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Focus artists and works

Click the links to view each work in the collection, including an image and more information.

Albrecht Dürer

Melencolia I 1514

The bat-like creature flying through a night sky announces the subject of Albrecht Dürer’s most famous engraving. Melancholy (the dark temperament) is personified by a winged female figure seated in the foreground with her face slumped in her hand. She is surrounded by tools and instruments relating to geometry, architecture and artistry in general. The significance of the engraving lies in its association of the melancholic condition with creative genius and artistic activity. Before Dürer’s time, melancholy was regarded as a disease or vice, and pictorial representations of it were mainly found in medical treatises. Although the subject of the print is clearly an allegory of melancholy, the details of its iconography continue to intrigue and puzzle.

  • In your opinion is the meaning of melancholy represented successfully in this work? What has the artist included to represent this state of mind?
  • This work was once described as a spiritual self-portrait. What do you think this means? Consider how you would create a spiritual self-portrait. How would you use signs and symbols to convey meaning?

Agostino Carracci

Portrait of Giovanni Gabrielli, called 'Il Sivello’ c1599

This portrait is one of a small number of engravings produced during Agostino Carracci’s time in Rome between 1597 and 1600, while he was assisting his brother Annibale with the Farnese Gallery frescos. It portrays the actor Giovanni Gabrielli, known as Il Sivello, renowned for his impersonations of men and women. The sitter’s identity is engraved along the bottom margin but this has unfortunately been cut away in the Gallery’s impression. Agostino used the finest flicks of the engraver’s burin to model the nose and much of the face, in contrast to the bold strokes depicting the extravagant curly hair.

  • Research the technique of engraving. Describe how Agostino Carracci has created tonal differences in this portrait. Create a pair of drawings, one using shading and another using cross-hatching to create tone, and compare the results.
  • Actor Giovanni Gabrielli was famous for being able to change his voice and appearance. Write a script and act it out with one person playing all the roles. Consider creating masks as props for the performance.

Claude Lorrain

The cowherd 1636

Although there were many printers in Rome where Claude Lorrain resided, he never published any of his etchings officially. He seems to have printed them himself in his own etching press. Stylistically, his etchings lack conventional tidiness and finish but they show great feeling for light and atmosphere. The cowherd represents a bucolic idyll in which a reposing herdsman plays music while his cattle ford a river that meanders into a distant vista. On the left a classical temple nestles among the trees.

  • 'Stately trees, fragrant meadows, a serene sky and a silvery river combine to form an ideal home for man and bird and beast. The fragments of columns which peep from under the trees on the left…harmonise discreetly with the sentiment of the surroundings.’ Before looking at this etching, create an artwork based on this description of The cowherd written by George Grahame in 1895. Then compare your work with Claude Lorrain’s, and note the similarities and differences. Have you captured the same essence of the landscape? Write a label for your work and display in a class exhibition.
  • This artwork came to the Gallery in 1931 as a bequest from the Australian artist Tom Roberts. Why do you think Roberts wanted the state gallery to own this work? Discuss how Lorrain’s art practice was important to Roberts.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Rinaldo in the gardens of Armida 1761-64

The subject of this beautifully preserved drawing derives from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Jerusalem delivered, which includes the romantic story of the Christian warrior Rinaldo and the pagan temptress Armida. The drawing represents an episode in canto 18 when Rinaldo returns to Armida’s realm in order to overcome her enchantments. Pretty nymphs welcome him with song and dance before Armida magically emerges from the bough of a myrtle tree. Fragonard’s immediate inspiration was a production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Armide, staged in Paris in 1761 and 1764.

  • Research rococo and discuss how this artist, and in particular this drawing, are typical of its style. Consider the treatment of the landscape and the human figure as well as the title and subject matter.
  • The rococo style developed in France in the early 1700s in reaction to baroque and then spread throughout Europe. What happened next in art history? How does social change affect the way artists approach artmaking?

Francisco de Goya

The sleep of reason produces monsters 1797-98

Goya’s most famous etching was originally intended as the frontispiece to Los caprichos, a series of 80 prints that blend fantasy, irrationality and satire to ridicule the crippling deficiencies of Spanish society as the artist perceived them. The etching portrays Goya with his head buried in his arms and slumped over a desk littered with paper and drawing tools. Menacing creatures, taking the form of bats, owls, a cat and a wide-eyed lynx, surround the collapsed figure. One owl has even seized a crayon holder and is about to prod the artist with it.

