Hyperrealism or Photorealism or Superrealism

Untitled (4 VWs) by Don Eddy (1971)

Untitled (4 VWs) by Don Eddy (1971)

Last week I decided to escape the cold and dreary weather of Britain.  It can be so depressing to look out each day on black clouds, heavy rain and suffer the inclement weather which rushes in from the Atlantic.   Although I like being by the sea when I go away, I thought the water temperature even in the Mediterranean might not be quite bearable for somebody so delicate as moi, so I decided to go for a warm/hot city break which would afford me the chance to visit some excellent art galleries and so I headed for Madrid.  I have flown to Madrid on a number of occasions but have always driven away from the capital’s airport on my way to other destinations so this was my first proper visit to the Spanish city.   I had planned my “must see and must do” list before I went and had the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums on the list but in fact I came across another gem which I will tell you about in my next blog.

Today I want to talk you about an exhibition I went to see at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum.  I have to be honest with you and say that even when I was standing in line to pay my museum entrance fee I had no intention of paying extra to see their special exhibition entitled Hyperrealism 1967-2012.  There were posters all around advertising the event with what looked like a photograph of four highly-polished VW Beetle cars (see above).  I immediately, and wrongly, jumped to the conclusion that the exhibition was a one of modern photography which is not what I want to see in a museum of art.  However thanks to my daughter, who loves modernity in art and who had accompanied me on this short holiday, I was dragged into the rooms which held this display.

Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1967)

Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1967)

I have to tell you I had never seen anything quite like it.  This was not a display of photographs but a large exhibition of works of Hyperrealism art often referred to as Photorealism art.  There are so many –isms in art.  I thought I knew them all and in fact I have the book …isms , Understanding art,  by Stephen Little, which discusses them all from Classicism to Sensationalism but even he had not touched on Hyperrealism.  So what are Hyperrealism and Photorealism?  The Oxford Dictionary of Art lists them under the name Superrealism and states that

“…it is an art form where the subjects are depicted with a minute and impersonal exactitude of detail…”

  It appears that Photorealism is the accepted artistic term in German and English speaking countries whereas Hyperrealism is the preferred term for this form of art in countries speaking Romance languages.  Whatever the term, this genre of art first emerged in the late 1960s  when a group of artists in the USA began to paint objects and scenes from daily life with a high degree of realism, using photography as the basis for their works.  The leading lights of the movement in those early days were Richard Estes, John Baeder, Robert Bechtle, Tom Blackwell, Chuck Close and Robert Cottingham.   This new movement attained international recognition in 1972 when their art appeared in the German city of Kassel at its Documenta 5 exhibition in the city’s Neue Gallerie.  The works of art at this exhibition were mostly by up-and-coming American artists.  In a way their works were a protest against abstract art which was dominating the art scene and the intellectual world since the mid 1940’s.  It was the era of the Abstract Expressionists, the Minimalists, the painters of Op Art and the Conceptual artists.  The emergence of Photorealism or Hyperrealism in the late 60’s was like new art movements of the past,  challenging current artistic practices and by doing so distancing themselves from what they considered to be the mainstream art genre of that time. The exhibition in Kassel caused an uproar.  The art critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung edition of July 8th 1972 reviewed the exhibition and was vehemently ctitical of what he saw, saying:

“… These are decorative objects for the dining room, or some even for the bedroom produced following the latest doctrines, pedantry in place of genius and the results are the most pedantic decorative objects imaginable…”

A few months earlier another writer reviewed a Photorealism exhibition held in New York and wrote;

“…if there is an obscene art, then it is that selling itself as the latest movement of the avant garde…”

The article went even further with its condemnation of the rapidly growing interest of the public for this new art genre.  The writer sought to bring shame on the buyers of this art by saying:

“…The buyers are snapping up this production-line Galatea as fast as its prolific Pygmalions can create her, dragging her home, like sailors with their inflatable dolls, for their aesthetic reassurance…”

The works of the Photorealists were painted with such intricate precision and with such meticulous detail that their finished paintings looked like photographs themselves.   The critics of this genre maintained that Photorealism was not art but simply the virtuosity of a copyist whose main aim was an accurate mimicking of reality, which was simply producing a stereotyped image of it.  The critics of this art even deemed it to be anti-intellectual.

