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Study for Moses and the Brazen Serpent by Augustus John

This painting won the Summer Composition Competition in 1898 and is an excellent example of the 'competition style' encouraged at the Slade in the 1890s where figures were placed in complex postures and quotations were made from old master works ranging from Michelangelo to Rubens. A group of studies for the painting which demonstrate the changes in the composition was recently purchased, and prize winning life drawings and portrait drawings by John are also represented in the collection.
Artist:Augustus John
Artwork type:drawing
Material:watercolour over pen and ink on paper
Measurements:223 x 298 mm
Location:College Art Collections, UCL (Slade School Collections)
Rights owner: Courtesy of the artist's estate/ Bridgeman Art Library
Rights status:UK HE use only
Institution:Slade School of Art
Notes:This drawing is one of many studies John made for the painting "Moses and the Brazen Serpent" which won the Slade Summer Composition Prize in 1898. The Summer Composition Prize was the most prestigious of the prizes awarded to students at the Slade. Students were set a title at the beginning of the summer vacation and produced large multi-figure compositions. These paintings were intended as a continuation of the large scale 'history' paintings which had traditionally been the most prestigious form of subject matter for artists to undertake. In keeping with this set titles for the competition were usually drawn from the bible or the classics. The oil painting for which this is a study is painted in a 'competition style' with bravura handling of paint and deliberately difficult figure postures. Slade students in the 1890s were encouraged to study the work of the old masters and the oil painting skilfully fuses quotations from artists such as Rubens and Michelangelo with John's interpretation of the subject. The style of the drawing also clearly derives from renaissance pen and ink compositional sketches. John has swiftly indicated the essentials of the composition and the relationship of the figures to each other, giving the drawing a vitality which is difficult to achieve in the more formal medium of oil paint.

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Cecily Brown 2001

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