Adriaen van de Velde. Part 2 – beachscapes and landscapes

In my second blog on the seventeenth century Dutch artist, Adriaen van de Velde I want to look at his landscape and beachscape paintings.

The Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1658)
The Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1658)

Probably his best-known beachscape work is his 1658 painting entitled The Beach at Scheveningen which can be found in the Staatliche Museen, in Kassel, Germany and is looked upon as one of the outstanding works of the Dutch Golden Age.  Scheveningen is a district of The Hague.  It was a fishing village at the time of the painting and it was not until the early nineteenth century that it became a seaside bathing resort.

Of the painting and Adriaen van de Velde, the eminent Dutch art historian Horst Gerson wrote in a 1953 article in the Burlington Magazine, quoting from the eighteenth century German art historian Gustav Waagen’s 1860 book, Handbook of painting.  The German, Flemish and Dutch Schools:

…At the age of nineteen he was already in this department one of the greatest masters that ever lived; the picture dated 1658, in the Kassel Gallery, displaying a tender feeling for nature, a mastery of drawing and a delicacy of chiaroscuro and harmony which are truly astonishing…”

 The setting is a bright but windy summers day on a wide sandy beach which is populated by several visitors who have come to take in the bracing sea air.  In the centre foreground, we see a well-dressed young couple, who are probably on a day trip to the seaside.  To their right we see a group of children playing in a large puddle of water, the remnants of the previous high water.  To the left perched on a hill is a church with its tall steeple, beneath which we see a rider on a horse galloping parallel to the line of dunes.  A covered wagon slowly trundles along the tide line.  Towards the right foreground, we see a group of fishermen, with their trouser legs rolled up, preparing to go into the water with their nets but the most unusual character is the one in the extreme right of the work.  Take a look at him.  His trouser legs are also rolled up.  Is he yet another fisherman or somebody who just wants to paddle and feel the sea caressing his feet.  His hands are clasped casually behind his back.  He is lost in thought as he looks out to sea. Maybe he was once a seafarer and is now remembering those times.

The Beach at Scheveningen by Simon de Vlieger (1633)
The Beach at Scheveningen by Simon de Vlieger (1633)

Depictions of the Scheveningen beach were often seen in paintings by other Dutch artists such as one of Adriaen van de Velde’s tutors, Simon de Vlieger’s 1633 in his work The Beach at Scheveningen.

Painting before restoration
Painting before restoration

Another work entitled View of Scheveningen Sands painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen in 1641, featuring the same beach, has a very interesting story attached to it. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has owned the work since it was bequeathed to them by amateur artist and clergyman Edward Kerrich in 1873.  By chance, the painting came to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a division of the museum, renowned for paintings research and conservation, because the Dutch Golden Age gallery of the museum was being renovated.

View of Schevningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641)
View of Schevningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen (1641)

The varnish coating on the painting had yellowed and become unsightly.   Initially, what appeared strange to the museum experts about the depiction was why were the people clustered at the sea edge and on the dunes above, on a cold wintry day staring at the tide line.  What were they looking at?  There then followed a long discussion among the experts of the museum about the potential risk of damaging the painting if and when they removed the varnish and some of the over-painting.  However, it was agreed to let the conservator, Shan Kuang, proceed to remove the overpainting, using a scalpel and solvents, working on tiny areas at a time,  under a microscope.  She then discovered that there appeared to be a man standing in mid-air, next to what looked like a sail from a boat.   After more of the over-painting was removed they realised the man was not standing in mid-air but on the back of an enormous whale which had beached in the shallows and what at first was thought to be a sail was in fact the whale’s large dorsal fin.

Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660)
Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660)

There is another Scheveningen beach painting by Adriaen van de Velde in the Louvre entitled Carriage on the Beach at Scheveningen.  This was completed in 1660 and is yet another of his works featuring the popular Dutch seaside resort.  In the painting we can see an imposing carriage making its way along the beach at Scheveningen.  The carriage is being directed by a man in a blue uniform, who sits astride the lead white horse, whilst the driver, who sits atop the carriage, is seen cracking his whip. There is a bit of humour added to this work as we see one of the valets, who is also bedecked in blue livery, running after two hunting dogs, which are happily playing on the sand. It is thought that the carriage was that of William, the young sovereign Prince of Orange, who would later become William III of England (William of Orange).  The tide is out, and we see local villagers walking along the beach.  Children are playing and, in the right foreground, we see a man carrying a large net, coming back from fishing. The composition, which is mainly made up of horizontals, is split by the vertical of the boat mast and the church steeple.  Sunlight comes diagonally from the left of the depiction, illuminating the white horses and casting long shadows of the people and carriage on the sand .  This soft golden light is probably due to the influence of the Dutch Italianate painters of the time such as Jan Both, Karel Dujardin and Nicolaes Berchem who had all stayed in Italy.  They had travelled extensively around the country and had adopted the style of landscape painting that they found there, and then incorporated Italian models and motifs into their own works.  Every detail in the painting has been meticulously drawn by the artist and it was his ability to draw characters that made him popular with other artists of the time who needed figures added to their landscapes or beachscapes – staffage!

Panoramic Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon by Adriaen van de Velde (1661)
Panoramic Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon by Adriaen van de Velde (1661)

However, Adriaen van de Velde is probably best known for his landscape paintings.  His painting, Panoramic Summer Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon, which he completed in 1661 was described by Wolfgang Stechow, the German American art critic, pianist, and violinist, as being:

“…a landscape of such serene beauty and golden softness that its comparison with a Mozart melody will not, the writer hopes, be dismissed as farfetched…”

The setting is a late summer afternoon.  In the work, we see a man astride a horse being given directions.  Man and horse are bathed in sunlight as is the field with its four sheaves of wheat.  Cast in shadow, we also see a woman with child on her back and one by her side and a shepherd who is looking after his small flock of sheep.  In the right middle ground, also in shadow, is a small village on the edge of an expanse of water, with its church and tall steeple.

A River Scene by Salomon van Ruysdael
A River Scene by Salomon van Ruysdael

This type of composition we see before us with a tall tree on one side was dubbed by Wolfgang Stechow as being of a “one-wing composition” pattern which had been favoured by Salomon van Ruysdael.  It is a type of composition in which the large tree in some way acts as an introduction to the viewer to gaze at the panoramic view in the rest of the depiction.  Ruysdael’s landscapes would often have a single tall tree or a group of them to one side of his landscape paintings.  In this painting, van de Velde has counter-balanced the mass of leaves atop the tree on the left with the dense clouds on the right.

Departure for the Hunt by Adriaen van de Velde (1662)
Departure for the Hunt by Adriaen van de Velde (1662)

A painting by Adriaen van de Velde which has elements of a landscape painting but is populated by many figures is entitled Departure for the Hunt, which he completed in 1662.  In all. there are sixteen human figures, eight horses and twenty-three dogs.  However, most are hidden in shadow and only the couple on the left, the man astride the horse blowing the hunting horn and the groom tending the rider-less white horse are illuminated by sunlight.   The painting was last publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1952.  One of the reviewers of the exhibition was Horst Gerson wrote about it in the Burlington Magazine.  He remarked:

“…The well-to-do English collector of the eighteenth century loved to possess a good Adriaen van de Velde with his Wouwermans and Aert van der Neer.  The brilliant colours and the refined technique of these artists appealed to the cultivated taste of the upper-class…”

The "haves" and "have-nots"
The “haves” and “have-nots”

It is a highly colourful depiction and we are prompted to look at the detail of the work with its many figures.  We see beggars in the bottom left of the work trying to cajole the well-dressed couple into helping them financially.  This combination of the two beggars and the wealthy beautifully adorned couple makes us aware of the “haves and the have nots”.  To the right in the foreground we see the amusing scene of one of the dog handlers struggling manfully to control his charges.  It seems he is losing the battle.

 There are so many more paintings I could have included but I though this is just a “taster” to whet your appetite and persuade you to research more of his works.  If you live in London the Dulwich Picture Gallery is exhibiting a collection of his works until January 15th 2017 and I hope to visit there before it closes.  A book which accompanies the exhibition, Adriaen van de Velde, Dutch Master of Landscape was my main source for this blog.

Tomorrow I am off on a three day trip to The Hague to visit the Gemeentemuseum and the Alice Neel Exhibition and see the works of the American artist whom I extensively covered in six blogs a month or so ago and whilst in the Dutch city I hope to visit some other art galleries and feast my eyes on some beautiful Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century art.

Adriaen van de Velde. Part 1 – Family and early influences.

I think I have already mentioned, on more than one occasion, that of all the different eras in art, my favourite is seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish art with some of my favourite artists, Jan Steen, Albert Cuyp, Jacob van Ruisdael and Paulus Potter all being born in the 1620’s.  Today, it gives me great pleasure in presenting another  talented painter of that time.   The artist I am featuring in this blog was once described as a wunderkind and the Mozart of the art world, for he, like the great composer, was a young genius.  Sadly, also like Mozart, he died young, at the age of thirty-five.  Today I am looking at the life and art of Adriaen van de Velde, whose landscapes are looked upon as being the very best that the Dutch Golden Age produced.  I also want to look at his family and other artists who influenced him.

The brothers van de Velde. Etching by Gerard Darbiche from painting by Ernest Meissonier
The brothers van de Velde.
Etching by Gerard Darbiche from painting by Ernest Meissonier

Adriaen van de Velde was born in Amsterdam in November 1636.  He came from an artistic family with both his father, Willem van de Velde the Elder, and Adriaen’s elder brother, Willem van de Velde the Younger, being marine painters.  Adriaen’s father’s interest in marine painting probably stemmed from the fact that his father, Adriaen’s Flemish-born grandfather, Willemsz van de Velde, was a bargemaster and merchant plying his trade in inland shipping.  His grandfather and his family were Calvinists and when Spain, which was staunch Catholic, took control of Flanders they were forced to move to the Protestant north, to Leiden sometime in the 1580’s.  Adriaen’s father, Willem van der Velde the Elder, was born in Leiden in 1611.  In 1631 he married Judith van Leeuwen and she went on to give him three children, Magdalena who was born in 1632, Willem in 1633 and finally Adriaen in 1636.

Battle of Dunkirk by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1639)
Battle of Dunkirk by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1639)

Willem van der Velde the Elder earliest drawings date back to the 1630’s and 1640’s and they would often feature individual ships of the Dutch fleet. His art also depicted many naval battles, which he had been commissioned to paint by the Dutch admiralty. One trip he made was in July 1653 was during the Battle of Scheveningen, which was the final naval battle of the First Anglo-Dutch War between the fleets of the Commonwealth of England and the United Provinces.  In 1658 Van de Velde accompanied the Dutch navy to Copenhagen when Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer defended the Danes’ right of way into the Baltic against Charles X’s Swedish forces; the drawings that Van de Velde produced of this battle earned him the praise of the Danish king.

