The Ambassadors in detail


Some revelations courtesy of a new venture, the Google Art Project, in which we’re given the opportunity to wander some of the world’s great art galleries and examine a selection of paintings in detail. Holbein’s 1533 masterpiece, The Ambassadors, is the default work for the collection from the National Gallery, London, and it’s a great place to start, being painted in a quite astonishing hyper-realist style. I’ve seen this work in situ and despite its being a large picture it’s difficult to offer it any kind of careful scrutiny. This is partly because the more famous works in that gallery always draw an impatient crowd eager for you to get out of their way, but also because the staff there don’t like people getting too close to the paintings; I was once reprimanded by a staff member for gesticulating too closely to one of the pictures whilst discussing it with a friend.


The Ambassadors is celebrated for its anamorphic vanitas skull (gallery visitors usually take turns viewing this from the side of the picture) and its collection of very carefully painted objects and instruments. Thanks to Google we’re now able to examine these to a degree we wouldn’t have been able to do before unless we worked for the gallery. Holbein astonishes even more when you can see how carefully he rendered so many different materials and textures. And this is only one of the works available from one of the galleries…


Of the paintings I’ve looked at so far not all allow such ultra-magnified views but then not all paintings require this. Artists such as Titian and Turner don’t benefit from scrutiny with a magnifying glass. An initial gripe would be the lack of any thumbnail view of the paintings on offer but it seems unfair to complain, this is a great development for art lovers. I’m hoping now that the project will evolve the way Google Earth has, with the addition of other galleries and paintings. A few more details follow.

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Marsi Paribatra: the Royal Surrealist


La Menace (1994).

Two paintings by Princess Marsi Paribatra, a member of the royal family of Thailand who lists Dalí, Arcimboldo and Titian among her artistic influences. If it seems surprising that a princess should not only be an accomplished painter but also be possessed of a distinctly vivid imagination we might ask why this is the case. There’s no reason why a member of a royal family shouldn’t be as good a painter as anyone else although it’s the case that here in Britain our views of royalty are inevitably tainted by the uninspiring members of the current House of Windsor. Prince Charles in particular is a singularly dreary and frequently philistine figure, and also a painter whose daubs would never have received any attention at all were it not for his being born into the right family.

This hasn’t always been the case. It used to be that being an aristocrat gave you the free time and the wealth to indulge no end of manias and eccentricities. The British Isles are littered with architectural follies of various kinds built to appease the whims of rich landowners; William Beckford (1760–1844) is renowned for having written the Gothic melodrama Vathek and also for having built the lavish (and unfortunately short-lived) pile of Fonthill Abbey. In the 20th century we had Edward James (1907–1984), a lifelong champion of Surrealism who spent much of his later life building Las Pozas in the Mexican jungle at Xilitla, a concrete fantasia which looks like something dreamed up by Antonio Gaudí and JG Ballard. James collected the work of Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning and I’d imagine him being equally entranced by some of Marsi Paribatra’s paintings. The recurrence of skeletal figures in her work invokes the Mexican Day of the Dead traditions which always excited the Surrealists.


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Dali House has more about Marsi Paribatra’s life and art while further examples of her paintings can be found here and here. Thanks again to Monsieur Thombeau for pointing the way!

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism
Return to Las Pozas
The art of Leonor Fini, 1907–1996
Surrealist women
Las Pozas and Edward James