Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. Part 1: 17th century gems.

In my last blog I looked at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and talked about its founder Calouste Gulbenkian. In my next couple of blogs, I want to talk about my favourite paintings I saw in the Founders Collection of the museum. I have to admit when I entered the building and followed the path you had to take it was all about ancient pieces of porcelain, furniture and jewellery – all good, but not what I was interested in, and I was starting to wonder if there were any paintings but I finally came across the rooms where they hung.

View from the Coast of Norway or A Stormy Sea Near the Coast by Jacob van Ruisdael

My first painting I want you to see is one by Jacob van Ruisdael. I have always loved the works by this seventeenth century Dutch painter especially his rural landscape paintings. The one on show at this gallery was a seascape entitled View from the Coast of Norway or sometimes referred to as  A Stormy Sea Near the Coast, which he completed around 1660. It was a painting that Gulbenkian acquired in 1914. I had not realised that Ruisdael had actually completed forty to fifty seascapes. Once again he has adhered to his successful formula of having two-thirds of the work occupied by the threatening sky and by doing so, he has added a palpable melodramatic energy to the work. In the mid-ground we see boats struggling against the force of nature as they are pounded by ferocious seas and bent over by gale-force winds. Oddly shaped rocks, which have been eroded by past storms, lie in wait and we cannot help but wonder about the fate of the boats. Ruisdael’s inclusion of the rocks further adds to the atmospheric ferocity of the depiction.

Dutch Landscape by Jan van der Heyden

Another painting by a seventeenth century Dutch artist which I liked was simply entitled Dutch Landscape, a work by Jan van der Heyden. Van der Heyden, the third of eight children, was born on March 5th 1637 in Gorinchem, a city and municipality in the western Netherlands. His father was by turns an oil mill owner, a grain merchant and a broker. The family moved to Amsterdam in 1646 and van der Heyden’s father acquired local citizenship. Jan van der Heyden himself would never acquire Amsterdam citizenship. Initially his painting genre was still-lifes but later this changed and he became known for his townscapes featuring groups of buildings. . Van der Heyden, although a talented artist, was better known in his own day as an inventor and engineer. One of his most famous accomplishments was that he designed and implemented a complex system of lighting for the streets of Amsterdam, which was utilised from 1669 until 1840 and which was also adopted by other Dutch cities and even used abroad.

Van Heyden would travel extensively in Flanders and Holland as well as the Rhineland towns of Germany close to the Dutch border constantly looking for inspiration for his cityscapes.  In his early seventeenth century work, Dutch Landscape, we see depicted the Dutch town of Zuylen which lies on the banks of the River Vecht, close to the city of Utrecht. One can see in this work, like many of his other cityscapes, that his main interest is not one of nature but on architecture and his painstakingly accurate way in which he depicts the facades of buildings, especially when we look at the Gothic church on the left of the painting. There is nothing flash about this depiction. It is not ablaze with colour. It is a simple yet sober interpretation of everyday life. It is thought that another artist executed the figures in the painting.

Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals

Among Gulbenkian’s seventeenth century paintings on show at the Founder’s Collection there were a number of portraits. I particularly liked Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals. It is an oil on canvas depiction of Sara Andriesdr (daughter of Andries) Hessix who was married to Michael Jansz. Van Middelhoven, a pastor from the city of Voorschoten, near Leiden, and another of Frans Hals’ sitters.

Michiel Jansz van Middelhoven, aged 64 in 1626, by Hals (confiscated during WWII and whereabouts unknown)

Both portraits formed a pair which were completed around 1626 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the couples wedding which took place on 1586. Unfortunately, the portrait of the pastor was confiscated by the Germans during World War II and has never been recovered. Frans Hals methodology regarding the portrait of the woman would be repeated in many of his works.

It is an accurate resemblance of the sixty-year-old woman. She has a serious expression on her face. There has been no attempt by the artist to “beautify” the lady. The way we see her, turned in three-quarters and against a plain dark background, is in the finest Dutch tradition of portraiture.