Dutch Men of War at Anchor by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Dutch Men of War at Anchor by Willem van de Velde the Elder

His representation of major naval battles continued with the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665. One of his largest commissions, from Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, was to record the Four Days’ Battle in 1666.

The Battle Council on the De Zeven Provincien by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1666)
The Battle Council on the De Zeven Provincien by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1666)

The twenty-four drawings that survive represent moments from the battle itself as well as the individual vessels that gathered around De Ruyter’s flagship. De Ruyter employed the artist again during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, to record the Battle of Solebay on June 7, 1672.and sketch battle scenes first hand and then later, in the comfort of his studio, fashion very detailed pen paintings.  His expertise with pen paintings had him referred to as a ship draughtsman or artist and ship draughtsman rather than a painter.

Dutch Ferry Boat before a Breeze by Simon de Vlieger
Dutch Ferry Boat before a Breeze by Simon de Vlieger

Adriaen’s brother Willem, who was born in Leiden was interested in carrying on the marine painting tradition of his father and was trained by his father and later by Simon de Vlieger, a Dutch designer, draughtsman, and painter, who was most famous for his marine paintings.

Willem and his father remained in Amsterdam until 1672, the year Adriaen died, and then, as a consequence of the economic collapse brought about by the French invasion they were forced to move to England to seek out a living from their artworks.  Two years later, in 1674, he and his father entered the service of Charles II, and Willem the Younger had the use of a studio in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, before moving to Westminster in 1691.

Ships in a Gale by Willem van de Velde the Younger
Ships in a Gale by Willem van de Velde the Younger

Adriaen van de Velde, although initially taught by his father, wanted to paint something different and decided to concentrate on landscape art and some believe, for that reason, it was arranged that he went to study at the studio of Jan Jansz Wijnants.

Landscape with Two Hunters by Jan Wijnants
Landscape with Two Hunters by Jan Wijnants

Wijnants was an Italianate landscape painter who took his inspiration from the art of the Dutch painters who had travelled to Italy and consciously adopted the style of landscape painting that they found there.  They then incorporated Italian models and motifs into their own works.  However, this is disputed by many as Wijnants was only five years older than Adriaen and the two were unlikely to be master and pupil.  What is agreed is that the two collaborated on some works.

Cattle in a Meadow by Paulus Potter (1652) Oil on wood.
Cattle in a Meadow by Paulus Potter (1652)
Oil on wood.

One artist of that era who was a great influence on Adriaen was Paulus Potter who was eleven years his senior.  Paulus Potter was a Dutch painter who specialized in animals within landscapes, usually with a low vantage point.  He lived in Amsterdam from 1852 to 1854 which would be about the time when sixteen-year old Adriaen would be looking for a tutor and a studio to work in.  Many believe Potter could have taken Adriaen under his wing and tutored him.

Standing Bull by Adriaen van de Velde (c.1657)
Standing Bull by Adriaen van de Velde (c.1657)

Adriaen van de Velde besides being a talented landscape painter was also an accomplished draughtsman. He was actively involved in the practice of staffage.  So what is staffage?  Staffage is when an artist adds human or animal figures as subordinate elements to a landscape painting in order to give the painting a livelier appearance. Staffage was commonly used by 16th- and 17th-century landscape painters, who would often include religious and mythological scenes in their works. Staffage was frequently painted into a picture, not by the landscapist, but by another artist and this where Adriaen came into his element for he was extremely talented when it came to drawing animals and humans and added figures and animals into paintings by Meindert Hobbema, Jacob van Ruisdael, Willem Verboom and other contemporary artists.

Kneeling Female by Adriaen van de Velde
Kneeling Female by Adriaen van de Velde

Adriaen van de Velde was one of only a few seventeenth century landscape artists whose surviving graphic collection of works include figure studies. Many of his figure studies and sketches, which were later used in his paintings, still exist.  Adriaen completed many female nude studies and was always interested in posture and how it affected the female form.  A nude female sketch of his can be found in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford entitled Kneeling Female Nude.

The Annunciation to the Virgin by Adriaen van de Velde (1667)
The Annunciation to the Virgin by Adriaen van de Velde (1667)

It is thought that this sketch could have been a preliminary sketch he used when painting The Annunciation to the Virgin which he completed in 1667 and which now hangs in the Rijksmuseum.

Vertumnus and Pomona by Adriaen van de Velde
Vertumnus and Pomona by Adriaen van de Velde

Adriaen completed a work which highlights his ability to depict the female form.  It is entitled Vertumnus and Pomona and was completed in 1670.  Vertumnus and Pomona is a story of seduction and deception from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the two featured in many 17th century Dutch paintings. Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons and change, assumed multiple guises as he attempted to woo the recalcitrant wood nymph Pomona.

The Migration of Jacob by Adriaen van de Velde (1663)
The Migration of Jacob by Adriaen van de Velde (1663)

Besides his wonderful landscapes Adriaen completed many religious works and his “stand out” painting would probably be one he completed in 1663 entitled The Migration of Jacob.  The depiction is based on the story in the Old Testament (Genesis XXXI, 17-18):

“…Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan…”

Jacob left Paddan Aram in Northwest Mesopotamia, fleeing from his father -in-law, Laban whom he had worked for,  for more than twenty years. The bible story continued:

“…When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods.  Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. So he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead…”

In the painting, we see a large procession meandering through the countryside.  It is headed by Jacob who with his wives, possessions and cattle are on a journey to reach his father, Isaac, who lived in Canaan.  Jacob, wearing the white turban sits astride the bay horse and we see him talking to his favourite wife, Rachel.  She is riding the white horse whilst she breast-feeds her child, Joseph.  The figures in the painting are in the shadows whilst the two main protagonists and those who are herding the sheep, are bathed in sunlight.  If one did not know the story one would believe it is a peaceful procession slowly crossing the landscape but Adriaen has add dark threatening clouds to give the idea that there is an urgency to this “convoy” and that not all is well.  Laban, after three days, realised that his daughter and son-in-law have left taking with them many of his possessions and gives chase.  What happened next ?   I will leave you to consult the Old Testament book of Genesis to find out !!

Agony in the Garden by Adriaen van de Velde
Agony in the Garden by Adriaen van de Velde

Another religious work by the artist was Agony in the Garden. This picture belongs to the principal group of large-scale religious works by him which he completed in the 1660s for the secret Catholic places of worship in and around Amsterdam. These commissions for religious works by the Catholic Church followed on from his marriage in 1657 to a Catholic lady, Maria Pietersz Ouderkerck, at which time he also converted to Catholicism.

In my next look at the works of Adriaen van de Velde I will be concentrating on what he was best known for  – his exquisite landscapes.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag – his seascapes and Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1913)
Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1913)

The person I am featuring today was an artist of great talent, an avid art collector and an owner of a museum, which housed many of the works he had collected during his lifetime.  I talked briefly about him in my previous blog which was dedicated to his friend Jozef Israels.  Let me introduce you to the marine painter, Hendrik Willem Mesdag.

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag (1882)
Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag (1882)

Mesdag was born in Groningen in February 1831.  His father Klaas was a banker and was also active in politics and his mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths.  She died when Hendrik was four years old.  Hendrik had two brothers, Gilles and Taco and a sister, Ellegonda.  As schoolchildren, both he and his older brother showed and early artistic talent and their father, who was also an amateur artists, decided to send them for some artistic training.  They both received drawing lessons from Bernardus Buijs who had also taught Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from Hinderikus Egenberger.  However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, and his future, like that of his father, lay in banking.  Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.

Fishing Boats in the Surf by Hendrik Mesdag
Fishing Boats in the Surf by Hendrik Mesdag

In April 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sientja van Houten, who would later become an accomplished artist in her own right.  She was one of seven children brought up by a wealthy family.  Her father owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen.  Her cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag
Along the Dutch Coast by Hendrik Mesdag

Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen.  In 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas.  Hendrik’s love of art and his desire to become a full-time professional artist came to a head in 1866 when he decided to give up his work as a banker and concentrate on his art.  To give up a lucrative job took courage but it also required funding and for this he had to thank his wife who had received a sizeable inheritance when her father died and she was able to support him financially.

Pinks in the breakers by Hendrik Mesdag (1880)
Pinks in the breakers by Hendrik Mesdag (1880)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema advised Hendrik to go to Brussels to study art and in the autumn of 1866 he goes to the Brussels for three years and studied art under the tutorship of Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter and watercolourist.  Fate played a hand in the artistic life of Mesdag in 1868 when he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday.  Norderney is one of the East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast.  It is here that Mesdag realises his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returns to Brussels he starts collecting paintings which depict the sea and it is from this time that he decides he wants to be a seascape artist.

Gales in Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)
Gales in Scheveningen by Hendrik Mesdag (1894)

Once he completes his three year study course in Brussels in 1869, the family move to The Hague where the sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen, would be plentiful.  Hendrik was admitted to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society.   The society was formed in 1847 and was a result of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about their being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established.  It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.

Les Brisant
Les Brisant

It was in 1869 that Mesdag worked on his painting Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (Breakers of the North Sea) which, when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1870,  was awarded the gold medal.  In September 1871, tragedy struck Hendrik and Sentije when their eight year old son Klaas, their only child, died.  It was from that time onwards that Sientje took up painting.

Detail from Panorama Mesdag
Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Hendrik Mesdag’s collection of paintings had grown so large that it filled his house and in 1878 he decided to build a museum in the garden, next to his house, to accommodate his ever-growing collection.  That same year, his father Klaas died aged 85.  Although most of the works of art by Hendrik Mesdag were seascapes and paintings depicting bomschuiten (fishing boats) one of his most famous works came about in 1879 when he received a commission from a group of Belgian entrepreneurs to paint a panorama.  A panorama or panoramic painting was a massive work of art, which depicts a wide and all-encompassing view of a particular subject.  They could be depictions of a battle, historical event or a landscape and were very popular in the nineteenth century, a time before television or the cinema.  The commission was simple  –  the group wanted Mesdag to complete a painting without any borders !  The Belgians gave Mesdag free rein on the subject of the panorama and he was allowed to pick his team of artists to complete the task.  The commission intrigued Mesdag and he agreed to it and formed a team of artists which included Théophile de Bock and twenty-three-year-old George Hendrik Breitner, who was still a student at The Hague Academy , the artist, Bernard Blommers , as well as his wife Sientje.

Detail from Panorama Mesdag
Detail from Panorama Mesdag

Mesdag decided this was an opportunity to depict his beloved coastal village of Scheveningen.

