Anthony Spira | Beth Bate | Claire Doherty | David Austen | Elizabeth Ann Macgregor | Elizabeth Price | Garrett Phelan | John Gerrard | Ken Arnold | Martin Postle | Neil MacGregor | Oliver Beer | Richard Woods | Roberta Minnucci | Ross Sinclair | Sorcha Carey | Stephen Chambers | Stephen Farthing | Stephen Nelson | Tania Kovats | Xavier Bray | Yuriko Jackall

24 artworks


Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle
Image credit: Glasgow Life Museums
Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle 1872–1873
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Oil on canvas
H 171.1 x W 143.5 cm
Glasgow Life Museums

The eternal stars shine out again, so soon as it is dark enough. — Thomas Carlyle

The great but flawed Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle was one of the most influential social commentators to come out of Victorian Britain, and Past and Present was one of his most important books.

Past and Present was written in response to the economic crisis of the 1840s, when factory closures led to job losses, grinding poverty and the growth of slums. Contemplating and reporting on society at large, Carlyle hoped that its publication would stimulate widespread reforms, especially in the areas of labour, education and hygiene.

At the outset of the prophetic final chapter, Carlyle reaches for metaphor while discussing strikes and revolts: ‘As dark misery settles down on us, and our refuges of lies fall in pieces one after one, the hearts of men, now at last serious, will turn to refuges of truth. The eternal stars shine out again, so soon as it is dark enough.’

Carlyle’s observation that we can only see the stars under the darkest conditions encourages us to stay hopeful even in the gloomiest of times, and the idea was taken up and repurposed by a host of later figures, including the suffragist Emily Faithfull, the historian Charles A. Beard and the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

Prompted by Carlyle’s inspirational remark and the desire and necessity to remain optimistic in the face of the Covid-19 emergency, Starry starry nights (or a few astral weeks) features a selection of paintings of stars and the heavens drawn from public collections across the United Kingdom.

The works in the exhibition have been chosen by an international network of artists, curators and scholars who are currently isolated in their cities, towns, villages and homes. Each contributor has been asked to pick a favourite item from the Art UK database and write about the reasons behind their choice.

Starry starry nights (or a few astral weeks) offers an unashamedly escapist reflection on the beauty and majesty of the cosmos while our own planet is in lockdown. It also provides us with a glimpse into the minds of artists who once took a moment to look up.

Of course, all of us can benefit from a change in perspective every so often. All of us can benefit simply by looking up.


Cow Considering the Stars and Moon
© the artist's estate. Image credit: RWA (Royal West of England Academy)

Selected by Anthony Spira

Cow Considering the Stars and Moon 1985
Peter L. Folkes (1923–2019)
Acrylic on canvas
H 33.7 x W 51.4 cm
RWA (Royal West of England Academy)

There’s no chance this cow will be jumping over the moon. And yet it sparkles like the Milky Way.

Peter L. Folkes was quick to assimilate modern techniques in painting and often enjoyed a tense interplay between figure, ground, subject and medium. Bovine impressions may have been a speciality. A companion piece is titled Indignant Brown Cow.

Our subject is caught in contemplation. Here is a creature with intelligence, dignified despite its bulk. Made from scattering, scratching and scraping, its psychedelic surface dissolves into the starry night. Inevitably, it recalls Jean Dubuffet’s masterpieces of the genre, which he described as impressions ‘of teeming matter, alive and sparkling’, evoking all textures, ‘even galaxies and nebulae’. Like a cave painting, its formal simplicity enhances the sense of timeless wonder.

Anthony Spira is the Director of MK Gallery in Milton Keynes.


On the Edge of Night
© the artist. Image credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Selected by Beth Bate

On the Edge of Night 1991
David Austen (b.1960)
Oil on linen
H 35.5 x W 30.5 cm
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

The rich blue glow of a jagged razor blade cuts into Austen's ‘starless and bible-black’* painting, opening up a glimpse of a world beyond. Inspired by a West African sculpture and the rich ultramarine pigment seen in many pieces by the Yoruba people, Austen describes the zip shape as ‘a violent act in some way’. Teeth are bared.