Portrait of an Old Man by Rembrandt (1645)

Another portrait which caught my eye was one by the Dutch Master, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. It was his 1645 painting entitled Portrait of an Old Man. The portrait which was once owned by Catherine the Great came into the possession of Gulbenkian in 1930. Nobody knows for certain the identity of the sitter although many theories abound. The man is dressed in expensive clothes but this does not necessarily indicate his wealth, occupation or social status as they could well be props belonging to the artist’s studio and simply used as a decorative effect. Rembrandt is known for his penchant for portraits of people in their old age and has appeared as an old man in a number of his self-portraits. It is a beautifully crafted work. Look at the skin texture of the man’s hands as he holds on to his walking cane. It is both a complex and emotional depiction. Rembrandt has concentrated on a palette of browns with the odd flash of gold and the painting is enhanced by the artist’s use of chiaroscuro. The light homes in on the man’s hands and face and in some way elicits a feeling of tragedy – the tragedy of ageing.

Portrait of a Man by Anthony van Dyck (1621)

My final look at the seventeenth century paintings I saw in the Founders Collection in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian was another portrait painting, this time one by Anton van Dyck. The title given to this 1621 work was simply, Portrait of a Man and so like the previous painting we are unaware of the identity of the sitter. But maybe we do, as when it was purchased for Gulbenkian in 1923 at Christies, it had the title Portrait of Anton Triest.

He is mentioned in documents as being the Burgomaster of Ghent and is also referred to as Nicolas, but this theory is contested by many art historians. His social status has been set due to the absence of a sword which would suggest that the sitter in question is a member of the bourgeoisie.  The man sits on a leather chair with Spanish style nail-work which was often used by van Dyck in his early works.

In the next blog I will showcase some of my favourite 18th century paintings which can be discovered in the Founder’s Collection at Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.

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.

Rembrandt van Rijn and Saskia van Uylenburg

Saskia in Arcadian Costume by Rembrandt (1635)
Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume by Rembrandt (1635)

Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume was painted by Rembrandt in 1635,  The painting is housed in the National Gallery, London.  Saskia who was twenty-three years old at the time and who had been married to Rembrandt for just twelve months, poses as Flora, goddess of spring.   Rembrandt has dressed her as a deity of youth, rebirth and beauty, along with her rustic shepherdess’s staff . Sadly as we look on the happy smile on her face it is hard to believe that this young women would die seven years later, shortly before reaching the age of thirty. 

My Daily Art Display today looks at some works of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn.  Today’s blog is not so much about him but of a woman who featured in many of his paintings, his first wife Saskia Uylenburgh.

Saskia van Uylenburgh was born on August 2nd 1612 in Leeuwarden, the capital city of the Dutch province of Friesland where her father, Rombertus Uylenburg was the mayor as well as the justice of the Court of Friesland.  He had married Saskia’s mother, Siuckien Ulckedr Aessinga and they had three sons, Rombertus, Edzart and Ulricus and five daughters, Antje, Hiskia, Jelke, Tietcke and Saskia who was the youngest.  Her father was fifty-eight years old when Saskia was born.  Saskia’s uncle, Gerrit, the brother of her father, emigrated with his family to Krakov, Poland.  He was the father of the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh who was to play an important part in Rembrandt’s early artistic career.  Saskia experienced an affluent upbringing, living in a large family home and her parents were able to offer their children a comfortable lifestyle.  Sadly when Saskia was just seven years of age her mother died and five years later her father passed away.  So at the age of twelve, Saskia was orphaned and was brought up by her elder sisters, and brothers.  Within four years of their father’s death all Saskia’s sisters had married and moved away from the family home. By 1628, Saskia, who was only sixteen years of age, was now the only unmarried daughter.  The family home was sold and Saskia went to live with her sister Hiskia and her husband, Gerrit van Loo in Sint Annaparochie, a small town in the municipality of het Bilde and Gerrit became Saskia’s guardian.  The van Loo household was a very welcoming place to Saskia and because of the affluence of her brother-in-law; she led a comfortable and contented lifestyle.  However, in 1632 Saskia and the van Loo family had to hurriedly leave het Bilde due to unrest in the town and they moved to Leeuwarden.