In March 1881, Mesdag and his team of painters set to work on the panorama.  They made numerous sketches of the town and the surrounding coast and slowly over the next  four and a half months the panorama often referred to as Panorama Mesdag  evolved.  The work when completed was 14 metres high with a circumference of 120 metres, a square footage of 1600 square metres.  The finished work was housed in a purpose-built museum in The Hague and could be viewed from an observation gallery in the centre of the room.  When one stood at this central observation point, it was if one was standing on top of a high sand dune and one could observe the sea, the beaches and the coastal village of Scheveningen.  The museum housing the panorama was opened to the public on August 1st 1881 but after five years it went bankrupt.  Mesdag , who was concerned as to the fate of his panoramic painting, bought the museum and kept it open despite it losing money year on year.

Panorama Mesdag as seen from central observation platform
Panorama Mesdag as seen from central observation platform

It is still open to the public and it is still one of the The Hague’s greatest tourist attractions.  Can you imagine what it would be like to stand on that central observation platform – take a look now at http://panorama-mesdag.nl/   and see this wonderful work, which is the largest circular canvas in Europe.

In his later years Mesdag received many honours. In 1889, he was elected chairman of Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society, the society he joined twenty years earlier, and remained in that post until 1907. He received the royal distinction of Officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1894.  In February 1901 Mesdag is promoted to Commander of the Order of the Dutch Lion.

Hendrik Willem Mesdag  and his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, (1906)
Hendrik Willem Mesdag and his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten, (1906)

In March 1909 his beloved Sientje died, aged 74.  Two years later in 1911, Hendrik Mesdag is taken seriously ill and although he recovers, his health slowly deteriorates.  Hendrik Willem Mesdag died in The Hague in July 1915, aged 84.

One may compare the seascapes and depictions of fishing boats with the artist, Jozef Israels, whom I looked at in my last blog.  Israels’ depictions were often full of angst and doom and gloom whereas Mesdag’s works were simply depictions of what he saw, without any need to have the works populated by people and all had a story behind them.   I end with a quote from the author, Frederick W Morton who wrote an artcle in the May 1903 edition of the American art journal, Brush and Pencil .  He wrote about Mesdag’s seascapes:

“…Other artists have painted more witchery into their canvases, more tenseness and terror.  A Mesdag has not the glint of colour one finds in a Clays or the awful meaning one reads in Homer.  On the contrary, many of his canvases are rather heavy in tone and are works calculated to inspire quiet contemplation rather than to excite nervous.  But he is a great marine-painter because he thoroughly knows his subject – he has sat by it, brooded over it, studied it in its every phase – and by straightforward methods, without the trick of palette or adventitious accessories, has sought to make and has succeeded in making his canvases convey the same impression to the spectator that the ocean conveyed to him…”

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Much of the information for this article came from the Mesdag Documentation Society and their excellent website Mesdag.com (http://www.mesdag.com/index.html)

Jozef Israels Part 2 – The Peasants and his later life

Self portrait by Jozef Israels (1881)
Self portrait by Jozef Israels (1881)

I ended my last blog, which looked at the life of Jozef Israels, around 1856 when he was living in the small fishing town of Zandvoort and spent much of his time sketching and painting scenes involving the local fishing community.

The Day Before Parting by Jozef Israels (c.1862)
The Day Before Parting by Jozef Israels (c.1862)

Israels left the coastal area around 1858 and returned to Amsterdam where he remained until 1870.  In 1860 he completed a work entitled De dag voor het  schieden (The Day before the Parting), which can now be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   It is a beautiful soulful depiction.  It is a depiction of sadness.  But why the sadness?  Is it like the paintings depicting families waiting for their fisherman husbands and fathers to return from the hazards of the sea?  Actually it is not, it is about death.   The setting is the interior of a cottage.  In the dimly lit background there is a coffin which lies across two chairs.  The wooden coffin is covered with a pall and is barely illuminated by a solitary candle.

Light streams into the room from the left and illuminates the two characters featured in the work.   The lighting of the foreground is in stark contrast to the background.  It was the artist’s clever use of chiaroscuro (the strong contrast of light and dark), which in some ways was a contrast between life and death.  In the foreground we have the mother leaning against the chimney breast as she sits on a chair, besides her in the fire hearth lies an empty overturned wicker log basket.  Her face is red from all the tears she has wept.  She leans forward and rests her face on her right hand whilst her left hand clutches hold of a book, probably the bible and her thumb keeps the place of the passage she was reading.  On the floor, at her feet, sits a young girl.  She leans against her mother to get comfort.  Her right hand lies across her mother’s knee.  She stares at the coffin.  Her left hand lies in her lap, grasping the loop of the cord attached to her toy cradle which lies by her side.  This painting is not only a depiction of sorrow it is a depiction of poverty.  The mother and daughter do not wear shoes despite the coldness of the red-tiled floor.  The fireplace, with its blue surround tiles, is empty and so too is the wicker log basket indicating that they have no fuel for the fire.  The large black chain over the fireplace which would hold pots or a kettle for food and drink hangs idly.  Have they food?

This wonderful work of art received the gold medal when it was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and that same year it was shown at the International Exhibition in London.  Israels himself, some forty years later, admitted that this painting made his reputation.  In 1906 he commented on the work:

 “…I painted it in 1860 – I know it was then because it was the year before I was engaged.  It was made ‘pour la gloire’.  It was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and got the Gold medal, the last year the medal was given…………………….There is good colour in that picture; I could do no better – some people say I cannot do now so well…”

Peasant Children by Jozef Israels
Peasant Children by Jozef Israels

 In May 1863 Jozef Israels married Aleida Schaap and the couple had two children, a daughter Mathilde Anna Israëls who was born in February 1864 and a son, Isaac Lazarus in February 1865.  His son became a fine art painter and was associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement.  At the time of his son’s birth Jozef Israel wrote about him saying:

 “…With the help of the Lord, he will become a better painter than his father…”

  Jozef Israels moved to The Hague in 1870 and here he began to associate himself with The Hague School of Painters.  This group of artists were active between 1860 and 1890.  For these artists reality was the key to their work, not idealised reality but depicting true reality, warts and all.  The colours used by these artists was often gloomy and sombre and consisted mainly of various tints of grey, so much so they were often termed the Grey School.  This only changed in the latter years of the School with the influence of the Barbizon painters and the early Impressionists who instilled a lighter and brighter palette.

In 1876, with a number of close artistic colleagues, Israels launched the Dutch Drawing Society (watercolours in those days were termed drawings)

The Cottage Madonna by Jozef Israels
The Cottage Madonna by Jozef Israels (1871)

 During his lifetime, Jozef Israels was one of the most famous living Dutch artist and earned the nickname ‘the Dutch Millet.’  The two artists saw in the life of the poor and humble peasants a motive for expressing with peculiar intensity their wide human sympathy.  Millet’s depictions of peasant life were much lighter in tone and were simply a look at peaceful rural life.  For Israels it was different, his depictions of peasant life was very much more sombre and carried a message of hardship and despair.  The French novelist and art critic, Louis Edmond Duranty who was a great supporter of the realist cause said Israels’ depiction of peasant life was painted with gloom and a sense of anguish.

  Jozef Israëls primarily painted scenes from the lives of simple farm labourers or fishermen. Sometimes, as in my next painting, he singled out tragic moments in their lives. This next work of art really tugs at one’s heart strings.  It is entitled Alone and can be found at the Mesdag Museum in The Hague.  Hendrik Mesdag, a contemporary and great friend of Israels, was a leading artist of The Hague School and he and his wife, Sientje played an active role in The Hague art world.  Hendrik Mesdeg was not just an artist, he was an avid art collector.  His collection grew so much that, in 1877, he had a museum built to house it

Alone in the World by Jozef Israels, (1881)
Alone in the World by Jozef Israels, (1881)

The setting for the painting, Alone in the World, is the inside a sparsely furnished bedroom of a peasant’s cottage.   There is an air of bleak despondency about the scene we see before us.  A man sits on the side of a bed.  His bony workman’s hands rest on his knees, his posture is unmoving. He is wracked by sadness as his wife has died despite all he had done for her.  Her body lies in the half-light which streams in from the left of the painting on to the bed and also illuminates the table on which are a pitcher of water and an empty glass as well as the bed.  The greyish colour of the dead woman’s skin makes her almost indistinguishable from that of her bedclothes.

It is interesting to note that Jozef Israels and Sientje Mesdeg talked about this work years after its completion and on a broader aspect of art.  They considered the anecdotal aspect of art and whether genre paintings should tell a tale.  They failed to agree. Sientje was adamant that there was never a need for art to tell a story, whereas Jozef Israels countered saying that a “felt” work is good even if badly delineated.  There is no doubt that this work is a “felt” work as we, the observers, can understand the feelings of the man at a time of his great loss.

Convalescent Mother and Child by Jozef Israels (1871)
Convalescent Mother and Child by Jozef Israels (1871)

A painting I really like which combines the reality of illness and sentimentality is Israels 1871 work entitled Convalescent Mother and Child.  In the painting we see a mother slumped in a chair, head lolled to one side, her knitting lies abandoned in her lap.  Walking towards her is her barefooted young child struggling to carry a small table towards her.  The child is trying to be a help to his sick mother.  Look at the concentrated expression on the child as he makes a great effort to move the table towards her.

A Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (1903)
A Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (1903)

In later years his paintings were influenced by the works of Rembrandt and this next work of art, entitled The Jewish Wedding, is a fine example of this.  Jozef Israels was a committed orthodox Jew and his mother had once hoped that he would become a Rabbi.  He produced a number of paintings depicting Jewish ceremonies.  Here before us we see bride and groom under the chupa in the ceremony of sanctification of the joining together of the couple in marriage, surrounded by family and wedding guests.  The couple in the painting are depicted in bright sunlight which was a symbol of the happiness of the occasion.

We Grow Old. Jozef Israëls, 1878
We Grow Old. Jozef Israëls, 1878

Joseph Israels died in Scheveningen in August 1911. aged 87.

Jozef Israels. Part 1 – The Plight of the Fisherman

Portrait of Jozef Israels by Jan Veth (1887)
Portrait of Jozef Israels by Jan Veth (1887)

My previous three blogs looked at Russian landscape painters and although they were leading exponents of this 19th century genre they may have been unknown to many people nowadays.  The artist I am looking at today is probably also not known by most people but he had a great influence of the early works of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.   Just before Christmas I went to Amsterdam to visit the newly refurbished Van Gogh Museum and I suggest that it is “must visit” museum for any travellers to the Dutch city.

Peasant Family at Table,  by Jozef Israels (1882)
Peasant Family at Table, by Jozef Israels (1882)

The museum was awash with colour from Van Gogh’s landscape paintings but I was fascinated by his darker early works and his fascination with the hard-working peasants and I wanted to know more about what influenced him to spend so much of his early life concentrating on depictions of the peasant class.  It was then I came across Jozef Israels and his 1882 painting entitled Peasant Family at the Table, a work of art which led to a similar depiction, by van Gogh, of peasants sitting around a table having a meal which is entitled The Potato Eaters and I featured this work of art in My Daly Art Display (Feb 7th 2012).  However this blog is not about Van Gogh but the Dutch artist, Jozef Israels who influenced him.  In this first blog about Jozef Israels I want to look at his paintings depicting the harsh life of fishermen and their families.

