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.