July 30, 2011

Karel Dujardin: St. Paul at Lystra (1663); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This monumental canvas by Karel Dujardin depicts a scene from the New Testament. It tells how Paul and his companion Barnabas get into trouble on their mission to Lystra, a city in now modern Turkey. A cripple hearing Paul preach suddenly leaps up and walks. Greeks witnessing the miracle prepare to worship the apostles as gods. Horrified, Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes and exclaim mortal men like themselves can’t heal; only faith in the Lord can. Hostile local Jews stone them nevertheless.
The Lystra story became especially popular in the art of the Dutch Republic. Ideologically, it served as protestant propaganda supporting anti-idolatry doctrines. Pictorially, painters indulged in dramatic and densely populated scenes. Standard elements were rhetoric duels between Paul and pagan priests, richly arrayed processions, sacrificial animals and classical architecture.
Lystra’s popularity was already waning when Karel Dujardin found a new angle in 1663. His smooth post-1650 classicist style left the realism of his predecessors behind. In an original approach, he zoomed in on a majestic Paul, dressed in brown and red. While he prepares to cure the half naked cripple at his feet, a kneeling woman clutching at the saint’s hem hopes to get her share of the divine grace.
Over Paul’s right shoulder the outline of Barnabas’ head is still vaguely visible. Dujardin painted it over for reasons unknown; perhaps religious puritanism, as the Bible attributes the miracle to Paul only. A more down-to-earth explanation is also possible. The canvas decorated the parlor of a rich Amsterdam textile merchant who may have used the work to his own interest by pointing out to his guests the superiority of a well-dressed man.
(This week’s contribution by friend and fellow historian @Jos Hanou)

July 24, 2011

Jan Sanders van Hemessen: Allegorical scene (ca. 1550); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Whether he actually visited Italy or not is unknown, but it is clear that the maker of this panel, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, was strongly influenced by Italian artists like Savoldo, Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio. Van Hemessen lived – approximately - from 1500 till 1556, in the region of Antwerp, Belgium. Evident characteristics of the Italian Renaissance and Mannerist style in the painting are the typical use of color, the sfumato-effect (the ‘hazy’ background, best known from the Mona Lisa), the classical ‘styling’ and the aesthetic portrayal of the human figures.
Less clear is what kind of painting we are actually looking at. Most art historians will agree that this work must be an allegorical scene, but, as allegories usually represent a ‘hidden meaning’, we’d like to know which one precisely. Several elements provide hints to this meaning. The man is holding a bow in his right hand, and a string instrument called lira da braccio in his left. The woman sprinkles the instrument with milk from one of her breasts. In the background, we spot a castle-like construction and a shepherd with his flock; he seems to write or draw something on the ground with his staff.
Among the theories presented to us are that the painting depicts the encounter of poet and poetry, the inspiration of the musician, an allegory of marital harmony and the fruitful encounter between art and nature. All of these explanations sound credible, but are very hard to prove. To some, this may be frustrating; to me, looking at an intriguing piece of art while pondering over all of these possibilities (and perhaps adding some of my own) is the perfect pastime.

July 17, 2011

Lucien Gaillard: Hairpin (ca. 1904); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This gorgeous hairpin was designed by Lucien Gaillard (1861-1942), one of the most celebrated jewelers in Paris around 1900. It is a perfect example of the Art Nouveau style, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. The movement was strongly influenced by Japanese art and took its subjects mostly from nature. Organic, asymmetrical motifs replaced the stringent classicist standards imposed by the neo-styles that preceded it.
The pin represents two dragonflies fighting over a prey. Gaillard shows not only his craftsmanship and knowledge of materials with this beautifully executed piece of jewelry, but also his keen sense of balance. Combining translucent precious stones with semi-translucent wings and opaque bodies, he captured the fragility and lightness of the insects without compromising on artistic expression. The gently shimmering horn wings, the glossy enameled and golden bodies and the radiance of the citrine, emeralds and diamonds all complement and strengthen each other.
With this conscious effort to create harmony through the use of contrasts, Gaillard made a hairpin which is not just attractive at first sight, but stays intriguing on closer inspection.

July 10, 2011

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Jewish Bride (1667); Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Although this famous work by Rembrandt from 1667 is commonly known as The Jewish Bride, it is in fact uncertain what exactly it depicts. The painting owes its name to a Dutch nineteenth-century art dealer, Adriaan van der Hoop, who assumed that it shows a Jewish father hanging a necklace around the neck of his daughter on her wedding day. Today, this assumption is considered to be implausible, and the most widely accepted hypothesis is that it depicts the well-known biblical couple Isaac and Rebecca. Quite often, married couples chose to have themselves portrayed as historical figures, a so-called portrait historié. The theory is supported by a sketch by Rembrandt and similar works with the same theme by contemporary Amsterdam painters.
Rembrandt caught the intimacy between the two in a penetrating, yet identifiable manner. The expressive painting style, characteristic of the mature Rembrandt, stands out: thick layers of paint were smeared onto the canvas in order to render the particular texture of the clothing, with remarkable results. The paint on the sleeve of the man is applied so thickly that it reflects the light, an effect that contributes significantly to the persuasiveness of the scene. 
This daring working method could, given the standards of Rembrandt's time, surely be considered modern.This quality did not escape Rembrandts compatriot Vincent van Gogh. Roughly two centuries later, Van Gogh stated, after seeing The Jewish Bride in Amsterdam: ‘I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.’

July 3, 2011

George Hendrik Breitner: The Yellow Riders (1885-1886); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

During the second phase of his career, George Hendrik Breitner, would gain fame as a brilliant observer of modern city life in fin de siècle Amsterdam (see my post of 22 May 2010 for more on this). Up until 1886, though, Breitner lived on the west coast of Holland, near The Hague, where he took his inspiration mainly from the landscape surrounding him. In these days, Breitner considered specializing in military painting and one of his favorite subjects was mounted soldiers, exercising in the dunes. He really made an effort to reproduce the horse movements as realistically as possible. Photography had recently revealed that galloping horses moved their legs quite differently than previously assumed.
This painting, The Yellow Riders (the title refers to the color of the soldiers’ uniform), proves that Breitner was strongly influenced by contemporary French painting. He shared their preference for working ‘en plein air’, to obtain a more lively effect in his work. To achieve this goal, he also used photographs and sketches. The Rijksmuseum owns a drawing by Breitner that depicts nearly the same formation of horses as we can see in this painting.
Another common point of Breitner and the French modernists was their interest in capturing reality, not as a self-evident fact, but as a sensory experience at any given moment. The resulting artwork should evoke sensations beyond the visual sense alone. They were convinced that, when looking intensively at Breitner’s masterpiece, one could smell the horses, feel their heat and hear their noises.