The exhibition I went to see at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum consisted of  sixty-six works by three generations of Hyperrealist artists and had been organised by the Institut für Kulturaustausch (German Cultural Exchange Institute.   It was an exhibition which offered visitors an insight into Hyperrealism and the history of the movement.  I have chosen two of my favourite works from this exhibition to feature in today’s blog.  One work is by a Second Generation of Hyperrealists,  Rod Penner, and the other by a young lady, born in London who is one of the new breed of Hyperrealists, Raphaella Spence.

House with Snow by Rod Penner (1998)

House with Snow by Rod Penner (1998)

The first work I have chosen is entitled House with Snow and was completed by Rod Penner in 1998 and is one of many he did which focused on the streets and single family homes in small towns in Texas.      Rod Penner was born in Vancouver in 1965 and currently lives and works in the small mid-Texan town of Marble Falls. He attended Kwantlen College in Canada before receiving a Bachelor of Arts in 1986 from Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma.  The work is a culmination of his visit to the location, photographing the scene, often using digital video stills.   It measures 91cms x 137cms and depicts a small single-family home in winter.  It is a truly remarkable work of art and I had to keep going up close to it to make sure it was not an actual photograph.

Canal Grande by Raphaella Spence (2007)

Canal Grande by Raphaella Spence (2007)

My second offering and probably my favourite is by a young British woman, Raphaella Spence.  It is entitled Canal Grande and was completed in 2007.  Raphaella was born in London in 1978 but she spent the first eight years of her life with her family in France.   The family went back to London where she continued her schooling.  At the age of twelve she was once again on her travels as the family relocated to Italy and went to school in Rome at the St. George’s British International School.   Raphaella love of art and the beautiful Umbrian countryside led her towards the creation of Photorealist landscape works.  In 2000 at the age of twenty-two she held her first solo exhibition in Italy which was well received and gained her public recognition.  Three years later she held a solo exhibition of her work at the Bernarducci. Meisel.Gallery in New York and ever since her works have been in ever increasing demand for exhibitions.  Many of her works are housed in galleries around the world both public and private and are often part of corporate collections.  Her works bring new perspectives to the artistic style of Photorealism.  She photographs her subjects with her 66-megapixel camera, and her cityscapes are often photographed as she flies over them in a helicopter.  Once she has the photographs she transfers the images to canvas, pixel by pixel, and the result is a spectacular pin-sharp hyperrealist painting.  I just could not believe the detail in her painting

I hope I have whetted your appetite to see this wonderful exhibition and look fiurther into the world of Hyperrealism or Photorealism.  You have a chance to view the exhibition I went to see in Madrid as it is on tour.  The dates are:


Painted Illusions: Hyperrealism 1967-2012,

Thyssen – Bornemisza Museum,  Madrid,  

April 8th  to June 30th 2013

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England

November 20, 2013 – March 30, 2014

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art Galleries, Don Eddy, Hyperrealism, Photorealism, Raphaella Spence, Richard Estes, Rod Penner, Superrealism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

George Bellows, his wife and children

Emma at the Piano by George Bellows (1914)

Emma at the Piano by George Bellows (1914)

George Bellow’s depiction of his wife sitting at the piano entitled Emma at the Piano was completed in 1914.  It is a beautiful portrayal of his wife, dressed in a rich blue coloured coat which along with the dark background adds to our awareness of the sense of intimacy of the scene.  The depiction captures the moment when Emma has stopped playing and turns her gaze towards her husband as he paints her image.  The painting belongs to the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk.

Just recently I have looked at paintings done by Rubens and Rembrandt of their wives.  Thinking about it as a non-artist, I suppose there is logic behind an artist portraying his or her partner.  In most cases the portrait done by the artist would be a labour of love and pride.  I am returning to this theme in My Daily Art Display today when I look at the portraits George Bellows did of his wife Emma and their children.

