December 31, 2010

Hans Sebald Beham: The year's end (1546)

This engraving, The year's end (1546), was part of a twelve months series by the Nuremberg artist Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550). Beham was influenced by Dürer and even expelled from his home town on charges of plagiarizing Dürer's work. He died when he was only 50 years old, but left a large number of works behind.
Among Beham's favorite subjects were scenes depicting peasant life, such as this picture. The print shows farmers who are dancing to music played by the Sun and Moon. The accompanying text explains their mood: even though the twelve months are over, they will go on (partying!).
With this thought in mind, we hope all of you will have a good year's end, too, and an even better 2011. Happy New Year!

December 24, 2010

Mattheus van Beveren: Madonna with child (ca. 1680)

This elegant baroque sculpture by Mattheus van Beveren (ca. 1630 -1690) is a type of depiction of Mary and the Christ Child generally named ‘Madonna standing on the crescent moon’. It was developed and became popular in the second half of the fourteenth century. The moon under the Virgin can have different meanings, depending on the context, but mostly it symbolizes her glory and victory over time and space. Sometimes (like Van Beveren did here) the idea of her authority is strengthened by adding a globe to the crescent.
Another standard element in this kind of presentation is the snake on the ground that reaches his gaping mouth to the newborn baby, but gets trampled under Mary’s feet, pointing out the power of her purity that will destroy all Evil.
Probably needless to say that a sculpture that concentrated so much on the central role of the Virgin Mary, had a typical catholic signature. Therefore it is not surprising that Van Beveren wasn’t an artist from the Northern Netherlands, where Protestantism was state religion, but worked in the, still Catholic, town of Antwerpen.
I wish you all a good time, be it alone, with your family or friends.

December 18, 2010

Barend Cornelis Koekkoek: Winter Landscape (1838)

It’s snowing here these days and the Netherlands are entirely covered with snow. Someone who was especially interested in this kind of landscape was Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803-1862), member of a family that produced several other capable artists.
Koekkoek was a typical romantic artist, but not in the dramatic meaning that we associate with better-known colleagues as Eugène Delacroix or Caspar David Friedrich. One of Koekkoek’s typical romantic traits, though, was his unconditional reverence for Nature. One of his known quotes is: “Nature is the perfect painting.” Typically, in Koekkoek’s landscapes, the human figures are always subordinate to their surroundings.
Of course, I know some of you might criticize this kind of art as ‘kitsch’ or ‘sentimental’, but what amazes me about Koekkoek’s work again and again is the accuracy and fabulous technique he applies to create his (almost too) perfect depiction of the natural world. His eye and care for details are all the more touching when you take a close look at it. In the new setup of the Rijksmuseum, it will surely be part of the permanent collection again.

December 11, 2010

Melchior d'Hondecoeter: The Floating Feather (1680)

As the seventeenth-century art market in the Netherlands was probably the most flourishing in the whole world, with a giant demand as well as production, Dutch artists increasingly started to specialize in certain types and genres. For churches Pieter Saenredam was the specialist, when you needed a seascape, you’d ask Willem van de Velde or Ludolf Bakhuizen, for still lifes with flowers you needed Jan Davidsz. De Heem, etcetera.
The artist anyone in that period would take, when he or she liked to have a painting filled with exotic birds, was undoubtedly Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Hondecoeter (ca. 1636 – 1695) was descendant of a Utrecht-based family of painters. He was famous for the liveliness of his animal paintings; the birds really seem to move and communicate, while his colleagues mainly depicted dead birds, for example as hunting trophies.
Hondecoeter’s motley works were bought by merchants and other wealthy burghers that could appreciate his fine texture and splendid use of colours. They might have thought that Hondecoeter’s works added a certain aristocratic ‘touch’ to their interiors as well. The picture we look at here, named after the little feather floating on the pond in the painting, was in fact owned by a true aristocrat, namely stadtholder (and later king of England) William III of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart, who probably, around 1680, commissioned it to decorate their palace Het Loo.

December 6, 2010

Jacob de Wit: Winter ( 1740)

This depiction of Winter, personified by three children warming themselves around a fire pot, seems to be a sculptured relief, but is actually painted. This technique, a form of 'trompe l'oeil' (visual deception), is called grisaille for its use of only black and white paint. The diverse grey tones create altogether the illusion of carved stone. Grisailles already existed since Classical antiquity (and was, for example, brilliantly used by Jan van Eyck to depict saints in his famous Ghent Altarpiece), but got especially popular around 1700 as a decoration in (Dutch) interiors of wealthy people.
This sweet portrait of Winter was originally part of a series of all the four seasons. 'Summer' and 'Autumn' are kept in the Rijksmuseum collection as well, but unfortunately 'Spring' disappeared. The man who painted them, the Amsterdam painter Jacob de Wit (1695-1754), was a real specialist in this genre. In fact, he was identified so much with it, that grisailles in the Netherlands were usually called ‘witjes’, after his surname.

November 27, 2010

Petrus Paulus Rubens: Cimon and Pero (ca. 1630)

This scene might appear strange, or even somewhat obscene, but actually, this Rubens painting is a depiction of one of the Roman virtues: caritas, the loving-kindness toward others. This classical merit got great significance in Christian theology as well and became a popular theme in European art.
The specific narrative that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) presents here is often called ‘Caritas Romana’. The classical story tells how Cimon, an old man, awaiting death penalty by starvation, is frequently visited in prison by his daughter Pero. She secretly breastfeeds him and thus saves her father’s life. One day, her actions are discovered by the authorities, but Pero’s altruism makes such an impression on them that her act is forgiven and in the end, Cimon is released.
Rubens, the most famous Flemish painter of his time, used the scene to perform his specialty: the depiction of human bodies. His talent in that area is visible in Pero’s voluptuous body, but to me, the most impressing part is the way Rubens painted Cimon. He really made an effort, by using many colors and different techniques, to show all the muscles, folds and wrinkles of the old man’s body. Note that Rubens, known for his predilection for fleshy figures, gave Cimon a reasonable amount of fat for someone starving to death…

November 22, 2010

Anton Mauve: Morning Ride on the Beach (1876)

Though Anton Mauve is especially famous for his sheep herding scenes, this atmospheric painting of fashionably clothed men, riding horse on the Dutch seashore, is undoubtedly one of his highlights. Mauve (1838-1888) was a famous landscapist in his days and he had a major influence on his cousin-in-law Vincent van Gogh whom he encouraged to become a professional artist. Mauve worked in a much more traditional manner than his younger relative, known as Dutch Impressionism or ‘The Hague School’.
The most intriguing element of this painting is probably the dazzling variation of light that spreads over the canvas, suggesting a huge amount of motion and dynamism. Personally, when I look at the scene, it’s almost like I can feel the wind blow and hear the seagulls scream.
That beautiful light proved to be even clearer than previously thought some years ago, when the picture was cleaned and its yellowed varnish was removed. The same restoration revealed another surprising detail: the appearance of the horse droppings on the sand. A previous owner of the work apparently considered the excrements indecent and had them painted over.

