June 26, 2011

Karel Dujardin: Self-portrait (1662); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This is the stunning self-portrait of the Amsterdam painter Karel Dujardin. Dujardin (1626-1678) was a versatile artist and at home in many genres, though his Italianate landscapes were and are most popular. Dujardin traveled widely and spent part of his life in Italy.
In Rome, he was a member of the (in)famous society De Bentvueghels (‘Birds of a flock’), an organization of mainly Netherlandish artists who lived in the Eternal City to study its omnipresent art and culture. All members of the club had playful nicknames, such as ‘Beer fly’ (Dirck van Baburen), ‘Scarecrow’ (Willem van Aelst), ‘Satyr’ (Cornelis van Poelenburgh) or ‘Rattle’ (Jan Baptist Weenix, for his speech defect). Every new member was traditionally baptized in an initiation ritual in the Santa Costanza. In this beautiful 4th century church, the Bentvueghels held their ‘Bacchic’ celebrations, accompanied by lots of wine, until Pope Clement XI banned this practice in 1720. To the present day, many of their names can still be seen, carved in the wall in one of the chapels.
Karel Dujardin (who was nicknamed ‘Goatee’) developed into a very successful artist. He lived in several places in Europe before returning to Amsterdam, where his work was soon in great demand. Dujardin became a prosperous and respected citizen, living on the posh Herengracht in Amsterdam. His self-confidence is reflected in this portrait from 1662. In the seventies, he decided to travel back to Italy, where he died unexpectedly in 1678 after a lavish meal.

June 19, 2011

Gerard de Lairesse: Selene and Endymion (1674); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This picture by Gerard de Lairesse depicts the moving story of the moon goddess, Selene. Selene was struck by the sight of the extremely attractive, but mortal, shepherd, Endymion. She came across the young man while he was sleeping somewhere outside and fell in love with him instantly. Rather selfishly, she asked Zeus, the chieftain of gods, to put him into an eternal sleep. This way, Endymion could never leave her and would retain his youthful beauty forever. Every night from then on, Selene faithfully returned to kiss her loved one.
The choice for a mythological story as subject for this painting is typical for the classicist genre; their strong interest in ancient art stimulated their appropriation of Antiquity, both in style and choice of theme. De Lairesse (1641-1711) is considered one of the most important representatives of classicism in the Netherlands, being very influential both as artist and theorist.
Around 1677 the Dutch Stadtholder William III commissioned works of art from several artists to decorate his new hunting lodge in Soestdijk. This painting of Selene and Endymion was part of a series of mythological scenes painted by De Lairesse, meant for the bedroom of William's wife Mary Stuart. The story of Selene’s pure and unconditional love was probably considered appropriate for this purpose.

June 12, 2011

Geertgen to Sint Jans (?): Tree of Jesse (1485); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Although this picture may appear somewhat odd, it represents, in fact, a biblical family tree. This type of subject is usually called ‘Tree of Jesse’, named after Jesse, King David’s father. The artistic concept is based on a passage from the Bible: 'And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots' (Isaiah 11:1). Jesse, the progenitor, is depicted as an old man sleeping on the ground. Out of his abdomen grow the stem and branches, on which Jesse’s descendants are seated in chronological order, starting at the bottom with his son David (with the harp). Together they are the subsequent twelve kings of Israel. At the top, we see the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, Jesse’s ultimate and most important descendant. 
The identity of the painter of this fascinating panel dating from 1485 is controversial. In the past, it has been attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans as well as Jan Mostaert, who were both from Haarlem. Whoever it was, it is striking to see how innovative the artist has executed this rather common topic. Jesse’s tree is usually depicted schematically, whereas this painter chose to depict a real tree. Its location in a cloister garden hints at the occupation of the woman in white, who commissioned the painting: a nun. The man on the right is Isaiah, who points at the Bible passage quoted above. The roses in different places on the panel, and the rose garland which the woman is wearing, tell us that this artwork is related to the immensely popular late medieval Rosary cult.

June 6, 2011

Jean-Etienne Liotard: Woman in a Turkish dress (1752-1754); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702 –1789) was one of the most eccentric artists of his time. The Swiss-born Liotard was a true cosmopolite and he traveled around almost continually. After a visit to Constantinople, which made a profound impression on him, Liotard started to produce art in an ‘exotic’ style. To enforce this unique selling point, Liotard grew a Turkish beard and began to wear a fez and oriental costumes, earning him the nickname ‘The Turk’.
Another notable aspect of Liotard’s art is that he usually worked with pastels. Very few people before or after him exploited the color and softness of this material in such a brilliant and effective way. Liotard’s mastery of the crayons is most significant in his portraits. Among the high classes, Liotard was a very popular portraitist; his clients included the courts of Vienna (the imperial family), Paris (Marie Antoinette) and Rome (Pope Clement XII).
Liotard’s preference for the exotic is also recognizable in this charming pastel drawing of a young woman in eastern dress. It might be a portrait of his wife, Marie Fargues, a Huguenote who lived in the Netherlands. Liotard married her in Amsterdam in 1757. At her request, he shaved off his beard, which he probably considered to be a great loss. He drew a number of self-portraits that emphasized his now smooth chin and he immediately started to grow his beard again after Marie's death.
This drawing is part of Liotard’s private collection of pastels. Because his son was married to a Dutch girl, the inheritance came into the hands of their Dutch descendants after Liotard’s death. At the end of the 19th century the family decided to donate everything to the Rijksmuseum, that since then possesses the largest collection of Liotard’s work outside Switzerland.