Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 [c.1835]
"Shortly before 7 o'clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster, and of the districts on the opposite bank of the river, were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflagrations that has been witnessed for many years past....The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire."
So wrote the London Times on October 17, 1834. Turner witnessed the event, along with tens of thousands of spectators, and recorded what he saw in quick sketches that became the basis for this painting. Flames consume Saint Stephen's Hall, the House of Commons, and eerily illuminate the towers of Westminster Abbey, which would be spared. On the right the exaggerated scale and plunging perspective of Westminster Bridge intensify the drama of the scene, which Turner observed from the south bank of the Thames River.
[Philadelphia Museum of Art - Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 123.2 cm]
A woman, her thin hair tightly wrapped in a white scarf, looks out at the viewer with teary eyes and a toothless smile. The urban poor of Rome and the peasants of the neighbouring countryside inspired Michael Sweerts during his stay in Italy in the mid-1600s. The practice of painting the lower classes was relatively new at the time, and pictures of the poor were often derisive caricatures. Sweerts, however, treated his subject with compassion, vividly capturing the woman's inner beauty while accurately recording her external appearance: the loose skin, thinning hair, and wart on the left side of her face.
Although the painting is highly finished, Sweerts's rich brushwork is evident in alternately blended and separated strokes of different shades, creating a strong sense of three-dimensional form. This brushwork is especially striking in the head scarf and the collar.
[Getty Centre, Los Angeles - Oil on panel, 19 3/8 x 15 1/16 inches]