Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachel Ruysch

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachael Ruysch (1703)

My Daily Art Display moves into unfamiliar territory on two counts.  My featured artist is a woman and up to now, I have showcased only a few paintings by women and secondly the work is a still-life painting, a genre which I have rarely selected for my daily blog.  I marvel at the intricacy of the painting and I have no doubt that the detailed work which goes into still-life paintings is equal if not greater than in other painting genres.

My featured artist today is the Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch.  Art historians who have studied the art of the Dutch Golden Age have placed her in the top three female artists of that period.  The other two being and Maria van Oosterwijk, another specialist in flower still-life paintings and Judith Leyster, the genre painter who painted a few portraits and who also produced a single still life work. Ruysch  is widely looked upon as the most talented female in the history of still-lifes of flowers and fruits and among the greatest exponents of either sex of this genre.  True praise indeed!!

 Rachel was born in The Hague in 1664.  She came from a wealthy family and was one of twelve children.  Her mother was the daughter of Pieter Post, a Dutch painter of landscapes and battle scenes, before becoming a talented classical-style architect.  Her father Frederick Ruysch, a talented amateur painter was also a renowned Dutch botanist and anatomist.  He accepted a professorship in Amsterdam and so when Rachel was just three years old the family all moved there.    Her father was an expert in anatomical preservation and the creation of dioramas,  three-dimensional full-size or miniature models, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase, and which would house human parts which had first been preserved and embalmed in liquor balsamicum.   Rachel took an interest in her father’s work and would often help him to decorate the collection with flowers, fishes, seashells and the delicate body parts with lace.  With his trained scientific eye, Rachel’s father was able to observe and record nature with a high degree of accuracy, and it was a talent that he inspired in his daughter. This talent was to greatly influence her works of art in the future, for her still-life floral paintings would be characterized by realism.  Another reason for Rachel’s love of plants and flowers was that she and her family lived in a district of Amsterdam called Bloemgracht, which means “flower canal”. This area was of great natural beauty and was a favourite place of artists

In 1679, at the age of fifteen she had developed a love for art and was exceptionally talented even at that young age.  Recognising his daughter’s artistic aptitude, her father arranged an apprenticeship for her with William van Aelst, a renowned painter, who specialized in still-life works with flowers or game.  Van Aelst, who moved to Amsterdam in 1657, was famous for creating elaborate still-life paintings that featured spiralling compositions and avoided the convention of symmetrical arrangements of depicted bouquets.  Van Aelst taught her the necessary skill of composing a bouquet in a vase but in his less formal manner that produced a much more realistic and tangible effect. In their more realistic works, some flowers and leaves were allowed to droop over the sides of vases, while others were revealed from the back, and by so doing, produced a more rounded shape. Later in her artistic journey, Ruysch would build upon van Aelst’s compositional innovations and this would instil a vitality into her paintings.

Rachel remained a pupil of his until his death four years later in 1683.  Her earliest art works started to appear around 1680 and by the time she was eighteen years of age in 1682 she was producing a number of independently signed paintings and her successful artistic career had just begun.

 In 1693, aged twenty nine she married the lace dealer and portrait painter, Juriaen Pool.  The couple moved to The Hague where they both enrolled in the city’s Guild of St Luke, the professional artists’ organization which regulated the sales and handled the promotion of the artists’ works.  By all accounts their marriage was a happy one and the couple went on to have ten children.  Even though, as she claimed, she essentially raised her children on her own, her life of domesticity and all the chores that went with it coincided with her most creative artistic period. Her large family seemed in no way to get in the way of the quality of her work

In 1708, both Rachel and her husband were invited to Dusseldorf, where they became court painters to the Elector Palatine of Bavaria, Johann Wilhelm.   This proved to be a very successful period in their lives and they remained there and worked for him until his death in 1716, at which time they returned to Holland.  Flower painting emerged as part of the Baroque movement and was especially popular in the late 17th century.   The reason for its popular emergence was the increase in the number of more affluent merchants and middle classes, as well as the growing interest in plants that resulted from the developing science of botany.  It was also around this time in northern Europe, especially Holland, that there was a marked increase in the importation of many new and exotic plants. The Dutch had developed a wide variety of flowers and gardening became increasingly popular. Often, gardeners would commission artists to paint pictures of their best or rarest flowers.

In light of her situation, she was fairly productive throughout her lifetime. She finished her final painting in 1747, when she was 83. By the time she died, she had produced more than 250 pictures, an average of about five pictures a year, which was a considerable number of works for someone creating flower paintings in painstaking detail.