Light and dark, moons and stars, dreams and night are recurring motifs in Austen's practice. He creates liminal worlds of lost loves and lurking violence. Texts run throughout his work with found phrases becoming titles, and sometimes works themselves. The title On The Edge of Night, perhaps an as-yet unmade noir film or book of crime fiction, locates us on the boundary with darkness and all of its dangerous and lustful possibilities.

∗Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices (1954)

Beth Bate is the Director of Dundee Contemporary Arts.


© Elizabeth Magill. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024. Image credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Selected by Claire Doherty

Without 2002
Elizabeth Magill (b.1959)
Oil on canvas
H 91 x W 122 cm
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Devoid of the warm washes and structural branches that were to dominate the artist’s subsequent work, Without appears at first glance as simply a beguiling pastoral dawn: the sunset bleeds across a semi-rural landscape, uncovering the path ahead. There is a hint of an Atkinson Grimshaw and the bucolic cliché of a Samuel Palmer. But this is Magill who laces the pastoral with an undercurrent of unease.

The artist invariably begins with the horizon, letting the shape and form of her works emerge from that edge. Perhaps this horizon is consuming a sunset—the light is fading and our view of the path ahead will soon be engulfed by the darkness. This is not the beginning, but the end.

Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door; Or has it feathers like a bird, Or billows like a shore? — Emily Dickinson

Claire Doherty is a creative director and arts producer who lives and works in Bristol.


Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea
Image credit: Tate

Selected by David Austen

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Oil on wood
H 50.2 x W 60.8 cm

… the whole city hangs in the heavens …

London dreams.

It is post-twilight. A crepuscular light from the moon, lit windows and fires reflect in the silver water. The air feels impregnated with mercury. A solitary man stands on the foreshore.

Recently, I have been riding my bicycle along the Thames—up to Richmond, down to Rotherhithe—often passing the location of this painting. I look up the timetable to take note of the low tides so I can mudlark on the exposed banks.

The watchful, but indifferent river feels to me in these peculiar times like the sentient ocean of the fictional planet Solaris. I imagine a vast black cloud gathering over London. A huge psychic force, dark and tumorous, settles and is subsumed by the water; the outgoing tide like a breathing lung bears it away to empty in the deep.

David Austen is an artist who lives and works in London.


Red Deer
© Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024. Image credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Selected by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Red Deer 1990
Peter Doig (b.1959)
Oil on canvas
H 237.5 x W 182.6 cm
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Art in times of isolation…

I am immediately drawn to this work by Peter Doig because it brings back memories of growing up in Scotland. A beautifully intricate painting, it captures for me the landscape of my youth. The clear skies of a chilly night, the stars reflected in the loch, the pine forests and the thrill of seeing skittish deer by the side of the road. In fact, the accompanying description reveals that the landscape is Canadian—and the deer stuffed!—but perhaps we need to connect with art in different ways in these strange times. Such nostalgia would not usually be my first response to an artwork, but being on the other side of the world, unable to get on a plane, has heightened the pull of home. Despite only seeing it digitally, the work still conjures up the vastness of the landscape and the depth of the skies above.

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor is the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney.


Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht)
Image credit: Tate

Selected by Elizabeth Price

Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) 1935
Paul Klee (1879–1940)
Gouache on cloth laid on wood
H 50.8 x W 47 cm

By coincidence I’m writing this caption on Walpurgis Night (30 April 2020), a German festival that marks the last night of winter.

This painting is a picture of night terrors. Seven figures appear, one after the other, and I suspect others are about to take shape. They are made out of night sky, draped from the points of a strange constellation in rippling noctilucent clouds.

Walpurgisnacht claims winter itself as a long, dangerous night. And winter, in turn, is a political metaphor. Klee fled the Nazi regime in Germany for Switzerland, the country of his birth, which then refused him citizenship. He died there of an autoimmune disease in 1940.

So perhaps these nocturnal beings are not anthropomorphic representations of winter’s severity? They do not attribute human characteristics to nature’s force. They show how human cruelty can make the whole world—diseases and seasons alike—its unconscious agent.

Elizabeth Price is an artist who lives and works in London.