   Saskia as Flora  by Rembrandt (1634)
Saskia as Flora
by Rembrandt (1634)

Saskia as Flora was the first portrait Rembrandt did of his wife dressed as Flora, the Roman goddess of fertility and the season of spring and flowers.     He completed the portrait in 1634 and it can now be found in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.  Rembrandt has portrayed his wife as a young goddess in a somewhat rustic setting.  His new wife is festooned with flowers.  She is dressed in a splendid and extravagant costume.  This idyllic and pastoral setting was very popular with the upper-class Dutch society in the early seventeenth century.  They had a love of all things to do with the romantic ideal of life in the countryside which they perceived as unadulterated bliss.  The style of dress she wore for this portrait was often seen in local theatres during performances of pastoral plays. 

Meanwhile, Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn to give him his full name), and who was six years older than Saskia, was born in Leiden in the Dutch Republic, on July 15, 1606.     His father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, was a miller, and in 1589, aged twenty-one, had married Cornelia Neeltje Willemsdr. van Suijttbroeck , the Catholic daughter of a baker.  The couple went on to have nine children , two of whom died in infancy. Rembrandt was the 8th child and his modest family upbringing was in direct contrast to that of his more affluent upbringing of his future wife, Saskia.  However despite their modest means, Rembrandt’s parents were determined to give Rembrandt the best education they could afford and in 1613, when he was seven years old, he was enrolled at Leiden’s Latin school.  He remained there for seven years and in 1620, aged fourteen years of age he enrolled at the University of Leiden.   Rembrandt was less than impressed by the subjects he was being taught at the university and soon left to study art.  He managed to gain an apprenticeship with the Leiden landscape painter, Jacob  Isaacszoon van Swanenburgh, and he remained with him for three years.   In 1624, Rembrandt went to Amsterdam where he was apprenticed for six months with the Dutch history painter, Pieter Lastman.  In late 1624 Rembrandt left Amsterdam and returned to Leiden where he opened a studio which he shared with his friend and colleague Jan Lievens.  The two young artists collaborated in over two dozen works, including paintings, etchings and drawings.  In 1628, Constantijn Huygens, a scholar poet and diplomat wrote about his cultural visit to Leiden and his visit to Rembrandt and Lieven’s studio.  He wrote of his meeting with “a noble pair of young painters who worked together side by side”.  He watched them collaborate and commented:

“…Lievens was superior in invention and a certain grandeur in his daring themes while Rembrandt surpasses Lievens in his sure touch and in the liveliness of emotion…”

That said, it was Lievens that Huygens turned to for his portrait !

The Lievens/Rembrandt partnership lasted until 1631 at which time Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and Lievens to England.  In 1631 Rembrandt met Hendrick Uylenburgh, the cousin of Saskia, whose father had moved his family from  Friesland to Krakov.  Hendrick had been trained as a painter but had also been trained as a buyer of works of art.  In 1625 he had moved to Amsterdam  and the following year bought the art studio and business premises of the Dutch portrait painter Cornelis van der Voort who had died in late 1624.  Rembrandt, the artist, and Hendrick Uylenburgh, the art dealer formed a business partnership which was mutually beneficial and Rembrandt moved into Uylenburgh’s house.    Uylenburgh secured the artistic commissions, often portraits of the well-to-do Amsterdam folk and Rembrandt completed them.  It was through this partnership that Rembrandt met Hendrik’s cousin Saskia in 1633.