Rachel Ruysch had to overcome two problems which were common in the artistic world of northern Europe at the time.  Firstly she had to overcome the fact that she was a woman and artistic painting was considered a male province.  Secondly, during this period, art was divided into two categories – “greater” and “lesser”.  Into the “greater” category one found paintings of religious and historical themes and compartmentalised in the “lesser” category were portraits, landscapes and still-lifes.  It was this “lesser” category which was deemed fit for female artists.  Women artists who painted were considered to be just painting as a hobby and were completely incapable of artistic genius. However Rachel Ruysch triumphed and became a highly regarded artist who made her mark in the male world of the Dutch Old Masters, becoming one of the greatest flower painters in either gender.

Ruysch died in 1750 at age 86, and during her lifetime she gained widespread fame, and her artistic works were highly valued.   Despite the fact that flower paintings today is still  considered as a lesser form of artistic expression, Ruysch’s reputation as a great painter remains intact.   During the 20th century, there was great interest in her works and her paintings are still featured in major exhibitions in Europe.  She is thought to have produced over 250 paintings in her life but only about 100 are known to still exist, and most of these are in museums or private collections. When any of her paintings do come up for sale they make headlines. In France her 1710 painting Still Life of Fruit with a Birds Nest and Insects went for the equivalent of $508,000.

My Daily Art Display painting by Rachel Ruysch is entitled Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, which she painted in 1703.  This painting, which measures 85cms x 68cms, has an opulent arrangement of flowers and fruit but could never have existed in nature as the various flower specimens and fruit blossomed and bore fruit in different seasons.  This blossoming was simply a figment of the artist’s imagination.  There is a technical perfection about this painting which had come from Rachel’s extensive botanical training.  The painting now hangs in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, in Vienna

Card Players in a Sunlit Room by Pieter de Hooch

Card Players in a Sunlit Room by Pieter de Hooch (1658)

Today My Daily Art Display returns to the Netherlands for its featured artist.  Today I am looking at a painting by the 17th century Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter de Hooch.   He was a contemporary of the great Jan Vermeer and there are some similarities between their works which we will look at later.

Pieter de Hooch was born in 1629 in Rotterdam, just three years before the birth of Vermeer.  He was the eldest of five children.  His father Hendricksz de Hooch was a bricklayer whilst his mother Annetge Pieters was a midwife.  Pieter studied art in Haarlem at the studio of Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, the prolific Dutch Golden Age landscape painter.  His earliest employment was with Justus de la Grange a linen merchant and art collector where he acted as servant and general helper and it is thought that he paid for his board and lodgings by giving la Grange paintings some of his paintings, which was often the way aspiring artists managed to survive.  De Hooch went with la Grange on many of his business trips throughout Holland, including the town of Delft where he moved to temporarily in 1652, and on a more permanent basis in 1654 and 1655 during which time he joined the Guild of St Luke, the painters’ guild in Delft.

In 1654, whilst living in Delft, he married Jannetje van der Burch and the couple went on to have seven children.  In Delft he came under the influence of two of the town’s greatest painters, Carel Fabritius and Nicolaes Maes.  In the 1640’s, these two artists were originators  of the Delft School, a group of mid-17th century Dutch Golden Age painters named after its main base, the town of Delft.   It is best known for genre painting, such as images of domestic life, views of households, church interiors, courtyards, squares and the streets of the city.  The Delft School of painting in the 1650’s would number as its members the great Jan Vermeer and today’s featured artist.

Pieter de Hooch’s work at this time, both in style and subject matter, was in many ways similar to the paintings of Vermeer, who was still  living in Delft at that time.  De Hooch’s paintings, like Vermeer’s, were small works and though he sometimes painted open-air scenes and tavern genres he preferred painting two or three figures occupied with their normal daily duties and often shown in a sober interior interrupted only by the streaming in of radiant light from outside which, if by magic, transforms the scene.  At this time, the family unit was central to an increasing middle-class Dutch society, and de Hooch’s main characters in his works include friends, families and maids.  The world we see depicted in his paintings are glimpses of life seen unobtrusively through open doors and windows.  His works, which showed the simple life of the local inhabitants, were free of sentimentality and moralising.  Art historians believe that this period in Delft saw de Hoochcomplete his greatest works and that the artist was at this time at the height of his artistic powers.