George Wesley Bellows was an only child, born in Columbus, Ohio on August 12th 1882 to Anna and George Bellows.  He was brought up in a conservative Methodist household with his mother’s sister Elinor, whom he called Aunt Fanny, and who would leave the family home to get married when George was eight years of age.    Also living at home was his eighteen year old half-sister Laura, from his father’s first marriage.  Laura would also leave to get married, when George was two years of age.  This left him as the only child of the household.  At the age of fifteen he attended the Central High School in Columbus where he excelled at sport.  In the summer of 1900 George worked as an illustrator at the local Columbus Dispatch newspaper.  The following fall, he enrols at Ohio State University where he studied English.  It was here that his English professor, Joseph Taylor got him interested in the arts.  Throughout his time at the university he continued his love of sport, playing both basketball and baseball.   He regularly contributed drawings to the college publications and in his second year began to take art classes.  In 1903 he receives a cash prize for his still life painting which was on display at the Ohio State Fair.  The following year, 1904 was his graduation year but George failed to sit his final exams and left the university in the spring.  During that summer he gains employment as a sports writer at two local newspapers, the Ohio State Journal and the Columbus Dispatch and again that year wins himself more money from his works of art which were displayed at that year’s Ohio State Fair.  Although his mother who was devoutly religious and had always wanted George to become a minister in the church, he told his father that he wanted to go to New York, study art at the New York School of Art and become a professional artist.  He even turned down the opportunity to become a professional baseball player.  His father was supportive and gave him a $50 monthly allowance.

Emma in a Purple Dress by George Bellows (1919)

Emma in a Purple Dress by George Bellows (1919)

Emma in the Purple Dress was completed by Bellows in 1919 and can be found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

George Belows arrived in New York in September 1904 and took lodgings at the YMCA.   He enrolled at the New York School of Art, which had originally been known as the Chase School of Art, so named after its director and founder was William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionist painter.   It was at this establishment he first met his charismatic art tutor and one of the most influential teachers of the time, the painter, Robert Henri.  Henri would become the leading figure of the artistic group known as The Eight and a prominent member of the Ashcan School of American Realist painters.  It was Henri that roused his students to move away from the genteel scenes which were common in art and favoured by the establishment, such as the National Academy of Design.  Henri urged them to look towards depicting more rugged and harsh cityscapes in their paintings.  It was a plea for them to look towards modernity and realism in their art.  Bellows took up the challenge and many of his works at the time depicted vast public transportation projects such as the building of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and the Queensboro Bridge which spans the East River in New York.

However the most important person George Bellows met when he arrived at the art school was a fellow student, Emma Louise Story.  Emma was two years younger than George and was the daughter of William Edward Story, a successful New Jersey linen and lace merchant, and Catherine Elizabeth Story (née Anderson).  George and Emma soon became great friends and that Christmas George spent Christmas in the Story household in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  George Bellows continued to love playing sport and in the summer of 1905 played semi-professional baseball in Brooklyn.

George Wesley Bellows and Emma Louise Story married on September 23rd 1910 at St George’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx.  This close and loving partnership brought Bellows a renewed interest in portraiture, especially family portraiture and this love would remain with him for the rest of his life.  Bellows was very much in love with his wife and in a letter to her, he wrote:

“…Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work?   What can a man say to a woman who absorbs his whole life?…”

Anne in White by George Bellows (1920)

Anne in White by George Bellows (1920)

His love for his wife was equalled by his love for his children.  George and Emma had two daughters, Anne and Jean.  Anne was born on September 8th 1911 and Jean was born on April 23rd 1915.  For an artist who gave the world paintings depicting the harshness of city life, the brutality of the boxing ring and the atrocities of war, he could also depict a charming tenderness in his portraiture, especially those featuring his children as he witnessed their journey through youth.  One such work was completed in 1920 entitled Anne in White, which featured his eight year old daughter Anne, and is housed in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  This painting measuring 134cms x 109cms has the young girl sitting in a small rocking chair.  Her left hand falls to her side clutching the brim of her dark blue hat with its long ribbon trailing out before her.  Her young face is framed by the thick locks of her hair.  Her posture is one of grace and elegance.  Her eyes have the darkness which Bellows frequently used in his portraiture.  Bellows had delightfully and skilfully captured his young daughter’s look of innocence.   In her right hand she holds a highly-coloured fan on her lap.  Her position in the painting is midway between a background consisting of a heavy curtain on the left and a window through which we observe a verdant spectacle of nature on the right.  It is a juxtaposition of domesticity as denoted by the drapery and liberty offered by the outside world.