Saskia van Uylenburgh The Artist's Bride of Three Days  by Rembrandt (1633)
Saskia van Uylenburgh
The Artist’s Bride of Three Days
by Rembrandt (1633)

One of the first works of art by Rembrandt to feature Saskia was a silverpoint portrait on prepared vellum of her entitled Saskia van Uylenburgh, which is housed at Berlin’s Staatlich Museen.  She wears a broad straw hat which is decorated with flowers and she holds a flower in one hand.  Her expression is one of happiness as she leans forward and stares lovingly at her husband-to-be.  The portrait has an inscription by Rembrandt, in Dutch:

“…This was made when my wife was 21 years old, the third day after our betrothal – 8th of June 1633…”

Following a twelve month betrothal, Rembrandt and Saskia were married on July 22nd 1634 at the parish church of St Anna in Friesland.   It is interesting to note that none of Rembrandt’s family went to the wedding so one must presume they were not enamoured by his choice of wife or maybe some time in the past, Rembrandt had, for some reason,  severed links with his family.   As was the case in those days Saskia brought a substantial dowry to the marriage, which caused some consternation with her relatives as early on the marriage they believed that Rembrandt was too free with Saskia’s money, frequently moving home and buying ever more expensive ones.  However Rembrandt was not concerned as his artistic career seemed to have taken off.  He was earning well from the sale of his paintings, especially his portraiture of the city’s bourgeoise, who often had to be added to a long waiting list of Rembrandt’s commissions.  He was also bringing in money by tutoring aspiring artists who were not put off by his high tuition fees.     After the wedding, the happy couple went to live at the home of Saskia’s cousin and Rembrandt’s partner, Hendrik and remained there until Saskia became pregnant with their first child.

Saskia with a Red Flower by Rembrandt (1641)
Saskia with a Red Flower by Rembrandt (1641)

In Saskia with a Red Flower, which Rembrandt painted in 1641, we see Saskia looking towards us, although at the time she would have been looking directly at her husband as he painted.  Look at the tender and loving expression on her face.   Look how her left hand is place upon her heart as a gesture of adoration, a simple symbol of love and loyalty towards her husband.  In her right hand she holds a red flower which she offers her husband.  The painting is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.

Although the financial situation of the couple could not have been better their personal life was about to be shattered.  In December 1635 Saskia gave birth to their first child, a son whom they baptised Rumbartus.  Sadly he died aged two months.  In July 1638 Saskia gave birth to a daughter who they named Cornelia after Rembrandt’s mother but the baby died in the August, aged three weeks.  Saskia gave birth to another daughter, once again christened Cornelia, on July 29th 1640 but she only survived less than a month dying in August.  One can only imagine the torment and suffering, both mentally and physically, Saskia must have endured during this period of her life.

     Titus Reading  by Rembrandt (1657)
Titus Reading
by Rembrandt (1657)

On September 22nd 1641 Saskia gave birth to a son, Titus, who survived childhood, became a painter like his father and lived to the age of twenty-seven.  However the physical suffering from all those pregnancies took a toll on Saskia’s health and she died on June 14th 1642, a few months before her thirtieth birthday.  The cause of death was recorded as consumption.

In my next blog I will look at the repercussions on Rembrandt of Saskia’s death and look at a painting of a woman who was to play an important part in his later life.

The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer (c.1604)

The Stoning of Saint Stephen by Adam Elsheimer (c.1604)

Today I am staying with the religious theme and I am also looking at another painting which is housed at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  My featured painting today is entitled The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer.

Adam Elsheimer was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany in 1578.  He was the son of a tailor and one of ten children.  His initial training as an artist was under the tutelage of Philipp Uffenbach, the German painter and etcher.  It is thought that in those early days he may have also been influenced by the works of the Dutch painter, Gillis van Coninxloo, as his early works show signs of the way the Dutch artist depicted forest scenes.  Coninxloo, at the time, was living in the nearby Frankenthal region having had to flee his native country in order to avoid religious persecution.

