, although their decolletages were sometimes almost sufficient for the purpose. Michelangelo's short-cropped Virgin Mary is distinctly androgynous. Raphael used a sketch of one of his boy-pupils for the Alba Madonna in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and most likely Michelangelo did the same in the unfinished Ashmolean picture.
Bronzino's portraits are usually more attractive than his crowded religious commissions or his frigid mythologies. About his Venuses in London and Budapest one can only put Verlaine's question: Est-elle de marbre ou non? For their penetration into character, not always friendly, his portraits are among the most acute and the most accomplished painted in Florence. The Oxford portrait of Giovanni, the son of a late Medici and a Spanish noblewoman, a stern and ambitious couple, is an illustration of the constraints, reluctantly accepted, which they placed upon their eleven offspring. The eight-year-old Giovanni is restrained in a stiff doublet, cut as if for an adult. He holds a Greek text in his soft infant hand. Designated from birth for the Church, he died, an Archbishop who in the corruption of his times had not taken holy orders, at the age of nineteen. The signs of coercion in the portrait may have been premonitory.
Vasari was a friend of both Michelangelo and Bronzino. Although he laboured to recreate the athletic majesty of Michelangelo and the fiddling symbolism of Bronzino's larger works, he achieved, in the hard tight gloss of his paintings, only grandiosity and confusion. His allegory of The Immaculate Conception (a reduced version of his altar-piece in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Florence) is lost in its own intricacy. It is a cryptograph rather than a work of art; yet he may be allowed this small space here, among the painters whose greater success he celebrated in his haphazard but kindly Lives of the Artists.
Altobello Melone, although Cremonese, looks forward in his enhanced naturalism to the School of Bologna in his Tobias and the Angel. A dishevelled, sleepy-eyed angel leads diminutive Tobias, with his small fish, by the hand. Such a little fish for so much trouble and a heavenly intervention, especially since the fish, at one point in the legend, threatened to gobble Tobias up! By chance the copper painting by the truly Bolognese Domenichino is also of Tobias and the Angel. In a lustrous crumble of green into blue, the angel leans back on his own sumptuous wings and admires Tobias's catch. Nearby, in a similar flash of blue, Domenichino depicts the retrieval of Moses from an alpine lake. Domenichino's collaborator and fellow-pupil of the Carracci, Giovanni Lanfranco, painter of fanciful Baroque ceilings, represents, on a smaller scale than he was used to, the intense gesticulant conversation between Christ and the woman of Samaria.
One of the glories of the Renaissance room is the small panel, inspired in its concept and meticulous in its execution, of St Francis receiving the stigmata in a wide, islanded seascape. Although the panel is assigned to an anonymous Flemish painter of the early sixteenth century, it seems to belong to the age of Jan van Eyck rather than that of Bernaert van Orley, the Master of the Fitzwilliam Annunciation. It strikingly reminds one of details in pictures by Petrus Christus in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Copenhagen Kunstmuseum: the foliage of the thicket in the New York Annunciation; the hamlet in the Copenhagen St Anthony. Petrus Christus specially favoured coastal backgrounds. Was he the painter of the Ashmolean's St Francis?
Joachim Patenir also delighted in expanses of water, but with steep, shard-like crags and grottoes in them. He may have turned to the contrasting element of fire if he indeed painted The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Rotterdam gallery from which the tondo in the Ashmolean Collection is indirectly derived, probably as a copy of a copy of the original. Pyrotechnic effects were popular among the patrons of the Northern Renaissance. The Elector Johann Friedrich of Saxony esteemed his court-painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, most for a picture of the annihilation of the cities of the plain. On the Lilliputian scale of the tondo, the conflagration is huge, reddening the whole sky, and tumultuous flecks of fire shoot from the thumbnail cities. Angels lead Abraham and his family to safely, whilst Lot's daughters disport with their father in a cliff-top bell-tent, open at the front. The original of this copy looks too hectic to be the work of Patenir, a master of long, lonely perspectives bare of incident: more like the pictures of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, an imitator of Hieronymus Bosch who earned the nickname of Hell Brueghel.
From the fiery narrowness of the tondo one moves on to the amplitude of Philips de Koninck's flooded landscape under an immense watery Batavian sky. The small collection of Dutch landscapes includes a frantic, lashing sea-storm by Jan Porcellis, who specialised in that subject. In a strange exchange of Catholic for Calvinist-Dutch beliefs, Porcellis's sailors are saved by their own efforts, whereas Bicci di Lorenzo's are preserved by divine grace. Emblem books, which originated in the Low Countries, often compared the earthly passage of the soul to a hazardous voyage, as in Divine Emblems, which Francis Quarles published in 1635, three years after the death of Porcellis:
Earth is an island ported round with fears; The way to Heaven is through the sea of tears; It is a stormy passage, where is found The wreck of many ships, but no man drowned.