In 1661, when Pieter de Hooch was thirty-two, he and his family moved on to Amsterdam.  De Hooch’s decision to leave Delft was undoubtedly brought on by the expectation of a larger market for his paintings in the flourishing and prosperous commercial centre of Amsterdam. It was here that he found a wealthier, more ambitious clientele, and the artwork they required was not of homely family scenes but paintings depicting extravagantly dressed people in contrived luxurious surroundings, such as country villas with palatial halls and their sumptuous marble interiors.  The patrons also wanted their paintings to be on a much large scale than he had tended to do in Delft.

In 1667 life took a turn for the worse for Pieter de Hooch.  His wife died leaving him, aged just 38, to bring up their large family.  Her death hit him hard and he struggled to cope with bringing up his young children.  Art critics believe that his struggle to survive affected his work.  His mental and physical health deteriorated and he died in 1684 in an Amsterdam mental asylum.  He was aged just 55.

The featured painting today is entitled Card Players in a Sunlit Room which he completed around 1658 whilst still living in Delft.  The finished work remained in Holland for almost one hundred and seventy years until it was bought by Lord Farnborough for King George IV of England in 1827.   It is now housed in the Royal Collection in London.  Before us we have two men and a woman sat at a table playing cards with another male onlooker standing besides the woman, pipe in hand, surveying the card game.  The mood of the painting is one of calmness.  There is an air of contemplation among the players.  This is not an animated scene, the participants are restrained.  The work is quite detailed in the way de Hooch has depicted the playing cards, the raised glass in the man’s hand and the broken pipe on the floor in the right foreground.  We fix our eyes on the fragments of the pipe on the floor and the five of spades playing card and cannot help but wonder why the artist has included them in the painting.  Was there some symbolism to its inclusion?  Should we look to interpret the existence of the abandoned pipe fragments and the single card on the floor or I wonder if the artist just wanted to get us to do what we are doing right now – trying to solve a mystery, when none exists!

One aspect of this painting which we have seen before in some of his other works is the setting of an inner room with an open door letting us see out into a much brighter exterior.  Observe the way de Hooch depicts the light flooding in from the sunlit courtyard in the middle ground of the painting, through the doorway into the interior, lighting up some parts of the room and some of the card players, whilst other parts are cast in shadow.    It is if de Hooch wants to showcase his skill in how he handles light as it falls over different surfaces.  Look how he has depicted the effect the sunlight has on the translucent curtains and the small panes of glass in the windows.  Again see how de Hooch has allowed the light streaming in through the door play on the card players, and by so doing, defining the form of their figures.

The paintings of Pieter de Hooch often exhibited a sophisticated and delicate treatment of light which was very similar to what we see in many of Jan Vermeer’s works, who as I said earlier, lived in Delft at the same time as de Hooch.  Art historians in the nineteenth century had originally assumed that Vermeer had been influenced by de Hooch’s work, but the opposite is now being seriously considered.

Granida and Daifilo by Gerard van Honthorst

Granida and Daifilo by Gerard van Honthorst (1625)

As I research paintings and artists for my blog, I delve into various books which I have and of course use the internet.  One of the best art history magazines about is The Burlington Magazine which is published monthly.  However although I have, in a rush of blood to the head, almost signed up for it, the cost of a few pence under £20 per issue I feel  is just too much.  However the other day I bought the Centenary Anthology of the magazine from eBay and although I have just skimmed through some of the 250+ pages I am pleased with my purchase.  It was as I flicked through the pages I came across a beautiful work by Gerard van Honthorst and I thought it was time to feature this Dutch painter and one of his works.

Gerard or Gerrit van Honthorst was born in Utrecht in 1592.  His father was a textile painter and his younger brother Willem also went on to become an artist.  His first taste of art came when he was apprenticed to the great Dutch painter Abraham Bloemaert.  Bloemaert, who resided in Utrecht, was an outstanding teacher and virtually all the aspiring young Utrecht painters of that time, who went on to become famous, had at one time studied under this artistic master.