  • At first glance, how does this image make you feel? What qualities in the work make you feel this way? Think about the composition and arrangement. Discuss how these enhance the emotional impact.
  • Goya’s artworks reflect his social and political views as well as his personal demons. Create a body of work based on a topic you are passionate about. How can you use visual language to help the audience to understand your point of view.

Joseph Mallord William Turner and Charles Turner

Little Devil’s Bridge 1809

JMW Turner’s Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies) represents his most ambitious and influential venture into the field of printmaking. The total of 71 plates were issued between 1807 and 1819. Turner wanted to promote the dignity of landscape art and also to demonstrate his versatility and skill in the various categories of landscape. These are denoted on each print (in the final published state) with the abbreviation: H for historical, M for mountainous, P for pastoral, M for marine, A for architectural, and EP probably meaning elevate pastoral. For almost all the plates Turner etched the outlines of the composition himself. These were then completed in the tonal medium of mezzotint by professional engravers, working closely under Turner’s supervision.

  • Create your own Liber Studiorum of a place in your local area. Consider the natural and built environments. Include drawings and prints and be creative with the way you compile and present the works.
  • Research mezzotints and discuss why JMW Turner might have chosen this form of printing for this work. Compare this finished mezzotint, produced by Charles Turner (no relation), with JMW Turner’s original etching. Who do you consider to be the 'artist’ of the mezzotint version, and why?

Eugène Delacroix

Macbeth consulting the witches 1825

Eugène Delacroix produced this print shortly after his visit to London in 1825. The journey across the Channel was crucial for the development of historical and literary themes in his art, especially the lasting inspiration he derived from the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Walter Scott. This lithograph is the earliest such print to have been drawn entirely with a scraper so that the whites appear scratched out of the inky black ground.

  • Choose a historical piece of literature and develop an artwork based on a crucial scene. How will you interpret words as images? What will you include and not include? Can the full impact of the text be felt purely through the image you make? Discuss.
  • Research Delacroix’s body of work. Why is this artist significant in art history? Describe the power of emotion in his art. How does he achieve this through composition and subject matter?

Jean-François Millet

The gleaners 1855-56

Millet’s output as a printmaker was modest, and his best prints were made during a burst of activity in 1855–56 and 1861–63. The fact that he was an avid and exceptionally talented draughtsman enabled him to handle the etching needle with remarkable deftness and lightness of touch. The subject of this print is best known from the famous painted version of 1857 (now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris), but Millet actually explored the theme of the gleaners in the etching a couple of years earlier. Gleaners were among the poorest rural labourers. They were allowed to go into fields after the harvesters had left to salvage leftover grains.

  • Imagine you are a gleaner in Millet’s etching. Write a journal entry of your day in the fields. Think about the physical and mental challenges. Describe how you would feel.
  • This artwork reflects the realities of country life in 19th-century France. Research the French realists, particularly Millet’s art practice. How does The gleaners exemplify their approach to art-making?

Sir Edward John Poynter

Study for the head of the Queen of Sheba mid 1880s

This head study in black and white chalk is preparatory for the female protagonist in Poynter’s grandest painting, The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Poynter worked on the epic canvas from 1883 to 1890. It was purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW in 1892. Poynter created the composition with the aid of copious numbers of drawings. He originally envisioned Sheba as a fair English beauty but in subsequent drawings he modified her features and changed her appearance to that of an alluring and exotic queen.

  • Using black and white chalk on brown paper, create a study of a friend close to you. Capture their expression and features. What are the opportunities and challenges in using these materials?
  • Develop a painting based on a series of drawing studies and research, using Poynter’s study and painting as inspiration.

Edgar Degas

After the bath c1900

Degas was fascinated by the motif of the female nude perched on the edge of a zinc bathtub, almost folded in on her body with her face concealed from the viewer. Here the model is observed bending forward and stretching her robust arm to dry her legs. The tension of her flattened back is relieved by her cascading hair and towel. By 1900 Degas was nearly blind, yet his vast experience as a draughtsman of the nude meant that his drawings now relied less on portraying what his eyes could see than on what his mind and hand instinctively knew to be true.

  • Degas has captured an intimate moment in this drawing. Create a body of work based on quiet, intimate moments. Draw from life to convey movement and the quality of light. Consider what is essential in the composition. What do you want the audience to see?
  • How is this drawing different to traditional drawings of women before this time? What is similar? Research the Impressionist period and discuss how Degas’s body of work offers the audience a new way of seeing the world.