This heatwave that we’re enjoying at the moment has inspired us to summer-ize our favourite famous paintings that we think best suit this sunny mood. Included in our final list are a few of the essential elements that epitomise and evoke that summer feeling for us – beaches, swimming pools, picnics, boating and sunflowers.
Here are our top five:
5) David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972
From Hockney’s famous series based around swimming pools (and semi-nude men), the composition of this particular painting has three distinct parts with an interesting story. The foreground is based on two separate photographs taken at different times by Hockney, one of a person swimming in a clear blue pool in Hollywood, and the second of Hockney’s then partner, Peter Schlesinger, looking at the ground in Kensington Gardens. Hockney was triggered by the photographs on the floor of his studio lying side by side, which he decided to knit together to create this scene.
As for the background, Hockney experimented with various options, including a brick wall, before settling on this South of France landscape vista. We love how the deeply verdant backdrop contrasts with and highlights the clean pastel tiles, and how the jigsaw puzzle white cracks on the water’s surface so vividly stir up our own poolside reflections.
In 2016, a study for this renowned painting, which shows the standing man as a collage piece on top of the main painting, was sold by Sotheby’s for over US$2m.
4) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Skiff, 1875
Renoir, one of the founding French Impressionists alongside Monet, always represented scenes of leisure, which this little skiff on a glorious blue River Seine captures nicely. We love this peaceful boat outing, the little orange boat elegantly contrasted against the indigo water, ambling along in harmony. We can just picture ourselves pootling on the water, absorbing the tranquillity and feeling no rush to be anywhere. Bliss!
Although Renoir himself may have had less pleasant memories of this scene, as he was apparently once accused of being a spy whilst painting on the River’s edge, and was almost hurled in.
Having started his career early, decorating ceramics since he was thirteen, he went on to take formal artistic training in Paris where he met fellow Impressionists, Monet, Sisley and Bazille. In Renoir’s later works he moved away from Impressionism, disregarding it, favouring a more structured and classical style of art. His sense of creativity was passed on to his children, with his three sons all pursuing artistic careers.
3) Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485
‘Botticelli’ is a nickname meaning 'little barrel' that was given to Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi as a child, apparently due to his shape! The famous Florentine painter was commissioned to create The Birth of Venus by the Medici family, and this painting is often associated with Botticelli’s other well-known work Primavera, which also depicts the goddess Venus. Today, the two paintings are iconic worldwide, though until Botticelli’s popularity was reinvigorated in the 19th Century by the Pre-Raphaelites, the appreciation of his work was dormant for a long time.
We are lucky to have this painting still today, as it survived the ‘bonfire of the vanities’, the public burning of non-religious ‘vain’ or ‘immoral’ objects including things like mirrors, books, playing cards and dresses, as well as art, by Savonarola in 1497. Especially since Botticelli is said to have been a follower of the puritanical preacher, and that he might even have put some of his own works to the flames to prove his piety!
There is so much to love about this painting; the vibrant colours, the beautifully smooth marble-like skin of the figures, the luscious tresses of Venus, and her serene countenance. But what we love most is the sense of fluidity, that you can almost feel the breath of Zephyrus as it tickles the sea’s surface, gently gliding the scallop shell to shore, just like that welcome summer breeze on a hot day at the beach.
2) Fernando Botero, Picnic (or Comida Campestre), 1989
All day drinking making you sleeeepy?? We’ve all been there...
This Colombian artist became famous for adding a few pounds onto his subjects, for either comedic value, as in this case, or to make a statement about his views. The term ‘Boterismo’ was even coined in his honour to describe this unique style. It is important to know that Botero states he does not paint ‘fat people’ but is in fact painting volume. From the roundness of the characters to the plumpness of the fruit, Botero’s paintings seem to push against the canvas edge with excess.
Botero’s Picnic has an underlying menace when given a closer look. As the rotund gentleman snoozes on a midsummers day, the viewer can note a volcano erupting in the background – a dark and aggressive streak of black interrupting the serenity of the sky. Hidden behind the seemingly idyllic picnic is an unsettling threat, reminding us all of the unpredictability of nature - even on a calm summers day!
Having originally begun training as a matador, Botero's preference for painting and sketching the bulls rather than fighting them was quickly recognised and by sixteen he had already had his illustrations published in newspapers. Now eighty-six, he still tirelessly creates new art!
1) Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
One of the most reproduced images ever, and with booming sales for postcard prints, this is without doubt a very popular favourite. What’s not to love about the bold use of yellow on yellow on yellow, and who doesn’t love a sunflower (or fifteen)?!
Van Gogh began painting the Sunflowers to brighten up the room for his artist friend Paul Gauguin’s visit to his ‘Studio of the South’. There were actually four similar paintings in the original Sunflowers series; the first is held privately, the second was destroyed in WW2, the third similar to this but with a blue background is in the Neue Pinakothek gallery in Munich, and you can see this treasure at the National Gallery here in London. Three additional replicas were made by Van Gogh, two copying this and one copying the blue background version.
In 2017 the National Gallery created a Facebook Live video stream to showcase, compare and contrast all five publicly held Sunflowers paintings together, along with commentary from the respective gallery curators.
Sadly, it has recently been discovered that the fate of the dazzling sunflowers to wither and wilt is being fulfilled also in art, as the yellow paint used by Van Gogh is fading out to brown!
Your favourite wasn't on the list?
Let us know your ultimate summer painting by emailing us or posting on our Facebook page!