In 1598, after his initial artistic training in Frankfurt, Elsheimer travelled to Munich and from there headed south into Italy.  He initially settled in Venice and it is thought that whilst there he worked as an assistant to Hans Rottenhammer, a German painter who specialized in highly finished small scale paintings.  Rottenhammer was a master craftsman who was known for his highly-finished cabinet paintings on copper, depicting religious and mythological subjects, which were a mix of both German and Italian fundamentals of design and technique.  The term cabinet paintings was used to describe small works of art, which are usually no larger than two feet square but in many cases are much smaller. The name is especially used for paintings that depict full-length figures painted on a small scale, as opposed to a head painted nearly life-size, and these works of art are painted very precisely and with great delicacy. From the 1600’s onwards wealthy collectors of art would keep cabinet paintings in locked cabinets, hence the name, or sometimes they would be on show in a relatively small and private room in a house, to which only those with whom the house owners were on especially intimate terms would be admitted.  Elsheimer learnt a great deal from Rottenhammer in the time they were together. Most of Elsheimer’s works were cabinet paintings painted on copper plates. He was particularly admired for his use of diverse sources of illumination.  Using copper as his “canvas” meant that his pictures remained of small dimensions. But copper was an excellent medium on which to paint. It meant that Elsheimer was able to include more than fifty figures on this miniature-like plate. Copper also allowed him to put on paint in very fine and delicate strokes and by doing so the detail could be both intricate and decorative. He also took advantage of the medium to select and use very brilliant colours.

In the spring of 1600 Elsheimer moved to Rome and it was here, through his contact with Hans Rottenhammer that he met and became friends with the Flemish landscape painter, Paul Bril.  Soon Elsheimer built up a friendship with a number of artists who were working in the Italian capital at the time, such as Rubens and David Teniers the Elder.  The artistic work carried out by Elsheimer was noted in the Schilder-Boeck, which was written by the art historian Karel van Mander  in 1604.  In it van Mander praised the artist but described him as slow-working and making few drawings.    It was this small output that led to Elsheimer’s financial ruin.

In 1606, Elsheimer married Carola Antonia Stuarda da Francoforte, a lady of Scottish ancestry and a fellow Frankfurter, and in 1609 they had a son. The son was not mentioned in a census a year later, which could have been because he died as an infant or possibly because he had been put out to a wet nurse.  His wife had been the recent widow of the artist Nicolas de Breul.  In 1606, Elsheimer was admitted to the Academia di San Luca, the Roman painters’ guild.  He was a very religious man and converted to Catholicism in 1608.   In spite of his fame and talents, he appears to have both lived and impoverished life and died penniless.

Despite his reputation for being an influential artist of his time he was a perfectionist and he dwelled for ages over a single work.  This led to him being unable to finish enough pieces to actually make a living.  This perfectionist trait along with frequent bouts of depression which stopped him working combined to reduce his artistic output.  Elsheimer, despite having a talent that inspired Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, and in spite of his fame and obvious talents, lived and died in difficult financial circumstances.  In his latter days he had set up a partnership with a wealthy etcher, Count Hendrick Goudt to complete a number of works but he was unable to fulfil his part of the contract with his partner.  Worse still, he had also borrowed a sum of money from his partner but was unable to repay him and was thrown into a debtor’s prison, where he died in 1610, aged 32.   Sadly, he only painted for a period of about thirteen years and only twenty-seven pictures are attributed to him.

Rubens, who owned a couple of Elsheimer’s paintings, wrote of him saying:

“…..he had no equal in small figures, landscapes, and in many other subjects. …one could have expected things from him that one has never seen before and never will see….”

And on news of his Elsheimer’s death Rubens wrote to a friend:

“…Surely, after such a loss, our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning.  It will not easily succeed in replacing him………….. For myself, I have never felt my heart more profoundly pierced by grief than at the news…”

Contemporaries described him as an extraordinary artist who “invented a style of small sceneries, landscapes, and other curiosities”.

The painting today is based on the New Testament story of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen.  The scene is set in Acts 7: 55-60

“…..But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God   “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

 

 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep…”.

Elsheimer’s painting on copper is entitled The Stoning of Stephen which he completed around 1604 and which can now be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  St Stephen was one of the first seven deacons of the Christian Church appointed by the Apostles and also its first Christian martyr.  His fervent preaching had incurred the hostility of the Jewish authorities who accused him of blasphemy and he was sentenced to be stoned to death outside the walls of Jerusalem.

