The garden of Love

Master of the Stories of Helen
Antonio Vivarini (studio of)
The garden of love
c. 1465–70

Cheeks flushed, a dragon pours out the water to be lapped up, to flow through our bodies like the love and connection we feel for others. In this secluded garden, possibilities are endless; each rose petal blooms as wide as the smiles we share. Crushed underfoot, the petals still feel soft and tacky, a ripe memory of the ebbing and flowing of love. One must experience the dark to relish the warmth of the light. A classic Renaissance pleasure garden, a secluded place to meet, dance and enjoy each other, is lathered in detailed brushstrokes.

Known to have recently been the backdrop for an exchange of eternity rings, this work is widely enjoyed by the community for its imagery of love, but also recognised for its enigmatic symbols. Domestic walls were once decorated with ripe romance and foliage, this indulgent garden adorning a northern Italian palatial interior. Now, we too can gather around this marble fountain, observing the smirks exchanged within the group, anticipating the hilarity of the soon-to-be blindfolded male on the right. The twisted brocade of the clothing echoes the twisted rose wall, our feelings also entwined with those of the other, no beginning or end to our love.

By Jessica Lehmann, Conservation Project Officer

Britain & Europe 15th–17th Century
Gallery 14, Level 1, NGV International 
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Krishna and Radha

Indian
Krishna and Radha
c. 1800

The love between Radha and Krishna is legendary in Hindu mythology. Long idealised in Indian cultural narrative, their mutual devotion has inspired many artworks representing love in its most divine form. Krishna is an avatar or incarnation of the principal Hindu deity Vishnu, and appears in many different forms. The stages of his life are represented through legends called Krishna charitas and artworks illustrating his youth as a mischievous cowherd often show him in the company of his beloved Radha, a milkmaid often considered to be an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi.

The relaxed dynamic between the two lovers is perfectly captured in this painting. Krishna embraces Radha in a languid Tribhanga (triple bend) pose, subtly bending his neck, waist and knee. Often considered to be the most sensual of the classical Indian dance postures, the Tribhanga is closely associated with Yakshis (nature spirits) of Hindu mythology. Reaching into the trees behind him, Krishna pulls on a bough for support, perhaps in a playful reference to a Shalabhanjika (tree goddess) – a symbol of fertility – like the one on display in this gallery. The enamoured young couple stand next to a pavilion where, perhaps, their romance is set to escalate!

By Annika Aitken, Assistant Curator, Asian Art 

India, South & South-East Asia
Gallery 10, Level 1, NGV International
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The world of the Gonds

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam
The world of the Gonds
2017

This enormous multicoloured cat is Mārjāra, the vahana (vehicle) of Hindu folk goddess Shashthi. In Hindu mythology, Shashthi is the deity of fertility, and venerated as the protector of children. For centuries she has been invoked during childbirth to protect mother and child. She is worshipped on the sixth day of the month, and on the sixth day of a child’s life she is believed to visit mother and newborn to bless them. Couples unable to conceive also pray to her for aid, and famers call on her to encourage abundant fertile earth for their crops.

Representations of Shashthi have changed over the centuries, and she has not always been portrayed as a benevolent, loving protector. Some legends say that if she is not appeased through worship soon after birth, Shashthi might seek revenge by kidnapping, or devouring children. This painting by Venkat Shyam, produced in the Gond tradition of playful, stylised forms and bold vibrant colours, offers a joyful, celebratory view of Shashthi as a compassionate and maternal deity. Though she is usually shown much larger than Mārjāra the cat, here, Shasthi is small and gentle with open arms, tenderly shepherding five children onto the cat’s back, and surrounded by boughs of thick, protective vegetation.

By Annika Aitken, Assistant Curator, Asian Art 

India, South & South-East Asia
Gallery 10, Level 1, NGV International
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The tale of Genji

Tosa Mitsunori
The tale of Genji
17th century

The Tale of Genji is often referred to as the world’s first novel. It was written by a woman.