November 14, 2010

Anonymous: 'Heavenly Beauty' (11th century)

Not everybody knows that the Rijksmuseum owns an interesting collection of artefacts from countries like China, Japan, India and Indonesia. Unfortunately, this Asian collection is not on show during the major renovation of the building, but it will get its own section in the ‘new’ Rijksmuseum.
One of the highlights is this sensual female figure originating from the town Khajuraho, in India. Khajuraho is known for its Hindu temples, which are (in)famous for the many sexually explicit sculptures on their facades. To some (Western) spectators the sculptures may appear somewhat provocative, especially since they were part of an important sacred building. But to the people who ordered and made such works of art, erotic feelings were a natural element within their religion.
This sandstone statue, dating from the 11th century, probably stood on the roof of one of the temples. The delicately carved woman appears convincingly as a living being to us, sensuously swinging her hips. Her voluptuous nudity is accentuated by the gown that is torn off her body by the monkey at her feet. The sexual connotation is reinforced by the visible scratches of her lover’s nails on her shoulder and cheek, an often-used motive in classical Indian love poetry.

November 7, 2010

Rachel Ruysch: Still-life with flowers (1716)

Rachel Ruysch (1664—1750) was one of the most successful flower painters of her time, her contemporaries praised her as ‘The Amsterdam Pallas’ and ‘Holland's art prodigy’. Rachel was a daughter of the world famous anatomist and botanist Frederik Ruysch, who let her and her sister Anna study under Willem van Aelst, a renowned flower painter from Delft. In 1693, Rachel Ruysch married colleague painter Jurriaen Pool. Besides having ten children with him, she remained very productive as a painter throughout the years (her last painting dates from 1747, when she was 83!). In 1708, Rachel and her husband received an honorable commission as court painters to the Elector Palatine Johan Wilhelm in Düsseldorf.
Rachel Ruysch's paintings originate from the typical Golden Age-tradition of flower painting, recognizable, for example, in the use of a dark background. However, her compositions are more daring and less stiff. The bouquets are much more lavish and the colors more subtle than those of her predecessors. As such, the work of Ruysch marks the transition from seventeenth to eighteenth-century art.
Rachel’s paintings are very true to nature, nevertheless a combination of fresh flowers as depicted in this painting is impossible, for the simple fact that the species do not all bloom in the same season. She made numerous drawings (as all of her colleagues did) of the separate flowers, before bringing them together in one painting. Ruysch was famous for her convincing depiction of the bouquets and the small animals she added to make the composition livelier. When looking carefully, one can discover numerous perfectly painted animals as beetles, caterpillars and butterflies in this still-life.

October 30, 2010

Johannes Verspronck: Girl in a blue dress (1641)

It is impossible not to love this girl immediately. That is because of her charming face and beautiful outfit, but of course, above all, the delicate way Johannes Verspronck painted her.
Verspronck (1597-1662) was a Haarlem painter who was clearly influenced, and probably also taught, by Frans Hals. But while Hals got famous for his rough strokes, Verspronck specialized in very fine and precise paintings, mostly portraits of wealthy burghers. Verspronck didn’t portray the child in an idealized way, but instead used all means to present her as convincingly as possible. He made efforts to show us the many details of her blue dress and the texture of the different materials; the gold lace, the jewelry and the ostrich feather. The lighting makes the girl’s sensitive features appear very lively to us. In her fashionable dress she looks older than she actually is: circa ten years old. Until the end of the eighteenth century children were assumed to be small adults and treated and clothed as such.
We have no idea of her name, but the Rijksmuseum Twenthe (an excellent art museum in the city of Enschede) owns two pendant paintings that are, very probably, portraits of the girl’s parents. These two works are considered highlights in Verspronck’s oeuvre as well, and I sometimes wonder who that family might have been that inspired the artist to create these wonderful pieces of art.

October 23, 2010

Unknown artist: girl in a garden (date unknown)

The first stereographic photographs were made within 10 years after the invention of photography itself and became an immediate success. In fact, they were the first mass-produced and mass-distributed photographic images. With the use of special viewers, every pair produced a 3D image, which gave the viewer an unprecedented feeling of being present in the scene.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, people bought boxed sets of stereographs of exotic places and people from all over the world. The sets were sold as an “armchair virtual tour, traveling at a fraction of the cost”. One of the largest stereograph-producing companies, Underwood & Underwood, claimed stereographs gave poor children the opportunity to see the world, where before only the rich ones had been privileged to do so.
This photograph must have been taken in the early decades of the 20th century, after the invention of the autochrome process (see my May 16 post), adding extra vivacity to the 3D experience. With some practice, the image can be seen in 3D without special tools (by looking cross-eyed and bringing the separate images together). The viewers used by photographer Gaudin, his wife and some models in the second photo (1860) would have made it much easier, though.

October 16, 2010

Marinus van Reymerswale (attributed): Saint Jerome in his study (ca. 1535-45)

In my youth (I was born in 1971), there used to hang reproductions in Dutch trains, showing highlights from Dutch museums. My personal favorite was this strange painting: I could stare at the remarkable meager man with his strange hands for hours. All those objects in the man’s small room fascinated me as well: the old books, the candle, the giant red hat and, of course, the (somewhat frightening) skull. Brought up without any religious, let alone catholic, education, I had no idea who this person could be.
Many years later, when I studied art and literature, I learned that the painting depicted Saint Jerome in his study, and that these curious objects were just attributes that referred to his life and status. Jerome (ca. 347–420) was one of the four Church Fathers. He is especially famous for translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. His translation, known as the Vulgate, would become the official Latin version of the Holy Script in the Roman Catholic Church. It is for this enormous achievement and the innumerable other works he wrote, that Jerome is often shown while studying. The headdress on the wall behind him is a cardinal’s hat and refers to his authority in the Church. The so-called Vanitas symbols in this painting, like the crucifix, skull, blown out candle and the scene of the Last Judgment, all refer to the saint’s devout and ascetic life.