Josef Israels was a Dutch Jewish painter born in Groningen in January 1824.  His father was to Hartog Abraham Israel, a professional broker and merchant who had married Mathilda Solomon Polack.  Jozef was the third-born of ten children and he had six brothers and three sisters.  As is the case of many young aspiring artists, Jozef’s father did not see his son’s future as an artist but wanted him to carry on the family business and it was only after a long struggle and great determination that Jozef persuaded his father to let him study art.  It was a compromise, as during his artistic studies he worked as a stockbroker’s clerk in his father’s business.   At the age of eleven he received his first drawing lessons from the landscape artist J. Bruggink who worked at Minerva Academy in Groningen and a year later became a pupil of Johan Joeke Gabriel van Wicheren.   In 1838, aged fourteen he was tutored by the Groningen painter, Cornelis Bernudes Buys.

In 1842, shortly after his eighteenth birthday Jozef went to Amsterdam to study drawing under the tutelage of Jan Adam Kruseman and, in 1844, attended art classes at the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Art.  Kruseman had made his name as a painter of historical, biblical and genre scenes but was probably more famous for his portraiture.  In 1845 Jozef Israels left his native Netherlands and travelled to Paris where he worked in the studio of the neo-classical history painter, François-Édouard Picot.  Picot was one of the artists who was favoured by the French rulers of the time.  He was an esteemed artist who taught many of the aspiring artists of the time such as Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. His romantic historical paintings influenced Israels.  The Romanticism genre of Louis Gallait and Ari Scheffer also left their mark on the twenty-two year old. During his stay in Paris he attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts presided over by such artistic luminaries as James Pradier, Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche and he would spend time at the Louvre where he copied the works of the great Masters.

The Academies at the time pushed the genre of paysage historique, historical landscape painting depicting idealised landscape works of art with their historical connotations.   This art genre went back to the 17th century Baroque era of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain and aspiring landscape painters from the Academies made their way to Italy to paint their landscapes interspersed with historical monuments, the settings of which were favoured by the dazzling Mediterranean sunlight. This favourable Italian climate had given the artists the chance to paint en plein air.

However, Jozef Israels, whilst he was living in the French capital, delved into the alternate world of landscape painting, the world of Realism, and the works of the Barbizon painters some of whom he had the chance to meet.  For them it was the landscape which was the beauty in itself and did not require the addition of mythological or biblical figures.  If figures were to be added it should be those of hard working peasants whose inclusion added reality to the work and dispensed with romanticism.  However Jozef Israels was not sold on their ideas for landscape painting and soon reverted to his painting which were more likely influenced by the painter Ari Scheffer (see My Daily Art Display May 15 2012 and Sept 30th 2014) depicting subjects from Romantic poetry or influenced by the work of the Belgian history painter, Louis Gallait and depicted figures from Dutch national history.

In 1847 Israels returned to Holland and his work concentrated on his portraiture and historical subjects, often with Jewish themes.    The problem for Israels was that by the 1850’s,  the genre of history paintings in the Netherlands was falling from favour and he realised that to sell his art he needed to think of a different painting genre.   Fate took a hand as Jozef was taken ill and in 1855, as a cure for his health problems, he moved out of the city and went to live in the small fishing village of Zandvoort, where he believed the sea air would aid his recovery.   He immersed himself in the local village life and became aware of the hard life endured by the village’s fishing community and he decided to record some of their sufferings in his works of art.   His paintings depicted the hard life of the fishermen and their families and the unforgiving nature of the sea.

Along mother's grave by Jozef Israels (1856)
Passing mother’s grave by Jozef Israels (1856)

In 1856 he painted one of his most famous works featuring Zandvoort fishing folk.  It was a life-size work measuring 224cms x 178cms  entitled Passing Mother’s Grave.  The painting depicts a fisherman passing his wife’s grave.   He walks hand in hand with his son whilst carrying his baby daughter.  The bare-footed trio alluded to the poverty of the fishing folk and for this trio life without the woman had added to their problems.The work is housed in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Fishermen carrying drowned man by Jozef Israels (c.1861)
Fishermen carrying drowned man by Jozef Israels (c.1861)

Another work of art featuring the plight of fishermen and their families was Jozef Israels’ painting entitled Fishermen Carry a Drowned Man which is housed in the National Gallery in London.  It is thought that this work was completed around 1861, sometime after Jozef returned to Amsterdam from Zandvoort but used sketches he had made whilst living in the fishing village.  The work is all about suffering and the hard life experienced by fishermen and their families and it was this eking of sympathy from the observer which was so like that of Jean-François Millet and his peasant paintings. Let’s look at this sombre work with its dark grey skies.  A line of fishermen and their family trudge up the dunes from the shore.  A grief-stricken woman leads the way with her two children at her side.  They too are aware of the loss.  Maybe the woman is the widow of the dead fisherman.  She is leading the line of mourners.  Behind her the body of the dead fisherman is carried by two burly men whilst to the left of them is a weeping woman.  The dead man’s companions follow on carrying the fishing equipment from their boat. The work of art was exhibited at the 1861 Salon and in 1862 at the London International Exhibition and was hailed a triumphant success.

Anxiously Waiting by Jozef Israels
Anxiously Waiting by Jozef Israels

The third painting by Jozef Israels with this fishing/sea-going motif is entitled Anxiously Waiting.  Once again observers of this work can empathize with the woman we see sitting on the dunes looking out to sea. On her knee sits her baby child.  She is bare-footed which tells us of her and her family’s financial state.   The sky has an orange hue indicating an oncoming storm.  We see the white crests of the waves which signify the wind is beginning to increase in its ferocity.  Her husband has left home in the fishing boat and has yet to return and she anxiously awaits sight of his boat.

Unloading the Catch by Jozef Israels
Unloading the Catch by Jozef Israels

In his painting Unloading the Catch we see that fishing was not just about the men that went to sea but the wives, parents and children who needed to help, notwithstanding their age or their state of health.  Look at the line of helpers.  An elderly woman bent over supporting herself with her cane, a man with a basket over his shoulder holding the hand of his daughter, two mothers carrying their babies , all have to help with the unloading of the day’s catch from the beached fishing boat.

Three Women Knitting by the Sea by Jozef Israels
Three Women Knitting by the Sea by Jozef Israels

In a number of his paintings he liked to connect the wives of the fishermen and the sea, the workplace of their husbands and fathers.   In most it was the about the wife, worried about the safety of her husband, and the prospect of him not returning home safely.   A painting by Jozef Israels with a lighter mood was his work entitled Three Women Knitting by the Sea.  In the background we see a fishingboat at sea ,whilst in the foreground, we have the three ladies happily chatting away as they knit.

On the Dunes by Jozef Israels
On the Dunes by Jozef Israels

In his work On the Dunes we see a familiar depiction of a woman sitting on the dunes looking out to sea.  On her back is her empty basket which, once the boat has landed with its catch, will be filled with fish which she will have to carry back to the village.  Her wait will not be long as on the horizon we catch sight of the returning fishing boat.  The sky is light and the sea is calm and for this day her beloved will return home safely.

Mending the Nets by Jozef Israels
Mending the Nets by Jozef Israels

An insight into the domestic life of a fisherman’s wife can be seen in his painting Mending the Nets.  The scene is the interior of a cottage.  A mother sits before a tiled fireplace mending her husband’s fishing nets whilst her young child sits in a wooden forerunner to today’s baby buggy.  The baby looks over the side at the cat which she  tantalises with a strand of wool.

In my next blog I will look at some more of the paintings by Jozef Israels, in which he depicted peasant life and I will conclude his life story.

Gabriel Metsu. Part 2 – his later life and paintings

Portrait of the Artist with His Wife Isabella de Wolff in a Tavern by Gabriel Metsu (1661)
Portrait of the Artist with His Wife Isabella de Wolff in a Tavern by Gabriel Metsu (1661)

In my last blog I looked at the early life of Gabriel Metsu and had reached the year 1651, the year in which his mother died.  Gabriel Metsu was twenty-one years of age and, as such, was still not looked upon as an adult.  In the Netherlands at that time, adult status was only reached when a person became twenty-five years of age, and for that reason Gabriel came under the guardianship of Cornelis Jansz. and Jacob Jansz. de Haes.  Around this time it is thought that he was advised by a fellow aspiring artist, Jan Steen, to seek employment as an apprentice with Nicolaus Knupfer, a painter from Utrecht.  Metsu remained with Knupfer for a few years during which time he completed a number of religious paintings.

In 1654, his guardianship came to an end and his late mother’s estate was finally settled and Gabriel received an inheritance.  With this newly found wealth, Metsu left Leiden and moved to Amsterdam where he had enough money to set up a workshop in a small house off the Prinsengracht.  He remained there for a short time before moving to a canal-side residence.  It is believed the reason he moved was that he had got into so many arguments with his neighbours for keeping chickens at the rear of his house.

His desire to move to Amsterdam was probably due to his search for artistic commissions as the city had far more opportunities for an artist than that of the smaller town of Leiden.  The other thing that Metsu realised when he arrived in Amsterdam was that small-scale genre scenes were far more popular with art buyers than large scale religious works and so he made a conscious decision to change his painting style and for his inspiration into that art genre, he could study the works of the Leiden painter, Gerard Dou and the Deventer artist Ter Borch.  Metsu’s favourite subjects became young women, often maids, drinking with clients and engaged in domestic work often in tavern settings.

Saint Cecilia by Gabriel Metsu (1663)
Saint Cecilia by Gabriel Metsu (1663)

In May 1658 Gabriel Metsu married Isabella de Wolff who came from Enkhuizen.  Her father was a potter and her mother, Maria de Grebber, was a painter and came from a family of well-known artists.  Metsu had probably met Isabella through his connection with the de Grebber family when he was a teenager.  Anthonie de Grebber, who had given Metsu some early artistic training in those days, was a witness to Metsu and Isabella’s pre-wedding settlement.  They married voor schepenen which means “before magistrates” which presumably meant that the couple did not belong to the Dutch Reformed Church and it is thought more likely that they were both Catholics.  Isabella became one of Metsu’s favourite models and appeared in many of his works.  In 1663 he completed a work featuring his wife, Isabella, as the model for Saint Cecilia.  She is seated playing the viola da gamba.  St Cecilia was a Catholic martyr who was revered for her faithfulness to her husband (note the lap dog) and it could be that Metsu by having his wife model for the martyr was his way of publicly recognising his wife’s fidelity.  This would not have been the first time an artist had used his wife in a depiction of this Catholic saint as in 1633 Rubens completed a painting of St Cecilia in which he used his second wife, Hélène Fourmen,t as the model.  It is entirely possible that Metsu had seen the Rubens’ painting and then decided to use Isabella for his depiction of the martyr.