But it is more likely that Porcellis repeatedly painted rough seas because he enjoyed their energy and turbulence.
Thickset cattle stump into Paul Bril's pond, deeply hidden in a wood, to regale themselves with draughts of long-craved water. They are luckier than the native ducks, the targets of two wildfowlers. Another pool mildly pleases Jacob Esselin's suave fishing party on a stretch of water half-mist and half-mere. As with so many of Jan van Goyen's winter-pieces, one almost feels the hoar-frost on one's face whilst contemplating the fog-freeze of his skating scene. His stiff-jointed skaters wholly lack the multicoloured jollity of Avercamp's merry-makers on the ice. Jacob Ruisdael's invigorating landscapes, such as the Ashmolean Waterfall as it hurtles through rock-clambering pinetrees, are often quite unpopulated, although partly for a prosaic reason. Ruisdael's one deficiency was that he was unskilled in painting people. Sometimes his friend Nicolaes Berchem put the figures in for him. Yet there is no sense of desolation where Ruisdael portrays only the vast works of Nature. As Bode observed, with Ruisdael 'the air is the most important part of the picture': the overarching infusion of the sky. The crowded Scene at a Well by his uncle Salomon (who preferred the older surname, Ruysdael) is imaginatively emptier than Salomon's scantly populated river-scenes.
Landscape becomes enchantment in the gallery's two canvases by Claude. In the bucolic scene a herdsman pipes to his goats environed by woods turning violet in the sleepy dusk. In the epic scene lean warriors, ranged in file, like the split Corinthian columns of the ivied seashore temple behind them, watch Ascanius take his ill-fated aim at King Latinus's stag, so initiating war. This was the last piece Claude painted: Virgilian, marine and vesperal to the end.
The canvas of The Exposition of Moses marries Poussin's addiction to the antique to his observation of emotionally revealing movement. A drooping greybeard, presumably Moses's Levite father, drags himself away, hustled by one of Poussin's officious putti (who so often choreograph his pictures) whilst Moses's sister Miriam archly points to the Egyptian princess in the distance. Jochebed, Moses's mother, gazes at the event with desolation in her eyes. Watching the scene, an ancient river-god, familiar in the pictures of Claude and Poussin, embraces an apt and pink-faced sphinx. Are we in the Book of Exodus or in the pages of Ovid's Metamorphoses? The distant greenwood is marbled with Poussin's notion of Egyptian architecture, which includes a small pyramid and Hadrian's Mausoleum.
The next best thing to a landscape by Claude is one by Joseph Vernet, and here the Ashmolean gallery is as obliging as usual. Even the dusk of this magician of light is luminous, as in his Nocturnal: a harbour with the furrows of a full sea ploughed by moonlight. Vernet once said that he looked into the heavens every day and every day discovered something new: in this instance the tarnished silver of clouds in a startling and aureate sky. The picture probably came from a set, such as that at Uppark House in Sussex, in which Vernet illustrated the four times of the day: a series he repeated more than once, but always with a new vision. Like Claude and Friedrich, he delighted in sea-ports with waiting and pointing figures, one of whom may well have been himself.
A frank observer must venture further than Adhemar, who regards La Repos Gracieux as 'very doubtfully by Watteau', and say that this daub is not by Watteau at all. It lacks the grace and felicity even of Watteau's followers, Lancret and Pater. Huquier's engraving (significantly captioned 'inv. Watteau' rather than 'Watteau pinxit' or 'd'apres le tableau de Watteau'), on which the painting is based, rather than vice versa, is presumably of two members of the Italian Comedy - Gilles and Columbine, with a dog - at rest as part of a play or during an interval in its performance. The dog and Gilles are derived from two known drawings by Watteau catalogued by Parker and Mathey: one in the Noailles Collection, Paris, in 1961; the other in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Columbine is presumably taken from a lost drawing. The engraving conflates the three drawings and was the basis for the present offhand centrepiece for a decorative panel by a justly unknown hack.
The still-life painting by Chardin is replete with his habitual quietude: no more than some earthenware crocks matt as the two eggs in front of them, a couple of well scrubbed pans, a brace of buckling and a cut of salmon left to chill on a stone shelf, all painted with a sparse and subdued palette; yet redolent with the neatness and peace that Chardin loved.