In his early twenties, Honthorst travelled to Italy and during his stay in Rome where he lived in the palace of a patron of Caravaggio, Vincenzo Giustiniani, he was influenced by the works and style of the famous artist who was at the height of his popularity.  Whilst in Italy, Honthorst developed a similar artistic style to Caravaggio in the way he often portrayed his figures in the darkness of night lit by candlelight and this style acquired him the Italian nickname Gherardo delle Notti (Gerard of the Night).   His paintings were very popular and he managed to acquire a number of wealthy patrons including the powerful Scipione Borghese the Italian Renaissance cardinal who was a great patron of the arts and an avid art collector.  He was also patron to Caravaggio.  Another of his patrons was Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani an aristocratic Italian banker and art collector

Honthorst returned to Utrecht around 1620 and that same year married Sophia Coopmans.  Along with his fellow artist, Hendrick ter Brugghen, they set up an art school in Utrecht.  Due to the influence of Caravaggio  on the works of the two Dutch painters and the way their paintings showed strong and bold contrasts between light and dark known as chiaroscuro,  they were looked upon as representing Utrecht Caravaggism.

In 1622 van Honthorst joined the Guild of St Luke in Utrecht and three years later was made president of the society.   Van Honthorst fame as a painter spread and he was much sort after as a teacher so much so that in 1627 he moved to a much larger house and turned part of it into his workshop.  The following year, following his rising artistic reputation reaching the English court, he was invited to work at the court of King Charles I.  He remained in England until the end of 1628 at which time he returned to Utrecht.

In 1637 Van Honthorst moved to The Hague when he became the court painter to the Princess of Orange and received a number of commissions for portraits from the Dutch ruler Frederick Hendrick, Prince of Orange and his family and during this period he also worked on the decoration of the royal residences.  His fame spread and he received many royal commissions from the likes of the French Queen Maria de Medici, mother of King Louis XIII, King Christian IV of Denmark and Elizabeth of Bohemia, Charles I of England’s sister.

With success came great wealth and he was fortunate enough to live a luxurious lifestyle.  Gerard van Honthorst died in Utrecht in 1656, aged 64.

The featured painting in today’s My Daily Art Display is entitled Granida and Daifilo which Gerard van Honthorst completed in 1625 and was commissioned by  Stadholder Frederick Hendrick  for his residence at Honselaerdijk and was to form part of a number of paintings of pastoral scenes.

The title of the painting refers to the characters in a pastoral play written by Pieter Hooft, the Dutch historian, poet and playwright entitled Granida.  The story of the play was that Granida and Daifilo were lovers.   Granida, the daughter of an eastern king, was betrothed to Prince Tisiphernes but one day became lost while out hunting.  She came upon a shepherd Daifilo and his mistress Dorilea who had just quarrelled.  Daifilo fetched water for the princess to drink and fell in love with her. He followed her to court and, after several twists and turns in the story, they fled to the woods together to live a pastoral life. However, Daifilo was taken prisoner by one of Granida’s several suitors. The play had a happy ending and the couple were finally reunited after the intervention of Tisiphernes who took pity on the young pair and gave up his claim to her.

The colours of this painting are bright and the details of the two protagonists in this amorous scene set in this idealised woodland setting give it a touch of classicism.  Nevertheless, there is a touch of realism, which was associated with the Caravaggists as we see the dirty soles of Daifilo’s feet.  In the background to the right we see the soldiers approaching the lovers with the intent to arrest them.

The play set a fashion for pastoral idyll in the Netherlands where Granida and Daifilo became iconic symbols of love. The play was noted for the delicacy of its poetry and the simplicity of its moral.  The moral to this tale was that individuals and nations can be at peace only when rulers and subjects alike shun ambition and seek only to serve. Though not well known today, it was a very popular work in early 17th century Netherlands, and Granida and Daifilo were the subject of many important paintings by Dutch masters.

The painting can be found in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht

The Life of Man by Jan Steen

The Life of Man by Jan Steen (c.1665)

My Daily Art Display today is about two paintings and the reason I am looking at two is because the second one, which is a copy of the first by a different artist, is almost identical but not quite and it does show up certain details much clearer, which are harder to see on the original work by Jan Steen.  Sounds interesting? – Well then, read on !

Jan Havicksz Steen was born in Leiden around 1626.  He was the eldest son of the brewer and former grain merchant, Havick Jansz Steen and his wife, Elisabeth Capiteyn, the daughter of a city clerk.  Steen was brought up in a well-to-do Catholic family home.  His forefathers and parents had run the tavern, The Red Halbert, for two generations.  Jan Steen, like his contemporary Rembrandt, went to the Latin School and later became a student in the Department of Letters at Leiden University.  Art historians question whether he actually studied at the university as he never attained a degree.  It is thought that he may have enrolled at the university to take advantage of the privileges bestowed on students, such as exemption from serving in the civic gurad and not having to pay the municipal excise tax on beer and wine !  His artistic education was overseen by the German painter, Nicolaes Knupfer,  a specialist in history paintings and produced works based on stories from the Bible, from Greek and Roman history and from mythology.   He was to have a great influence on Jan Steen.  Two other painters who had some bearing on Steen’s future artistic career were the brothers Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade, both of who lived in nearby Utrecht