Gabriel Metsu died in October 1667, just a few months before his thirty-eighth birthday and was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam.  Following the death of her husband Isabella moved back to Enkhuizen to live with her mother, where she died in her late eighties.

A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) by Gabriel Metsu (1661-4)
A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) by Gabriel Metsu (1661-4)

Another painting by Metsu, featuring his wife as an artist, was entitled A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) and is dated 1661-4.  So is this just simply a painting of an artist for which his wife modeled?   Maybe not, for one must remember that Isabella was actually an artist in her own right, having been trained as an artist by her mother, Maria de Grebber, who had come from a family of artists and so this painting by Metsu may just be a loving portrait of his wife, highlighting her talent as a painter.

Do you ever re-read a book or watch the same film more than once?   Many people who do tell of how they saw things in the film or read things in the book the second or third time which they had not picked up the first time and that for them was the joy for re-visiting the work.  Genre works have the same effect on me.  The more times I study them, the more new things I discover which were not apparent during my initial viewing.  I also like the fact that often one cannot take things depicted at face value as there is often a hint of symbolism with the iconography of some of the objects that are dotted around the work and this I find utterly fascinating.  I read art historians’ views on such things and often wonder whether what the artist has added to the work is as symbolic as the historians would have us believe.

In my previous blog about Metsu I talked about certain iconography in the painting entitled Woman Reading a Letter, and was rather scornful with regards the supposed sexual connotation of the abandoned shoe which was prominently depicted lying on the floor.  In my next two featured paintings there is more iconography that has a supposed sexual nuance.  In the next two featured works we see a dead bird being offered to a woman.  Just a mere offering of food?  Maybe not for the Dutch word for bird is vogel and in the seventeenth century the word was synonymous with “phallus” and the Dutch word vogelen, which literally means “to bird”, was slang for “to have sexual intercourse with”.  So when we look at the two paintings we should look at the offer of a bird not as a gift of food but an enticement to have sexual intercourse!

The Sleeping Sportsman by Gabriel Metsu (1660)
The Sleeping Sportsman by Gabriel Metsu (1660)

In the Wallace Collection in London there is a magnificent painting by Metsu entitled The Sleeping Sportsman which he completed between 1658 and 1661.  It is a kind of “hunter’s scene” and it was in this painting that we need to think laterally in as much as the hunt is the gentleman’s hunt of a woman.  In this painting by Metsu the setting is the outside of a tavern. A hunter has called in for a drink after a long day’s shooting.  His gun is propped against a low wall and the two birds he has shot are on view, a pheasant atop the wall and another bird, probably a fowl, is seen hanging from the tree.   Metsu has depicted a lady coming out of the inn with a glass and a jug of alcohol which has presumably been ordered by the hunter-sportsman.   It would appear that the jug she brings him is not his first, as he has passed out from overindulging, and we observe an empty jug lying at his feet.  After a day of hunting game he has decided to end it with a few drinks and search for the company of a female or as the French would say cherchez la femme, but, sadly for him, alcohol has won the day.  Take a careful look at the stupefied hunter.   It is supposedly a self-portrait of the artist.  He lies slumped against the end of a bench, clay pipe in his lap lying loosely against his genitals which could be interpreted as the drunken state he is in has made him temporarily impotent.  On the floor we see the remnants of another pipe which he must have dropped.  Although finely dressed he looks a mess with one of his red gaiters sagging down his leg.

However, if we look again at the woman who is bringing the hunter’s refreshment, we notice that she is not looking at her “customer”, but her eyes are fixed on the man to the right of the painting who is hanging out of the window of the inn.  He looks knowingly out at us.  He is about to take the hunter’s bird from the tree and if we go back to the slang meaning of bird then he may also be also about to take the woman away from the comatose hunter.  On the floor at the feet of the hunter is his hunting dog.  He even looks meaningfully at us, its tail wagging, as if it too sees the funny side of the incident. It is a painting with a moral, warning us of the consequences of inebriation.  Moralistic paintings were very fashionable and popular at the time in the Netherlands.

The Hunter's Present  by Gabriel Metsu  (c. 1658-61)
The Hunter’s Present by Gabriel Metsu (c. 1658-61)

Gabriel Metsu painted a similar work around the same time entitled The Hunter’s Present.  In this work we see a woman in a white dress with a red frock coat trimmed with ermine, again like the female in Woman Reading a Letter, ermine, being expensive,  signified the wealth of the wearer.  The lady is sitting demurely on a chair with a cushion on her lap as an aid to her sewing. She looks to her left at the dead bird the huntsman is offering her.  In this depiction, the hunter is sober.   Now that we know about the bird/vogelen/sexual intercourse implications then we are now also aware what the man maybe “hunting” for.  If we look at the cupboard, behind the lady, we see the statue of Cupid, the God of Love, which gives us another hint that “love is in the air”.  Standing by his master’s side, with its head faithfully on his lap, is a similar spaniel hunting dog we saw in the previous painting.   There are also another couple of additional items of symbolism incorporated in the work, besides the bird offering, that I should draw to your attention.  Look on the floor in front of the woman.  Here again we have the abandoned shoe or slipper and although I was sceptical in my last blog as to its sexual meaning I am starting to believe that it has a symbolic sexual connotation.  So is the woman, because of the abandoned slipper, to be looked upon as a sexually permissive female.  Maybe to counter that argument we should look at her right arm which rests on the table and there, by it, we see a small lap dog, which is staring at the hunter’s dog.  Lap dogs have always been looked upon as a symbol of faithfulness.  So maybe the woman is not as wanton as we would first have believed.  Maybe the hunter is not some unknown man, chancing his luck, but it is a man known to her, maybe her lover and so perhaps the bird symbolism in this case should be looked upon as just a prelude to lovers making love rather than a more sordid prelude – vogelen! .

The Sick Child by Gabriel Metsu (c.1663)
The Sick Child by Gabriel Metsu (c.1663)

The third and final painting by Gabriel Metsu I am featuring is by far one of his most sentimental and poignant.  It is entitled The Sick Child and was completed in the early 1660’s.  Netherlands, like most of Europe had been devastated by the bubonic plague.  Amsterdam was ravaged in 1663–1664, with the death toll believed to be as many as 50,000, killing one in ten citizens and Metsu would have been well aware of the heartbreak and suffering felt by people who had lost their loved ones.

The painting has a dull grey background and the lack of background colour ensures that we are not distracted away from the two main characters.   There is a religious feel about this work.   The reasons for this assertion are threefold.   Firstly the positioning of the mother and child is very evocative of the Pietà, the portrayal of the Virgin Mary holding her son’s lifeless body in her lap, as seen in Italian Renaissance art.  Secondly, the mother is depicted wearing a grey shirt and, as a working woman with a child, one would also expect this but one would have expected her to be also wearing a plain coloured dress but in fact Metsu has depicted her in a royal blue skirt with a red undergarment and these  are the colours of the clothes one associates with Italian Renaissance paintings depicting the Virgin Mary.

Crucifixion painting on back wall
Crucifixion painting on back wall

Finally on the wall we see Metsu has added a painting of the crucifixion.  These three factors go to show that Metsu consciously asks us to compare the circumstances of the Virgin Mary and her dead son with that of this mother and very ill child.  The child, who is drooped in her mother’s lap, looks very ill and this is further underlined by the way the artist has painted her face.  It is pallid and has a deathly blue tinge to it.  The child’s legs fall lifelessly over her mother’s knees.

Tragically, Metsu died very young, at the age of thirty-seven.  He was one of the most popular painters of his era and his paintings fetched high prices.   Many art historians believe Metsu  was one of the greatest of the Dutch Golden Age genre artists and that a number of his paintings were the best of their time.   As I said earlier, although Vermeer is now one of the best loved seventeenth century Dutch painters, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Metsu was far more popular than him, and often Vermeer’s works were attributed to Metsu so that they would sell.  Through Metsu’s works we can get a feel for everyday Dutch seventeenth life.  His earlier genre works focused on the common man and woman but in the 1660’s he concentrated on scenes featuring the better-off Dutch folk, like the letter writer and his beau, and these are the paintings I have focused on in my two blogs featuring Gabriel Metsu.

Gabriel Metsu. Part 1 – Early life and The Letter

A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing by Gabriel Metsu (c.1654)
A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing by Gabriel Metsu (c.1654)

In A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing (above), Gabriel Metsu depicted himself as a nobleman and hunter, but of course the unusual twist to the depiction was the fact that he depicted himself in an a full-length, un-idealized, naturalistic nude pose.

If I was asked who was my favourite artist or what was my favourite artistic era, I would probably choose one of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painters.  To be more precise, I would almost certainly choose an artists who painted genre scenes, all of which I find quite fascinating. Nowadays the most well known and most popular Dutch Golden Age painter is almost certainly, Johannes Vermeer.  However, for the next two blogs, I am going to feature some of my favourite works by a contemporary of Vermeer, and who during their lifetime was by far the more popular.  Let me introduce you to Gabriel Metsu.

Gabriel Metsu was the son of the Flemish painter Jacques Metsu, and Jacomijntje Garniers.  Jacques Metsu besides being a painter was also believed to be a tapestry designer or cartoon painter.  A cartoon being a full size drawing made for the purpose of transferring a design to a painting or tapestry or other large work.  Records show that Jacques came from “Belle in Flanders” which is now Bailleul, a small town in French Flanders close to the France-Belgium border. Jacques Metsu married his first wife, Maeyken, who died in 1619 without giving him any children.  He married his second wife, Machtelt Dircx the following year and the couple went on to have four children, but only the first child, Jacob, survived childhood, the others probably succumbed to the plague which  swept through the region in 1624 and which also claimed the life of Machtelt.

Jacomijntje Garnier’s family came from Ypres but by 1608 when she was eighteen years of age she was living with her family in Amsterdam.  It was in this year that she became betrothed to her first husband, Abraham Lefoutere, a citizen of Antwerp.  His profession was given as a teacher but some records show him as an innkeeper.  The couple had four children, Philips, Sara, Marytgen and Abraham who died in infancy. Her husband, Abraham, died in 1614 and soon after Jacomijntje remarried.  Her second husband was Willem Fermout but he too died at a young age in 1624

Jacomijntje Garnier moved, with her three children, to Leiden and there she met Jacques Metsu and the couple were married in November 1625.  In 1629 she became pregnant with Gabriel but sadly her husband, Jacques died in the March of that year, eight months before Gabriel was born, some time between the end of November and the middle of December 1629.  Jacomijntje’s occupation around this time was given as a midwife.  Gabriel Metsu, along with his step-brother and two step-sisters from his mother’s first marriage, were brought up by her alone, until, in 1636, when Gabriel was six years old, she married her fourth husband, Cornelis Gerritsz. Bontecraey, who then became their stepfather   Bontecraey was a wealthy captain and owner of a barge and two houses in Leiden.  He died in 1649 making Jacomijntje a widow for the fourth time.  She died two years later in 1651.

