About the Renaissance Watercolours exhibition

Produced as part of Renaissance Watercolours: from Dürer to Van Dyck

Opening on Saturday, 16 May 2020

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During the Renaissance, watercolour painting was a versatile and progressive European art form, yet it remains surprisingly little-known. Due to their light-sensitivity watercolours are rarely displayed, and great works in this medium have traditionally been separated across different collections. The Renaissance Watercolours exhibition finally unites some of the finest examples of watercolour from the V&A – home to the national collections of watercolours and portrait miniatures – and many other world-renowned UK and international collections.

The exhibition centres on the three fundamental genres of landscape, natural history and portraiture, with an introduction to the origins and techniques of watercolour, and a final section on the wider world – highlighting how this varied medium reached as far afield as Asia and the Americas.

Origins and Technique shows that the genres of landscape, natural history and portraiture were well-known in Antiquity and re-discovered during the Renaissance, through buried ancient frescoes, a 3rd century Roman portrait, and Renaissance copies reproducing lost classical works.

Medallion, portrait of a man, Roman, about 200 – 400 AD. Museum no. 1052-1868. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Landscapes explores the development of landscape painting in watercolour, from practical yet beautifully-executed maps and calendars of the months to naturalistic representations of scenery, which helped establish landscape painting as a formal genre. Highlights include two Leonardo da Vinci maps lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection, the earliest view of London in a book of medieval poems by Charles d’Orleans, lent by the British Library, and observational studies by Dürer, Federico Barocci and Van Dyck.

A bird's-eye view of western Tuscany, Leonardo da Vinci, about 1503 – 04. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Animals & Plants reveals how representations of flora and fauna evolved in the Renaissance, bringing together decorative borders from books of hours, with works by Dürer, Hans Hoffmann, Jacopo Ligozzi, and Jacques de Gheyn. Fuelled by scientific progress and curiosity about the world, highly-skilled artists began to portray rare plants and animals in a more scientific and analytical way. Twenty-five exquisite botanical watercolours by Jacques le Moyne will be on display alongside their original binding, and Dürer's Stag Beetle will be shown in the UK for the first time in 25 years, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Stag Beetle, Albrecht Dürer, 1505. Courtesy of the Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Portrait explores the 'heraldic persona' and traces the emergence of the earliest miniatures from manuscripts, before celebrating the peak of this genre attained by Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and Samuel Cooper. Prized as 'secret' works of art, portrait miniatures played a unique social role by conveying symbolic or intimate meanings. The exhibition features depictions of rulers and artists, husbands and wives, as well as enigmatic sitters whose identity has been lost.

Portrait of Margaret Lemon, Samuel Cooper, about 1635. Courtesy of Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

Concluding with The Wider World, Renaissance Watercolours looks beyond Europe to the Americas and Asia. At a time of growing exploration, maritime trade and cultural exchange, it first examines how the New World was perceived and explored by Europeans. It then turns to Asia – which had its own ancient tradition of watercolour painting – and reveals how both cultures looked at and engaged one another in dialogue.

Portrait of a European, unknown maker, Akbar period, about 1556 – 1605. Museum no. IM.9-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Background image: (Detail) Nonsuch Palace from the South, Joris Hoefnagel, 1568, England. Museum no. E.2781-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London