Courbet's talent as a landscape-painter is obscured by his copious and sometimes gross productivity as a figurative artist. In his closely observed study of a ferny, mossy stream in his native Ornans, the water-weeds on the boulders - their green hair - are dragged back by the current as it runs beneath cliffs, streaked with chalk and creepers and reflected in the shallows of its course. Courbet's profuse but selective details are akin to those in the novels of Zola, with whom he had many affinities. Two other French artists of the age of Impressionism who, like Courbet, remained aloof from its extreme and facile orthodoxy, are well represented in the Ashmolean gallery. There are three airy, mobile beach-scenes by Boudin, two of which depict his favourite Trouville. The gallery is rich in flower-paintings by Fantin-Latour although, unfortunately, only one is at present on display: a characteristically volatile study of fragile roses in a dark comer, trim-petalled in the shadows.
The richesse of the four small panels by Samuel Palmer is unkind to the dismally lurid Pre-Raphaelite pictures in the same room, gaudily drab in their burnt-orange, Victorian puce and livid blue. Palmer's light-entangled glow and capricious perspectives enforce upon the imagination a magic domain (as in the Arthurian legends, a terre lointaine, a foret sans retour) where substances become indeterminate through an excess of illumination, and small distant objects, such as the sloes on the blackthorn in The Cornfield outspan what is nearby and would, in everyday life, be larger. In the same reversal of the rules of perspective, a leaf or a flower-plume of The Chestnut Tree dwarfs the limbs of the shepherdess piping to her charges in the foreground under its boughs. A rabbit on a barky track dominates Early Morning, in which ears of corn overtop the cottage alongside them. Palmer fits human figures, like a glimpse, into comers of the landscape, as in The Cornfield, Early Morning and The Flight into Egypt, in which an anachronistic English chimney smokes behind the sloping cornfield where the Holy Family reposes, leaving the spectator in the summer haze described by the Scottish word-landscapist, James Thomson, as 'one swimming scene, uncertain if beheld'. The eye travels back through the spell-bound land, to verify that they were indeed there.
In the furthermost room of the gallery is the Land of Cockayne: the Ward Collection of Netherlandish still-life paintings, mainly ontbijtjes (buffets) and fruit and flower pieces. One may feast on these enticements without growing fat: lemons peeled to their sap, hazel nuts bursting from their husks, sweating plums, nectarines trickling drops, yawning oysters aslither in a wash of seawater, gashed grapes (flesh and liquor diaphanously hanging), wetly bruised peaches, red-hearted figs and tangled long stalks bowed down by vitreously bright cherries, the individuality - the inscape and instress of each fruit - perceived by three generations of the de Heem family: David, Jan Davidsz and Cornelis; the narrow delicacy of Jan Soreau's thin cup of blackberries near a few unbunched columbines in a plain glass; from Abraham Beijeren, limp loose squat shrimps, a scarlet flexuosity of lobster, mottled redcurrants, goblets flashing their globular highlights amongst themselves, and a ham pink-striped within its fat, a bright slice lying on a pewter plate; Willem Kalf's stripped lemon, carved with spurs of pith (the peel hanging in a mouth-watering serpentine loop) flushed apricots and an orange dangling on its bough with leaves, flowers and buds; the inviting slide of wild strawberries offered by Jan Jansz van der Velde in a tilted blue-and-white china bowl; the more frugal elegance of Johannes Borman's green flash of grapes with their tattered vine-leaves, pink-fleshed bergamot orange and single cracked walnut. Even the proudest of prankbanketjes, or banquets, began in the kitchen, on such a well-rinsed slab as that on which Adraien van Utrecht places his lobster among cavernous green-veined and wrinkled savoy cabbages, moist-tipped asparaguses, dry where they were cut, and ragged artichokes.
Recent writers on Dutch art, such as Waal and Fuchs, take a moralistic view of these still-life paintings, as illustrations of the morose axioms, concerning the futility of human delights, in the Calvinist emblem-books of the early seventeenth century; just as they see Porcellis's storms as allegories of the Christian's struggle for salvation. They describe the pocket-watches (rarities at that time, and in themselves objects of metal and glass for light and reflected colours to play on) in some onbijtjes as reminders of mortality. No doubt they are right about a few Dutch still-life paintings, particular those produced in Leiden, that city of theologians, yet it is hard to believe that even there artists would take such pains to celebrate the sense of taste merely to disparage it. The message of a memento mori was to make the most of time:
Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime, For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre.
The flecked, drained goblets of Venetian glass demand replenishment. These images of greedy sacrifice advance rather than decry pleasure.…