More than 30 years after Dame Paula Rego (1935–2022), the National Gallery’s first Associate Artist (1990–92), was commissioned to create a painting for the Sainsbury Wing Dining Room, a new exhibition will explore the relationship of Rego’s work titled Crivelli’s Garden to the 15th-century altarpiece that inspired it.
The exhibition, which had long been planned to mark this anniversary, will unite the two monumental artworks in the Gallery’s collection for the first time – inviting visitors to draw out direct comparisons – and will also show how members of National Gallery staff found their way into Dame Paula’s work.
The death of Paula Rego on 8 June makes this exhibition – opening in the summer next year – a poignant tribute to the work and life of one of the most important artists of her generation.
During her residency, over the period of two years, Paula Rego occupied the artist’s studio which was then in the basement of the Gallery. She would often describe her experience as being like a scurrying animal. To quote her from an interview about her time at the Gallery:
‘I could creep upstairs and snatch at things, and bring them down with me to the basement, where I could munch away at them. And what I brought down here from upstairs varied a lot, but I always brought something into my den.’
We can imagine that it was in this spirit that Crivelli’s Garden was made. The mural’s concept and structure were triggered by the predella panel of Carlo Crivelli’s altarpiece La Madonna della Rondine (after 1490, NG724).
Rego reimagined Crivelli’s house and garden to explore the narratives of women in biblical history and folklore based on paintings across the collection and stories from the medieval Golden Legend. Her figures inspired by the Virgin Mary, Saint Catherine, Mary Magdalene and Delilah, share the stage with other women from biblical and mythological histories.
Rego saw the work as a tribute to the artists who had also used the Golden Legend as a source for their paintings. She did not necessarily replicate the women saints portrayed in the National Gallery Collection but drew inspiration from them to depict figures and people she knew. These included friends, members of her family and even staff at the National Gallery whom she asked to sit for her, such as Erika Langmuir and Ailsa Bhattacharya who were members of the Education Department at the time.
Dame Paula still held many drawings from the original sittings, and the exhibition will include a selection of these alongside sketches for the final piece from her collection, allowing the viewer to better understand Rego’s creative process.
As a composition, the mural demonstrates a new direction for Rego. Crivelli’s Garden is one of Rego’s most ambitious paintings and explores a lot of themes that span her career, which address the way women and their experiences were represented in paintings.
This exhibition will celebrate Rego’s close ties with the National Gallery and the importance of Crivelli’s Garden in her painting career and reveal its legacy as an inspiration for new generations of artists.
Priyesh Mistry, Associate Curator, Contemporary and Modern, says ‘Dame Paula Rego’s radical painting has consistently given women a voice over repression in a male-dominated society and art world. Her work remains as vital today as it was 30 years ago when she first painted Crivelli’s Garden and continues to serve as an inspiration to new generations of artists and writers. This exhibition will be our opportunity at the National Gallery to celebrate her legacy and influence.’
National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, says ‘Dame Paula Rego loved being in the National Gallery’s artist studio and relished being able to spend many hours with the paintings: They triggered her memory and imagination and led to the creation of a work both joyous and unsettling, Crivelli’s Garden, which mixes Renaissance saints, biblical heroines, fable and myth.’