The Great Comet of 1843
Image credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Selected by Garrett Phelan

The Great Comet of 1843 1843
Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900)
Oil on canvas
H 90.7 x W 61 cm
National Maritime Museum

I have never seen this painting in reality. I have no idea of its scale, smell, sheen or colour. But I have seen a comet. The first time I saw one I was walking down a street in the coastal village of Dun Laoghaire in the mid-1990s and it was dusk. A beautiful, clear evening. I remember it well because of two things: Comet Halle-Bopp lingered in the cosmos above me and I was listening to a radio programme on my headphones. As I became aware of Halle-Bopp, the DJ played an old scratchy recording of a song by the Irish tenor John McCormack called Song to the Seals. A cracker. Stopped me in my tracks. An intense, moving moment, staring out to sea with the comet above it and me. Halle-Bopp told me how small I was. A magical, cosmological happening putting me in my place.

Garrett Phelan is an artist who lives and works in Dublin.


Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge
Image credit: Tate

Selected by John Gerrard

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge c.1872–5
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Oil on canvas
H 68.3 x W 51.2 cm

A single figure stands, a little hunched, framed by the Thames in Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge. A constellation of stars shimmers above the city and through the wash of blue grey mists. There is a great emptiness and stillness in the scene which recalls the unexpected stoppage of Covid-19. Our frantic movements extraordinarily halted. Skies clearing, waters stilling. Cheap petroleum fills our cities and skies with transit and speed. Who imagined we could pause? The picture also recalls, for me, the Irish men and women who left home for London in the 19th and 20th centuries, leaving Ireland in strength and often living out their old age in poverty once their work was done.

John Gerrard is an artist who lives and works in Dublin and Vienna.


The Milky Way
© the artist. Image credit: Glasgow Life Museums

Selected by Ken Arnold

The Milky Way c.1992
Hock-Aun Teh (b.1950)
Acrylic on paper
H 154.9 x W 149.9 cm
Glasgow Life Museums

First, a confession. While I'm not averse to craning my neck in wonder at the far-away amazingness of all those galaxies, the majesty of the cosmos is rarely in my mind. My imagination is too earth-bound.

So why choose Hock-Aun Teh's The Milky Way for Starry starry nights? To be honest I'm not sure it draws my thoughts any more heavenwards than, say, his Two Drunken Irishmen Trying To Find Their Way Home. Yet Teh's involving blues and blacks, slashed and spotted with daubs of colour, encourages me to leave behind my locked-down worries. I pause to contemplate his experience of surviving a crash landing; when he came back down to earth with a frightening jolt. And I delight in his compunction as an artist to ‘go out and make things happen’.

So even if I didn’t leave terra firma far behind, I'm nonetheless grateful for a few moments of elevated inspiration.

Ken Arnold is the Director of Medical Museion in Copenhagen and Creative Director at Wellcome in London.

Selected by Martin Postle

Lambeth Palace 1858
Henry Pether (1800–1880)
Oil on canvas
H 46.4 x W 61.6 cm
Yale Center for British Art

Not much seems to have changed since Henry Pether, one of several generations of the same family who specialised in moonlit scenes, painted this atmospheric cityscape on the south bank of the river Thames. Indeed, the picture is often in my mind whenever I walk along the embankment towards one of my favourite places in London: The Garden Museum.

In the foreground of Pether’s painting, its river frontage bathed in ghostly nocturnal moonbeams, is Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury since the Middle Ages. The reflected light on the water stretches unbroken to the horizon, Pether having painted the view just a few years prior to the construction of Lambeth Bridge, which replaced the existing horse ferry. Although the gas lamps on the roadside and the smokestack on the riverboat indicate the present time, the towering presence of the medieval palace evokes a mysterious bygone age.

Martin Postle is the Deputy Director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London.

Selected by Neil MacGregor

Landscape by Moonlight 1635–1640
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
Oil on panel
H 64 x W 90 cm
The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

He is the greatest storyteller in European painting, and here Rubens paints the greatest narrative of them all: the miracle of the sky at night. Nothing frightens in this cosmos. The moon is so bright, you can still glimpse the colours of the day—pinks, blues and silvery greens. But it is the stars that matter. They are everywhere. The longer you look, the more of them you see—as if you were actually standing outside, looking up and shivering. The best ones, shining amidst the trees, are just thick flecks of brilliant white. But they are painted—dabbed—on top of the foliage, on our side of the trees. Heaven on earth.

The picture has long been loved in Britain. Reynolds owned it. Gainsborough revelled in it. Constable had a print of it over his bed.

The horse pays no attention. It just keeps grazing.