Elinor, Jean and Anna by George Bellows  (1920)

Elinor, Jean and Anna by George Bellows (1920)

In that same year, 1920, Bellows completed another portrait which featured his daughter Anna.  It was group family portrait entitled Elinor, Jean and Anna.   This work by Bellows is now considered to be one of the most accomplished group portraits in modern art.  In Charles Hill Morgan’s 1965 book George Bellows, Painter of America,  he quotes art critics as saying:

“…[Bellows] has lifted portraiture out of the status of a mere profession, and conferred upon it a genuinely aesthetic distinction…”

At the centre of the group sits the petite figure of his eight year old daughter, Anna in her white dress with its starkly contrasting wide black sash wrapped tightly around her waist.  In front of her, open on her lap, is an art book.  On either side of her, and in total contrast to this diminutive figure of his daughter, sits monumental figures dressed in black.  These two elderly ladies are attired in widows’ garb.  On the left is Elinor, Bellows’ Aunt Fanny, who was at the time was in her early eighties.   She had lived with Bellows and his parents when he was young and had fostered in him an interest in art.  Bellows always remembered those early years living with Elinor.   Her left hand lies palm-upwards , laid out directing us to look at the young girl and the art book with its still-life picture of a flower.   It is as if Elinor is inviting us to join the group or it could be that Bellows wanted there to be a connection in the painting between Elinor and the art book to remind himself that it was Elinor who had first nurtured in him his love for art.    Bellows always remembered with great fondness his early days living at home with Elinor.  In a letter to his cousin, Laura Daggett, he wrote:

“…Aunt Fanny will always remain to me a beautiful and important vision of my babyhood.  It gives me a great sensation to have her bring to me a drawing which I had made as a little kid…”

On the right of the portrait is Anna, George Bellows’ mother, who was in her late seventies.  The work is in some ways a connection between the old and young of Bellows generation with the artist being the conduit between the two generations.

Lady Jean by George Bellows (1924)

Lady Jean by George Bellows (1924)

My final offering is Bellows’ portrait of his younger daughter, Jean which he completed in 1924 entitled Lady Jean, and which is now housed in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.   This was to be Bellows’ last major portrait of a family member.  In the work we see his nine year old daughter Jean dressed in a nineteenth century Southern costume with its long frilled skirt that forms a slight train.  The dress had been given to her mother, who used to lend it to her children when they wanted to dress up.   The neckline and cuffs of the old-fashioned pale-blue dress are enhanced by ribbons.  On her head Jean wears a  black hat with its veil retracted.  Her right hand is covered with a lace mitt, whilst the other mitt dangles from her left hand which also clutches a small purse.  Jean’s love of dressing up and performing before her parents led her to eventually become an actress, appearing on Broadway opposite such stars as the great Helen Hayes.

George Bellows was suddenly taken ill at his studio in New York on January 2nd 1925.  He was rushed to hospital where it was diagnosed that he was suffering from a ruptured appendix and he was immediately operated on.  Sadly on January 8th he died of peritonitis, aged forty-two.   It was said that he died at the height of his fame and prowess as a painter but this, in some ways, is demeaning and suggests he had reached his best but who is to know to what artistic heights he would have risen to had he lived longer.  I recently returned for a second visit to an exhibition of his work at London’s Royal Academy and I was taken by his words which were printed in large letters on the wall at the exit.  They came from motivational words he had once offered his students just a few years before his death.  To them he said:

Try it every possible way.

Be deliberate.  Be spontaneous.

Be thoughtful and painstaking.

Be abandoned and Impulsive intellectual and inspired, calm and temperamental.

Learn your own Possibilities

Posted in American artists, Art, Art Blog, George Bellows, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

 

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

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

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

“…vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…”

which when translated means:

“…vanity of vanities; all is vanity…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VANITAS VANIT(AT)VM

ET OMNIA VANITAS

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

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

 


Posted in Art, Art Blog, David Bailly, Dutch painters, Flemish painters, Still life paintings, Vanitas | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Peter Paul Rubens and Hélène Fourment

Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment  and Their Son Frans by Rubens (c.1636)

Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment and Their Son Frans by Rubens (c.1636)