A collection of poems and accounts of romantic encounters within Japan’s Heian imperial court, the text is considered to be the country’s greatest literary work. Its author, Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 or 978 – c.1014 or 1031) wrote in kana, a cursive script developed by women of the Heian period (794–1185), distinguishing Japanese emotion from those recorded with Chinese characters, the writing system used by Japanese men (though she was also renowned for her proficiency in Chinese).

Her masterpiece, detailing the romantic encounters and escapades of the fictional Prince Genji, has provided inspiration to artists like Tosa Mitsunori for more than a millennium. So subtle are Murasaki’s romantic references, imbued with the cultural nuances of the period, scholars still disagree about the exact meaning of certain scenes. Within the Heian court, a courtier’s proficiency in the arts of poetry, calligraphy and incense were considered paramount to achieving social credibility. The primary mode of romantic communication, poems on perfumed paper would be passed back and forth through a screen by prospective lovers yet to meet face to face.

By Annika Aitken, Assistant Curator, Asian Art 

Japanese Design: Neolithic to Now
Gallery 12, Level 1, NGV International
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Mother and child

Cornelis de Vos
Mother and child
1624

The protective bond between mother and child radiates from this richly decorative portrait. The subjects are unknown, but the Latin inscription on the painting tells us that this mother was twenty-four years old when she was painted in Antwerp in 1624. Portraits like this one were painted in part to showcase the wealth, status and virtue of the sitters. The work is rich with symbolic and allegorical messages – from pearls symbolising purity to cherries representing fertility – but these details are not the focus of the painting. It is the relaxed, warm affection between mother and child, shown through the interlacing of hands, that captures the viewer’s imagination. Both mother and child are presented candidly as individuals, rather than idealised archetypes. The effect is an empathetic image that remains startlingly modern and relatable four hundred years after its creation.

By Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 24, Level 2, NGV International
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Goblet

Willem Jacobsz. van Heemskerk (engraver)
Goblet
1681

My name is Amanda Dunsmore and I am Senior Curator, International Decorative Arts and Antiquities at the NGV. A work that truly celebrates love in our Collection is this seventeenth century glass goblet engraved by Willem Jacobsz. van Heemskerk.

‘Faithful in everything’ (Getrouw in alles) proclaims this elegant wine glass. The calligraphic engraving on this glass celebrates the marriage of Coenraed de Bucquoy and Maria Muissart in 1681, as engraved on the underside of the foot.

Contrary to what we might imagine, line engraving on Dutch glasses during the seventeenth century was actually practised by cultured amateurs, in particular those with literary aspirations. They used it as a means of self-expression, and glasses were given as personal gifts between engravers and their families. The technique of diamond engraving came from Venetian glass artists of the sixteenth century. In 1562 Pastor Johann Mathesius spoke of ‘Venetian glasses decorated with scrolls scratched upon them with a diamond’. It was a difficult technique to master and the balance of design and assuredness of line that we see on this glass shows that a highly skilled engraver executed it.

Willem Jacobsz. van Heemskerk was a prosperous cloth merchant in Leiden, but was best known for his exquisite calligraphic inscriptions on bottles, plates and drinking glasses. He specialised in short sayings and poems, often with literary or moral overtones, and his graceful, fluent lines are recognised as unparalleled achievements in glass calligraphy.

By Amanda Dunsmore, Senior Curator, International Decorative Arts and Antiquities

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 24, Level 2, NGV International
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The Wedding Party

Jan Steen
The Wedding Party
c. 1667-68

There is no chicken parma visible in this lively depiction of a double wedding in the 1670s by Jan Steen, but the atmosphere shown here is as exciting as that found at a newly reopened Melbourne bistro. No social distancing rules applied at this time, although seventeenth-century Holland was troubled by periodic outbreaks of the plague that were as frightening as COVID-19 in Steen’s day. The artist came from Leiden in southern Holland, where his family were brewers and also proprietors of a tavern, The Red Halbert. Carousing and convivial times with family and friends were subjects frequently explored by Steen in his art.

By Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 24, Level 2, NGV International 
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The shrimp seller

Maria Margaretha La Fargue
The shrimp seller
1776

A cheerful vendor offers her wares of freshly cooked shrimp to the women of an affluent Dutch household. In this charming, intimate painting, Maria Margaretha La Fargue showcases a favourite style of Dutch painters from the 1600s and 1700s – genre painting. Genre paintings depicted scenes of everyday life, from weddings and parties to markets and kitchens. Often small and jewel-like, with finely finished details, genre paintings showing the home were popular in part because they allowed viewers to gaze into an idealised domestic sphere. Paintings like this one depict the gentle cadence of comfortable, middle-class life in a way that is both timeless and nostalgic. The quotidian interaction between a food seller, housewife, baby and kitten helps us to appreciate the beauty in traditionally mundane moments.

By Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 23, Level 2, NGV International 
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Frederick van Velthuysen and his wife, Josina

Thomas de Keyser
Frederick van Velthuysen and his wife, Josina
1636

Love and marriage have gone hand in hand for centuries, but did you know that the traditional marriage portrait originated from Dutch art? So, wedding photos of today have their roots in Old Master paintings. Strangely, if you look at this work, not so much has changed – even the groom is on the left, and bride on the right, as is typical today in most opposite-sex weddings. This painting is celebrating the marriage of Frederick and Josina van Velthuysen, who lived in Amsterdam in the 1600s. As is the case for many wedding photos, they have chosen a stylish background and they are dressed in their finest clothes – in black, the fashionable colour of the time.

De Keyser was the best artist working in Amsterdam at this time, and he had skill in painting black on black, which is notoriously difficult. He could even paint contrasting fabric textures in black.

If you were to fast-forward a couple of decades, you will find that de Keyser painted another portrait for van Velthuysen that is almost identical to this one. However, sadly, Josina had passed away and her place in the painting was taken by their son, and his father is passing him a book, probably a bible. Intriguingly, de Keyser updated the clothing style, but Frederick seems not to have aged a day. Both are highly emotional paintings, celebrating love, marriage, union and family. They must have looked wonderful hanging together.

By Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 23, Level 2, NGV International 
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A large family piece

George Romney
A large family piece
c. 1768

As the eighteenth century wore on, the portrayal of people by English artists, especially families in large groups, became less and less formal. Clothes and settings were still used to indicate wealth and status, but it was how the subjects interacted that changed noticeably with time. In earlier times, images were very hierarchical, with parents – particularly the father – remaining somewhat aloof and distant from their children, in particular. Social mores dictated that a patriarch engaging in an affectionate or playful way with his family lacked decorum and was unacceptable.

Romney’s painting of the Leigh family, prosperous in London’s middle class, reflects these values. Mr Jarret Leigh is distant from his family; a table even physically separates him from the rest. His son and wife look at him with esteem as he sits with his right hand tucked into his expensive jacket. He proudly looks directly at the viewer, perhaps demanding of us similar admiration.

Thankfully, as attitudes changed during the Enlightenment, emotions began to be expressed more openly in art. Hints of what was to come are seen in this painting, as the children are acting in a fairly typical fashion, with some hint of play coming into the picture. Looking back at this group today, it is hard not to look in wonder at the acceptable chaos of our era’s family videos and grabs on social media.

By Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 22B, Level 2, NGV International 
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Portrait group: The singer Farinelli and friends

Jacopo Amigoni
Portrait group: The singer Farinelli and friends
c. 1750–52

How does your cup of friendship fill with happiness? The warmth of a pet dog, the dazzling echoes of music, lyrics of a striking poem, the beauty of art and the intimacy of friendship overflow from this composition.

Your gaze follows the gesture of each hand softly touching the next friend. At the portrait’s centre is the renowned Italian castrato Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, with Teresa Castellini, the prima donna of the Madrid opera; the Abate Metastasio, Farinelli’s lifelong friend and the songwriter for many of his most famous performances; and the artist, who stands behind Farinelli. Blues and pinks tie the two singers together, with their hands grasping onto the lyrics of Metastasio’s poem about the sadness of a lover’s departure.