In March 1648, at the age of twenty-two, Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu, a fellow artist, founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke at Leiden.  It was shortly after that time that, Jan Steen went to The Hague where he met and became assistant to Jan van Goyen, the prolific landscape artist.  Within a short space of time Steen left his lodgings and moved into van Goyen’s home.  In October 1648 Jan Steen married van Goyen’s daughter Margriet and the couple went on to have six children, their first child, a son Thadeus was born in 1651.   Van Goyen and Steen worked together for a further five years until 1654 at which time Steen and his family moved to Delft and to supplement his income from his art, he rented a brewery for 400 guilders a month, known as De Slang (The Serpent), also sometimes known as De Roskam (The Curry Comb) which was on the Oude Delft canal,  but the enterprise met with little success.

The year 1654 was to be a momentous and a tragic year for Delft and its inhabitants.  This was the year in which The Delft Explosion occurred on October 12th,  when a gunpowder store exploded, destroying much of the city. Over a hundred people were killed and thousands wounded.  Thirty tons of gunpowder had been stockpiled in a former Clarissen Convent in the Doelenkwartier district of the city.   On that morning the keeper of the magazine, which stored the explosives, opened up the store and an enormous explosion followed.   The death toll could have been much worse but fortunately many of the people of Delft had gone to a market at the nearby town of Schieden.  One of the casualties of the explosion was the artist Carl Fabritius, many of whose paintings were also destroyed in the explosion and fire.  After this disaster and the fall-out from the First Anglo-Dutch War, the art market in the city almost collapsed and sales of Steen’s works fell sharply.  Once again Jan Steen moved his family.

Jan Steen, following his departure from Delft in 1657, moved around the country, living for a time in Warmond, a small village north of Leiden and in 1660 moved to Haarlem where the next year Steen became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.   In May 1669 his wife died and the following year his father died.  Jan Steen inherited the family house in Leiden (his mother had died a year earlier) and he moved his family back home.  He returned to Leiden in 1672 when again he opened a tavern.  The year 1672 in Holland was known as the rampjaar (“disaster year”).   In that year, the Republic of the Seven United Provinces was after the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo-Dutch War attacked by both England, France, and the invading armies very quickly defeated the Dutch States Army and conquered a large part of the Republic.  Steen’s unsuccessful brewery business and the fall in his art sales led him into debt which was further exacerbated by his heavy drinking.

In April 1673 he re-married.  His second wife was Maria Dircksdr van Egmont, the widow of a Leiden bookseller, who soon after gave birth and the forty-seven year old artist became a father yet again.  Jan van Steen died penniless in 1679, aged fifty-three.  After his death, his wife had to sell most of their possessions and her husband’s paintings to pay off his many debts.  Maria died eight years later.

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting by Jan Steen is entitled The Life of Man which he completed around 1665.  In the painting before us we glimpse into the busy bar of a tavern full of people of various ages with one thing in common – they are all there to enjoy themselves.  They create their own enjoyment through making music, singing and playing tric-trac, the popular dice game of that time.     In the centre of the painting we see a young woman, dressed in blue and white, seated, turning away from an older man who is offering her an oyster.  We can see by the smile on her face that maybe her initial rebuff of his gift may soon be reversed.  Behind the pair we can see a hunchbacked lute player, who looks on and seems happy to ridicule the mismatched pair.

To the right of the picture we see a young woman and another lute player sitting together at a table.  This relationship seems to be prospering, if the sultry look she is giving the musician is anything to go by.  It would appear that the owners of the tavern are use to preparing and selling large quantities of oysters, a supposed aphrodisiac, to their clientele.

As I have said many times before I like paintings where a lot of things are going on as every time I look at one of these paintings I notice something different.   Cast your eyes around the tavern scene and see what you can discover.  To the left we can see an old man eating an oyster and on his knee he has a small child who is wriggling from his grasp trying to grab the tail of a parrot.  In the central foreground we see a small girl cradling a small dog in her apron and by the table on the right and sitting on the floor is a small boy who is trying to teach a kitten to stand on its hind legs.  It is interesting to focus on the small boy in the right foreground, with the blue coat and red hat, who holds a basket of bread rolls under his arm.  Jan Steen has painted this figure with his back to us and has used this technique in other paintings and what it does is to get us to look at where the boy is looking and thus the artist gets the viewer to focus his or her eye into the depths of the picture.