October 9, 2010

Gabriel Metsu: Sick Child (c. 1660-65)

Dutch Golden Age painters are renowned for their scenes of every-day life, but this one by Gabriel Metsu is highly unusual. The theme of a woman taking care of a child was common, often representing the Christian virtue of Caritas. What is rare about this canvas, however, is the depiction of the pale and sick looking child, hanging almost lifeless on the woman’s lap.
The image is so convincing because Metsu portrayed the child so skillfully. He painted the unhealthy hue of its skin perfectly, which is emphasized by the strong colors in the rest of the painting. The composition and the woman’s obvious dedication draw all our attention to the boy or girl. Personally, I never skip this one when visiting the Rijks and the penetrating, hollow eyes of the sick child always haunt me for a while.
Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667) was a pupil of the famous, Leiden based, Gerrit Dou. From December 16 to March 20, the Rijksmuseum will dedicate an exhibition to Metsu’s work, about which I will inform you later.

October 3, 2010

Isaac Israels: Shop Window (ca. 1894-98)

Due to French artists like Monet or Renoir, the usual association with impressionism is that of sunlit landscapes or Paris’ vie mondaine, painted in light and bright colours. But in Amsterdam, in the 1880’s, a group known as the Tachtigers (Eighty-ers) applied their own interpretation of the new movement and the works of artists such as George Hendrik Breitner, Isaac Israëls and Willem Witsen, looked quite different. The more sombre atmosphere and darker palette of the Tachtigers is partly explainable because of the less sunny climate in the Netherlands, but they also reveal a more pessimist attitude. What they had in common with their French colleagues, however, was a fascination for modern life and the wish to catch it in a spontaneous, non-academic style.
Isaac Israëls, son of the also famous Jozef Israëls, first worked in The Hague, but moved to the capital city in 1886. There Isaac started to paint impressions of Amsterdam street life, often lit by gaslight, a novelty just introduced in those days. Sometimes Israëls was so intrigued by a certain sight that he even rented a room on the opposite of the street to record it carefully.
This urban scene is painted from such an upper room, as well. In the corner we see a little girl, that seems to ‘walk into’ the painting, as if in a snapshot, reinforcing the impression of vivid reality. The gentleman and lady on the left contrast darkly against the brightly lit shop window. It is obvious that not the people are the protagonists in Isaac Israëls’ painting, but modern city life itself.

September 26, 2010

Hendrick Douwermann: St. Ursula (ca. 1520)

This beautifully carved, wooden statue represents Saint Ursula. The legend of Ursula tells us that she is the daughter of a 4th century Christian king, who presses her to marry the son of a pagan ruler. Ursula, however, firstly wants to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome before marrying, in the companion of no less than 11,000 female virgins. In the Eternal City, everything goes as desired, but when they travel on to Cologne, they fall into the hands of the pagan Huns. All maidens get massacred and Ursula is shot to death by arrows.
The saint is depicted here while reading from a so-called satchel book. She originally held an arrow in her right hand, as a symbol of her martyrdom. The female figures at her feet represent only seven of Ursula’s thousands of companions. A touching detail is that some of the women seem to wrap themselves in the folds of Ursula’s dress, as if hiding from the cruel outside world.
The statue was created around 1520 by the relatively unknown Hendrick Douwermann, a woodcarver active in the region around Kalkar (in utmost western Germany). This late medieval masterpiece was acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1975, from the private art collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the stories about the, almost equally legendary, Sherlock Holmes.

September 18, 2010

Pieter de Hooch: Interior with Women beside a Linen Chest (1663)

Comparing Pieter de Hooch with Johannes Vermeer seems inevitable. They were contemporaries (De Hooch lived from 1629 to 1684, Vermeer from 1632 to 1675), started their career in the same town (Delft) and both specialized in depicting domestic scenes situated in Dutch interiors.
But while Vermeer’s genre pieces are characterized by a very sensitive, almost mysterious atmosphere, De Hooch presents us the clarity of the perfect household. This is how people in the Dutch Republic liked to see themselves: respectable citizens, living in clean houses that are distinguished, but surely not sumptuous. Everything and everybody in Dutch society had their own, proper place and the domestic interior was a reflection of that, Calvinist-inspired, vision.
This wonderful example, dating from 1663, of De Hooch’s genre pieces also shows his concentration on architectural elements. He used them, together with the tiles, furniture, windows and the postures of the women, to structure the painting and organize its perspective space.
De Hooch’s most effective ‘trick’ to create depth was the typical vista that allows us to catch a glimpse of the house in Dutch Renaissance style, on the other side of the canal in the background. The French writer Marcel Proust, in his famous book In Search of Lost Time, used this extraordinary device to describe the sensation of one of his characters: ‘as in these interiors by Pieter de Hooch which are deepened by the narrow frame of a half-opened door, in the far distance, of a different color, velvety with the radiance of some intervening light.’

September 11, 2010

Jan Toorop: O grave, where is thy Victory (1892)

 This work by Jan Toorop (1858-1928) is called ‘O grave, where is thy Victory’. It shows a dying man who is half-hidden behind two young women, who are trying to free him from life, while the groping figures on the right represent his earthly resentment, envy, jealousy, hate, love and conflict.
Toorop was one of only a handful of successful Dutch Symbolist artists. Symbolism was a nineteenth-century movement that had its roots in dark Romanticism. It is characterized by mythological and dream-like themes.
Although Toorop’s works are reminiscent of those by fellow Symbolist artists like Gustave Moreau, Arnold Böcklin and Henry Fuseli, Toorop has a very distinctive style. He grew up on the island Java, and the long, slender limbs of the women in this Pencil and chalk drawing may have been influenced by the shadow theater (Wayang) puppets that he must have remembered from his youth.

September 5, 2010

Jan Steen: As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young (1668)

Jan Steen (ca. 1626-1679) often depicted merry, but messy groups of people, celebrating in a home situation. A stubborn misconception persists that these allow us to get acquainted with ordinary people of the seventeenth century, and that they show us how their houses, clothes and furniture looked. Some even thought that they got an insight into Steen’s own house (who was a brewer and a landlord beside his painting career). The lively paintings became so popular that they even resulted in a (still widely used) Dutch expression: ‘een huishouden van Jan Steen’ (a Jan Steen household, meaning one that is badly organized).
Jan Steen’s contemporaries, however, clearly understood that these ‘dissolute households’ were not meant invitingly, but rather as depictions of a wrong, upside down world, in which order and propriety are severely distorted. Children smoke and drink, while the adults are more concerned with making fun than looking after them. The moral Steen wants to convey to us can be found amidst this merry family. The paper on the mantelpiece says: 'Soo d'Oude Songen, Soo Pypen de Jonge' (As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young), meaning the adults’ behavior sets a bad example for their children.
That the painting contained an important message for attentive citizens does not necessarily mean that Steen found no pleasure in painting the chaotic scene. The skills and great attention for details he applied to depict the domestic vices are still impressive. As a form of irony, he often portrayed himself and his family and friends in the role of merry sinners. In this painting we recognize his own children, while the bagpipe player near the window is probably Jan’s alter ego.

