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The Painting in the Dining Room

Paula Rego’s Garden of Delights

by Margie MacKinnon

Detail from Paula Rego’s Crivelli’s Garden (1990–1). Presented by English

Estates, 1991 © Paula Rego, photo by The National Gallery, London

In 1991, the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery opened to the public. Along with the Renaissance treasures to be discovered in this newly designed space was a large work by Paula Rego, Crivelli’s Garden (1990-91). The painting, more than nine metres in length, had been specially commissioned – not for one of the prestigious exhibition rooms - but for the museum’s new restaurant. Was this a slight to an artist with a growing reputation who was then ‘having a real moment’ following her major survey show at the Serpentine Gallery? 

There is a long tradition of Renaissance masters creating ‘last supper’ frescoes in convent dining halls where the resident friars or nuns could contemplate Jesus’s final meal in silence while enjoying their own repasts. One of the world’s most celebrated artworks, Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495-1498), was painted for the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Andrea del Castagno’s Ultima Cena (1445) in the Convent of Sant’Apollonia and Andrea del Sarto’s 1526 masterpiece for the Church of San Salvi (otherwise known as the Last Supper Museum of Andrea del Sarto) also come to mind. The only painting by a woman that depicts this subject, Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper (1550), was created for the refectory of her convent, Santa Caterina da Siena, and is now exhibited in the Museum of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

On the other hand, a more recent restaurant commission had a less felicitous outcome. In 1958, Mark Rothko was asked to create a series of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Ambivalent from the outset, Rothko (presciently) ensured that his contract would allow him to back out of the deal and recover his paintings if necessary. Rothko struggled to realise his vision for the series and sought inspiration on a trip to Italy. “I realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo’s walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library,” he said. On returning to New York, the artist dined at the Four Seasons with his wife to get a feel for the space where the murals would be exhibited. Far from acting as an incentive, the experience reinforced his disdain for capitalist values and, that same evening, he cancelled the commission, declaring, “anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine.”

Paula Rego was similarly ambivalent when she was asked to become the first participant in the National Gallery’s Associate Artist programme which would lead to the Crivelli commission. She initially declined the offer explaining that, as the Gallery’s collection was so male dominated, there was not a lot she could do with it. Then, a week later, she reversed course and said that, because the collection was so male dominated, she would absolutely be able to find things there to work with. As for the restaurant commission, Rego understood the irony, as a woman artist, of being shown in that space, as opposed to the collection upstairs. But she relished the idea of ‘sneaking in’ through the back door, the kitchen door, to counteract the overwhelmingly masculine influence of the gallery experience which, on past visits, had left her feeling queasy. Rego was given studio space in The National Gallery for two years, beginning in January 1990. In addition to the restaurant commission, her residency also resulted in an exhibition, Tales of the National Gallery, which was presented in the Sunley Room (December 1991-March 1992).

Crivelli’s Garden, which would be Rego’s largest ever public commission, hung in the dining room for 30 years – until it was taken down to facilitate the ongoing renovation of the Sainsbury Wing. Happily, it was not consigned to storage but earlier this year became the focal point of an exhibition located in the central part of the Gallery. It was displayed together with the work from which its name derives, Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna of the Swallow (after 1490). Like Rothko, Rego found inspiration in a Renaissance master. “The opportunity to subvert the male gaze inherent to the history of painting was one too tantalising for Paula to resist,” says the exhibition’s curator Priyesh Mistry.

Rego’s mural-like work, painted on five canvases, depicts a series of spaces, delineated by columns, archways and staircases. They are decorated with blue and white tiles and populated almost exclusively with female figures in various groupings and a range of sizes. The figures are mostly clothed in muted browns and greys, colours chosen deliberately so as not to overwhelm the restaurant setting. The scene shifts from one panel to the next, disappearing around corners and fading into distant seascapes. Its characters represent women from myths, fables and biblical stories, as well as people from Rego’s life, including women who were working at the Gallery during her residency. 

Above: Carlo Crivelli, 1491, Predella of Madonna of the Swallow, altarpiece from S. Francesco dei Zoccolanti, Matelica, The National Gallery, London. Photo by The National Gallery, London

At first glance, it is not easy to see the connection between Rego’s work and the Crivelli altarpiece. The Madonna of the Swallow, created for the Odoni family chapel in the Franciscan church at Matelica in the Marche region of Italy, depicts the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, together with Saints Jerome and Sebastian. The choice of saints reflects the interests of the painting’s patrons, one a theologian, the other a soldier. In the predella, on which the painting ‘rests’, those two saints appear again, along with Saint Catherine of Alexandra and Saint George. Saints Jerome and Catherine represent theological learning. Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of soldiers, is joined by Saint George, another military saint. Crivelli has used the common Renaissance technique of expanding the stories of the figures in the altarpiece with narrative scenes in the predella providing details of their lives.

According to Mistry, Rego spent hours in the company of then-curator Colin Wiggins, soaking up the Gallery’s extensive collection of Renaissance works, “talking about the artworks, picking out details, perhaps laughing about them and discussing them in different ways. And I think they would often return to Crivelli,” says Mistry. “He is a painter that appeals to so many artists because his figuration and his way of depicting space is so peculiar. And what’s really amazing about Crivelli is his linear perspective, which recedes far into the distance.” Mistry points out the architectural features of the predella panel showing Saint Sebastian being shot with arrows. “There is something interesting about the way Crivelli is able to build a world that you feel that you can enter.” This, he explains, is what created the stage for Crivelli’s Garden. Rego “imagined creating another kind of complex, quite maze-like garden for her to host women saints, for the women to occupy these spaces and to be able to tell their stories.” The scale of the painting certainly allows the viewer to enter into that space, especially in the exhibition setting.