Neil MacGregor is an art historian, writer and broadcaster who lives and works in London.


The Origin of the Milky Way
Image credit: The National Gallery, London

Selected by Oliver Beer

The Origin of the Milky Way about 1575
Jacopo Tintoretto (c.1518–1594)
Oil on canvas
H 149.4 x W 168 cm
The National Gallery, London

I love how The Origin of the Milky Way takes the vastness of creation and brings it back to the simple human preoccupations of motherhood, pain and immortality. Hercules’s vice-like grip on Juno’s nipple is too tight, and so she pulls him away and in doing so peppers the heavens with her divine milk, creating the Milky Way. The painting itself is fascinating, full of symbolism. It was probably destined to be hung high up on a wall, hence the slightly distorted proportions. When it was painted astronomy was in its infancy. My own work deals with music, which is governed by the same harmonic structures and mathematical harmonies as the light and 'sound' of the known universe. I'm entranced by the ways in which different cultures take these universal truths and put them to use to make sense of them within the framework of their own experiences.

Oliver Beer is an artist who lives and works in London and Paris.


Deer Shelter Skyspace
© the artist, courtesy of YSP. Image credit: Jonty Wilde, courtesy of YSP

Selected by Richard Woods

Deer Shelter Skyspace 2006
James Turrell (b.1943)
Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I was listening to Bob Mortimer & Andy Dawson's Athletico Mince podcast last week. In episode 104 the Peter Beardsley character describes how staring at stuff takes his mind off day-to-day problems. He goes on to extol the virtues of staring into a packed cutlery drawer or at large sections of flat wall. But best of all is a close-up stare of some grass.

I think James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park offers the same escapism. It’s a window onto the sky that allows you to concentrate on a patch of timeless infinity, night or day. You get a bite-sized bit of space—a tiny section of something massive—in which you can lose yourself. And when you’re looking up at the astronomical cutlery drawer for a moment, you don’t need to think about coronavirus or Boris Johnson or Brexit or all the other shit.

Richard Woods is an artist who lives and works in London.


© the copyright holder. Image credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Selected by Roberta Minnucci

Untitled 1989
Gavin Jantjes (b.1948)
Sand, tissue paper & acrylic on canvas
H 200 x W 300 cm
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Humanity has always looked to the heavens in search of answers, as an escape from reality or for purely aesthetic contemplation. In the celestial bodies of the night sky, human beings have seen anthropomorphic shapes and created tales of myths and legends. In the path of this tradition, the South African artist Gavin Jantjes reveals the presence of a traditional African mask and the silhouette of a woman, the central figure depicted by Pablo Picasso in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). The two elements are connected by a luminous trail whose form is reminiscent of the infinity symbol, a reference to the boundless nature of the universe. Through this visual association, Jantjes reclaims the pivotal role of African art in shaping Western modernist movements, including Cubism, while evoking the magical and imaginative power of a star-filled night sky, an endless source of fantasy and wonder.

Roberta Minnucci is an art historian who lives and works in London. She is currently in lockdown in Bologna.


Calm Water (at Mill Bay, Hoy)
© the artist's estate. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

Selected by Ross Sinclair

Calm Water (at Mill Bay, Hoy) 1972
Bet Low (1924–2007)
Oil & gold leaf on board
H 56.2 x W 45 cm
The Pier Arts Centre

This painting can be seen in the Orkney Islands at The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. This is quite probably the best gallery in the world and I urge you to visit once the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

Low’s vision of the melancholy moon hanging over the Island of Hoy (part of the Orcadian archipelago) is at first quiet and calming, a rolling reverie of muted slate-greys. She folds the Hills of Hoy into a drowsy, contemplative dream. But then: gold. The reflection of the moon on the still waters is suddenly cut through with a small, luminous beam of possibilities, refulgent in shimmering gold leaf. This moon is sentient and alive, laying a pathway on the water and in the imagination. It appears as a searchlight, a celebration, telescoping eternity directly through your retina and into whatever lies behind. And in this fragile beam there is joy, love and hope.

Ross Sinclair is an artist who lives and works in Kilcreggan.


