Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla. Part 2 The Murillo Exhibition

Murillo Exhibition at Seville

……….when I arrived at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a special exhibition on marking the 400th anniversary of Seville’s great painter Bartolomé Estaban Murillo.  It had opened in November 2018 and was still running. The city of Seville had been celebrating the 400th anniversary of his birth for the last twelve months and this exhibition, which ends in April, was the culmination of the celebrations.

Self-portrait by Murillo

Murillo came from a very large family, the youngest of fourteen children.  His father was both a barber and a surgeon.  His parents died when he was young and he went to live with a distant relative and artist, Juan del Castillo who started Murillo’s artistic education.  He stayed with Castillo until 1639 when his mentor had to move to Cadiz.  Now Murillo, aged twenty-two, had to fend for himself and scraped a living by selling some of his paintings.  In 1643 he travelled to Madrid where he met Velazquez who was also from Seville and had now become a master of his craft.  He took pity on Murillo and let him lodge in his house.  Murillo stayed in Madrid for two years before returning to Seville.  In 1648, at the age of thirty-one, Murillo married a wealthy lady of rank, Doña Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayor.   Murillo died in 1682 aged 64.  He lived a humble and pious life and was a brave man.  On his death he left a son and daughter, his wife having died before him.

The Seville exhibition was a collection of fifty-five paintings by Murillo from museum collections around the world. The exhibition was divided into nine sections each providing a glimpse of the world through Murillo’s eyes. The sections were designated as Holy Childhood, A family of Nazareth, Glory on Earth, The Immaculate Conception, Compassion, Penitence, Storyteller, Genre painting and Portraiture. It was a journey through his religious works to the social realism of 17th century Seville, which has been described as a city of paupers and saints, of rascals and wealthy noblemen and merchants who, through their wealth, were able to have Murillo paint their portraits.

The Good Shepherd by Murillo (1665)

In the first section, there was the Prado-owned painting entitled The Good Shepherd, which Murillo completed in 1665. The scene has a rural setting along with classical allusions in the form of archaeological ruins which we can see in the left background. Jesus is portrayed as the boy who exudes an air of determination as he holds his shepherd’s crook in one hand whilst his left-hand lies across the back of the animal. There is a certain gentleness about the scene and the sheep, seen with the boy, represents the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), which is talked about in the scriptures. The depiction of the lamb as being obedient and submissive is all part of the divine plan.

The Holy Family with the Infant St John by Murillo (c.1670)

One of Murillo’s paintings in the Family of Nazareth section was The Holy Family with Infant Saint John, which Murillo completed around 1670 and was loaned to the Seville gallery by Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. This was a pendant painting forming a pair with his work The Flight into Egypt, which was also on show. In the depiction, we see Saint Joseph, in the background, with his carpentry tools. In the foreground, we see the Christ Child and the young Saint John busily tying two sticks together to form a cross. Mary watches over the children as she busies herself sewing. A sense of depth has been added to the composition by the inclusion of a background of mountains and clouds.

The Holy Family (The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, (1675-1682)

In the third section, Glory on Earth we have the Murillo painting The Holy Family (The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities) which was loaned to the museum for this exhibition by London’s National Gallery. This work of art encapsulates the religious theory that Jesus is both God and man and thus belongs to both the Heavenly Trilogy of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as well as belonging to the Earthly Trinity – the family from Nazareth as seen in the painting with Jesus’ closeness to his mother, the Virgin Mary and his father, her husband Saint Joseph.

The Annunciation by Murillo (c.1660)

Murillo completed many paintings featuring the Virgin Mary and many were on show at the exhibition. The Annunciation by Murillo, which he completed around 1660 and had been loaned out by the Prado, was a great example of this focus on the Mother of God.

The Virgin and the Rosary by Murillo (c.1680)

The Dulwich Gallery-owned work by Murillo entitled The Virgin and the Rosary was also on view. In this work we see the Virgin seated on a throne of clouds floating in the celestial sphere and unlike other versions of this work by the Seville painter, clouds and angels have now been added to become her throne and footstool.

Mater Dolorosa by Murillo (1670-1675)

One of my favourite pieces of religious art by Murillo, which was at the exhibition, was Mater Dolorosa an artwork, which was part of a private collection belonging to a Dutch family. Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of Sorrows refers to the sorrows in the life of the Virgin Mary and is a key subject for what is termed Marian art in the Catholic Church. In 1939 when the painting was bought from the Amsterdam art dealership, de Boer, by a private Dutch buyer, there was some doubt as to whether this painting was by Murillo but the German art historian August Lieberman Mayer, who was one of the most prominent art historians of the early 20th century and the era’s leading specialist for 17th century Spanish painting, wrote to the new owner stating his belief that it had been painted by Murillo. In his letter dated July 12th, 1939, he wrote:

“…I deeply regret, that actually I cannot make a new edition of my book in „Klassiker der Kunst“, but I hope to publish another monography of Murillo in Spain“ The picture is, in my opinion, a very fine, well preserved, genuine and most characteristic work by B. Murillo, executed most probably about 1668, the period, I consider the best and most powerful of the master. I reserve me the right of the first publication of this important and impressive work..”

Despite Mayer’s opinion, many art scholars still question his attribution. August Mayer never did publish another work on the Spanish master. As a Jew, he was forced to leave his offices in Munich by the Nazis.   He then fled to Paris in 1936 but was later arrested and was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where he died.

I am not a great lover of religious art, probably not due to the quality of the work but more to do with the subject matter. I was therefore very pleased that after seven rooms of religious painting the final two rooms were devoted to Murillo’s genre paintings and his portraiture.

A Peasant Boy leaning on a sill by Murillo (c.1675)

I especially liked Murillo’s painting A Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill, which he completed around 1675.  When London’s National Gallery acquired this work in 1826, it was the first Spanish painting to enter the museum’s collection.   The National Gallery of London loaned this to the Museo de Bellas Artes for the Murillo exhibition. This striking depiction of a cheerful boy is related to Murillo’s depictions of street urchins in his larger canvases. We see the boy at a window, the implication being that there is a lot going on that we are not aware of and so we have to be satisfied with what we have before us. So what else is going on? What has been excluded from the depiction? What is the boy looking at?   Some would have us believe that this work had a companion piece painted by Murillo, which was to be hung to the right of this one which would allow us to see what the boy was looking at.

Young Girl Lifting her Veil by Murillo

That suggested pendant piece was Young Girl Lifting Her Veil, (which is privately owned and was not included at the Seville exhibition). However, many art historians cast doubt on the two paintings being pendant pieces but the fact is that they were painted around the same time, they are both half-length depictions and are of similar size.  I have included the Young Girl Lifting her Veil and let you decide whether the two paintings hung side by side on a wall would add to your belief that they were pendant pieces. Was this beautiful girl the subject of the boy’s gaze?  Some think that the boy’s demeanour has an air of mischief about it and his expression was not instilled with innocent sincerity, like that of the girl. I will leave you with one further clue. At the sale of the two works at the Peter Coxe London saleroom on March 20th, 1806 of paintings owned by the Marquess of Lansdowne, the catalogue described them as:

“…No.50. Murillo. A Laughing Boy – delicately treated in every part – one of those performances so rare to be met with, & in his best style of perfection.