August 29, 2010

Master of the Bodegon: Kitchen scene (ca.1610-1625)

The chef in this Spanish kitchen scene, painted around 1620 by an unknown Spanish master, seems very proud and content. He is surrounded by a rich variety of fish, meat and fowl and holds a bowl of red wine in his hands.
The kitchen scene genre already existed in Netherlandish painting, but some Spanish masters adopted it. While in the Netherlands, these works often had a specific moralistic connotation, this is less obvious in the works by the Spanish followers. Nevertheless, the card and coins in this painting may also contain a warning against worldly pleasures.
While it flourished in the Protestant Netherlands, the genre never attained the same popularity in the Catholic countries of southern Europe, where religious scenes were favored. In Spain, it was the famous artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660) who temporarily specialized on this subject between 1617 and c. 1623. For that reason, it comes at no surprise that in 1923, when this painting was donated to the Rijksmuseum, it was attributed to Velázquez. Today its maker is simply described as the Master of the Bodegón (referring to the Spanish word for tavern).

August 22, 2010

Attributed to Jan de Baen: The Bodies of the De Wit Brothers, Hanged at Groene Zoodje on Vijverberg

In last week’s post about The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn (if you missed it, please read it on our page), I concluded that Asselijn’s painting was later used to personify Johan de Witt.
De Witt held a key position in Dutch politics, being a kind of Prime Minister avant la lettre. In that role, he was repeatedly in conflict with the Orange faction, led by Prince William III of Orange (later King of England during the so-called Glorious Revolution), who felt menaced in his authority. When De Witt came to power, a collective aversion to monarchical power dominated among the Dutch people. But things changed in 1672, the ‘Disaster Year’, when the Dutch Republic was attacked by a large alliance of hostile countries. Popular feeling suddenly turned in favor of William III, and mistrust grew against Johann de Witt and his brother Cornelis.
The latter, who was also an influential political figure, got imprisoned in The Hague on false accusations of treason. On 20 August 1672, when Johan was visiting his brother in prison, the brothers were dragged out of the building and lynched outside by an angry mob. The rage seemed to be spontaneous, but was in fact well-organized and planned by Orangist militiamen. The frenzy was so immense that the De Witts were not just killed, but literally ripped apart by the inflamed mass. Body parts like heart and fingers were removed to be exposed as souvenirs, while other parts were roasted and eaten(!) by the hysterical crowd, in a bizarre outburst of cannibalism. Their corpses were eventually hung upside down on a scaffold nearby. The disgusting sight was captured in this dark painting, whose artist (attributed to Jan de Baen) seems to have witnessed the lynching and presents us his gruesome experience in this early form of visual journalism.

August 14, 2010

Jan Asselijn: Threatened swan (ca. 1650)

This vigorous swan, immortalized around 1650 by Jan Asselijn, was the first acquisition of the (direct predecessor of the) Rijksmuseum. The picture of the furious animal, defending her nest against the approaching dog in the water, comes across as a dramatic scene from nature. Taking a closer view, one can read the inscription DE RAAD-PENSIONARIE (the Grand Pensionary) under the swan, as well as HOLLAND on one of the Swan’s eggs and DE VIAND VAN DE STAAT (the enemy of the State) above the dog.
Therefore, Asselijn’s painting was understood as an allusion to the difficult position of the famous Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (1625-1672). He was responsible for the foreign policy and the commercial interests of Holland, the (then) dominating province in the Netherlands. To protect the latter he constantly strove for peace, especially with permanent competitor and enemy England. When the painting was bought in 1800, it was thus interpreted as a political allegory. De Witt (whose family symbol was in fact a swan) defends his dearest (Holland) against the approaching enemy of the State, the English dog. The Rijksmuseum had a primarily nationalistic standpoint in those days, so Asselijn’s painting was perfectly suited for the recently started collection.
One day, somebody realized that Asselijn could have impossibly destined his painting for this propagandistic message, for the simple reason that he died in 1652, one year before De Witt would even start his career. Research soon revealed that the inscriptions were indeed added later, but by whom remains a mystery.

August 7, 2010

Gerard van Honthorst: The merry fiddler (1623)

This vivid work from 1623 by Gerard van Honthorst was evidently inspired by the style of the Italian baroque artist Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio’s influence is recognizable in its realism, vitality and chiaroscuro (dramatic light-dark contrasts). This comes as no surprise, knowing that Van Honthorst (1592–1656) had returned some years before from a long stay in Italy, where he got acquainted with the new revolutionary style.
But the painting also contains an element more typical for the North-European tradition: a passionate attempt to create illusion of depth. With various means, Van Honthorst tried to escape the limitations of two-dimensional space. He suggested depth by placing the half-length figure behind a window or framework. The space behind the cheerful musician is somewhat unclear, but he seems to appear from a niche, revealing himself to us by pushing aside the heavy, Persian carpet. His extended arm with the glass of wine seems to break away from the picture area, entering ours and inviting us to listen to his violin play and celebrate with him.

July 31, 2010

Cornelis van Haarlem: Massacre of the Innocents (1590)

This immensely dramatic masterpiece was commissioned around 1590 by the States of Holland for Prince Maurits (1567–1625), son of the illustrious William the Silent, the official leader of the Dutch Revolt against Philip II, king of Spain. After a traitor shot down William in 1584, Maurits took over this responsible task from his father.
At first sight, the painting depicts the biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents, the infanticide in Bethlehem ordered by Herod, the King of Judea, whose intention it was to kill the newborn King of the Jews, Jesus Christ.
But the artist, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (1562-1638), used the scene to convey a propagandistic message: it symbolizes the tyranny of Philips II, opposed by Maurits as commander-in-chief of the army, and the suffering of the Dutch people due to the barbaric behaviour of the Spanish soldiers. He shows us uncensored the aggressive approach of the perpetrators, but also the cruel revenge of the women on the left, who pull out the eyes of a soldier. Probably most horrific are the dead babies, whose pale skin colour comes across horribly real.
Cornelis made a second version of this painting, for Maurits’ Haarlem residence, now on show in the Frans Hals Museum in that city. The two resemble each other closely, but the later version is somewhat more subtle, suggesting that even Cornelis’ contemporaries might have felt that the painting was a little too gruesome.