Calm Water (at Mill Bay, Hoy)
© the artist's estate. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

Selected by Sorcha Carey

Calm Water (at Mill Bay, Hoy) 1972
Bet Low (1924–2007)
Oil & gold leaf on board
H 56.2 x W 45 cm
The Pier Arts Centre

In the early days of lockdown, I climbed Calton Hill in search of a Pink Moon. One of Edinburgh’s finest vantage points, Calton Hill was at the centre of the enlightenment thinking that gave birth to Thomas Carlyle.

It is a short leap from learned hills and magical moons to Bet Low’s Calm Water; precisely in its simplicity, encapsulating all the complexity and expansiveness of our relationship to land and sky. Low’s abstract landscapes are rooted in a profound knowledge of and connection to real places—especially Orkney—yet her paintings convey less the landscape itself, more the physical and emotional experience of being in the landscape.

I look forward to a time when we can freely climb hills, and enjoy the sky viewed not through windows or screens. Meantime, to quote from the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, Low’s friend and collaborator: ‘In the fire of images, I gladly put my hand.’

Sorcha Carey is the Director of the Edinburgh Art Festival.


Anthony Payne (c.1612–1691), the Cornish Giant
Image credit: Royal Institution of Cornwall

Selected by Stephen Chambers

Anthony Payne (c.1612–1691), the Cornish Giant 1680
Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723)
Oil on canvas
H 240.4 x W 150.2 cm
Royal Institution of Cornwall

Godfrey Kellner is not the most familiar name on the Art UK database nor is he the greatest of astral painters (or any other type of painting for that matter). That said he wasn’t bad, and he was a big shot in his day (check out The Kit-Kat Club). As is the case with many not truly great paintings, this image of Anthony Payne, the Cornish Giant flags up the figurative painter's dilemma: after choosing your subject, where do you locate it? What do you do with the background, the stuff that interests you less? In this case the ominous, moody sky—moonlit, storm ascending—offers an escape portal, a hollowness to the giant's solidity, as well as doing what nearly all night paintings do. Which is to ask what are you doing here during the hours of nocturnal lockdown, during what are usually the hours of sleep?

Stephen Chambers RA is an artist who lives and works in Berlin and London.

Selected by Stephen Chambers

The Harvest Moon c.1833
Samuel Palmer (1805–1881)
Oil on paper laid on panel
H 22.2 x W 27.6 cm
Yale Center for British Art

Were this painting a scene of a moon above a lake those white highlights on the harvesters’ clothes and hats would be the moon's reflection on the water's surface, running as they do from directly beneath the moon to the foreground.

Samuel Palmer knew a thing or two about leading the eye around a painting. The moon is the beginning, caressed by the soft branches of a tree; an arm around the shoulder. The left hand side of the painting is taken care of.

Of the industrious harvesters none show their faces. They flicker like an echo of the constellation top right. Below the noisy stars a stream leads us quietly out of the painting.

By the 1830s Palmer had ceased trying to catch the 'groovy train' to contemporary respectability. He was painting what he understood—his environment—and he painted nighttime better than most.

Stephen Chambers RA is an artist who lives and works in Berlin and London.


The Great Comet of 1843
Image credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Selected by Stephen Farthing

The Great Comet of 1843 1843
Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900)
Oil on canvas
H 90.7 x W 61 cm
National Maritime Museum

I would like to own this painting—not simply as a reminder of humanity’s enduring romance with the heavens, but so that it would encourage me regularly to look at and ponder the night sky. Just as Jackson Pollock’s great drip paintings can feed the imagination so too the night sky, which can take all of us on a journey of the mind. But I am also excited by the man who painted this fragment of history. Charles Piazzi Smyth was not an artist by trade, but a scientist: an Italian-born astronomer who became Scotland's Astronomer Royal. In the same year that Thomas Carlyle made his memorable observation about darkness and stars, Piazzi Smyth produced a painting that reminds me of the importance of discovery and wonderment. In this and other respects it is arguably much greater than any of the later and more famous nocturnes by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Stephen Farthing RA is an artist who lives and works in Amman.


Stars over the Pyramids
© the copyright holder. Image credit: Victoria Hospital

Selected by Stephen Nelson

Stars over the Pyramids 1998
James King
Oil on canvas
H 49 x W 39 cm
Victoria Hospital

For Starry starry nights, I looked for paintings on the Art UK database that were tagged with the words ‘stars’ and ‘space’ and ‘heavens’. After which I wandered around virtually until something caught my eye, just as I would in a gallery or museum. Out of these wanderings came this.