No.51. Murillo. Portrait of a girl treated with the same tone of harmonious colouring, as the preceding Lot, to which it is a companion, in the same happy effect of management…” 

The two paintings were sold at the auction to separate buyers.

Four Figures on a Step by Murillo (1655-1660)

The most bizarre painting at the exhibition, and one I particularly like, is Four Figures on a Step, which is owned by the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. At first sight, I thought somebody had defaced the painting by adding a pair of thick black spectacles to the woman on the right.

Before us, we have four very different characters. In the central background, we have a young woman. Her face is somewhat distorted into a smile, even a knowing wink, as she raises her scarf over her head. What is the significance of the gesture?   Art historians have hypothesised that it is a coquettish gesture whilst others say that that is reading too much into her manner stating that the depiction is a simple scene with a family scrutinising the goings-on in the street outside. However, the scene to many historians is to associate it with one of procurement. Procurement?  They would have us believe that the older women with the thick dark glasses, resembles the character of a Celestina, an aged prostitute, madam, and procuress, of Spanish literature. The old procuress,  Celestinacomes from the 1499 book La Celestina, which is considered to be one of the greatest works of all Spanish literature, a timeless story of love, morality, and tragedy by Fernando de Rojas. The Celestina is often represented as a crone wearing enormous glasses and a headscarf hence the belief that Murillo’s painting includes a procuress!   So, if she is procuring, is she offering the man the pleasures of the young woman? More conservative historians point to the fact that on the contrary to the Celestina idea, the mature woman also resembles the bespectacled characters in Dutch and Flemish genre paintings, which Murillo would have seen.

The possible “procuress” is seen cradling the head of a young boy whose bottom is exposed by his torn breeches. In less liberal times Murillo’s depiction of the bare bottom had offended the public and had been over-painted for reasons of regaining a modicum of modesty but the painting now, after restoration, is seen as Murillo intended.

So the question I leave you with is this depiction simply a portrayal of the colourful characters to be found in the streets of Seville, or does the painting carry a reproachful, message, urging the viewers to avoid enticements of worldly decadences?

Portrait of Juan de Saavedra by Murillo (1650)

In the final room of the exhibition, we have Murillo’s portraiture.  Murillo’s earliest dated portrait is a newly discovered canvas, which depicts Juan Arias de Saavedra y Ramírez de Arellano an aristocrat from Seville and one of Murillo’s patrons. The subject of the painting was a knight in the Order of Santiago as indicated by both the red cross on his left shoulder and the pendant with a scallop shell.  The portrait is shown as being in a stone frame, which includes the sitter’s coat of arms. Murillo often used this stone-frame device in his bust-length portraiture. Also in the painting are two putti each holding a tablet. The one held by the putti on the left records the age of the sitter as twenty-nine while the one on the right has the date on which the portrait was painted – 1650. Below the portrait, there is a lengthy Latin inscription which is about Saavedra. Saavedra, it states, was a senior minister of the Holy Inquisition and is described in the inscription as a “profound connoisseur of the liberal arts, and of painting in particular”. The inscription also includes a passage by Murillo, which offers convincing proof of the connection between the artist and the nobleman with Murillo admitting his gratitude and sincere regard for Saavedra.

Portrait of Josua van Belle by Murillo (1670)

My last offering for this blog is another work of portraiture by Murillo, which was loaned to the Seville museum by the National Gallery of Ireland.   The sitter is Josua van Belle. He was born in Rotterdam and became a Dutch shipping merchant who lived for a period in Cadiz and Seville, where this portrait was painted in 1670. Van Belle was a celebrated art collector and amongst his collection of paintings, was Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, which also resides in the National Gallery of Ireland. This portrait is looked upon as one of Murillo’s finest.

The Museo de Bellas Artes’ exhibition was excellent, full of beautiful masterpieces by Murillo and you have until the last day of March to visit this Sevilla exhibition.

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Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

Having decided to escape the cold and miserable weather of Britain for a short period  I find myself in the warmth of the Algarve soaking up the sun and staring out at the blue sky and sea whilst reading about blizzard and gale-force conditions back home. Ok, that’s enough schadenfreude for one day. However, it is my location that leads me on to the next few blogs – not the Algarve but its neighbour Andalusia which I visited last week and enjoyed the delights of the beautiful city of Seville. I think I was most impressed by the city’s architecture and it is a timely reminder for me to walk more upright and look above eye level instead of concentrating on the pavement – old age can be a challenge!

Museum courtyard

I always try and visit at least one art gallery if I visit a large city so when I arrived in the Andalusian city of Seville and after settling into the hotel, I headed for Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Some art galleries/museums can be large and soulless with just a never-ending series of rooms. I particularly like ones, which are different and have had a  usage prior to becoming a museum, such as a place of residence or a religious institution, which then come with ornate decorations.

The garden of Museo Sorolla, Madrid

One of the best I have visited was the Museo Sorolla in Madrid which albeit smaller in size in comparison to the much bigger art institutions in the city and, despite featuring only the works of Joaquin Sorolla, it was a true joy to behold and one I insist you visit when in the Spanish capital. The building was originally the artist’s house and was transformed into a museum after the death of his widow, Clotilde, in 1929.   The museum was eventually opened in 1932.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla

The Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla was originally home to the convent of the Order of the Merced Calzada de la Asunción, founded on the site by Saint Peter Nolasco, shortly after the re-conquest of Seville by the Christians in 1248. The building itself was built in 1594, but did not become a museum until 1839, following the desamortizacion, the name given to the Spanish government’s seizure and sale of property, including from the Catholic Church, from the late 18th century to the early 20th century which resulted in the shutting down of religious monasteries and convents. The building we see today, with the galleries arranged on two floors around three quiet courtyards and a central staircase, was largely the work of Juan de Oviedo y de la Bandera.

Entrance to the Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

This superb art museum has been lovingly restored and it now ranks as one of the finest in Spain. It is built around three patios, which are decorated with flowers, trees, and the distinctive Seville tile work.  Much of the paintings in the permanent collection was Religious Art. Because of Spanish unwavering obedience to the religious teachings of Rome, it was therefore not surprising that their artists were heavily involved in spreading the Christian message through their commissioned works of art. The purpose of religious art and architecture was to gain converts to the Catholic faith. Architecture in the shape of breathtaking cathedrals was, therefore, the principal form of inspiration. Inside the cathedrals and churches statuary was also inspirational and religious stories were illustrated in the form of stained glass windows, altarpieces, and works of art.