The painting before us shows the point in time just before Stephen’s execution.  He has sunk to his knees.   There is a gentle naivety about his expression.  He actually seems surprised with what is about to happen to him.  He is open-mouthed uttering his last words to God asking him to receive his spirit. His tormentors with their arms held aloft clutch large stones which they are about to rain down on the ill-fated Stephen. It is at this time that he is said to have experienced a vision of heaven and a beam of intense light  penetrated the clouds and shines down on the kneeling saint almost like a spotlight focuses on an actor on a stage.  Stephen is dressed in the robes of a deacon, and angels tumble towards him bearing the palm fronds of martyrdom and a laurel crown.

It is a small work of art measuring just 35cms x 29cms (14 inches x 11 inches).   It is an extremely colourful work and the artist has magically depicted the beams of light, emanating from the heavens at the top left of the painting, and falling on the head of the martyr.  The painting is divided into three diverse areas with diagonals creating clear tonal contrasts.  This effect is known as chiaroscuro.  To the left and right, the painting is in shadow.  On the left-hand side we see a man on horseback presiding over the execution.  This is Saul of Tarsus, who would himself late convert to Christianity and become the future Saint Paul.  On the right-hand side, also in shadow, we see some Roaman soldiers, one of whom is on horseback, and a gathering group of spectators.  The middle section is illuminated, and in this section we see Stephen and his young executioners.

The Stoning of Stephen by Rembrandt (1625)

Rembrandt’s first dated work is entitled The Stoning of St Stephen, which he completed in 1625 at the age of 19, and appears to be a response to Elsheimer’s painting of the subject.  The same chiaroscuro effect can also be seen in his version of the painting.

For me, besides the exquisite colouring and the astonishing amount of detail  Elsheimer has brought to this painting, I love the magical Italianate landscape which forms the background.  Elsheimer’s delicate portrayal of the trees and the Roman ruins exudes such a beautiful and enchanting quality. I would have loved this work of art to have been on a much larger scale but then maybe some of the enchantment would have been lost.

The Flemish landscape artist Paul Bril, who befriended Elsheimer, may have, at one time, owned this painting.

The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp by Rembrandt

The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp by Rembrandt (1632)

A few days ago I featured Rembrandt’s painting Bathsheba at her toilet and to me the interest in the painting was three-fold.  The picture itself, the story of Bathsheba and her moral dilemma and the story behind Hendrickje Stoffels, who was the artist’s model for Bathsheba.   Today’s featured painting is fascinating to me because of what is going on in the painting and of course I just love looking  at Rembrandt’s stunning work of art.

The featured painting today in My Daily Art Display is Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp which he painted in 1632 and now hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.  Rembrandt who was born in 1606 began work as a professional portraitist when he was about twenty five years of age.

We see before us a group of eight men standing around a corpse which is lying on a table.  All are well dressed , which would immediately signify to us that these are gentlemen of some standing.  The man dressed in black, wearing the wide brimmed hat is Doctor Nicolaes Tulp, a Dutch surgeon and, at the time of the painting, was the official City Anatomist of Amsterdam.  The seven men around him who look on and listen intently to what he is saying are members of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons and it is more than likely that Rembrandt was commissioned to paint this picture by the Guild so that it could be hung in their offices.   Almost twenty-five years later Rembrandt was commissioned again by the Guild to do a similar painting featuring Tulp’s successor and it was entitled The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Jan Deijman

The law at the time stipulated that the City Anatomist was only allowed to carry out one dissection of a body in a year and furthermore the body must be of a criminal who had been executed for his crimes.  Such anatomy lectures would usually only be carried out in winter time when temperatures were lower as there was no electricity in those days to refrigerate corpses and sometimes this experimentation and these talks would go on for several days.  It is interesting to note that sexual equality had not reached Amsterdam at this time as it would not be for another hundred years that a female body could be dissected ! 