July 24, 2010

Petronella Oortman's Dollhouse (ca. 1690);

According to legend, this dollhouse from around 1690 was so expensive, that Tsar Peter the Great, who had wanted to buy it, could not afford it. While this may be an exaggeration, the owner, Petronella Oortman (1656-1716), a rich Amsterdam merchant’s wife, certainly spent a small fortune on it. With this amount, 30,000 guilders, she could have bought a second mansion.
From chamber pots to embroidered napkins, the details of the dollhouse form a rich source of information about (the ideas on) fashionable as well as daily life items of the Dutch urban rich. The dollhouse was a valuable asset for which furniture, fabrics, paintings, silver and chinaware were commissioned from well-known artists and craftsmen.
The house was obviously not meant as a toy for small children; moreover, even viewing it was reserved for the most important visitors. Built as a status symbol for a female adult in the 17th century, today the dollhouse is a favorite item among young visitors of the Rijksmuseum.

July 18, 2010

Gerard ter Borch: Gallant Conversation; known as 'The Paternal Admonition' (c. 1654)

This magnificent work by Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681) was, until recently, titled ‘Paternal admonition’. The idea was that the daughter, the girl in the delicately painted satin dress we are looking at from behind, receives a moral comment from her father, the man in soldier costume who raises his hand to emphasize his point. His wife next to him looks introverted into her glass of wine.
In fact, there’s no real basis for that interpretation. The main problem with it is that the man is way too young to be her father. Therefore, the theory was replaced by another one: Ter Borch depicted a brothel scene in which the woman seen on the back is a prostitute, the other woman the procuress and the soldier a customer who’s holding up a coin to pay for her services. This proposal seems to be more likely, also because the whole atmosphere and décor of the scene (mirror, dog, prominently large bed) remind us of similar genre pieces with the same subject. Nevertheless, interpretation problems remain, not in the last place because the soldier’s coin is not (clearly) visible.
Even in his own days, Gerard ter Borch was already known for the ambiguous meaning of his paintings and he’d probably been amused to see 21st century art historians still quarreling about their meaning.

July 14, 2010

Willem Maris: Landscape with cows (end of the 19th century)

Willem Maris (1844-1910) didn’t paint cows, but light. These poetic words were his own and his work proves it. The beauty of nature, the laid-back atmosphere of a summer’s day, and the essence of the Dutch landscape; this painting has got it all. The superb choice of colors and the fine balance between areas with little or nothing going on and those with lots of details make the scene almost tangible, in spite of the rather rough brushstrokes. Vincent van Gogh was impressed, too: “A painting by Mauve, Maris, or Israels, expresses more, and more clearly, than does nature itself.”

July 6, 2010

Jacob van Ruysdael: Bentheim Castle (1654)

Many painters of the so-called Romantic Movement (Caspar David Friedrich, William Turner) were inspired by the 17th-century artist Jacob van Ruisdael. The Haarlem-born Ruisdael, who lived between 1628 and 1682, was particularly famous for his expressive landscapes.
The admiration that the Romantics felt is understandable because in Ruisdael’s works Nature is not presented in a decorative way, but as an autonomous force. The ‘personality’ of the landscape is expressed in the spectacular sky and the meticulously depicted natural forms. The Romantic artists, who were also gripped by similar themes, considered him as a pioneer in this field.
In this view on Bentheim Castle from 1654, now in the Rijksmuseum collection, you can see how much effort Ruisdael took to depict the various natural materials. He deliberately put as many contrasting elements as possible into the painting; water, rocks, trees and other vegetation all get their own treatment by Ruisdael. Even more striking is the dark, dramatic tonality of the picture, the threatening clouds above the rough landscape, in which man plays only a humble role (when you look closely, you will notice some people in the background). Much later, in the Romantic age, this dramatic effect, based on the idea of the dominancy of Nature, would be described as ‘picturesque’.

June 26, 2010

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes: Don Ramón Satué (1823); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

From its start in the 19th century, the core of the Rijksmuseum collection has primarily consisted of Dutch art. One reason for this is that the Netherlands was a republic until 1815. Consequently, the new Dutch national museum didn’t have huge royal (more internationally orientated) collections at its disposal, like for example the Prado (Philips II) or the Hermitage (Catherine the Great). A second reason is that he Rijksmuseum was deliberately founded as a ‘treasure chamber of Dutch art and history’, which is the policy until the present day.
One of the great exceptions to that principle is this portrait dating from 1823 by the Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). It depicts Don Ramón Satué, a judge in the Supreme Court in Madrid. Goya knew Satué very well and hence didn’t create an official portrait suitable to the man’s status, but an informal painting of a ‘normal’ individual; the judge wears casual clothes and even sticks his hands into his pockets. Such a relaxed depiction of a high-ranked person was unusual around 1823 and can in historical perspective be considered as ‘modern’.

June 20, 2010

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Sampling Officials (1662); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

During the seventeenth century, paintings portraying the members of guilds, families or syndics, were extremely popular in the Dutch Republic. Such group portraits had a decorative function, but they also expressed the identity and self-esteem of the newly established middle class ‘burghers’ who commissioned them.
The problem with such group scenes was that they tended to be somewhat boring. The portrayed mostly stood side by side rather stiffly or sat down at a banquet in a static setting. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was one of the first artists who experimented with more daring and dramatic compositions for group portraits. The so-called Night Watch, dating from 1642, is undoubtedly the most famous example of these experiments.
The painting we’re looking at here, called The Sampling Officials (De Staalmeesters), was created much later by Rembrandt, seven years before his death. The men on the canvas are the syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers Guild, who supervised the quality of a certain type of cloth called laken. The main charm of the painting is that the sampling officials don’t come across as if they are posing for a group portrait, but rather as if they are surprised by an unexpected visitor; one of the syndics was just about to get seated. Rembrandt created a lively group scene by showing us people who are in turn looking at someone else themselves.

