February 26, 2011

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem (1630)

When Rembrandt van Rijn painted this imposing biblical scene, he was only 24 years old. Yet it already bears the traces of the genius and craftsmanship that would make him famous: the strong contrast between light and dark (chiaroscuro), his typical use of a dark brownish hue and his convincing expression of intense human emotions.
Another element that is characteristic for Rembrandt is his predilection for subjects taken from the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible). This fascination led to a keen interest in Jewish culture. In Amsterdam, he befriended many Jews, among them the famous scholar and publisher Menasseh ben Israel, and he chose to live in the middle of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam (the present Rembrandt House Museum).
This wonderful painting, created during his formative years in his hometown Leiden, proves Rembrandt’s early interest for Old Testament stories. It depicts the prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. The Bible tells that Jeremiah repeatedly warned Zedekiah, the king of Judah, to obey the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, since this was the will of the Lord. Zedekiah ignored his advice and ordered to have the prophet persecuted and severely punished instead. God’s revenge was terrible: He made Nebuchadnezzar completely destroy Jerusalem.
We see the burning city on the left, while Jeremiah is depicted on the boundary of dark and light, mourning the now gloomy future of the Israelites. This particular scene is not literally described in the Bible. Rembrandt invented it, thus creating an opportunity to show us how well he could imagine and capture in paint the deep grief of an old man.

February 20, 2011

Unknown artist (after Johannes Vingboons): New Amsterdam or now New Iorx on the island Man (s.d.)

This image of a picturesque seaside village with typically Dutch houses is in fact one of the earliest depictions of New York City. It is probably a copy after Johannes Vingboons’ View of New Amsterdam, dating from 1664. In this year, New Amsterdam fell into English hands. The text reads: ‘New Amsterdam or now New Iorx on the island Man.’
New Amsterdam was the capital of New Netherland, a multiethnic colony that was claimed for the Netherlands by Henry Hudson (who worked for the Dutch East India Company) in 1609. New Amsterdam was first settled in 1625 on Manhattan Island and it soon became a thriving port city in Dutch style, complete with canals.
After New Netherland was conquered by the English in 1664, the former Dutch territory was transformed into the middle colonies New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. New York was recaptured by the Dutch in 1673, but relinquished and traded for possession of Surinam in 1674. Among the articles of capitulation was the demand by Dutch governor Stuyvesant to ensure freedom of religion.
Remnants of the Dutch heritage of New York can be found in street and area names like Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), Coney Island (Conyne Eylant), Wall Street (Walstraat) and Pearl Street (Paerl straat).

February 12, 2011

Laurence Alma-Tadema: The Death of the Firstborn (1872)

This picture shows a tragic moment from another stormy period in Egyptian history, described in the book of Exodus. God sent nine plagues to Egypt as retaliation for not letting the Jews leave the country, but the Pharaoh still wasn’t listening. Then God enforced his ultimate plague: the death of the firstborn. This affected the Pharaoh personally, and when his eldest son died, he finally decided to set the Jewish people free.
The painting shows the intensely dramatic scene: the defeated monarch, mourning over the dead son lying on his lap. It was created by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912), a typically Victorian artist who specialized in painting scenes from Antiquity. He was obsessed by the idea of making his depictions of ancient civilizations as authentic as possible. To achieve this, he only used objects that he had seen in archeological books or observed carefully in the British Museum. Everything had to be historically correct: for this painting, for example, Alma-Tadema only used artifacts dating from the thirteenth century BC, as in those days they were convinced the event took place during this period.
Sir Lawrence was not as British as you might think. He was born Lourens Alma Tadema in Friesland, a Dutch northern province. He was trained as an artist in the Netherlands and Belgium, but left for England in December 1869, never to return. He settled successfully into London’s high society, socially as well as artistically. Alma-Tadema was respected as an important artist, but also known as a graceful gentleman and bon vivant. He anglicized his name from Lourens to Lawrence and incorporated his middle name Alma into his surname, in order to be filed under ‘A’ in exhibition catalogues.
His great international fame contrasted with the low appreciation in his mother country. Nevertheless, Alma-Tadema decided that at least one of his masterpieces should be part of an important Dutch collection. Therefore, the artist bequeathed this beautiful canvas, the one he never wanted to sell and that he used to show proudly to his visitors, to the Rijksmuseum.

February 6, 2011

Jan van der Heyden: Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal with Oude Haarlemmersluis (s.d.)/ A fire raging between Elandsstraat and Elandsgracht (1679)

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was a multitalented man. Not only was he one of the leading architectural painters of his generation, he was also an engineer: he invented the high-pressure fire hose in 1673. His fire engine pumped water out of the canals, which was a major improvement over the bucket brigades that had been employed to extinguish city fires up till then. To sell his life-saving creation, he printed his own advertisements, explaining the advantages. Another contribution to urban life was the introduction of street lighting in his residence Amsterdam. He convinced the municipality to place almost two thousand of his mass produced lamps, making Amsterdam the first European city to enjoy street lighting. His lamps also found their way to Germany and Japan.
His architectural paintings were very popular, in the Netherlands as well as abroad. They were praised for their delicate portrayal of the inner city and the meticulous linear perspective. His cityscapes, though executed with precision, were usually not topographically correct: he added and deleted elements to his taste. The painting shown here, depicting the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal near the Martelaarsgracht in Amsterdam, is a good example of this. You will have problems recognizing the site today, not only because in the meantime, both canals have been filled, but also because the beautiful red brick houses on the left are not situated there, but rather on Herengracht 170-172. Together they are known as the Bartolotti House, one of the highlights of Dutch baroque architect Hendrick de Keyser. They were added to the canvas by Van der Heyden to make it more attractive.