Inside, the museum’s permanent collection of Spanish art and sculpture from the medieval to the modern focuses on the work of Seville School artists, such as Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Juan de Vales Leal, and Francisco de Zurbaran.

Sagrada Cena (Holy Supper) by Alonso Vasquez (1588)

The large (308 x 402 cms) painting Sagrada Cena (Holy Supper) by the Renaissance painter Alonso Vazquez is part of the permanent collection. It was his first known work and was commissioned for the refectory of the Cartuja de Santa Maria de las Cuevas de Sevilla in 1588. The composition is based on different prints, living the naturalistic elements of the tableware and food. The Mannerist style of the work features the elongated fingers and hands and the emphatic and animated gestures of those at the table all adorned in artificially-coloured clothing.

St Francis of Assisi by Francisco Pacheco (1610)

There were a number of religious paintings by the sixteenth-century Spanish artist Francisco Pacheco including his 1610 painting St Francis Assisi.

Luis de Vargas. Alegoría de la Inmaculada Concepción (Seville Cathedral)

Works were on show by Luis de Vargas, the 16th-century painter of the late Renaissance period, who spent much of his life in Seville although he did travel to Rome where he was influenced by Mannerist styles.  Such works are characterized by the exaggeration or alteration of proportions, posture, and expression. He was not only a great painter, but was also a man of strong devotional temperament, and was known as a holy man. His greatest wish was to use his talent for the glory of God, and he had a tradition of going to confession and receive Holy Communion before painting one of his great altarpieces. One of his contemporaries said that Vargas kept a coffin in his room to remind him of the approach of death.

The Purification of the Virgin by Luis de Vargas (c.1560)

One of his paintings on view at the museum was The Purification of the Virgin. In this work we see Mary depicted inside the temple, presenting the baby Jesus to the priest, San Jose. The depiction is completed by the inclusion of three women and a young girl with two pigeons in a basket, together with some angels.    This painting records the ceremony of the Purification of the Virgin and the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple and festivity celebrated this event occur on February 2nd, which is forty days from the twenty-fifth of December, the date of birth of Jesus.     This forty day period harks back to the Mosaic law, which states that the woman who gave birth to a man was impure for a period of forty days, (eighty if the one born was female!).    At the end of that forty-day period, the baby had to be presented to the priest in the temple, so that he could be declared clean by means of an offering. As for the offering the mother was expected to offer the priest a one-year-old lamb. However, Mary, being from a poor family, was unable to offer a lamb, and so instead of a lamb, Mary offered the priest a pair of pigeons.

Calvario con el centurión by Lucas Cranach (1538)

The 1538 work entitled Calvario con el centurión (Calvary with the Centurion) by Lucas Cranach is also part of the museum’s permanent collection. At the heart of the depiction we see Christ on the cross, on either side of him are the in-profile portrayal of the good thief, Dismas, and the evil thief, Gestas, both of whom are also impaled on their crosses. The depiction is at the very moment that Jesus raises his head skywards and utters the words Father in your hands I commend my Spirit” and it is those very words (vater in dein hendt befil ich mein gaist) we see written in Cranach’s native tongue, at the top of the painting. Look at the amazing way Cranach has depicted the facial expressions of the three men. In the central foreground, we see the centurion atop his rearing horse. He utters the words “Truly this Man was the Son of God” and again the words in German “Warlich diser mensch ist gotes sun gewest” can be seen as if coming from his mouth. The background of this work is quite interesting. Cranach has split it in two. The upper part, which is the sky, is dark and filled with a sense of foreboding whilst the lower background is a distant view of the city of Jerusalem.

One of the two most famous Sevilla-born artists was Diego de Siva y Velázquez, who was born in the Spanish city in 1599. Some of his paintings were displayed at the Sevilla museum and I particularly liked his 162o painting, St Ildefonso Receiving The Chasuble From The Virgin.

St Ildefonso Receiving The Chasuble From The Virgin by Diego Velazquez (1620)

Saint Ildefonsus, a scholar and theologian, was born in Toledo around 607 AD. Ildefonse, against his parents’ wishes, gave up their clerical plans for him and he became a monk at the Agali monastery in Toledo and in 650 he was elected to head the order as their abbot. On December 18th 665, according to a biography on the saint in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, he experienced a vision of the Blessed Virgin when she appeared to him in person and presented him with a priestly vestment, to reward him for his zeal in honouring her and it was this event that Velázquez captured in his painting.  According to legend, Bishop Ildefonsus and the congregation were singing Marian hymns when light cascaded into the church, terrifying the congregation and causing most of them to flee. The bishop and a few of his deacons remained and they watched as Mary descended and sat on the episcopal throne. She was full of praise for Ildefonsus’ devotion to her and vested him with a special chasuble from her son’s treasury, which she instructed the bishop to wear only during Marian festivals.

The highlight of my tour around the museum was not just witnessing the permanent collection but happening to arrive during a special 400th-anniversary exhibition of one of Seville’s most famous painters.  Who was he?  I will tell you in my next blog………..

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.

Maurice Denis. Part 2 – Religion and his wife, Marthe

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis
Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

The year 1890 was the year Maurice Denis began to fall in love.  It was in this year that he met Marthe Meurier, a musician.  He had started to write a journal diary in 1884 and kept adding daily passages throughout his life.  In his diary entry for September 3rd 1891 he declared his happiness at being in love.  He wrote:

“…One feels more beautiful when one is in love.  The attitudes are easy and chaste.  Life becomes precious, discreet…”

And later the diary entry for November 8th 1891 shows his joy with being with Marthe and his love for her:

“…She is more beautiful than any picture, any representation, any subjective effect!  She exists outside of me, I am not the one who creates her…….Faith, love is an act of faith.  I believe in you Marthe…”

Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine's Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano). by Maurice Denis (1891)
Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).
by Maurice Denis (1891)

Denis would complete many portraits of his fiancé.  One of the first, completed in 1891, was entitled Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).  It is an interesting depiction of his fiancé.  She is in three quarter profile with her hands resting on the keys of the piano.  On the piano stand we see the frontispiece of some sheet music, the cover of which was designed by Maurice.  The Princess Maleine mentioned in the title of the painting was a character in a tragic and violent play written by Maurice Maeterlinck that year.  The book had obviously captured the imagination of Maurice’s fiancé as Denis wrote an entry in his diary that October:

“…She is reading again the Princess Maleine until two in the morning. She is pale, nervous, affectionate. Pains for me, and again doubts. Always doubts. Never mind, it’s life…”

The background wall is coloured using the technique known as pointillism, in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image.  This technique was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886 (see My Daily Art Display Oct 21st 2011).  This painting is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)
Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)

Another interesting portrait of his fiancé was completed a year later in 1892.  It was entitled Triple Portrait de Marthe, fiancée.  In the painting we see three portraits of Marthe and by depicting Marthe’s images three times in the work Maurice had hoped to symbolise the different aspects of his fiancé’s personality.  He believed that a single portrait would only depict one characteristic whereas a multiple portrait gave him the chance to load the painting with many of her traits and, by doing so, depicting the uniqueness of his fiancé.

Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)
Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)

Maurice Denis used the same technique later in 1897 when he completed Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects (Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle).  Yvonne was a friend of Denis and the daughter of Henri Lerolle and art patron and music publisher.  The artist recorded in his journal how he structured the painting, writing:

 “…Do the portrait of Y, making the foliage prominent and set the small tree further back so that it becomes more prominent and, at the same time, makes room for the smaller figures. 1. decide on a composition; 2. draw each part or essential element;  3. put the composition on to canvas with the modifications and patches of colour;  4. draw in chalk, charcoal, then in de-oiled paint, and in local colour;  5. rub down and then touch up. Give equal care to each operation. The advantage of this formula is that you only have to paint once and you can do each section individually…”

The description that accompanies the painting which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay states:

 “…Maurice Denis seems particularly fond of using “mise en abyme” as the image reduces: the paving stones in the foreground provide a reference point, as if everything beyond this becomes a variation on the image of the young woman. By portraying several phases in the life of Yvonne, Denis remains faithful to his love of allegorical representations of moments of existence, like those he had already done in the four paintings of his Seasons cycle (1891-1892, various locations). And, by reminding us, along with Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Proust, that the true essence of a human being is the sum of his or her successive appearances, Denis reaches a pinnacle of Symbolist art…”

Mise en abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.

La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)
La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)

My next picture which I am showing you is La Cuisinière (The cook).  This also features Marthe Meurier, now his wife Marthe Denis,.  It was completed in 1893, the year the two were married.  Maurice Denis was brought up as a Catholic and one of the things that he must have found attractive about his future wife was her strong Christian beliefs.  Both were familiar with the Bible and although it may not be apparent at first sight, this picture has religious connotations.  It is typical of Denis’ early works being simply, as the Christie’s New York catalogue described it:

“…a plane surface covered with colors, a compositional tour-de-force in Denis’ oeuvre….. It also possesses a powerful narrative, one that carries several layers of meaning in the symbolist manner, pertaining to the artist, the cook, Brittany, the New Testament and the history of European painting…”

 After Maurice and Marthe married in June 1893 they honeymooned in a small rented house in the small Breton town of Perros-Guirec and the interior of the building features in this painting. Maurice decided to feature his wife working in the kitchen as he looked on her domestic expertise as a wonderful attribute.  He wrote in his journal the following year:

“…she carries out the essential household tasks with total dedication” while displaying her shy love and her taste for what is beautiful among humble domestic tasks…”

It is no coincidence that Maurice’s wife was named Marthe by her very religious parents.  It was the name of the woman in the New Testament who was known for her dedication at home.  We see Denis’ wife Marthe in the foreground working in the kitchen but look carefully at the background of the work and the silhouette against the window.  It is that of Jesus and Mary. Accoring to the bible, Jesus had come to visit the two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany.  In this painiting, Marthe Denis is portraying the character of Martha, who is hard at work in the kitchen.  The story according to the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) sets the scene:

“… As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However in this work, Denis has focused on the character of Martha rather than Mary.  The biblical tale focuses on Jesus’ support for Mary who was, rather than helping Martha with her kitchen chores, had chosen to just sit and listen to the words of Jesus.  As in most paintings depicting the threesome, Martha was cast as the bit player and although Jesus did not reproach her for complaining about her sister he said he could see no wrong in Mary’s choice not to help her sister.  Maurice Denis’ painting takes an opposing stand, casting Martha as the tireless worker who was looking after the needs of their respected visitor.  Having said all this, let us remember that this is first and foremost another portrait of Denis’ wife.

The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)
The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)

On 12 June 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe Meurier. The wedding reception was held on the terrace in front of the Pavilion of Henri IV in the forest of St-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, which had also been the setting for Denis’ major painting The Muses, completed earlier that year. This large decorative composition, measuring 171 x 138 cms, was both a significant representation of the artist’s style at the time, as well as a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s.  It is very noticeable in this painting that Denis had expanded his palette with much richer colours such as reds, greens and golds.  The Art Nouveau style can be seen in the way the artist has incorporated sinuous lines and decorative patterning of the trees, their trunks, and their leaves, which lie scattered on the ground like a carpet.  Maurice Denis had been commissioned to paint this work by Arthur Fontaine, a French government official.  The title of this painting, The Muses, derives from Greek mythology and refers to the nine goddesses of literature, science and the arts.  Each of the Muses had their own domain, one would be “in charge of” dance, one for comedy, one for literature and so on.  The Muses were considered the fund of knowledge which was embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths.  Denis used his wife, Marthe as a model for each of his three Muses in the foreground of this painting.  On the left of the trio we see Marthe with a sketchbook on her lap.  She is the Muse who is associated with art.  The depiction of Marthe with her bare back and shoulders on view to us, dressed in what looks like a ball gown, is the Muse of love.  The third Muse which Marthe portrays is dressed in black, her hair is covered with a veil and on her lap is an open religious book, maybe the bible or a book of prayers.  She is the Muse associated with religion.  In the background, amongst the trees, we see many more females walking about dressed in full length gowns and it is this which adds to the “otherworldly” character of the painting.

Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)
Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)

As I mentioned earlier both Maurice and Marthe Denis were devout Roman Catholics and much of his later art focused on religion.  He was determined to renew French church art.  French religious art had lost its popularity and was often cynically termed as the Saint-Sulpice style of art, named after the area in Paris surrounding the famous church which flooded the market with plastic religious relics.   After visiting Italy in 1910, Denis became greatly influenced by the works of the great Italian fresco painters of the 14th and 15th centuries and began to place emphasis on subject matter, traditional perspective, and modelling, which was contrary to the ideas of Les Nabis.  In November 1919 Maurice Denis and a contemporary of his, fellow artist George Desvallières, founded an artistic movement known as the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art).  The aim of this movement was to create church art once again and teach aspiring young artists to create paintings that would serve God and would decorate places of worship with tasteful religious works.   Maurice himself went on to complete works on canvas as well as murals for more than fifteen churches throughout France.  His artistic work was one of the chief forces in the resurgence of religious art in France.

Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )
Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )

One of his early religious works, which he completed in November 1889, is entitled Le Calvaire, or La Montée au calvaire (Calvary, also called Road to Calvary).  It is a painting of great simplicity.  The structure of the composition is a rising diagonal which runs from the bottom right of the painting with the group of women, black clad nuns, and moves diagonally up to the top left of the work to the top of the upright of the cross.  One is not given any pictorial detail of the women who slowly follow the procession.  They just merge together to form a black mass of people as is the gathering of the lance bearing Roman soldiers we see in the right background.  This anonymity of the women makes for a more haunting image.  In the mid-ground we see Jesus forced to his knees by the weight of the cross.  Mary his mother has moved to him, embraced him and offered her support.

