April 28, 2017

Jacques Fouquier: Hortus Palatinus and Heidelberg Castle (ca. 1619); Kurpfälzisches Museum, Heidelberg

The epithet Eight Wonder of the World is a commonplace that is used far too often, yet in the case of the Hortus Palatinus it was justified. Sadly the use of the past tense has to be applied with regard to these miraculous gardens, attached to the Heidelberg Castle, for they only existed for some ten years before they fell victim to the mayhem of the Thirty Years War. They have never been restored to their former splendour, but even in their ruined state they are still a much admired, popular attraction.
The gardens were created in the second decade of the 17th century for princess Elizabeth Stuart, commissioned by her husband Frederick V, a grandson of William of Orange, who had become the ruler of the Palatine (a state in the middle of Germany). The project was executed by the French engineer Salomon de Caus with the help of his friend, the architect Inigo Jones. The latter was the foremost English architect of his time, while de Caus had established a reputation for himself as the French Leonardo da Vinci. Interestingly, they were among the last great artists who belonged to the same Renaissance world da Vinci had belonged to. In fact the Hortus Palatinus can be seen as the last grand manifestation of the Renaissance. Never before had the ideals of Renaissance Neo-Platonic / Hermetic philosophy been pursued this rigorously. An astonishing attempt was made to create a magical place were all human knowledge and all known technology were united according to the principles of divine harmony. So, while the gardens reflected a bygone age, technologically they were more advanced than anything else in the world.
Explosives were used to create absolutely flat terraces on a mountain top. Tropical plants were imported and ways were devised to make them grow in the middle of Germany without the use of greenhouses. There was an automatic water organ; automated birds that could sing (literally) like nightingales; and perhaps most intriguing of all: a statue that began to make noises when it was hit by sun rays.
It is a great tragedy that the existence of Frederick and Elizabeth's magical kingdom only lasted a decade before it was ravished by the religious wars of the 17th century.
(Edgar Foley)

April 10, 2017

Jan Weissenbruch: The Steigerpoort at Leerdam (1837), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Steigerpoort at Leerdam by Jan Weissenbruch

In the early 19th century the once great tradition of Dutch painting was dead and buried. There were no great masters to be found in the Netherlands any more. There was only one art academy left in the entire country and those who taught there were French. It is therefore most remarkable that during the 19th century the tradition of Dutch painting was revived to such an extent that one could speak of a second golden age.
One of the artists who initiated this rebirth was Jan Weissenbruch (1822 – 1880). In the 1840's, together with several friends and relatives, he founded an academy for art in the Hague called the Pulchri Studio (named after the Latin word for beauty 'pulchritudo'). This studio attracted and trained a group of artists who several decades later would be known collectively as the Hague School.
Jan Weissenbruch was one of the first 19th century painters to rediscover Dutch Golden Age art. He began to create paintings that could be seen as a homage to the idealized Dutch landscape and city views that had been the speciality of such 17th century masters as Salomon van Ruydael, Gerrit Berckheyde and Johannes Vermeer.
Although Jan Weissenbruch's representations of Dutch cities seem highly realistic, they are not. Weissenbruch created an idealized version of a Holland that was vanishing, or had never even existed. This can clearly be seen in one of his masterpieces, the view of the Steigerpoort at Leerdam (1869). Up to the the mid-19th century almost every Dutch city had been surrounded by city gates. But because of urbanization and the advance of railways (and a sheer lack of historical perspective), almost all of these gates were demolished. It seems that Jan Weissenbruch set himself the task to paint as many gates as possible before they vanished. City gates appear in dozens of his painting. Yet it seems Weissenbruch was not particularly interested in leaving accurate memories for posterity, for he changed elements at will until he had created his ideal combination of shapes, mass and shadows. In this case he even flipped the city gate around – so that the shooting holes face the city – to suit his purposes.
(Edgar Foley)

April 7, 2017

Piet Mondriaan: Farm near Duivendrecht ( c. 1916); Art Institute Chicago

Mondriaan - Landscape painter par excellence

As 2017 is the year in which the 100th anniversary of the Stijl movement is celebrated, it's a good time to take a closer look at the work of its greatest artist: Piet Mondriaan. This painter, outside of the Netherlands usually simply referred to as 'Mondrian', is widely regarded as one of the quintessential avant-garde artists of the 20th century. To the general public he is the man who crafted carefully calculated grid patterns on white surfaces with black lines and primary colours. That he was also a magnificent landscape painter is slightly less well known.
Mondriaan started his artistic career as a member of the movement that specialized in Dutch landscapes that was known as the Hague School. His uncle, Frits Mondriaan, whom himself was a respected and talented painter, had introduced Piet to this group and its stylistic ideals. Mondriaan and his uncle often made trips to the Dutch countryside together to capture its specific characteristics on canvas.
In the last decade of the 19th century work associated to the Hague School began to sell exceptionally well and it was thus an almost inevitable style to adapt for any aspiring young Dutch artist. Mondriaan made rapid progress, yet he felt constrained in this tried idiom. Influenced by Neoplatonic and esoteric theories he began to experiment with colour schemes – a process that eventually led to his hypermodern grid patterns. Before he got there Mondriaan's art went through all sorts of experimental phases, yet the Dutch landscape always remained his main source of inspiration. This is still clearly the case in Farm near Duivendrecht (1916), one of his last works that is not completely abstract. It shows a farm next to the river Gein, a place he had visited and depicted dozens of times since he first visited it as a teenager with his uncle Frits. In this version the colours are no longer realistic; they are reminiscent of the colours used by the French Post-Impressionists. The almost abstract patterns of the tree branches and the flattening of the picture surface hinted at what was soon to come.
(Edgar Foley)