This superb portrait by Rubens of his wife Hélène and their three year old son, Frans can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.   Frans is the only one of their children featured which makes us think that Rubens did not see this work as a family portrait but had more to do with his desire to show off the beauty of his second wife.   Look how Rubens has depicted himself and his son in this work.  They both look lovingly at Hélène.  She is the wife to one and the mother to the other.  This in a way is Rubens’ intimate tribute to his wife.  In the background we see a caryatid, (the sculpted female figure which is serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar), which along with the fountain in the right background, symbolise fecundity

In my last blog I had reached the year 1626, a distressing time in Peter-Paul Rubens’ life for this was the year his first wife and true love, Isabella Brandt died.  Rubens was left alone with his three children, Clara Serena, Nikolas and Albertus.  He was still employed as court painter at the court of Archduke Albert VII, the Archduke of Austria and Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands and his wife and consort, the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia.  It was in 1621, when her husband, Albert, died that the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, became the Governor of the Netherlands on behalf of the King of Spain.  She was also keen to use Rubens’ ambassadorial skills and she sent him on a number of diplomatic missions to the Spanish and English courts to see if a solution could be found for the troubles besetting the Spanish Netherlands with the breakaway of the Seven United Provinces.  His skill as a diplomat was well appreciated by both sides and he was knighted by King Philip IV of Spain in 1624 and six years later received a similar honour from Charles I of England.  Notwithstanding his diplomatic brief, he continued to paint and received a number of royal commissions.

Hélène Fourment  with a Carriage by Rubens (c.1639)

Hélène Fourment with a Carriage by Rubens (c.1639)

In this 1639 painting Hélène Fourment with a Carriage by Rubens, which is housed in the Louvre, we see his wife Hélène leaving their palatial home in Antwerp followed by her six year-old son Frans, who was born in 1633. We view the scene from a low level which affords Hélène a more regal and majestic stance as she awaits her carriage.   Hélène, dressed like a lady of high society.  She is dressed in a long black satin gown, in the wealthy and lavish Spanish style.  She wears a small headdress with the pom-poms attached to large veil of black gauze.  Rubens has contrasted the black of the dress with the bright white satin which form the puffed sleeves which are in turn accentuated by the gold braid.  More colour is then added as we note the rosy pink of her cheeks and the purple sleeve bows and silk belt at her waist.    She waits in front of a porch of their home with its columns and pilasters. The building had been designed by her husband, imitating an Italian palazzo.   Hélène’sleft hand lies by her side whilst her right hand is raised in a gesture of modesty which belies her sumptuous clothes.  Frans follows his mother, dressed in a red suit with a flat white collar.    One must remember that Rubens at this time in his life was extremely affluent having been court painter at the Habsburg court and was also head of a thriving studio which was inundated with commissions from all over Europe.  At the bottom left of the painting we see a two-horsed carriage awaiting mother and son.  Besides a mode of transport the two-horsed carriage symbolised conjugal harmony.  This is probably the last known portrait of Hélène by Rubens.

In 1630, at the age of 53, and four years after the death of his first wife, Isabella, Rubens married the 17 year-old daughter of his friend and tapestry merchant, Daniel ‘Le Jeune’ Fourment.   His new wife, Hélène Fourment, went on to give him 5 children, two daughters, Clara Johanna and Isabella Helena and two sons, Frans and Peter-Paul.  A fifth child, a third daughter Constance Albertine, was born eight months after Rubens died.   My blog today looks at some of the many paintings by Rubens which featured his second wife, Hélène,   many of which were portraits but she also featured in some of his allegorical and classical works.  

Finally in August 1634, Rubens managed to relinquish his diplomatic work for the Habsburgs and in 1635 he bought himself a country estate, Het Steen, which was situated between Antwerp and Brussels.  It was here that he spent much of the latter part of his life.  Around 1636 Rubens completed a work entitled The Rainbow Landscape which was an imaginary artistic reconstruction of his own estate.  It was a maginificent estate which included a castle, draw-bridge, tower, moats, a lake and a farm and gave him the right to be known as Lord of Het Steen. One can just imagine the joy it must have brought  Rubens to spend his last quiet and tranquil years with his family at this idyllic place.    At Het Steen, Rubens finally managed to enjoy the fruits of his long and hard-working career, and it was during these last years that he spent time painting landscapes.