  There are few hard facts with regards Gabriel Metsu’s early artistic training and teenage years.  However it is believed he could have helped in the workshop of Claes Pietersz de Grebber, a silversmith.   Because Gabriel Metsu’s earliest work, which is still in existence, entitled Ecce Homo, which he completed around the late 1640’s was a religious one,  it is believed that his early artistic tuition must have come from a history painter.  It maybe just a coincidence, but his employer’s son, Anthonie de Grebber, who Metsu must have known, was a history painter and maybe he gave Gabriel some of his first artistic tuition.   In 1644, when just fifteen years of age, Gabriel Metsu joined a  group of local artists, and even at  such an early age, his name was entered in the membership rolls as a “painter.”  Other larger Dutch cities such as Gouda and Haarlem had their own painters’ guild, Guild of Saint Luke, and it was mandatory that artists were members of these guilds in order to sell their wares.  Leiden, up until March 10th 1648, had no such guild but on that date the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde (Leiden Guild of St Luke) was founded by Gerard Dou and Abraham Lambertsz van den Tempel.  Six days after its formation Gabriel Metsu, aged 18,  became a member.

I will continue Gabriel Metsu’s life story in my next blog but for today I want to feature two of his most famous works, two narrative pendants, Man Writing a Letter and its companion piece Woman Reading a Letter, both of which were completed around 1666 and now hang in the National Art Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.  Dutch artists were the first to make the private letter a central focus in genre scenes.

Man writing a Letter by Gabriel Metsu  (c. 1664-1666)
Man writing a Letter by Gabriel Metsu
(c. 1664-1666)

The setting for the painting, Man Reading a Letter, is a study.  The scene is bathed in sunlight.  We see a young, fine-looking man, with long blonde curls, sitting at a table, pen in hand.  He is finely dressed in a black velvet jacket and the white of his shirt and neckerchief are lit up by the sunlight, which streams through the open window in front of him and reflects off the light-coloured back wall.   His hat is precariously balanced on the back of his chair.  He is quietly contemplating the words he wants to write to the woman he loves.  The sunlight highlights him.  He is at centre stage of this work and the sunlight acts as a spotlight.  If this is indeed a love letter he is writing then he must be careful with his words.  He cannot countenance a misunderstanding caused by what he has written.  Look at the resolute expression on his face.  He is totally lost in thought knowing the importance of the words he uses.  They have to say exactly what he wants them to say.  He must avoid ambiguity.  The missive must be perfect.

Observe his opulent surroundings.  The floor is made up of smooth black and white marble slabs, a sure indication that the owner of this house is wealthy.   Everything points to this being a room belonging to a well-to-do person.  We can tell this by some of the furnishings on view.   The table at which he writes the letter is covered with a finely detailed expensive Oriental rug or table tapestry.  Behind him we see a landscape painting in an expensive heavily carved gilt Baroque frame. To his right, partially hidden by the opened window frame we see a globe.  The globe appeared in many Dutch paintings of the time and is almost certainly a reminder of the Dutch Golden Age when the country was one of the leaders in exploration and trade with the far corners of the world.

Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu  (c. 1664-1666)
Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu
(c. 1664-1666)

The companion work to this painting is Woman Reading a Letter.  The Metsu’s pendants, when seen together, combine to become a set of narrative works in which we see the man writing to the woman and the woman reading his letter.  In this second work by Metsu, we see the lady sitting in the corner on a wooden zoldertje platform in a marble-floored hall.  She is wearing a long pink skirt, and her yellow top is trimmed with ermine, which is a sure sign of wealth.   A pillow rests on her knees, which has been used as a support whilst sewing.  Her sewing has been cast aside when the maidservant brought in a letter for her.  In her excitement at receiving the letter she has dropped her thimble which we see lying on the floor.    The letter obviously means a lot to her.  She is totally absorbed by what he has written.  Look how she tilts the letter at an angle as she thoughtfully reads it.  Maybe it could be that she needs the sunlight which is streaming through the window to illuminate the words, making them easier for her to read or maybe she is shielding the contents from her maidservant.  The painting is full of symbolism which adds intrigue to the painting.  With this being one of a pair of paintings we know that the man has written the letter to her, which she is now reading but what is the relationship between the man and the woman?  Look at the woman’s forehead. The hairline is receding and to achieve that it could be that some of her hair had been plucked or the forehead shaved giving a higher forehead, which was the fashion of the day.  Look more closely and one can see a single curl of hair at the centre of the forehead and this usually signified that the lady was engaged.

The inclusion of the dog is a symbol of fidelity and one presumes its inclusion probably signifies the woman’s faithfulness. According to some art historians and iconographers, a cast-off shoe, one of which we see on the floor, has erotic connotations.  I find that a slight stretch of their imagination but I suppose their line of thought is that lovers hastily cast of shoes in their rush to make love.  It is interesting to look at the maidservant who stands next to her mistress.  Because of her lowly status in the household she has been depicted in a drab brown dress although a little colour has been added with the blue of her apron.  Under her left arms she has a bucket with two arrows scribed on it.  Could this once again symbolise that love is in the air and these are Cupid’s arrows.  To me they look more like the arrows one used to see on the back of prisoners’ jackets in 1930’s movies.  She also holds in her left hand an envelope.  There is a word on the envelope which I cannot quite read although it seems to start with the letter “M”.  I read somewhere that the word is “Metsu” but until I stand before the original work I will not be sure.  Hopefully I will get to Dublin next month and have a closer look.

The maidservant is drawing back the green curtain, which is hanging from a rod, and which is covering a framed painting on the back wall.  Covers over paintings were not unusual as it was a means of preventing sunlight from falling on them causing them to fade.  The subject of the painting is a seascape in which we see two sailing ship battering their way through a storm. Is the subject of the painting symbolic?  There are two theories about this.  One is that the woman’s betrothed is a seafarer and the other is that the ship struggling in a storm symbolises the romantic struggles ahead for the two lovers.  Also on the wall is a mirror which is in a plain black frame, the colour of which I read symbolised a warning against narcissism and lewdness, but like the abandoned shoe I remain unconvinced with that theory.

As I said earlier, both the paintings are housed in the National Gallery of Ireland, part of the Beit Collection which is housed in the .  The paintings were owned by Sir Alfred Beit and his wife, Lady Beit.  Sir Alfred Beit was a British Conservative politician, philanthropist, art lover, and honorary Irish citizen.  He donated the two paintings I have featured today along with fifteen other masterpieces to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1987, whilst the other major art works remained at their home, Russborough House, which was once described as the most beautiful house in Ireland.   Sir Alfred and Lady Beit bought Russborough House in 1952 to house their art collection and in 1976 established the Alfred Beit Foundation to manage the property. Beit died in 1994 but Lady Beit remained in residence until her own death in 2005.  Due to a number of armed robberies and thefts of some of the paintings, which fortunately were recovered, the Foundation agreed to move them to the National Gallery of Ireland for safekeeping.

In my next blog I will complete the life story of Gabriel Metsu and feature some more of his paintings.

Judith Leyster and Tulip madness

The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)
The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)

Of my featured artist today, the Dutch Golden Age writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius wrote in his 1648 book about the history of Haarlem entitled Harlemias:

“…There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called “the true Leading star in art…” 

Judith Jans Leyster was born in Haarlem in July 1609.  She was the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster who was a cloth maker and owner of a local brewery, which was called Ley-ster (guide or leading star).  It is thought that her initial artistic tuition came from Frans Pieter de Grebber.   De Grebber, a member of the local painters’ guild, Haarlem Guild of St Luke, was a landscape artist and portraitist, who also designed tapestries. The reason for this belief is that the chronicler of life in Haarlem at that time, Samuel Ampzing, mentioned Judith Leyster in his 1628 book about life in Haarlem, Beschrijvinge ende Lof der stad Haelem in Holland.  He commented that Leyster, then 19 years old, was a painter who had “good and keen insight”.   It was interesting to note that he also made the comment: “Who has ever seen paintings by a daughter?” which alluded to the fact that it was very unusual for a female to become a professional painter and furthermore, in 1633, she was one of only two females in the 17th century who had been accepted as a master in the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.  The first woman registered was Sara van Baabbergen, two years earlier.

It was around this time that Judith’s family left Haarlem and moved some forty kilometres to the southwest and went to live in Vreeland, a town close to the provincial capital Utrecht.  Utrecht in the 1620’s was the home of the group of artists known as the Utrecht Caravaggists.  These painters, such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerrit van Honthorst had spent time in Rome during the first two decades of the 17th century and, in the Italian capital, it was a time when Caravaggio’s art was exerting a tremendous influence on all who witnessed his works and by the early 1620s, his painterly style of chiaroscuro, was wowing the rest of Europe.   Whether Judith Leyster mixed with these painters or just picked up on their style is in doubt as the family stayed in the Utrecht area less than twelve months, moving to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1629 but two years later Judith returned to her home town of Haarlem.

It is known that she met Frans Hals when she was in Haarlem but although many of Leyster’s work resembled Hals’ work, both in style and genre, art historians are not in agreement as to whether she was ever actually Hals’ pupil or simply an admirer.  Leyster’s paintings were secular in nature and she never painted any religious works.   Although she is known to have painted a couple of portraits she was, in the main, a genre painter, recording on canvas the life of everyday people.  They were, generally speaking, joyous in their depiction and were extremely sought after by wealthy merchants.

Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)
Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)

Her famous self-portrait was completed around 1630 when she was twenty-one years of age and could well have been her entrance piece for the Haarlem Guild of St Luke’s.  In the work, she is at her easel, palette and an array of eighteen paint brushes in her left hand.  Her right arm is propped against the back of her chair and a brush, held in her right hand is poised ready to carry on painting the work we see on her easel.  She has turned towards us.  She is relaxed and seems to have broken off from painting to say something to whoever is in her studio.  The first things we notice are that the clothes she is wearing.  These would not be the ones she would wear when she was painting.  They are too good for such a messy job to be worn by somebody who is painting.  Her skilful depiction of her clothes allude to her social status and her depiction of them is a fine example of the up-to-date female fashion. Also consider, would a painter working on a painting really be clutching all eighteen of their brushes at the same time?   Of course not!   This is more a painting in which Judith Leyster is intent on promoting herself.  Through this self- portrait she is eager to reveal herself, her painterly skills and her social standing.  In this one painting she is advertising her ability to paint a merry genre scene as seen by the painting of the violin player on the easel.  This depiction of a musician was similar to the one depicted in her 1630 work entitled The Merry Company, which she completed around the same time as this self-portrait.  Of course this being a self-portrait it has also highlighted her ability as a portraitist.  It is interesting to note that when this painting was subjected to infrared photography it was found that the painting on the easel was Leyster’s own face and so one has to presume she originally intended that this painting would be a quirky “self-portrait within a self-portrait”, but presumably, Leyster on reflection, decided to have the painting on the easel represent another facet of her painterly skills – that of a genre painter.  This was her most successful and profitable painting genre with its scenes of merrymakers.  It was this type of work which was extremely popular with her clientele, who wanted to be reminded of the happy and enjoyable times of life.  Although Leyster was proficiently skilled as a portrait artist the art market was already crowded with popular portraitist and so, probably for economic reasons, she decided to concentrate on her genre paintings.