June 12, 2010

Hendrick Goltzius: Lot and his daughters (1617); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The scene in this painting from 1616, by the Haarlem based artist Hendrick Goltzius, may appear somewhat erotic or even obscene, but is in fact a depiction of a well known biblical story. In the book Genesis it is told that God decides to destroy the depraved cities Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot and his family, considered the only virtuous people, are warned by a pair of angels to leave Sodom as quick as possible without looking back even once. They flee out of the city, but Lots wife unfortunately can’t resist the temptation of looking back and changes into a salt pillar. The two daughters, who fear that their old father won’t ever have any (male) descendants, decide to get Lot drunk. When he is intoxicated enough they will both have sexual intercourse with their father and eventually bear his children. And so happens.
Goltzius had portrayed the depicted the scene in a ‘medieval’ style by showing more phases in the story in just one picture. On the right we see the burning city and the unfortunate wife of Lot in the form of a salt pillar. In the left corner, in the background, we spot Lot and the daughters after the intended deed is performed. In the middle Goltzius shows us the beautifully painted bare women with their, somewhat grumpy looking, old father, who clearly is becoming more than just a little tipsy.

June 5, 2010

Jan van Scorel: Mary Magdalene (ca. 1530); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This wonderful painting by Jan van Scorel depicts the biblical figure Mary Magdalene, the conversed prostitute that anointed the feet of Jesus Christ. After His crucifixion, she was the first one to find out that His tomb was empty and to witness Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene is traditionally recognizable by the vessel of ointment in her hands, but some other elements in the painting hint at her identity as well. For example, the cave in the background refers to the hermitage at the end of her life, while the Hebrew letters on her clothes memorize her Jewish origin. The old, dying tree on which new fresh branches grow symbolizes Mary’s positive life change.
Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) produced this panel around 1530, a few years after he returned from a long journey through Europe that took him to Germany (where he met Albrecht Dürer), Austria, Italy and the Holy Land. In Italy he got acquainted with contemporary art from people like Titian, Michelangelo and Raphael, especially after 1522, when Adrian VI (the only Dutch Pope ever!) appointed Van Scorel as keeper of the Belvedere art collection. Jan brought back all these impressions and influences, and, upon his return to The Netherlands, incorporated them into his paintings and taught them to his pupils.
Due to his own fascinating works, but even more for the profound influence he exerted on his Dutch contemporaries, Van Scorel is generally considered the most important Renaissance artist of the Low Countries.

May 30, 2010

Geraaert Lambertsz: Frenzy, ca. 1615; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This somewhat disturbing sculpture from around 1615 originally stood in the courtyard of an Amsterdam madhouse, a so-called Dolhuis (dol means crazy). The asylum for the mentally ill was located in the centre of Amsterdam, on the Kloveniersburgwal. Its inmates were locked up in small cells, all of which looked out on the courtyard and, thus, on this sculpture, commonly known as ‘Frenzy’.
Dolhuizen were seen as tourist attractions in the 17th century; this one in particular was assumed a ‘must have seen’ for visitors to Amsterdam. They paid an entrance fee to get in where they could walk around the courtyard and gaze at the lunatics in their cells and likewise enjoy the looks of the lively statue in the middle.
The figure, supposedly made by the artist Geraert Lambertsz, is impressive because of its perfect expression of the rage, fear and anxiety of a severe disturbed person The woman is almost naked and desperately pulls the hairs out of her head. On the plinth of the sculpture Lambertsz depicted four of the Dolhuis inmates, hysterically screaming and looking out of the window in their cells. Today this wonderful piece of art is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, which deliberately places it away from the walls, so that it can be viewed from all sides, just as the visitors of the Dolhuis once could.

May 22, 2010

GH Breitner: Bridge over the Singel near Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, ca. 1897; Rijkmuseum, Amsterdam

Last week we spoke about photography inspired by painting, today I’d like to shine my light on a Dutch artist who heavily used photographs as a basis for his paintings: George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923). Breitner originated from Rotterdam, but soon moved to Amsterdam where he led a typical artistic or ‘bohémien’ life. He used to stroll through the streets of Amsterdam, capturing the city and its daily life of around 1900 in sketches and photographs.The influence of photography on Breitner’s paintings is noticeable in this canvas from circa 1897, Bridge over the Singel near Paleisstraat in Amsterdam.
One of the novelties that the developments in photography had introduced was the snapshot, with its characteristic framing where people, buildings and objects are not placed ‘orderly’ into the picture, but cut off at the borders of the frame. This is clearly visible in Breitner’s lively painting of a crowded street scene. The effect is that we as spectators seem to be right in the middle of the scene.
Breitner’s saw himself as a ‘peintre du peuple’. He wanted his works to give impressions not of the rich and famous, but of ordinary people. This self-proclaimed title might prove somewhat deceiving if we consider the story behind this painting. When Breitner exhibited it for the first time, the foreground did not show the well-off lady that is now so prominent, but a poor workman. As the painting received much criticism for it’s ‘rough’ appearance, one of Breitner’s friends advised him to replace the man with the more stylish woman, which he did.

May 16, 2010

Anonymous: Landscape with a woman with parasol, ca. 1907-1930, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

For most of us, color photography only became a commonly used technique in the 1970s. It's hard to imagine that as early as 1861, a mere 22 years after the invention of photography itself, the first color photograph was taken by James Clark Maxwell. He used three separate images, each with a different color filter.
In 1903, the Lumière brothers patented a new process, called autochrome. The process required only one glass plate and the result was a slightly grainy color slide. The graininess and the not quite true to life colors rendered an impressionist effect. As photography was still struggling to gain recognition as an art form, many pictorialist photographers liked the new technology, despite the limited possibilities to manipulate the image to make it more 'artistic' (vice versa, many impressionist painters wanted to give their work a snapshot-like quality).
This work, taken by an anonymous photographer, might even fool you into thinking you're looking at an impressionist painting at first. The soft-toned, daily life image of a woman in a corn field has a relaxed atmosphere that reminds us of artists like Claude Monet.
The next posting will show additional examples of autochrome photographs. They make clear that pictorialist photographers were inspired by other painting genres as well, such as the Dutch Golden Age.