There is hardly any visible background to this painting although I believe if you look at the painting itself you can just make out a stone archway.  Everything retreats into shadows

The lifeless body shown in today’s painting is that of  Aris Kindt, aka Adriaan Adriaanszoon.  It is stiff and still in sharp contrast to the animated observers.  He was a violent criminal and his crime had been one of armed robbery and was sentenced to death by hanging.  His recent demise is seen in the way Rembrandt has partially shaded his face insinuating that umbra mortis, the shadow of death, had started to set in.  In some way the dead body is what we focus upon, probably for its gruesome element, but also by the way the artist has given it a powerful brightness.  The face has an evil look about it or is that just “in our mind” because we are aware that he was an executed criminal.  Although this is an anatomical lecture there is one person missing, namely, the Preparator who was the person whose task was to prepare the body for the lesson.  This was considered somewhat of a menial and bloody task, which the likes of Doctor Tulp would not be expected to carry out.  Tulp was a lecturer and an educator and if you look to the right of the painting you can see an anatomical text book lying open on a lecturn.

Our eyes then move to Doctor Tulp and his onlookers.  The thirty-nine year old Tulp leads the experiment.  His hat remains on his head to signify his standing within the group of men.  The onlookers included just two doctors, the rest being made up of leading citizens who would pay handsomely for the privilege of  being included in this type of official group portrait.    They are all dressed in their finest clothes as if it was a social event.   In reality, that is exactly what it was – a social event of the Guild of  Surgeons and at such events members of the Guild could invite guests or admit paying citizens.   Look at their facial expressions, what do you see?  Fascinated interest or an unease at what they are witnessing for remember the dissection of a human body was not fully accepted for another century.    Note how Rembrandt has positioned them randomly on different levels.  Some looking up, some looking down and some stare straight out at us.  This is very different to the way artists used to paint  Group Portraits in the 17th century when the people stood in rigid symmetry with similar postures to ensure that no one person looked more important than the others.  For us the viewer,  we experience a moral dilemma regarding the experimentation of an executed person for the medical reasons.  However the seven people attending the anatomical experiment are in no doubt with regards its legality and watch avidly as Doctor Tulp, using forceps he is holding in his right hand, raises the muscle and tendons of the dead man’s arm so as to demonstrate the interaction and control they have on the movement of the hand and at the same time we see Tulp with his left hand manipulating his own fingers to demonstrate to his audience the amazing action they are witnessing.  It is not known how Rembrandt  gained the anatomical knowledge but maybe he copied it from textbooks.  Rembrandt has cleverly caught Tulp’s dramatic gesture.  It reminds me of a magician who looks out at his audience with a sense of pride after he has completed his trick and maybe, for some of his on-lookers, that is exactly what Tulp has done.

In the top left hand corner of the painting we can just make out the artist’s signature (unfortunately, not very clear in my attached picture).  He has signed it :

Rembrandt  f[ecit]

This was his usual signature, in fact it is the earliest painting of his that has been signed just using his christian name as normally he signed his works just with his initials:

RHL

which stood for Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden.  Maybe the artist believed he was now famous enough to just be known as “Rembrandt” which of course is how we know him today.

There is an interesting  footnote to this piece.  In 2006 a group of researchers re-enacted this scene with a male cadaver and in so doing revealed many anatomical discrepancies in the way the left arm had been depicted in the painting in comparison to how it was in reality.  Notwithstanding this, I hope you will agree with me that this is an excellent work of art.

Bathsheba at her Bath by Rembrandt

Bathsheba at her Bath by Rembrandt (1654)

My Daily Art Display today features three main characters.  Two are women and one a man – the artist.  The artist and painter of today’s featured work of art is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.  I will not go too much into his life story except for when his path crosses one of my two featured women, namely, Hendrickje Stoffels.

Hendrickje Stoffels was born in Bredevoort, which is a small Dutch town close to the border of Germany.  Her father Herman worked at the castle at Bredevoort as a sort of gamekeeper.  He died in 1646, one of the many victims who perished in the devastating explosion of the town’s gunpowder tower when it was struck by lightening.   Her mother re-married six months later to a neighbour who had three young children of his own and Hendrickje had no choice but to leave home and go to Amsterdam.  It was here that she first met Rembrandt.   At this time Rembrandt had been widowed for some two years.  His late wife was Saskia van Uylenburg  and she was the cousin of an art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburg at whose house Rembrandt had been lodging and who had carried out a number of commissions.  Saskia had actually posed for many of these commissions. Saskia had come from a wealthy family, her father was a lawyer and at one time was the burgermeester of Leeuwarden.