Judith Leyster's signature
Judith Leyster’s signature

Around 1629 she set up a studio on her own and started to add her own signature to her works.  Her signature or moniker was an unusual and clever play on her surname “Leyster”.  Lei-star in Dutch means “lode star” or “polestar” a star often used by sailors to navigate by and she was often referred to as a “leading star” in the art world, and so she used this play-on-words to create a special signature: a monogram of her initials with a shooting star.  She must have been successful at selling her works of art as soon she had employed three apprentices.  It is interesting to note that she had a falling out with Frans Hals who had “illegally” poached one of her apprentices and the whole matter ended up in court at which time Hals was made to apologise and make a payment to her for his action.

The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)
The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)

Judith Leyster completed many genre pieces in which she portrayed people as being happy with their lot in life.  Settings were often inside taverns but whereas with other Dutch artists who tended to portray the tavern dwellers with a moralistic tone around the evils of drink and the repercussions of becoming a heavy drinker, Leyster wanted to focus more on people enjoying themselves.  A good example of that was her 1630 painting which is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum entitled The Jolly Toper or The Merry Drinker which is considered to be one of her finest works.

The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (1628-30)
The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (c.1628)

However with this painting came the assertion by many critics that she was merely a copier of Frans Hals style of painting, such as her choice of subjects and her brushwork.  Hals had completed his own painting The Merry Drinker in 1630 so I will leave you to decide whether there are more similarities between Leyster and Hal’s paintings other than the subject matter.

The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)
The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)

Although Leyster’s genre scenes would often focus on happiness and merriment with no moralistic judgement, she did occasionally focus on the darker side of life and a good example of this can be seen in her 1639 painting which is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, entitled The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier).  It is a vanitas work, meaning it is a work of art which in some way symbolises the brevity of life.   In the work we see two men dressed in festive clothing having an enjoyable time drinking and smoking.  The fact that they are not just celebrating but are also dressed up for the occasion has led people to believe that this merriment is taking place on the Dutch holiday of  vastelaovend, which we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.  This was the day when people took advantage of the last day of merrymaking before the forty days of Lent abstinence and fasting.  However it is not just the two revellers that Leyster has depicted in the drinking scene, for between them we see a skeleton.  The skeleton holds an hour-glass in one bony hand and a skull and a lit candle in the other.  The candle both casts a shadow on the seated drinker but at the same time lights up the cavalier’s face.   The skull, burning candle and hour-glass are classic symbols of a vanitas painting which have the sobering effect of reminding us of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.  There is no interaction between the drinkers and the skeleton which is probably an indication that as they have imbibed so much alcohol the thought of death never crosses their mind.  Look at the expression on the face of the cavalier dressed in red.  It is one of blankness and stupidity which we have often witnessed when we look into a face of a drunkard.  At that moment in time, he has no concern about his own mortality.   One final comment about this work is that it is a good example of how Leyster utilised a style of painting which was associated with the Italian painter Caravaggio and his Dutch followers, the Utrecht Caravaggists, whom Leyster would have seen earlier in her career.  It is known as tenebrism which is where the artist has depicted most of the figures engulfed in shadow but at the same time, have some of them dramatically illuminated by a shaft of light usually from an identifiable source, such as a candle as is the case in this painting, or from an unidentifiable source, off canvas.

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)
A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)

On a lighter note I offer you another painting with a moral, but somewhat more humorous, which Judith Leyster completed around 1635 and is entitled A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel.  It is a visual joke with a moralising tale.  It is one of those paintings, typical of Dutch genre scenes, in which you have to look carefully at all who and what are depicted in the painting so as work out what is going on.  See if you can fathom it out.

The two main characters are a boy and a girl.  The boy has a cheeky smile on his face.  He has enticed the cat to join them by waving a wriggling eel which he now holds aloft, having grabbed the cat.   The little girl has now grabbed the tail of the cat, which in a state of shock and fear.  It is desperate to get away from the pair of young tormentors and has extended its claws and about to scratch the boy’s arm in an attempt to escape his clutches.  The young girl who has a face of an older woman, admonishingly wags her finger at us – so why is she so censorious?   It is believed that she is smugly warning us against foolish and mischievous behaviour alluding to the Dutch saying: ‘He who plays with cats gets scratched’.  In other words he who seeks trouble will find it. Although children are depicted in this moralising scene, it is more a warning to adults about their behaviour and many Dutch artists who painted genre scenes with a moral twist frequently used children to put over their moral message.

In the late 1630’s, a strange phenomenon occurred in the Netherlands, which had been brewing for a number of years.   It became known as Tulpenwoede (tulip madness) which saw the price of tulip bulbs rocketing.   It all began when some tulip contracts reached a level which was about 20 times the level of three months earlier.   In one particular case a rare tulip known as Semper Augustus, which had been valued at around 1,000 guilders per bulb  ten years earlier was fetching a price of 5,500 guilders per bulb in  January 1637.  This meant that one of these bulbs was worth the cost of a large Amsterdam house.  Many people, who watched the rising value of the tulip bulb, wanted part of the action.  People used their life savings and other assets were cashed in to get money to invest in these bulbs, all in the belief and expectation that the price of tulip bulbs would continue to rise and they would suddenly become rich.  Alas as we have all seen when a thing is too good to be true, it usually is, and by the end of February 1637 the price of a tulip bulb had crashed and many people lost their savings.

Tulip by Judith Leyster
Tulip by Judith Leyster
from her Tulip Book

However the rising value of the tulip bulb came as a boon to floral artists for if people could not afford the actual tulips for their gardens or pots the next best thing was to have a painting of them and even better still would be to have a book full of beautiful depictions of different tulips.   Judith Leyster realised that the public’s love of tulips could be advantageous for her and she produced her own book of tulips.

Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)
Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)

In 1636 Judith Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, another genre painter, and the two of them set up a joint studio and art dealing business.  They moved to Amsterdam as the opportunity to sell their works of art was better and there was also a greater stability in the art market.  Judith went on to have five children and the role of mother and housekeeper meant that her art output declined.  Until recently it was thought that her artistic output had all but ceased, that was until the run-up to a Judith Leyster retrospective at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem a number of years ago when a beautiful floral still life which she painted in 1654 surfaced.  It had been hidden from public view in the collection of a private collector.

Judfith Leyster and her husband remained in Amsterdam for eleven years.  They then moved to Heemstede in the province of North Holland, where in 1660, at age 50, Leyster died.

Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly

 

Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)
Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)

Vanitas is an explicit genre of art in which the artist uses gloomy and moody symbolic objects in order that the viewer becomes very aware of the brevity of life and the inevibility of death.   The origins of the term vanitas can be traced back to the Latin biblical adage from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2):

“…vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…”

which when translated means:

“…vanity of vanities; all is vanity…”

This specific artistic genre was very popular in the 16th and 17th century especially in the Netherlands, Flanders and France.

My Daily Art Display blog today looks at one of the works by the great Dutch still life and vanitas painter David Bailly.   Bailly was born in Leiden in 1584.  His father, Pieter, a Flemish immigrant from Antwerp, was a writing master.  Being a practicing Protestant he had fled from the Catholic Spanish rule of his homeland to the safer, more tolerant Northern Netherlands, eventually settling in the town of Leiden.  It was whilst living here that he married Willempgen Wolphaertsdr. and the couple went on to have four children, Anthony,  Anna, Neeltgen and David.  In 1592 David’s father took up the position as writing master at the University of Leiden.  He remained there until 1597 at which time he changed careers and became fencing master at a school run by the mathematician Ludolph van Cuelen, which was an establishment set up to train aspiring army officers in the various facets of warfare.

David’s initial training in drawing came from his father and in 1597, at the age of thirteen, he trained at the Leiden studio of the Dutch draughtsman and copper engraver, Jacques de Gheyn II.  David Bailly soon came to believe that his future did not lie as a draughtsman but as a painter and he was somewhat fortunate to live in the town of Leiden which was the home of many established and aspiring artists.  The leading artist in Leiden at the time was Isaac van Swanenburgh, who with his three sons, had set up a thriving studio in the town.  However it was not to this family concern that young David sort employment and tuition but instead his father arranged his son to become an apprentice to the painter and surgeon, Adriaen Verburgh.   In 1602 David moved to Amsterdam and became an apprentice in the city studio of the very successful portraitist and art dealer, Cornelius van der Voort. 

At the end of 1608, then aged twenty-four, David Bailly, now a journeyman painter, set off on his own Grand Tour, all the time seeking out commissions.  He travelled around Europe visiting a number of German cities such as Frankfurt, Nuremburg and Augsburg before crossing the Tyrolean Alps into Italy where he visited Venice and Rome.  In all, his journey lasted five years and it was not until 1613 that he returned to the Netherlands.

Once back home his work concentrated on drawing and painting portraits and vanitas still-life works and would often, as is the case in today’s featured work, combine the two genres.  His portraiture at the time consisted of many works featuring some of the students and professors of the University of Leiden.  He built up a very illustrious clientele which was testament to his artistic ability.  Bailly also had a number of pupils, two of whom were his nephews Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, who rank amongst the best still-life Dutch Golden Age painters.  In 1642 David Bailly married Agneta van Swanenburgh.  The couple did not have any children.  In 1648, he along with other artists including Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, and Jan Steen founded the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde  – Leiden Guild of St Luke.  David Bailly died in Leiden in October 1657, aged73.

The painting I am featuring today is entitled Vanitas Still Life with a Portrait of a Young Painter which was completed by David Bailly in 1651 when he was sixty-six years of age and six years before he died.  It is now housed in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden.    It is a fascinating painting full of symbolism.  To the left of the painting we have, what some believe, is a self-portrait of the artist himself, but of course as we know Bailly’s age when he painted the work we know this was a depiction of himself as a young man in his early twenties.    In his right hand he holds a maulstick, or mahlstick, which is a stick with a soft leather or padded head, used by painters to support the hand that holds the brush.  In his other hand he holds upright on the table a framed oval portrait of himself as he was at the time of painting this work.  So in fact the man sitting on the left of the painting and the man in the frame are one and the same and the inclusion of both images in the painting simply reminds us of the transience of life.    