The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées
The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées

In 1911 Maurice Denis was commissioned to carry out paintings and murals for the soon to be built Theatre des Champs-Elysées which opened in 1913.  The theatre is made up of three separate theatres.  The largest theatre was for symphony concerts and operas whilst the two smaller theatres stage repertory theatre.  The Art Deco building was designed by a talented group of artists.  The architect was initially Henry van der Velde but later taken over by August Perret and his brother.  Antoine Bourdelle looked after the bas relief sculpture work on the outside, Maurice Denis designed the massive cupola dome with its immense mural decorations whilst Édouard Vuillard was tasked with the paintings.

Maurice Denis' murals in L'Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.
Maurice Denis’ murals in L’Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.

One of the churches which Maurice Denis and some of the artists from the Ateliers d’Art Sacré, decorated, was the Église du Saint-Espirit which can be found in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.  The building was designed by Paul Tournon.  The construction began in 1928 and was completed seven years later.

The chapel at Le Prieuré
The chapel at Le Prieuré

In 1918 Maurice Denis purchased the old General Hospital of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which had been built by Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.  Denis named it the Le Prieure (the Priory). Maurice’s wife Marthe died on August 22nd 1919 after being ill for several years.  Maurice Denis later painted murals on the walls of the chapel, which was part of the Le Prieuré, which he dedicated to her memory.

On February 2nd 1922, Denis married again.  His second wife was Elisabeth Graterolle, and she gave her husband two more children.   Maurice Denis died in L’hôpital Cochin in Paris after being taken there with injuries he sustained resulting from being hit by a truck on the Boulevard St Michel on November 13th 1943, just twelve days before what would have been his seventy third birthday.

There was so much more to write about this great French artists and so many more paintings I could have added but time and space dictate that I leave it there.  If you like what you have seen in my last two blogs, I hope you will take the opportunity to research further into the life and works of Maurice Denis.

Giovanni Battista Moroni – his religious works

In today’s blog I complete my look at the 16th century Italian painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, and look at some of his religious works.

Moroni had studied under Alessandro Bonvicino (Il Moretto) and in the 1540’s he eventually rose to become the main studio assistant at his Master’s Brescia workshop.  Moroni went on to ply his trade in Bergamo, his home town of Albino and the town of Trent during which time, the town hosted the Catholic ecumenical Council of Trent.  The first Council being held between 1546 and 1548 and Pope Julius III instigated the Second Council of Trent, which began in May1551 and ended two years later.  During these days Moroni received many commissions to paint altarpieces for the local churches.

The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)
The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)

One such religious work was The Last Supper which Moroni completed in 1569.  The setting for the work is a covered logia, which is part of an architectural setting through which we glance out at a distant blue-skied landscape.  The first thing that strikes you about this rendition of the famous religious scene is the man in black who stands behind those partaking in the meal.  We can tell by his dress that he is not one of the Apostles.  He stands behind St John and is acting as a waiter to the diners.  He is the dominant character in the painting but why was he included?  We know the painting was commissioned in December 1565 by the Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento, a regional Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament in the small Bergamo commune of Romano di Lombardia and was not completed until 1569.  There has been much speculation about the identity of the man in black with some people, such as the 19th century Italian art historian, Milesi Locatelli, who in his 1869 three-volume biography Illustri Bergamaschi. Studi critic-biografici,   and more recently Maria Calì in her 1980 book, “Verita” e “religione” nella pittura di Giovan Battista Moroni, both stated that it was the artist himself but why the confraternity would want Moroni to include himself is hard to rationalize.  Simone Facchinetti who co-wrote the book which accompanies the Royal Academy’s Moroni exhibition believes that the man in black is Lattanzio da Lallio, the parish priest of the Romano di Lombardia church at the time of the painting and his position of power over the confraternity and the fact that he was arranging the painting commission with Moroni, may have allowed/asked the artist to have himself depicted in the painting.

My next couple of religious works by Moroni are very interesting.  The depiction in each case is believed to have come from what was taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, often termed the Ignatian Spirituality.   The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditation, prayer, and contemplative practice developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God.  They were a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises.  When one prayed, St Ignatius believed that one should meditate on a biblical passage so as to bring the person praying closer to God.  He gave precise instructions on the matter of composition or envisioning the place.  The religious composition is the fruit of mental prayer.  It is a sort of vision arising in the mind of the one who is praying.  It is seeing with the eyes of the imagination a physical location in which the thing the worshipper wishes to contemplate is to be found.

A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)
A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)

The first painting is entitled A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian which was completed by Giovanni Battista Moroni around 1575.  The painting is housed in the Bergamo church, Chiesa di Sant’ Alessandro della Croce.  In this work a man in the foreground has turned towards us and points towards a painted scene of the Crucifixion which is being witnessed by St John the Baptist on the left and St Sebastian on the right.  The latter can be seen holding the arrows shot at him during the first attempt on his life.  Sebastian is often depicted in paintings tied to a tree or a pillar and shot with arrows but according to legend he did not die and was rescued by Irene of Rome, later Saint Irene.  Later, around AD 288, he was clubbed to death for openly criticising the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)
A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)

The second work depicts a man praying and at the same time concentrating his mind on a story from the Bible, which in this case is the baptism of Christ by St John. What we see before us is what, through deep meditation, the praying man has conjured up in his mind during prayer. The painting is entitled Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ which Moroni completed around 1555.   The young man, with his hands clasped in prayer, stands upright before the biblical scene he is imagining, separated from it by some architectural ruins.  In the background we have a Lombardy landscape and in the middle ground we see the two figures by a stream which almost certainly alludes to the River Jordan where Christ was baptised by John.  The painting is now part of the Gerolamo and Roberta Etro collection.  Gerolamo, an avid art collector, was the founder in 1968 of Etro the Italian luxury fashion house.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)

My final offering of a religious work by Moroni is The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine and was completed around 1550.  It is a beautiful and delicate work of art and is housed at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.  In the painting we see a depiction of St Catherine, an early Christian martyr of royal birth, seated next to the Virgin Mary, who cradles the Christ Child.  Catherine is receiving a wedding-ring from Him, which symbolises her spiritual closeness to God.  In her left hand she holds a palm frond which was adopted into Christian iconography to represent the victory of martyrs, a victory for the faithful against those who want to claim their soul.  St Catherine, who died in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 4th century AD, when she was in her twenties.  She was martyred at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius.

Torre civica, Bergamo
Torre civica, Bergamo

The setting for the painting is inside a room, which has a large window, through which can be seen a town.  It is thought that it is the town of Bergamo, as to the left, one sees the town’s Torre Civica, which was built in the twelfth century.  The small oil on canvas painting, which measures 86cms x 68cms, is thought to have been designed for private devotion.  Furthermore the original recipient of the work is thought to have been a young girl, who would then identify herself with the teenage martyr, Catherine.