In his later years, Rubens was increasingly troubled by arthritis which caused a swelling of the joints in his hands, which forced him to reluctantly give up painting altogether.   Rubens died from heart failure on May 30th 1640, a month short of his sixty-third birthday.  He was buried in Saint Jacob’s church, Antwerp. The artist left behind eight children, three with Isabella and five with Hélène.

Het pelsken (the little  fur) by Peter Paul Rubens (c.1638)

Het Pelsken (the little fur) by Peter Paul Rubens (c.1638)

The final painting I am showing you by Rubens, featuring his wife Hélène Fourment, is probably one of the strangest depictions a man could make of his beloved.   The work was completed around 1638 when Rubens was 61 and Hélène was just 27.   It is a life size painting of his wife, entitled Het Pelsken (The Little Fur), which is the title given to it by Rubens in his will.   It is also sometimes referred to as Hélène Fourment in a Fur Coat.  In the painting, Hélène is depicted nude except for a fur coat, which could well have belonged to her husband.  This was a private work by Rubens.  It was one of his favourite works and he would neither give it away, nor sell it nor exhibit it.

Venus de Medici

Venus de Medici

It was simply done by him for his own pleasure.  It is an outstanding painted depiction of nakedness.  It could well be that Rubens modelled his depiction on the Venus Pudica (modest Venus) of the life-size Venus de Medici, the Hellenistic marble sculpture which depicts the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and which is housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Hélène stands before us on a red cloth, almost naked.   She is portrayed with curly dishevelled hair.  She just about holds on to the wrap which seems to be about to fall from her body and leave her completely naked.  She clutches at it in a manner that both of her arms are wrapped around the front of her.  Her left hand covers her pelvic region whilst her right hand holds the fur coat in position on her left shoulder and by doing so her right arm cradles and uplifts her breasts.  Her nipples seem to have hardened and her face has a rosy glow to it which may indicate the pleasure she is experiencing as her husband stares out at her.  There is a look of defiance about her expression.  Is this look intended to be one of provocation as she exposes her body to her husband or is it that she is fed up with standing in such a pose and becoming cold?  In some ways we are fascinated by what we see before us and yet in other ways, because of the personal nature of the painting we feel as if we are intruding into a private husband/wife moment and we feel we should look away.  It is a truthful portrayal of his wife.  He has not tried to idealise his wife’s body.  She is a woman with a womanly figure and Rubens’ depiction of her is an honest portrayal of her and there can be no doubt that he found what he saw, very pleasurable.

In his will he left the painting to his wife with the stipulation that it should never be sold to pay for death duties.  Hélène carried out his wish and it was not sold until after she died in 1658.  The painting is currently housed in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

 

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Peter Paul Rubens and Isabella Brant

Honeysuckle Bower by Rubens (c.1609)

The Honeysuckle Bower by Rubens (c.1609)

This painting, which is housed in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich is entitled The Honeysuckle Bower and was painted by Rubens the year he married Isdabella Brant.  It is a full-length double portrait of the happy couple who have the honeysuckle bower as the backdrop.  The honeysuckle symbolises devoted affection and is a symbol of love and generosity and this is a loving portrait of the couple as they sit hand-in-hand in the shade afforded to them by the bower.   Rubens has depicted himself as an elegant and chivalrous husband relaxing, legs crossed, perched atop of a balustrade.  He looks over his wife from his high position.  He looks thoughtful but at peace with his world.    His beloved wife sits close to him on a grassy bank, at a slightly lower level.  She is wearing a brocade bodice and a dark red skirt.  There is a ruff around her neck and atop her head is a Florentine hat.   Both husband and wife lean slightly towards each other in another sign of affection.  Life is good for them both and this is symbolised by the flourishing flora which we see all around them.  Life just couldn’t be better!

In my last couple of blogs I looked at the artistic collaboration between Rembrandt von Rijn and his wife Saskia von Uylenburg and later the artistic collaboration with his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels.   In my next two blogs I want to look at the artistic partnership between artist/model, husband/wife,  of the great Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens and his two wives.  Today I will tell you a little about Rubens’ early life and examine portraits which depicted his first wife Isabella Brant.  In the following blog I will show some of his works featuring his second wife, Hélène Fourment.