May 11, 2010

Bartholomeus van der Helst: Mary Henrietta Stuart (1652); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This exceptionally fine painting by Bartholomeus van der Helst shows Mary Henrietta Stuart, the English princess who was the spouse of William II, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau. The couple married in 1641, at the age of only ten and fourteen years old, respectively. For that occasion, they were portrayed holding hands by (the studio of) Antony van Dyck.
The Van der Helst-portrait shows Mary in a completely changed situation: it’s now 1652 and Mary is 21 years old. William became Stadtholder (a hereditary head of state) of the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces in 1647, but died only three years later, of smallpox or, as rumor went, poison. Thus, the Mary portrayed here is a young widow, as indicated by the black curtains in the background and Mary’s white mourning dress.
The painter filled the painting with many references to aspects of Mary Stuart’s life. The orange she holds in her hand, for example, refers to her status as Princess of Orange, while the buildings in the background are in The Hague, the Dutch center of power and the residence of the Stadtholder.
Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670) was probably the most sought-after portrait painter of his days, even more famous than Hals and Rembrandt. He was particularly praised for his ability to depict textures and fine details.

May 1, 2010

Adriaen van Ostade: Fishwife (1673; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Even though fishwives had the same reputation of being noisy and unsubtle in the seventeenth century as they have nowadays, the fishwife pictured in this work of Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) is portrayed in an honorable and calm manner. She’s cleaning her fresh ware to sell it on the market, standing in her - traditional looking - stall.
Fish as well as markets were often depicted in Dutch painting. Their popularity as an artistic theme is undoubtedly related to the trend of showing everyday life, so typical for Dutch artists of that era. Salmon was a staple in the European diet of those days; contrary to today, it was the type of food that was affordable even to poor people.
Nevertheless, this picture from the year 1673 has more to tell than one may expect. Besides a realistic impression of a contemporary Haarlem market scene, Van Ostade certainly wanted to present the woman to us as an example of someone who works hard, someone useful to society; thus, this fishwife is a representation of virtue.

April 23, 2010

Johannes Vermeer: View of Houses in Delft, known as 'The Little Street' (c. 1658), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Some of the so-called ‘Masterpieces of World Art’ are so famous because they offer us spectacular views (like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel), dramatic impact (like Munch’s Scream) or fairy-tale beauty (like Botticelli’s Venus). Other works of art gain fame because of the story behind them (think of Van Gogh’s works or Picasso’s Guernica).
The Little Street, painted around 1658 by Johannes Vermeer, has none of these features. First of all, the subject is very ordinary: just an alleyway in a town in seventeenth-century Holland. The action is limited to some women doing domestic work. No exotic or supernatural beauty hits the eye of the beholder. And nothing at all is known about what Vermeer wanted to express with his painting. Moreover, hardly anything is known about Vermeer himself!
The Little Street earns its greatness purely by Vermeer’s ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. The magic of this every day scene is revealed in the wonderful lighting and atmosphere that lifts the scene up to a higher level; the subtle way, loose but precise, with which the bricks and windows are painted; and the way Vermeer framed the event, which gives the work an almost snapshot-like effect.
The exact location for Vermeer's Little Street is uncertain and has been surveyed and discussed for a long, long time. For those who want to read more about this problem, I suggest the following site, which contains a lot of interesting information on this specific topic:

April 18, 2010

Anonymous: Chine de commande (s.d.); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602-1800) made huge profits due to their monopoly position in the spice trade with Asia. Pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg turned the VOC into the richest company in the world.
Initially, Chinese porcelain served as ballast to increase the stability of ships carrying the precious spice cargo. But porcelain was rare in Europe and people were enchanted by this exotic product. Rich Dutch families ordered porcelain to be decorated with their coat of arms or familiar scenes from the European art world. This expensive, custom-made porcelain was called “Chine de commande”.
Many Chinese decorators were unfamiliar with European faces and scenes, which would at times lead to curious results. This teapot with Crucifixion (Passion scenes were a popular subject for Chine de commande) presents us with rather unconventional-looking Jesus and Maries.
The success of Chinese porcelain in the Netherlands inspired earthenware producers in Delft to imitate the product (with Chinese-oriented decorations). The second image shows a Delftware vase dating from around 1670. Today, Delftware is seen and presented as being typically Dutch.

April 11, 2010

Wijnand Nuyen: Shipwreck (1837); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

When one reflects on the history of Dutch art, ‘Romanticism’ is not the first word that comes to mind. Whereas other countries produced great romantic artists like Delacroix, Friedrich, Turner and Goya, it appears that the Dutch were too prosaic to embrace this movement entirely. A wonderful exception was Wijnand Nuyen (1813-1839), a The Hague born artist who studied art under the (then) famous painter Andreas Schelfhout. Nuyen’s large canvas Shipwreck on a Rocky Coast can be considered exemplary of romantic painting.
Typical of that style is the emphasis on the supremacy of nature, metaphorically speaking, but also literally: the dramatic events on the shore fill only a small part of the canvas. Nature, presented in the form of dark clouds, rocky shore and rough sea, makes the humans and their ship look fragile and powerless. The lighting and free form of expression Nuyen uses to achieve an optimal visual effect, rather than technical accuracy, are characteristic of the Romantic style as well.
Nuyen's liberated and spectacular style was very different from what was fashionable in Holland at the time, therefore comments on Nuyen’s work were extremely divided. Some found his paintings exaggerated and provocative, while others, like the Dutch king William II (who’d later buy the Shipwreck), conversely praised their daring character. Wijnand Nuyen’s talent never got the chance to fully blossom: he died in 1839, aged 27, two years after he finished this masterpiece.

April 1, 2010

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen: The Calling of St. John during the Marriage at Cana (ca. 1530); Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

When I first saw this work of Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (1503-1559), The Calling of St. John during the Marriage at Cana, I estimated it to be much younger than it really was. The main reason for that mistake was the high-contrast lighting, the intimate atmosphere and the complicated arrangement of the figures.
Art historians tend to call such elements in paintings ‘Caravaggesque’, after the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571—1610), who became very famous for this style. Vermeyen’s picture, though, was probably painted around 1530, four decades before Caravaggio was even born!
Vermeyen was praised by his contemporaries for his original compositions and personal style, even in higher circles. He worked as a court artist for mighty people like Emperor Charles V and Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands. For whom Vermeyen created this intriguing piece of art is not fully clear.

March 27, 2010

Nicolaus Knüpfer: Brothel scene (1650); Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

This playful painting by Nicolaus Knüpfer (c. 1603-1655) depicts a brothel, but from the historic costumes and emphatic gestures we can assume that it was based on a play, probably a comedy.
The man and two women on the bed are enjoying themselves with their love game, while two other figures have climbed upon the table to look out of the window. Something or someone seems to be approaching.
The man and woman in the front display attributes suitable to the scene. While the woman plays the lute, a well known sexual symbol in art, the man pulls his sword out of the sheath in a way that evokes erotic thoughts.
Nicolaus Knüpfer was born in Leipzig, but moved to Utrecht in 1630. His most famous pupils were Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen, the last being clearly influenced by Knüpfers lively style.