Stars over the Pyramids conveys to me the genius and idiocy of trying to make sense of time and space. In the same instant it captures the intimate connection between earth and sky. And it does all this with the simplest forms and most vibrant colours.

Completed around 2500 BCE, the Great Pyramid at Giza incorporated air shafts that were aligned with certain stars. The southern shaft, which pointed towards Orion’s Belt and the stars of Al Nitak, Al Nilam and Mintaka, was thought to have directed the pharaoh Khufu to his final destination in the cosmos. How wonderful…

Stephen Nelson is an artist who lives and works in London and Cogliandrino. He is also the Director of the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Cogliandrino.


Signs of the Zodiac: Aquarius, the Water Carrier
Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Selected by Tania Kovats

Signs of the Zodiac: Aquarius, the Water Carrier 19th C (?)
unknown artist
Gouache on paper (?)
H 25.3 x W 16.5 cm
Wellcome Collection

The deep human drive to participate in the universe has always led us to map the movements we see in the heavens and weave narratives into the stars. The stars made navigation across ours seas possible while on land they form our calendar, our clock of agriculture, seasons and existence.

This lovely gouache depicting one of the astrological signs only serves to deepen the ambiguity of the tales we tell to make sense of things. In the upper panel, Aquarius fills a vessel at a well. In the lower panel, Aquarius is joined by a masked half-naked woman (with a tail) who comes to fish the early morning stream just as the stars take flight into the dawn—much like the dream you just woke from.

The zodiac offers a way to mark the unique moment when we arrive into the world. Collectively, we are arriving into a new world right now.

Tania Kovats is an artist who lives and works in east Devon.

Selected by Xavier Bray

The Rising of the Sun 1753
François Boucher (1703–1770)
Oil on canvas
H 318 x W 261 cm
The Wallace Collection

Three stars are just discernible in the top right hand corner of this exceedingly large painting. They represent the last glimpses of night as Apollo, the sun god, awakes and is prepared by his female retinue for a hard day’s work. His chariot is ready, three white horses rearing to take him across the heavens so that he can bring light and warmth to the world.

Boucher was commissioned to paint The Rising of the Sun as a cartoon so that it could be woven into a tapestry. It decorated a love chamber specially devised by King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Louis XV is Apollo while Pompadour is Tethys, the sea nymph, ready to provide him with all the care and advice he might need in carrying out his daily tasks.

This glorious vision of the day to come hangs in the Grand Staircase at the Wallace Collection and it will be there to greet visitors when they return.

Xavier Bray is Director of the Wallace Collection in London.

Selected by Yuriko Jackall

Ariadne c.1803–1804
Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805)
Oil on mahogany panel
H 49 x W 42.8 cm
The Wallace Collection

Rife with heady sensuality and dramatic expression, this diminutive panel painting typifies Greuze’s late output, much of which was given over to head studies exploring a range of expressive, emotional states. Here, the gleaming stars hovering above the disconsolate model’s head subtly introduce a mythological framework to explain her evident distress. For they identify her as the Cretan princess who helped the Athenian hero Theseus overcome the Minotaur. Casting her tear-filled eyes heavenward, rending her hair, she laments her abandonment by Theseus. But better things are on the horizon: she is already wearing the wedding diadem symbolising her forthcoming union to the Greek god Dionysus. Following her death, in a poignant tribute to her mortality, Dionysus set this jewel in the heavens as the constellation Corona Borealis. Greuze exhibited his clever fusion of mythology and expressivity at the Salon of 1804—the year before his own death—under the title Ariadne at Naxos.

Yuriko Jackall is Curator of French Paintings at the Wallace Collection in London.

Exhibition credits

Starry starry nights (or a few astral weeks) is devised and organised by Paul Bonaventura. The project is supported using public funding by Arts Council England and premiered at the height of the coronavirus crisis in May 2020.

With thanks to Andrew Ellis, Andrew Shore, Jade King, Louise Pavoni and Terry Gould at Art UK and all the contributors.

Paul Bonaventura is an independent producer and curator. His most recent exhibitions include Electricity: The spark of life at Wellcome Collection in London, Teylers Museum in Haarlem and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and George Stubbs: ‘all done from Nature’ at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes and Mauritshuis in The Hague.