Peter Paul Rubens was born in Siegen in Germany in June 1577.  He was one of seven children of his father Jan Rubens, who was an Antwerp lawyer, and his mother Maria Pypelinckx.   Jan Rubens was a practicing Calvinist and because of his strong Protestant beliefs the family were persecuted during the Catholic rule of the Spanish Netherlands under the Duke of Alba.  For their own safety Jan, Maria and their family left Antwerp in 1568 and travelled to Cologne.  Whilst there, Jan Rubens acted as a legal adviser to Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William the Silent, Prince of Orange.  Their close business relationship culminated in an adulterous affair and Anna gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Christina.  Her husband banished her and her daughter Christina to Beilstein Castle.  Their marriage was annulled in 1571.   As a result of his affair, Jan Rubens was incarcerated in Dillenburg prison for two years.   His wife must have been very forgiving for it was through her constant pleading to the authorities that her errant husband was released but exiled to the town of Siegen.   It was whilst the family was staying in Siegen that Maria gave birth to her sons, Filips and Peter-Paul.  In May 1578 Jan and his family had their Siegen exile rescinded and they returned to Cologne where Jan Ruben died in March 1587, when Rubens was ten years of age.  Jan Rubens was buried in the Church of Saint Peter in Cologne and for one to understand the love Maria had for her wayward husband one has just to look at an inscription she had carved on the headstone of the grave.  It read:

“…Sacred to the Memory of Jan Rubens, of Antwerp, who went into voluntary exile and retired with his family to Cologne, where he abode for nineteen years with his wife Maria, who was the mother of his seven children. With this his only wife Maria he lived happily for twenty-six years without any quarrel. This monument is erected by said Maria Pypelings Rubens to her sweetest and well-deserved husband…”

In 1589, aged twelve, Rubens went back to Antwerp with his mother and siblings, where he was brought up in the Catholic religion.   Rubens attended a Latin school in Antwerp where he was taught both Latin and Greek and studied classical literature.  He also became proficient in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch and German.  At the age of thirteen he became a court page to a noble-woman, Marguerite de Ligne, Countess of Lalaing. It was an important position for one so young and it gave him a taste of court life and life in noble and court circles.  The Countess, who had no children, used to refer to herself as his “other mother,” and gave him all the attention that was possible.   Rubens’ life at the court was split between school work which was given to him by a Jesuit priest in the mornings, while in the afternoons another priest would come in order to teach the ladies of the court foreign languages and young Rubens was always present during these lessons.   After a year at court, his mother had him return to the family home.   His mother wanted the best for him and thought that her son would be best served if he should have a career in the Church but was also mindful of the stories relating to the great Italian artists and the power they wielded due to their connections with their country’s leaders and so she and her son settled on the idea that he should become a painter.  His early artistic tuition came when he worked for three leading Flemish painters of the time, the landscape painter, Tobias Verhaecht, the Mannerist, Adam van Noort, and the Latin scholar and classically educated humanist painter Otto van Veen, sometimes referred to by his Latin name, Octavius Vaenius.   Following a four year apprenticeship, Rubens, in 1598 aged twenty-one, was accepted as a Master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke, the city’s painters’ guild and this allowed him to work independently and receive pupils.

Portrait of Isabella Brant by Rubens (c.1620-5)

Portrait of Isabella Brant by Rubens (c.1620-5)
Cleveland Museum of Art

In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy. His first stop-over was Venice where he encountered the paintings of the triumvirate of Venetian Masters, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto.  From there he moved on to Mantua where he received painting commissions at the court of Duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga who had seen his artistic work when he had visited Venice.  Thanks to financial backing from the Duke he was able to journey to Florence, stopping off at Rome.  In Florence he came into contact with the works of art of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio.  He was also impressed and greatly influenced by the works of Caravaggio.   The Duke of Mantua had asked Rubens to make copies of some of Raphael’s works and bring them back to the court.     Rubens returned to the Mantua court and in 1603 he was sent on the first of many diplomatic missions, this one to the court of Philip III in Madrid, bearing gifts from the Gonzagas.  Now living at the court in Madrid he was able to examine the extensive collection of art work which the ruler’s father, Philip II had amassed, including numerous works by Raphael and Titian.  Rubens remained in Madrid for a year before returning once again to Mantua.  He was soon on his travels again, visiting Rome and Genoa.