Giovanni Moroni was part way through a commission to paint The Last Judgement in the church at Gorlago, a commune of Bergamo, close to his home town of Albino.   He never completed the commission as he died in February 1579.  Although his exact birth date is not known it is reckoned he was in his mid-fifties when he died.

Georges de la Tour. Part 2. Religious works and tenebrism

My featured artist today would often bring into play the tenebrism style in his works of art.  The term tenebrism comes from the Italian word tenebroso, meaning dark or gloomy and figuratively can be translated as “mysterious” and is a word used to primarily describe dark tonality in a work of art.  Tenebrism was developed to add a sense of drama to an image through a spotlight effect.  Tenebrist works of art first came on the scene in Rome around 1600 and some of the earliest examples were by Caravaggio.  The dark backgrounds to his works and the shadows cast across the subjects of his painting where in complete contrast to small areas of light, often from an unidentified source, which lit up part of the main depiction.  Caravaggio’s tenebrist style was taken up by a number of his Italian contemporaries such as the father and daughter painters Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi and the great Dutch Master, Rembrandt von Rijn.  Many of the artists from outside Italy who came to Rome and Naples to study art also experimented with tenebrism.  Georges de la Tour was a masterful exponent of this style of painting.  In some ways his tenebrist style was slightly different from that of Caravaggio in as much as he would often include the source of light in his painting.  Although Georges de La Tour spent his entire artistic career in provincial France, far from cosmopolitan centers and artistic influences, he developed a poignant style as profound as the most illustrious painters of his day. In his lifetime his work appeared in the prominent royal collections of Europe. La Tour’s early training is still a matter for speculation, but in the province of Lorraine he encountered the artist Jean Le Clerc, a follower of the Italian painter Caravaggio.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)
Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)

One great example of Georges de la Tour’s tenebrist style can be seen in his work entitled Magdalene with the Smoking Flame which Georges De La Tour, completed in 1640 and which can now be found in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In this work we see a depiction of Mary Magdalen, not as an aged woman living a hermit-style life in her grotto, but as a contemplative young woman.  This is a depiction of a vivacious young woman who sought the pleasures of the flesh in her early days.  Her arms and legs are bare.  There is a sense of melancholia and loneliness about her demeanour.  She sits with her left elbow resting on the table with her hand supporting her chin as she gazes fixedly at the burning flame.  Maybe she is mentally examining her past life.   Look how the artist has managed to achieve differing textures which have been brought to life by the light of the candle.  Observe the textural difference between her heavy red skirt and thin white, wrinkled blouse which contrasts with the blemish-free smoothness of Magdalene’s flesh.  On her knees rests a skull which is always looked upon as symbolising our own mortality and the inevitability of death.  On the table there are books of Scripture, a wooden cross and a leather scourge which alludes to Christ’s suffering and his eventual crucifixion.  These latter two items add to the sombre mood of the work.  However, besides Magdalene, the main subject of the work is the oil lamp which smokes and emits the light that brings a modicum of luminosity to the dark painting.  Flame from a candle is often looked upon as symbolising enlightenment and purification but in this depiction there is a smoky element to the flame which may lead us to believe that enlightenment and purification of Magdalene’s mind and soul are not yet complete.     Although our eyes too are drawn to the candle we should look at other aspects of the work and see the mastery of the artist in the way he depicts the various textures.   We have the well-polished skull and the leather cover of the books both of which reflect the candlelight.

Christ in the Carpenter's Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)
Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)

Another haunting work of Georges de la Tour in his tenebrist style is Christ in the Carpenters Shop, completed in 1645 and which hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.  It is a depiction of Joseph, a descendant of the house of David, husband of Mary and “foster father” to Christ, who was a carpenter in Jerusalem. In Georges de la Tour’s depiction we see Joseph leaning forward, busy drilling a hole in a block of wood with his auger, the shape of which mirrors the shape of a cross.  He is in his workshop watched over by Jesus whose face radiates in the large frame.  Once again the depiction of the two characters is swathed in darkness with only their faces and upper bodies lit up by the flame of the candle held by the boy.

Jesus holding the candle
Jesus holding the candle

 Jesus is seated and holds a candle to illuminate what Joseph is doing.  It almost seems that it is the face of Jesus which is illuminating the scene and not the light of the candle.  The act of holding up the light for Joseph to see by has an allegorical reference to Jesus Christ being the Light of the World as mentioned in the New Testament (John 8:12):

“…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life…”

The contrast between the two figures is striking.  The bearded Joseph, a large hulk of a man, is bent over towards his young helper in an almost threatening stance brought upon by the physical exertion of working the auger.   In total contrast Jesus is depicted as gentle youngster watching Joseph’s every move.  The candlelight illuminates the young face of Jesus.  There is purity and innocence in the way the artist has depicted the face of Jesus.  What is also fascinating about the depiction of the young Christ is the way de la Tour has depicted the luminescence of Jesus’ left hand which is shielding the flame. Although this is probably looked upon as a religious work because of its title, it could well have been a simple genre piece looking with strong realism at a young boy watching his father at work.  If we look at the floor, on which we see carpenter’s tools, a wooden ladle and a curled wood shaving.  It could almost be deemed as an excellent still-life work.

The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)
The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)

The Dream of St Joseph was a work completed by Georges de la Tour around 1640.   The work was based on a dream that Saint Joseph had, as recounted in Matthew’s New Testament gospels.   According to Matthew, Joseph had three dreams.  One was to tell him he was to be Mary’s husband and the father of the Christ Child.  The second dream was to warn Joseph that he must take Mary and Jesus, leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt and the third and final dream the angel told Joseph to take his family back to Nazareth as all was now safe.  :

Matthew 1:20-21

 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 2:13

 “…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him…”

Matthew 2:19-20

 “…After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt  and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead…”

We are not sure as to which of the dreams is depicted in this painting and it matters not.  However some art historians who have researched the works of de la Tour have offered a different reasoning behind the work claiming that in early art catalogues the painting had a much simpler title, An Old Man Asleep, Woken by a Girl Carrying a Candle.  So is this a religious or secular work?  In the painting we see two people, an old man and a child.  The old man on the right is seated next to a small table.  His eyes are closed.  His mouth is slightly open.  He is asleep and possibly lost in a dream world.  His right elbow rests on the table and his head is resting in his right hand.  On his lap we see an open book with the fingers of his left hand still lightly gripping a page.   Standing in front of him is a child, probably a girl, dressed in the garb of a biblical character.

Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph
Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph

She stares at the sleeping man and has her arms outstretched in a prayer-like manner. There is something strange about her posture.  It is almost as if she is casting a spell over the sleeping man.   It is simply a depiction of a man and a child.  There are no sign of halos on the head of the child signifying her as an angel and so one can understand why some people cast doubts on the biblical connotation of the work.