Behind the framed self-portrait we have another oval painting, that of a young woman and this has always interested art historians.  It is believed to be a portrait of his wife Agneta in her younger days.  However at the time the painting was completed Bailly’s wife was gravely ill, in fact, it could well be that she had already died.  Look closely at the wall in the right background, just behind the half empty fluted glass, can you make out a ghost-like portrait of a woman, en grisaille, painted on it, across which drifts the smoke from the extinguished candle?  This is another classic vanitas symbolisation.  This could well be alluding to the fact that his wife had died from contracting the plague.  On the table we also see a standing figure of Saint Stephen bound to a tree, pierced with arrows.  So what is the connection with St Stephen and the other objects on the table?   One theory is that there was a link between Saint Stephen and the plague, which killed so many people in Europe, including Bailly’s wife.    The infections produced by the bubonic plague caused people to compare the “random attacks” of the plague with attacks by arrows and these folk desperately sort out a saint who was martyred by arrows, to intercede on their behalf and so prayers were offered up to St Stephen for him to intercede.   

This is a vanitas still-life painting and we see the usual vanitas symbolism amongst the objects depicted in the work of art.   Vanitas works allude to the transience of life.  Time passes.  It cannot be halted.  We all must eventually die.  Look at the background of the painting.  Look at the angle of the wall as it vertically divides the painting.  To the left, the painting is brightly lit and we have the young man, the aspiring artist, with his unused artist’s palettes hanging on the wall.  To the right of the vertical divide, the room is in shadow and we have the portrait of the old artist.  On the vertical line we have a bubble, which is a classic metaphor for the impermanence and fragility of life. 

There are many other items to note.   On the wall we see a print of Franz Hals 1626 painting, The Lute Player.  There is a plethora of objects on the table including a picture of a bearded man which could have been a portrait of Bailly’s father or maybe one of his teachers.  On the table, there are also many noteworthy items indicating death such as the skull, the extinguished candle, the tipped-over Roemer glass, the grains of sand of an hour glass running down and the wilting flowers.  There are also reminders of the luxuries of life which are of little use to us once we are dead, such as the coins and the pearls as well as items that have once helped us to relax and add to our enjoyment such as the pipe and the book, as well as the art in the form of paintings and sculpture. Sadly, pleasure and wealth are short-lived and ultimately unimportant.   This is about the temporality of life.    Overhanging the table in the foreground is a scroll with the words:

VANITAS VANIT(AT)VM

ET OMNIA VANITAS

which remind us of the words from the  book of Ecclesiastes I quoted at the start of this blog.

So the next time you decide to have somebody take your photograph, think carefully what you would place by your side or on a nearby table so as to convey a subtle and symbolic message to the people who will view the photograph in years to come.

 


Rembrandt, Geertje Dircx and Hendrickje Stoffels

Woman bathing in Stream  by Rembrandt (1654)
Woman bathing in a Stream by Rembrandt (1654)

It is thought that the woman in the painting is Hendrickje Stoffels, who was Rembrandt’s maid and who shared the second part of the artist’s life.  Later she would become his lover and would remain by his side until the day he dies.  At the time of this painting Hendrickje was pregnant with Rembrandt’s child.

We see her before us, immersing herself in the water.  She looks down at her reflection in the water.  She is completely absorbed in what she sees.   Behind her we see a richly-coloured red dress which she has left behind before entering the water.   She has rolled up her skirt up and she hesitatingly and gingerly steps into the cold water of a stream. She seems completely unaware that we are observing her.  For us it is an intimate moment as we study her.  It is not simply a woman bathing in a stream.  Look how Rembrandt has allowed the light to fall on her, illuminating her skin and chemise.  The painting can be seen in the National Gallery, London.

I concluded my last blog about Rembrandt von Rijn and his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh with her death from consumption just before her thirtieth birthday.  In today’s blog I will look how, even from her grave, Saskia managed to have an effect on Rembrandt’s life and I want to move on and look at two other ladies who entered Rembrandt’s life, one of whom featured in a number of his paintings and is thought to have modelled for one of his more famous paintings, Woman Bathing in a Stream.  That lady was Hendrickje Stoffels.

With Saskia’s death in June 1642, the thirty-six year old Rembrandt was left alone with his nine month old son Titus.  He needed help with bringing up his son and so living in the household at the time was Geertje Dircx who had been acting as Titus’ wet nurse.  It is more than likely she was living in the house since Titus was born and before Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, died.    Geertje was born in Edam around 1610, where she had been brought up by her father, Dirck Pieters and her mother, Jannetje Jans.  She had married a ship’s bugler, Abraham Claesz, in 1634 but he had died following year.   It is thought that she had received little education and could neither read nor write.  There is a great deal of conjecture about Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje who was just four years his junior.  Was she more than just the wet nurse for Rembrandt’s son?  Did she and the artist have a sexual relationship?  If theirs was a very close relationship then why did they not marry?  By all accounts she was not a woman of great beauty as the Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, described her as:

“…a little farm woman……rather small of person but well made in appearance and plump of body….”

For the answer to the question of marriage between the two, we have to consider the power Saskia wielded, even from her grave.

What we do know is that for some reason, a few weeks before her death, Saskia had drawn up a new will and in it she left her share of hers and Rembrandt’s combined estate, not to Rembrandt, but to their baby son Titus, which would be given to him when he came of age.   However, Saskia’s will also stated that any interest accrued from her part of their joint estate could be used by Rembrandt as he was the father and guardian of their son.  As strange as the terms of the will seem, it was legally binding.  So what were the possible reasons for the terms of her will which she signed a fortnight before she died?   Was she concerned by the way Rembrandt spent their money on property and his art collection?  Maybe, as Rembrandt was having a very successful period selling his art work, she didn’t think he needed her money and therefore she would rather it was invested for her son to reap its benefit when he was older.  Unfortunately for Rembrandt he was soon to need this money as his success as an artist, which had provided him with a life of prosperity, was soon to dip and his financial position became ever more serious.  However what was probably more surprising about the will was a codicil which stated that if Rembrandt should marry again all Saskia’s money would be returned to her family, the Uylenburghs.  So you can see that Saskia still controlled Rembrandt from her grave!

Hendrickje Stoffels(Young Girl at the Window) by Rembrandt (1657)
Hendrickje Stoffels(Young Girl at the Window) by Rembrandt (1657)

Hendrickje Stoffels (Young Girl at the Window) was painted by Rembrandt in 1657.  It was painted in the same year he completed a portrait of his son Titus (Titus Reading) and it was during this time that the artist concentrated his portraiture work on people or family who lived nearby.  Hendrickje, although uneducated and lacked the ability to read or write, was the perfect companion for Rembrandt.  She supported him during his troubled times when he was mired down in bankruptcy proceedings.  She also stuck with him despite the adverse comments from “respectable” neighbours and the Reform Church about her “state of whoredom” for being his live-in lover.  She was determined to support Rembrandt through thick and thin and in this portrait of her we see that grim determination and her steadfast composure as she stands at the window of their house in Breestraat, Amsterdam.  This portrait hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Before he felt the full force of pecuniary embarrassment, Rembrandt had another problem to solve, which was probably self-inflicted.  Around about 1647, Rembrandt hired in a young maidservant, Hendrickje Stofefll.  Hendrickje was the daughter of an army sergeant based in the garrison town of Bredevoort.   In 1646, when she was just twenty years of age, her father was killed, the victim of an explosion of the gunpowder tower in Bredevoort.  Hendrickje’s mother remarried the following year and her daughter was left to fend for herself.  She moved to Amsterdam where she became a maidservant and later that year took up employment in Rembrandt’s house.   Hendrickje was sixteen years younger than Geertje, who lived in the household as nurse to Rembrandt’s son, Titus.  The two women did not get on well together.  Hendrickje had characteristics which Geertje lacked.  She was a quiet girl with a very pleasant manner and had the youthful looks which Geertje had lost.  Although Hendrickje was twenty years younger than Rembrandt he was charmed by her as was his son Titus who was six years old when Hendrickje entered the household.  Geertje soon became jealous at the way Rembrandt and Hendrickje became ever closer and she must have been horrified at the turn of events.

Portrait of Hendrickje Stofells by Rembrandt (c.1656)
Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels by Rembrandt (c.1656)

This portrait of his mistress, entitled Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, was completed by Rembrandt around 1656 and can now be found in the National Gallery, London.  There is a sense of intimacy between artist and subject in this work.  Look closely at the expression on Hendrickje’s face.  It is one of poise and yet there is a degree of sensuality about the way she affectionately looks at Rembrandt, her lover and father of her child, as he concentrates on her portrait.  One of the strange things about this work is that the signature and the date on the portrait were believed to have been added at a later date.

Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned is a maxim that summed up Geertje’s feelings, which led to her subsequent and somewhat foolhardy actions.  Tensions in the Rembrandt household surfaced, culminating in the dismissal of Geertje.  She then decided to take Rembrandt to court for refusing to honour his unwritten agreement to marry her.  Knowing as we do the nature of Saskia’s will, in respect of Rembrandt re-marrying along with the unfavourable financial consequences for him if he was to remarry, there is little likelihood that he would ever have seriously proposed marriage to Geertje.  Whether she had at one time been his lover is of course another matter!   Rembrandt tried to come to a financial settlement with Geertje but she kept holding out for an ever more lucrative settlement.  In the end the case went to court on October 23rd 1649 at the city’s Town Hall and the Commissioners of Marital Affairs, who sat in judgement, were told that Rembrandt had slept with Geertje, but that he had not made a promise to marry her. Their decision was to award Geertje an annuity of 200 guilders in alimony, a sum he continued to pay until 1655.  However there was another  twist to this saga. Geertje was found guilty of stealing Saskia’s jewelry which was part of Rembrandt’s estate.  One of the prosecution witnesses was none other than Hendrickje Stoffels.  Geertje was sent to the Spinhuis in Gouda (A spinhuis was a house of correction, a kind of workhouse) where she remained for five years.

Rembrandt and Hendrickje Stoffels lived together quite happily as lovers but in June 1654 the Council of the Reformed Church of Amsterdam got wind of this relationship and summoned Rembrandt and Hendrickje to stand before them.  Rembrandt was not a practicing churchgoer so the matter against him was dropped.    Hendrickje however was accused of whoredom and of living with a man, unwed.  Being six months pregnant there was little point in denying the charge.  Her fate was to suffer banishment from attending any special church occasions.  She gave birth to Rembrandt’s daughter, Cornelia, on October 30th 1654.  The name could well have been chosen because it was the name of Rembrandt’s mother or more poignantly because it was the name of the two daughters of Saskia and Rembrandt, who survived just a few weeks.

Hendrickje Stoffels died in July 1663, aged 37 and was buried in a rented grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church) on July 24th 1663.  She was probably a victim of the bubonic plague which had swept through the city that year and had lasted for more than two years killing 10% of the city’s population.

Rembrandt van Rijn died on 4 October 1669 aged 63.   He is buried in an anonymous rented grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk on the 8th October.  His son Titus died one year earlier, aged 27.