In 1608, whilst in Rome, Rubens received a letter from his family telling him that his mother Maria was gravely ill.  He immediately left Italy and unbeknown to him, he would never return to that country.  He set off for Antwerp but sadly his mother passed away before he reached her.   Although Rubens was keen to return to Italy he received an offer he couldn’t refuse.   In September 1609, Rubens was appointed the court painter by Archduke Albert VII, the Archduke of Austria and Governor General of the Hapsburg Netherlands and his wife and consort, the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia.  It was not just as a painter that the rulers had employed him but for his talent as a diplomat and ambassador.   His recompense for such a position was a salary of 500 livres plus all the perks that came with the job of somebody working in the royal household.  Another benefit was that he was exempt from all the regulations and bureaucracy arising from the regulations of the guild of St Luke.

Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1626) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1626)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Portrait of Isabella Brandt, which is housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was completed by Rubens around 1625.  It is one of a number of portraits of his wife that he completed during their seventeen years together.  It is a half-length portrait against the dark background of a red curtain and a column.  Isabella smiles out at us.  It is an engaging yet hesitant smile.  This portrait of his wife is considered to be one of Rubens’ masterpieces of portraiture.  In 1705, the painting, along with others, was donated by the Palatine Elector of the Rhine, Johann Wilhelm, to his brother-in-law, Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici.  Of the Rubens portrait of his wife, Ferdinando wrote to his brother-in-law:

 “…it surpasses the imagination and is a prodigy of that famous brush…”

Rubens, although at the royal court in Brussels, was also allowed to set up his own studio in Antwerp and it was whilst in Antwerp that he met and married Isabella Brant.  Isabella, who was fourteen years younger than her husband, was the daughter of Jan Brant, an important Antwerp city official, and Clara de Moy.  The wedding took place on October 3rd 1609 in Saint Michael’s Abbey, Antwerp and in 1610, they moved into a new house and studio that he designed.  This Italian-styled villa in the centre of Antwerp , which is now the Rubenshuis museum, was designed by Rubens and also housed his workshop, where he and his apprentices worked on various works of art. One of his most famous apprentices was Anthony van Dyck, who would later become the leading Flemish portraitist of the time and both Master and pupil collaborated frequently on works of art.  Other collaborators with Rubens were the animal and still-life painter Frans Snyder and Jan (Velvet) Brueghel the Elder the flower painter and son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.   Rubens and his wife went on to have three children, a daughter Clara Serena and two sons, Nikolas and Albertus.

Portrait sketch of Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1621)

Portrait sketch of Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1621)

My final offering is a portrait drawing of Isabella Brant completed by her husband around 1621 and which is held at the British Museum.   This portrait of Rubens’s first wife, Isabella Brant is drawn in coloured chalks with a pale brown wash and white heightening.   The artist used the red chalk in an effort to highlight the warm flesh of his wife’s face and ears. Again a subtle hatching using both red and black chalks he has cleverly produced the shadows on her face. The sketch concentrates on Isabella’s head and face and her shoulders and the high collar of her dress have just been sketched as a sort of afterthought.  Isabella smiles at us, as she no doubt smiled at her husband as he sketched her.  She has a radiant smile which somehow gives us the impression she would have been a likeable person to have met.  Her marriage to Rubens was one of love and mutual respect and her death due to the plague in 1626, at the age of 35, deeply saddened him.  In Ruth Saunders Magurn’s  collection of translated letters of Rubens, entitled The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, she highlights the extent to which Rubens mourned the death of Isabella in an extract from a letter he wrote to his friend, the French scholar, Pierre Dupuy, dated July 15th 1626, a little over three weeks after Isabella died.   Of his late wife, Rubens wrote:

“…Truly I have lost an excellent companion, whom one could love – indeed had to love, with good reason – as having none of the faults of her sex.   She had no capricious moods, and no feminine weaknesses, but was all goodness and honesty…”

I think it is a delightful sketch but not everybody agrees.     In Jeremy Wood’s 1998 book entitled Some Early Collectors of Rubens Drawings in England, he quotes a one-time owner of the sketch, the notable portrait painter and art theorist, Jonathan Richardson, who described Rubens’ sketched portrait of his wife:

“…[her] face is one of the most disagreeable I have ever seen and I am sure it is more so than was necessary for the likeness, however ugly she really was…”

 I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder !!!

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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.

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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.

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