They are Italians bonded in creative friendship in faraway Spain. Beneath the layers of paint, x-radiographs reveal Amigoni initially painted Farinelli’s beloved greyhound’s head higher before reworking to a lowered head. The dog’s head hangs in despair, as geography will soon disperse the friends. Each sitter is painted with an inscription, despite the painter’s tender knowledge of everyone, ensuring that forever more their identities will remain. The importance of friendship is eternal.

By Jessica Lehmann, Conservation Project Officer

Britain & Europe 16th–18th Century
Gallery 22A, Level 2, NGV International 
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Glasgow

Madeline Green
Glasgow
c. 1930

Glasgow documents the relationship between artist Madeline Green and her sister Gladys. Born in London in 1884 and educated at the Royal Academy, Madeline Green painted professionally from 1912. She chose not to marry, and Gladys took on the responsibility of managing Madeline’s professional and financial affairs. This arrangement allowed Madeline the freedom, time and energy to focus on her art, a rare privilege for a female artist of this time. Madeline’s intimate compositions feature depictions of herself and Gladys in costumes, often inspired by different gender and class identities, such as those of a farmhand, a dancer, a newlywed and a vegetable seller. In Glasgow, Madeline is dressed in a boy’s jacket, trousers and cap while Gladys wears a simple skirt and blouse. Madeline holds a defiant posture, her sister a more hesitant one. Perhaps inspired by the sisters’ close and mutually supportive relationship, Madeline’s double portrait questions how women should act, dress and exist at a time of burgeoning female modernity and empowerment – two years after universal female suffrage was granted in England.

Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

International Collection 19th–20th Century
Gallery 15B, Level 2, NGV International 
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Autumn leaves

John Singer Sargent
Autumn leaves
1913

The best moments are the ones that arrange themselves like paintings: a Christmas beetle, diamond-like, atop the trash, or a pelican flying across the full moon.You might spend weeks waiting for the next time you round a corner and stumble upon an accidental vignette. After months of being unable to touch anyone, anything, it suddenly feels as if all the world has turned into an oil painting, delicate and unreachable.

Today he is considered a masterful artist, but there was a time when John Singer Sargent’s body of work was thought to be too traditional, his subjects tired and mundane. Not long ago I felt the same way about the cinema, the tram, overcrowded restaurants and my sisters coming to stay. Now I sit alone and imagine they are here. We are having a picnic; one sister passes a peach, another smiles at me through sunshine, not a screen, and the littlest one giggles at something the rest don’t understand. The four of us are figures in the same landscape, autumn leaves caught in the same breeze.

Maybe I’ve spent all my life inside an artwork and never realised until someone said, ‘Step back, don’t touch, this is precious’.

By Billie Phillips, Project Officer, Audience Engagement and Learning

International Collection 19th–20th Century
Gallery 15A, Level 2, NGV International 
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The pinned hat: second plate

Auguste Renior
The pinned hat: second plate
1898

Holidaying at the beach and wearing your stylish floral sunhat – these are the scenes from which happy memories are made. The figure on the left in this print, looking at us, is Julie Manet, daughter of the painter Berthe Morisot and niece of Édouard Manet. Beside her is her older cousin, Paule Gobillard, who adjusts one of the flowers pinned to her hat. As she turns her head, Julie meets our gaze fleetingly and with a sagacious smile: a snapshot of a girl on the brink of womanhood.

When Renoir turned to printmaking in 1890, aged fifty, he was an established Impressionist painter famous for his sensual nudes and portraits of fashionable Parisian women. Although printed around 1898, The pinned hat originates from a study Renoir made several years earlier while on holiday on the coast of northern France with Morisot, one of his closest friends, and her family. He returned to the subject in six different prints, this being the largest and most elaborate. Encouraged by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, and with the assistance of the skilled lithography printer Auguste Clot, Renoir was able to transpose his lively painting technique and harmonious colouring to the lithographic stone.

By Jessica Cole, Assistant Curator, Prints and Drawings

International Collection 19th–20th Century
Gallery 15A, Level 2, NGV International 
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