Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe is an Old Masters expert and has served on the faculty of Sotheby’s Institute of Art since 1989. She currently lectures on the MA Fine and Decorative Art and Design in London. In conversation with Tom Marks, the editor of The Apollo Podcast, she spoke about some of the unusual teaching methods she has adopted, and why you really ought to wear sunglasses the next time you stand in front of a Caravaggio painting. To listen to the full podcast episode, click here. Here are some highlights from the conversation.
Befriend the Old Masters
One issue Chantal encounters with her students is that as the years go by they have less and less religious background and as a large portion of the Old Masters tend to be religious subjects, the students can feel excluded. However, it is not vital to know every saint or every classical history story. You can appreciate a painting for its intrinsic qualities and beauty. “Old Masters paintings,” Chantal says, “are first of all fabulous objects that are to be looked at and enjoyed for what they are."
Put down your phone
Technology has made it very easy to “see” art from all around the world. Chantal remembers a time when she used to learn in black and white, as color photography for artwork was not always available. When studying black and white reproductions of art, it was quite easy to remember that you hadn’t seen a painting in person. But the better technology becomes, the more that line blurs. As a result, one of her challenges as a teacher is to encourage students to put down their phones and go see the actual work, to take in the brush strokes, and to experience the scale—and only then to pick up their phones and take photos for memory.
Spend quality time with the art
There are a number of exercises that Chantal likes to give her students while visiting galleries. In some classes, she instructs students to draw in sketch books to analyse drapery folds (baroque drapery falls very heavily compared to a rococo drape, which has a lot more movement.) In others, she will present students with a selection of photographs of details, such as the leaves from landscape paintings by a number of 17th century landscape painters such as Claude, Poussin, Cuyp, and then set them the task of wandering the galleries to identify the hand that produces leaves like that. These exercises are designed to encourage students to look at details and paintings closely. Chantal often quotes John Ruskin’s mantra: “if you haven’t drawn it, you haven’t seen it.” It is her trick to make someone stand in front of the work long enough to really take it in.
Understand the effect of time
When thinking about Old Masters paintings, there are two aspects that must be considered: conservation and restoration. In London, Sotheby’s Institute has a collection of teaching pieces—paintings, ceramics, and furniture—that are used to lead handling sessions with students. They are able to touch the works and study under a magnifying glass what restoration took place. Understanding what’s changed in a painting’s history is key, as ignoring these changes can be misleading. For example, Chantal considers a painting’s varnish that might have become “discolored to a very dirty yellow over a blue sky, which makes it look like a stormy night sky. All we have to do is clean it and we come to realize it’s a perfectly blue day.”
Put your sunglasses on
No Old Master painting was meant to be seen by electric light. For this reason, Chantal makes her students wear sunglasses when they’re in the Baroque rooms of any brightly lit gallery. In Baroque painting—and especially with Caravaggio paintings—there’s incredible depth in the figures that loom out of the darkness. But the more you light it, the less it works. These “Caravaggio sunglasses,” as Chantal calls them, help to bring back some of that depth.
Don’t look at paintings from the middle of the gallery. You’ve seen those loungey sofas or benches in the middle of galleries. Don’t be persuaded to gaze at artwork from those inviting seats. Instead, overcome the distance barrier, get closer, and aim to see the canvas grain. Remember, paintings are 3D objects, even though one dimension is extremely slender.
Don’t be afraid of connoisseurship
Connoisseurship is not an easy word, and it certainly takes a lifetime to develop. But Chantal is not afraid to admit that she deliberately starts her students on that path. She teaches them to pay attention to materials, canvas grain, provenance, and the history of collecting. Attention is key. The amount of knowledge that opens up when you take the time to engage with paintings in that way is tremendous.