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: http://www.xs4all.nl/~kalden/verm/stra/Stra-Hoofd-FE.htm

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.