March 20, 2010

Frans Hals: Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen; 1622 , Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Certainly the most appealing quality of this portrait from ca. 1625 by Frans Hals is the remarkably cheerful mood it evokes. It is hard to believe that it is in fact the official wedding portrait of this couple, the rich merchant Isaac Massa and his wife Beatrix van der Laen. The informal pose and setting were very uncommon in seventeenth-century portraits, as were smiling faces. Rather more conventional is the emphasis on the richness of their clothes, which shows their social position.
The painting is full of symbols that point to the fact that the couple has just married. To name some: the ivy at Beatrix’s feet is a symbol of eternal love, because it’s an evergreen that binds itself to the place it grows. Furthermore, in the background of an imaginary garden, in which young couples stroll, we spot a sculpture of Juno, the goddess of marriage, as well as a fountain, a symbol of fertility.

March 13, 2010

Étienne Maurice Falconet: L'Amour Menaçant (1757); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam;

Although the Rijksmuseum is especially known for its rich collection of Dutch art, it does own some masterworks from outside the Netherlands. One of them is this lovely Cupid by Étienne Maurice Falconet, who is considered to be the most important sculptor of the French Rococo. It was commissioned in 1757 by Madame de Pompadour, the (in)famous mistress of the French king Louis XV. Falconet carved it in such a way that from every angle, new exciting details draw the attention of the spectator.
The title of the piece, 'L'Amour Menaçant' ('Love threatens') stems from a later date and probably refers to the inscription by Voltaire on the pedestal: 'Qui que tu sois, voicy ton Maitre - Il l'est, le fut, ou le doit être' ('Whoever you are, this is your master - He is, he was or he will be'. So beware of love').
The boy seems to warn us to keep quiet, while with his other hand he’s reaching for a love arrow, but the exact meaning of the gesture is open for interpretation. Some say the young love god is searching for his next victim, making us an accessory to his 'crime' with this call for secrecy. Others think it merely emphasizes the mysterious nature of love, a very popular theme in Rococo art.

March 6, 2010

Ludolf Bakhuysen: Ships in Distress in a Heavy Storm, ca. 1690, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Ludolf Bakhuysen (1631-1708) was born in Germany, but moved to Amsterdam in 1649. Starting off as a calligrapher and clerk, he soon became well-known for his marine paintings and pen-drawings, especially after Willem van de Velde the elder and his son left for England in 1672. His works were highly appreciated for their impressive depiction of nature (rather than historical accuracy). He painted backgrounds for the then famous history painter Bartholomeus van der Helst, received numerous commissions from people in high places, and even taught Tsar Peter the Great how to draw ships during his stay in Holland. Bakhuysen was a modest man who worked hard and was eager to learn. At 71, he proudly presented his first etchings.
Whenever the weather turned bad, instead of seeking the comforts of home, Bakhuysen went to the Zuiderzee (the largest body of water within the Netherlands) to study the workings of nature. After such trips, he locked himself into his studio to paint in solitude. He painted this dramatic scene, ‘Ships in Distress in a Heavy Storm’, around 1690, when he was almost 60 years old. This large canvas (150 by 227 cm) shows the excellent skills with which he captured the semitranslucency of the backlighted sea water, as well as the violent storm and foamy waves that jolt the ships about.

February 28, 2010

Jan Lievens: Portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn (1632); Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Although he seems somewhat forgotten nowadays, Jan Lievens (1607–1674) was a celebrated artist in his own time. Lievens was a child prodigy who grew up in Leiden, one of the leading trade cities in 17th-century Holland. His talents for drawing, print making and painting were already acknowledged by the important connoisseurs and patrons of his time when he was only a teenager. This strong appreciation eventually resulted in numerous important commissions from both within the Netherlands and abroad. Lievens left for England at the age of twenty-five, joining the court of Charles I. He later moved to Antwerp and ended his career in Amsterdam.
When he was young, Jan Lievens was closely befriended to Rembrandt van Rijn, who also grew up in Leiden and was only a year older. At first, Rembrandt seemed to be less promising and innovative than Lievens, but later on they would become severe rivals. The character of their relation remains uncertain, but it is assumed that they shared a studio and worked together. In any case, it’s clear that they had a strong mutual influence. For that reason, their works have often been attributed abusively to one another. Lievens and Rembrandt were both ambitious; they were interested in the same ‘modern’ artists (in particular Rubens and Caravaggio) and experimented with similar techniques.
One of those techniques, scratching details in wet paint to attain a more ‘vivid’ effect, is unmistakably present in Rembrandt’s curls in this touching portrait by Jan of his art brother. The painting was made only three years before their paths would part indefinitely, in search of greater fame. Rembrandt went to Amsterdam, Lievens left for London.

February 20, 2010

Pierre Cuypers: The building of the Rijksmsueum (1885)

As you probably know, the main part of the Rijksmuseum building is being renovated and therefore, largely closed to the public for a long time. One of the goals of the restoration is to expose the original structure of the building, as designed by its architect Cuypers. In that light, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the history of the Rijksmuseum and its creator: Pierre Cuypers.
In his own time, P.J.H. Cuypers (1827-1921) was known in the first place as the designer of numerous neo-Gothic churches. The neo-Gothic style was seen as an expression of the emancipation of the Catholic belief in our, officially Protestant, country, a movement in which Cuypers played a leading role. Therefore, it was not without controversy that he got the commission to design a museum to house the Dutch national collection: the Rijks (State) museum.
The idea was to depict the characteristics of the leading historical and artistic phases The Netherlands had gone through during the last centuries. Cuypers’ design showed a combination of Gothic and Renaissance elements, and mixed it with numerous other historic styles. The building itself, together with its sculptures, tile tableaus, decoration of the walls and ceilings and its stained glass windows, all contributed to commemorate the glorious Dutch past, in the form of a so-called Gesamtkunstwerk. Another superb design of his hand from the same period, Amsterdam’s Central Railway Station (1889), shows similar traits.
In spite of his eclectic design, Cuypers received harsh criticism from Protestant circles. They thought the Gothic (read: catholic) component was much too dominant, at the expense of that of the Dutch Renaissance, the style of the ‘Golden Age’ of the Republic. The disapproval was so strong that nota bene the Dutch king, William III, refused to open the new national museum on July 13, 1885, commenting he would ‘never set foot in that cloister’.