What fascinates me about this work of art is the tenebrist style Georges de la Tour has used in his lighting of the depiction.  The light from the candle flickers and is partially hidden by the one of the girl’s outstretched arms but it still manages to light up her face in a haunting manner.  She becomes apparition-like which of course lends to the idea that she is in the old man’s dream.  Once again, as in the last painting the girl’s fingertips become translucent and the page held in the man’s hand is illuminated.   It is a fascinating work and I will leave you to decide whether you believe it is a religious work and hence it’s current title or whether it is simply a secular work of art and hence its original title.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)
Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)

There can be no such doubt with regards to my final featured work by Georges de la Tour.  The birth of Jesus and the presence of shepherds is a religious scene which has been depicted numerous times by different artists.   This painting, Adoration of the Shepherds, was completed by Georges de la Tour around 1644 and can now be found in the Louvre. The first thing we notice about this work is the amazing candlelight illumination which is associated with tenebrism.  As we look at the work we feel the tranquillity and contemplative mood of those around the newborn baby.   Mary is to the left of the painting, her hands clasped in prayer.   Opposite her is the elderly bearded figure of Joseph.  He holds a lit candle in his right hand whilst his left hand guards the flame from being extinguished.  Once again, as seen in previous works, the light from the candle filters through between the fingers of his hand.  His depiction of the visiting shepherds is a triumph of realism.  They crowd around the crib with their presents.  The one holding a staff has brought a sheep.  The one next to him, slightly in the background has brought a flute, which he clutches to his chest and the shepherdess, or it could be a serving girl, has come with food in the shape of a covered terrine.  Next to the crib the lamb chews at an ear of corn which is providing bedding for the infant.  There is a simplicity to this scene and this could well be due to the omission of the wealthy trio of visiting kings, dressed in their fine clothes, and holding their expensive gifts which are often included in depictions of the baby in the manger paintings.  It is thought that Georges de la Tour’s depiction emanates from the Christmas tradition when villagers dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses to re-enact the Nativity scene and this premise is borne out by the way he has depicted the shepherds in fine contemporary clothing which is in contrast to the plain red gown worn by Mary.  Note the small shadow cast by the candlelight on her gown.  It is of a trèfle or trefoil, a three-leaved plant, which is part of the crib bedding and is probably a symbolic reference to the Holy Trinity.

In this and my previous blog I have featured two distinct types of paintings by Georges de la Tour and I will leave you decide which you prefer.

The Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c.1432)
The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c.1432)

I travel a lot around Europe and during my stays in the various towns and cities I always try and spend some time in the local art galleries.  The one thing that I do enjoy, which is not often afforded to me in my own country, is the ability to visit local churches in which, especially in France and Italy, one can find beautiful works of art, frescoes and exquisite altarpieces.  In this blog I want to look at one of the great altarpieces of the fifteenth century.  It was not a huge work of art destined for a church or cathedral but a small devotional work which was to be placed in a room of a wealthy merchant, who had commissioned the altarpiece.   The altarpiece I am referring to is an Annunciation triptych known as the Mérode Altarpiece.  The work, which was completed sometime between 1425 and 1428, is now part of the Metropolitan Museum collection in New York and the exquisite and beautiful work is attributed to the early Netherlandish painter, Robert Campin and his workshop assistants.

Robert Campin is often referred to the Master of Flémalle.  The title “Master of….” was term often used by art historians to attribute an anonymous work or even groups of works.  It was a common attribution used in the nineteenth century by German art historians when discussing Early Netherlandish paintings.    So how did Campin end up with his title?   It is believed that it was due to the fact that three paintings in the Städliches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt were said to have come from the abbey of Flémalle, a town close to Liège, but have since been attributed to Campin.

Robert Campin was born around 1375 but it is not until thirty years later that his name appears in records.   It seems that he settled in Tournai, the Walloon town of Belgium.  Tournai is unlikely to have been his birthplace as records show that in 1410 he bought citizenship of the town, which he would not have had to do if it had been his birthplace.  Some would have us believe he was born in Valenciennes, now a French town bordering Southern Belgium.  This assertion is based upon the fact that the name Campin was very common surname at the time in that town.  In the records, Campin’s profession was given as a Master Painter and we know he became a free master of the local Corporation of Goldsmiths and Painters and in 1423 became the sub-dean of the society and later held the post of Eswardeur.  During his early years at Tournai, Campin worked for the municipality painting banners and he went on to be employed to paint sculptures in various churches, including the town’s Church of St Brice, and a number of municipal buildings, notably the Halle des Doyens in Tournai .  This colouring of sculptures was termed polychromy.  He had a good working relationship with the local sculptors including the famous sculptor, Jacques de Braibant.

Robert Campin was good at what he did and soon he and his work became very popular and he received many commissions.  His wealth grew and through his commissions and his investments Campin owned a number of properties in Tournai.  His standing in the community was high.  He was warden of the church of St Pierre as well as procurator of the Convent of the Haute-Vie.  All was going so well for Campin.  He was running a large successful workshop and had skilled apprentices including a young painter, Rogier de le Pasture who is believed to be Rogier van der Weyden. So life was good until he got involved in local politics and the disturbances in the city between two political factions.  Sadly for him he backed the losing side and for his part in the 1429 disturbances and his reluctance to testify against the leaders of the uprising he was sentenced to go on a pilgrimage to Saint-Gilles in Provence.  Such a sentence was common in those days as it was thought that during such a pilgrimage one could think about one’s wrong-doings.  The local authorities never forgave Campin for his part in the uprising and for a number of years hounded him.

It came to a head three years later, in July 1432.   Campin was in trouble again.  This time it was because of his adultery.  He was married to Ysabiel de Stocquain but at this time was living with another woman, Leurence Polette.  The courts took a dim view of this sexual liaison and he was charged with adultery and was once again sentenced to go on a twelve-month pilgrimage.  This would have ended his artistic work and the closure of his workshop but this time he was saved from this banishment.  His saviour was none other than Margaret of Burgundy, the Countess Dowager of Hinault and the powerful daughter of Philip the Bold and wife of William of Bavaria and his pilgrimage sentence was reduced to a fine.   Maybe it was one court appearance too many for after this last incident little was heard of Campin in the archives of Tournai and his lucrative commissions dwindled.  Robert Campin died in Tournai in 1444.

And so to the featured work of art by Robert Campin and his workshop assistants, the oil on oak panel entitled The Annunciation Triptych often referred to as The Mérode Altarpiece which was completed around 1432 and is now housed in the Cloisters museum and gardens, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is given over to the art and architecture of medieval Europe that largely date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century.  The building and its cloistered gardens are located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.  Although termed an altarpiece, because of its small size (centre panel is 64cms x 63cms and each wing is just 64cms x 27cms), this was never destined for the altar of a church or cathedral.  This was destined for a devotional room in a private house.  It is one of Campin’s greatest works. It is thought that originally the painting which comprised of just the central panel was completed around 1430 and then later on the request of the prospective buyer, two hinged wings were added and the work became a devotional triptych.  It is also understood that the paintings depicted on the wings were painted by different artists, probably Campin’s assistants at his workshop.