Staue of Hendrickje Stoffels at Bredenvoort

Hendrickje became Rembrandt’s maid and soon after, although twenty years younger than the artist, became his lover.   This was frowned upon by the local church and she was brought up before the town council for “living in sin”.  So why didn’t they get married?  Well the answer was all about money, to be precise, Rembrandt’s money, for on the death of his first wife Saskia he received a sizeable inheritance which he would have to give back to Saskia’s family if he remarried.  Rembrandt, even with this inheritance, was suffering financially so the thought of losing his inheritance was unthinkable.  The reason why I am mentioning Hendrickje is that she was the model for today’s featured painting.

Now to my second featured woman – Bathsheba who is the subject of today’s oil on canvas painting entitled Bathsheba at her Bath and was painted by Rembrandt in 1654 and which now hangs in The Louvre.  The story behind the painting is the Old Testament tale of King David who lusted after Bathsheba after seeing her bathing.  She was the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers, whom he then sends off into battle and orders his generals to abandon him, thus leaving him to certain death.    He then makes a play for Bathsheba.  The painting depicts Bathsheba having received a letter from King David summoning her.  The work of art is an insight into Bathsheba’s moral dilemma – her husband is away in battle and her Lord and Master, the King has summoned her, by letter, to his bedchamber.

The depiction of Bathsheba bathing was not a new idea but most other artists had painted her with her hand maidens as part of an outdoor scene and often incorporated the figure of David surreptitiously gazing at her the naked body.  However Rembrandt ignored this standard treatment of the scene and instead we see Bathsheba alone except for her maid who is bathing her feet, in preparation for her encounter with David.  David is no longer the voyeur of this painting – maybe in this case we, the viewers, are the voyeurs as we look at Bathsheba’s naked body.   This is a life-sized painting (measures 142 cms x 142cms) and the figure of Bathsheba dominates the canvas.  In the background we see her abandoned clothes.

Look at Bathsheba.  Kenneth Clarke, the author and art historian, is in no doubt about the quality of the figure when he wrote that “it was one of Rembrandt’s greatest painting of a nude”.  This figure of Bathsheba is not a figure of perfection.  This is no naked beauty we see in magazines.  This is simply a woman with a woman’s normal body shape but in my mind it does not lose its sense of eroticism and beauty.  Look how the artist has drawn her belly.  This is not the flat stomach of a supermodel.  This is simple reality.  If we talk about the reality of the painting look at her left leg, just below the knee and you can make out the mark made by a garter or stocking top as it clings to the flesh.  This is an example of the detail the artist has put into the painting.

She sits their gazing vacantly as the maid bathes her feet.  She is lost in her own thoughts.  What has made her so pensive?  The artist gives us the answer. In her left hand we see her grasping a letter.  The letter is her invitation (or is it a royal summons?) to join King David whilst her husband is away in battle.   There is her dilemma – remain faithful to her husband and risk the wrath of the king or submit to his sexual overtures and dupe her husband.  Look at her facial expression and the sadness in her eyes.  She knows she is going to betray her husband and we can perceive her guilty expression.

This is a moralistic painting and maybe we stand in judgement.   Do we look at her with an air of condemnation as we know that she goes to King David or do we look at her and sympathize with her because of her dilemma?

That’s it – well not quite as there is a scientific/medical twist to this painting.  A number of breast surgeons studied the figure of Hendrickje, the model for Bathsheba and said that the way Rembrandt had drawn her left breast showing a slight deformity was a classic symptom to early stages of breast cancer or it shows an abscess due to tuberculosis.  Many medical articles have been written on this matter.  However Hendrickje lived for another nine years after this painting and strangely enough, in other of Rembrandt paintings in which she modeled there was no sign of a deformity to her breast!