The work also celebrates the tradition of storytelling with which Rego grew up in her native Portugal. “Crivelli’s Garden is quite identifiably set within a Portuguese garden, by virtue of the distinctive blue and white tiles which you see almost everywhere in Portugal,” Mistry points out. “The tiles are significant because they hold stories within the images that they depict, adding another layer of narrative.” Rego had a Catholic upbringing and, in addition to religious stories, she absorbed folklore from her aunt and grandmother. She had conducted extensive research into fairy tales and fables from around the world, all of which fed into her artistic practice. Among the references immediately evident in Crivelli’s Garden are Aesop’s ‘The tortoise and the hare’ and ‘The ant and the grasshopper’ at the base of the fountain in the first panel. In the next panel the mythological ‘Leda and the Swan’ adorn a column. The 13th century treatise The Golden Legend became another resource for Rego in preparing for the commission. Used by many of the same masters whose works are found in the Gallery, this collection of biographies of Christian saints provided a tangible connection to artists of the past.

Detail from Paula Rego’s Crivelli’s Garden (1990–1). Presented by English

Estates, 1991 © Paula Rego, photo by The National Gallery, London

On the right-hand side of the painting, two women are engaged in a private conversation. The older, taller woman is passing on a secret to the woman in white, her message hidden behind her raised hand and the intimacy of the moment conveyed by her other hand gripping the arm of her younger companion. A small figure in the corner of the panel clothed in animal skin and holding a lamb (attributes of John the Baptist) gives us a clue to the protagonists. This is a version of the Visitation, a meeting between the Virgin Mary, then pregnant with Jesus, and her cousin Elizabeth (then in her eighties), pregnant with John the Baptist. This pivotal event, marking the transition from the Old to the New Testament, is often depicted with the two women bathed in supernatural light, but here, as Mistry comments, “Rego renders it almost ordinary … a private matter, a secret of concern shared between two relatives.” In Rego’s hands it becomes a relatable moment: two women who have found themselves pregnant in unexpected circumstances. No wonder they have secrets to share!

Rego called the diminutive character in the painting’s lower right corner its ‘anchor figure’. Also known as ‘the reader’, she looks out from the canvas rather than at the book in her lap, whose pages are left blank. A beautifully executed pencil drawing of this figure was included in the exhibition, along with several other preparatory drawings, and the care that Rego took over this one in particular is evident. With her dark hair, direct gaze and head tilted toward the painting, the reader could be a substitute for Rego, inviting the viewer to take in the dramas unfolding around her. In fact, she was modelled on Ailsa Bhattacharya (also the model for the young girl painting the snake), one of several members of the National Gallery’s education team who Rego invited to sit for her. “Paula based the characters in Crivelli’s Garden on women that surrounded her in her life, and used their characters or the way that she perceived these people to inform which roles they would take within the painting,” says Mistry. 

The book on the reader’s lap recalls Rego’s preoccupation with fairy tales and storytelling. For Mistry, the reader is “a nod to the power inherent in stories that are passed down through the matriarchal lineage. Under Salazar’s regime in Portugal where Paula grew up, women didn’t have many rights, but there was an extraordinary resilience within the Portuguese women, and the communication of stories from one generation to the next allowed this form of resilience to continue.” It is also tempting to interpret the book’s blank pages as symbolic of the unwritten stories of women throughout the ages, and perhaps especially the stories of women artists. 

Above: Installation shot of Paula Rego’s Crivelli’s Garden (1990–1) at the National Gallery of London’s exhibition by the same name © Paula Rego, photo by The National Gallery, London

Elsewhere in the painting, a young and troubled-looking Judith deposits what we assume to be Holofernes’ head into an apron held open by her maid, a sleeping Samson is oblivious to his fate as Delilah looms over him, and virtuous Martha efficiently wields her broom while her penitent sister Mary sits below her on the steps, adopting the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. Rego focuses on the moments before or after the dramatic action, forcing us to think about what is going on in the minds of these protagonists. Among the more obscure figures is Saint Mary of Egypt, the figure in the central panel, next to a lion. Like Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt was a ‘fallen woman’ who retreated to the desert after she had renounced her life of sin. Rego portrays her, says Mistry, as “this aged woman, covered by a wealth of matted hair, almost like Cousin It from the Addams Family.” Ancient sources recount that, on her death, the monk who was struggling to dig her grave under the burning sun was given assistance by a passing lion, thus acknowledging her repentance and conferring nobility on her. 

In the preface to the exhibition’s catalogue, Paula Rego’s son, Nick Willing, recounts, “I remember my mother being told more than once that a great male artist could paint the female experience as well as, if not better than, a woman.” Rego would not have needed a prod to prove the fallacy of this claim; it is simply impossible to imagine a male artist having created Crivelli’s Garden with its multi-layered narratives portrayed from a distinctively female perspective, its symbolism, the rich cast of female characters, intergenerational relationships representing the transmission of knowledge – from mother to daughter, teacher to student, and the divulging of secrets from one expectant mother to another. Having initially found a way into the National Gallery’s patriarchal collection from a side door, Rego’s work will eventually be exhibited in a more permanent place in the National Gallery when it reopens in 2024. Sadly, Rego died before the exhibition was mounted, but Mistry relates that, “she was thrilled at the prospect of being able to take her rebellious garden out and show it alongside one of the old master paintings within the collection.” While her work may owe a debt to the old masters, her contemporary retelling of timeless stories is uniquely her own. 

Curator Priyesh Mistry is Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Projects at the National Gallery, London where he works towards an ambitious programme to integrate contemporary art within the context of the museum and its historic collections.


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