The centre panel (The Annunciation) by Robert Campin
The centre panel (The Annunciation) by Robert Campin

The centre panel is a depiction of the Annunciation, which was a common subject for paintings in the fifteenth century.   In this depiction Campin has decided the setting of the scene should be a place of domesticity recognisable to people of his time and not set in some palace-like location.  The setting is not, as often depicted, the bed chamber of Mary but a living room.  Maybe Campin wanted observers of this altarpiece to empathise with Mary and for that she needed to be looked upon as an ordinary young woman – hence no halo!  The room is clean and tidy and in some ways defines Mary as a diligent and house-proud female.  Look closely at this panel and the first thing which may strike you as being strange is the depiction of Mary.  She is sitting on a cushion on the floor and not on the bench to her left.  This could be to illustrate her humility. She is totally absorbed in reading a book but is so careful not to dirty the tome by touching it and so she holds it in a white cloth.   She is wearing a long red dress and Campin has cleverly depicted the folds of the dress with the light playing on them so that they form a bright white star.  As she sits and reads from her book she seems quite oblivious to the presence of the Angel Gabriel who is to her right dressed in the vestments of a deacon.  Between Gabriel and Mary there is a sixteen-sided table which some art historians believe alludes to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets.  On the table there is an open book and a scroll, which could have been reference works which were used by Mary as she read her book.   The act of reading what was probably a religious work and the presence of a reference book and scroll open on the table portray Mary as a learned and devout woman.

There is a blue patterned majolica pitcher on the table in which there is a lily.  The lily represents the purity of Mary.   Margaret Freeman, Curator of The Cloisters, comments on the symbolism of the lily quoting St Bernard who wrote:

“…Mary is the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity and the glory and splendour of the heavens…”

Detail of central panel
Detail of central panel

We see a highly-polished bronze fifteenth century Flemish candlestick holder with its newly extinguished candle on the table.  The flame, which had once been present, represented God and now it is gone, to be replaced by the tiny Christ Child which enters the room on the rays of the sun which beam through the window at the left of the painting.  It is a symbol of the Incarnation.

15th century Flemish bronze hanging-laver
15th century Flemish bronze hanging-laver

In the left background we see, hanging in an alcove, a highly polished bronze laver.  This was the implement originally used by priests when they washed their hands and feet before entering into and coming out of a holy place.  Campin’s depiction is of a 15th century Flemish laver. Once again the highly polished laver and candle holder are testament to Mary being a hard working woman who took pride in her house.

The central panel’s Annunciation scene depicts the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is about to conceive the Christ Child. The Holy Spirit, in the form of the Christ Child, which impregnates Mary, appears descending towards Mary on rays of light emanating from the round window to the left of this centre panel.

Christ Child descending into room on a beam of light
Christ Child descending into room on a beam of light

When I first looked at this centre panel I completely missed the small figure of the Christ Child with a wooden cross on his back reminding us of the future crucifixion.   So why this inclusion?   It has been included in this depiction of the Annunciation as what we see before us is also about the Incarnation, the point in time when God becomes man.

Lion finial
Lion finial

There are other little pieces of iconography which are easily missed.  Look at the bench seat which Mary rests against.  Look at the small carved lions on the top of the arms of the bench.  These carvings are known as finials and mark the top or end of some object.  Some art historians believe that such an inclusion of the finials refers back to the throne of Solomon.  These finials have appeared in many paintings – take a look at the top of the arms of the seat in the background of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

The left panel
The left panel – the donor and his new wife

Now look at the left hand panel of this triptych and we see a man and a woman kneeling down in prayer.  It is generally agreed that the man is the person who commissioned Campin to produce the work and the lady next to him is his new wife, so new that it is thought she was added later. – but who are they?  The answer seems to come from various clues dotted around the triptych.  If you look back at the central panel and the transom of the left hand window at the back of the room you will see a coat of arms.   This was the coat of arms of the Engelbrecht or Ingelbrecht family of Mechelen who according to records were living in Tournai at the time the altarpiece was being painted and the man was Jan Engelbrecht, a wealthy and prosperous businessman.  The painting is thought to have been a wedding gift for his wife and one reason why he commissioned a depiction of the Annunciation could be because of the family name Engelbrecht which translated means “angel brings”.  Behind the couple we see a man wearing a straw hat.  He is wearing the badge of Mechelen and is believed to be a Mechelen town messenger.

Right panel of triptych - Saint Joseph at work
Right panel of triptych – Saint Joseph at work

In the right-hand panel, we see Saint Joseph, who we know was a carpenter.  Again, like the central panel, there is an air of domesticity about the depiction with Joseph busying himself with his carpentry.  He sits at his bench busily drilling holes in a piece of wood.  On the table next to him we see all the tools of his trade.  Art historians believe each has its own symbolic meaning – the saw refers to the implement that St Peter used to cut off the ear of Malchus, during Christ’s betrayal and arrest; the log alludes to the cross of the crucifixion; the nails, hammers, chisels, pliers and screwdrivers are all likely references to the instruments of the Passion.

Mousetrap and tools
Mousetrap and tools

Also on the table there is a mousetrap and another on the window ledge, which Joseph has previously made.  According the American art historian, Meyer Schapiro, Joseph fashioning mousetraps had a theological meaning and talks about how Saint Augustine used the mousetrap metaphor to explain the redemption of man by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.  He explained the necessity of the Incarnation and that human flesh was the bait for the devil who by seizing it brings about his own ruin. Saint Augustine wrote:

“…The devil exulted when Christ died, but by this very death of Christ the devil is vanquished as if he had swallowed the bait in the mousetrap.  He rejoiced in Christ’s death, like a baliff of death.  What he rejoiced in was his own undoing.  The cross of Lord was the Lord’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death…”

View from window of St Joseph's workshop
View from window of St Joseph’s workshop

In my last blog I looked at some works by Joachim Patinir in which he combined biblical scenes with landscapes and townscapes but for Patinir the landscape was the most important part of the depiction.  Look now how Campin has in some way combined a small townscape with this religious work. Look at the scene as seen through the window behind Saint Joseph.  The window of Joseph’s workshop overlooks a city square around which are various houses, churches and shops. This is not a depiction of a town in the Holy Land at the time of Mary but of a town in 15th century Flanders.  It could be that Campin had incorporated a scene from his birthplace, Valenciennes or Tournai or possibly Mechelen, which was the town of the commissioner of this work.

So that is the Annunciation triptych or the Merode Triptych and I suppose the only question you have is why “Mérode Triptych” and not The Engelbrecht Triptych?  The answer to that is simple.  In the nineteenth century, this altarpiece was owned by Augustine Marie Nicolette, princess van Arenberg, having been given it by her father as a wedding present when she married Charles Antoine Ghislain de Mérode.