Across the top of the painting we have what looks like a raised curtain and what Steen wants us to accept that we are not just looking at any old tavern but in some ways we are looking at a stage and the curtain is a theatre curtain raised to show the cast of players.  In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, there is the famous line:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

 As the painting is by a Dutch artist maybe we should look at the Dutch saying by Joost van den Vondel:

De wereld is een schouwtoneel
Elk speelt zijn rol en krijgt zijn deel.

Which translated roughly means:

“  The world‘s a stage
Each plays his role and gets his share”

And so maybe Jan Steen wants us to look at this scene as more than just people in a tavern but as “the world stage “and the people we see in the tavern are just players.

The Life of Man by Reinier Craeyvanger (c.1840)

And so I come to my second painting which is also entitled The Life of Man but the artist is Reiner Craeyvanger.  It is obviously a copy of Jan Steen’s work but I am showing it for two reasons.  Firstly, when I was researching the painting by Jan Steen I kept reading about “a boy lying in the loft above, blowing bubbles”.  I searched Jan Steen’s painting for hours looking for the boy and couldn’t find him and convinced myself that the picture I had was a cropped version of the original.  However when I saw Craeyvanger’s copy I immediately saw the boy and when I looked back at Steen’s painting I could just make out a fuzzy image of the boy.  See if you can find him.

Boy on balcony blowing bubbles

The boy is laying there blowing bubbles and next to him is a skull.  From this we must believe that both are symbolic and the message is, that like a bubble which will suddenly burst, our life may suddenly come to an end and we die and of course the addition of a skull which we often see in Vanitas painting symbolises that death is always around the corner.  Although it is not very clear in the attached pictures the painting on the rear wall has a gallows in it and that again is harking back to life and death.

There are two other interesting things in the painting.  Firstly we see broken egg shells scattered on the floor which could be symbolically interpreted as the frailty of life itself, and secondly, look at the right background and the old woman staring into a tankard.  She is a kannekijker,  which literally translated means a “pot looker” or “someone who looks into a pot”.  This gesture was a well-known literary and artistic convention of the time that signified the habitual drinker or drunkard.  I am sure there is more symbolism incorporated in this painting, such as why has Steen depicted a pot with a spoon and a hat in the foreground?  How are we to interpret these objects or maybe there is nothing to interpret!

However I will leave you with a question.  Although Craeyvanger has carefully copied Jan Steen’s painting, what is the main difference between his work and that of Jan Steen’s painting?  I am not talking about colours, tones or technique.  It is more obvious than that, something is missing from the later painting, but what ?

Dordrecht Harbour by Moonlight by Aelbert Cuyp

Dordrecht Harbour by Moonlight by Aelbert Cuyp (c.1645)

I am putting religion and religious paintings behind me today and I am going to feature a truly beautiful riverscape painting by one of my favourite artists, Aelbert Cuyp.   I really cannot get enough of this man’s paintings.  Whether it be his landscapes, riverscapes or seascapes, they are all delights to behold.  My Daily Art Display today is the painting Cuyp completed around 1645 entitled Dordrecht Harbor by Night and which now hangs in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

Aelbert Cuyp was born in 1620 and is the most famous member of the Cuyp family and today is proclaimed as one of the greatest of all landscape painters.  He was the son and, more than likely, the pupil of Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, a portrait painter.  In his early works one can detect the influence of Jan van Goyen, the prolific seventeenth century Dutch landscape painter.  Aelbert was born and died at Dordrecht, and spent a lot of time travelling along the great rivers of Holland reaching the eastern borders of the country and the western part of what is now Westphalia, Germany.   He was an artist, who naturally signed his works, but very rarely dated them and thus it has been difficult for art historians to build up a chronological list of his works

In 1658 Cuyp married a wealthy widow, and in the 1660’s, with his newly found financial stability, he seems to have practically forsaken painting. He died in 1691 and was buried in the Augustijner Church in Dordrecht.   Although for a hundred years after his death his works seemed to have been ignored, but the eighteenth century proved a turning point for the sale of his paintings.   The greatest collector of his paintings was the eighteenth-century Dordrecht iron dealer and mint-master Johan van der Linden van Slingeland, who owned forty-one works by the artist.   After the sale of his collection in 1785, many of these paintings entered collections in England, where Cuyp’s work was greatly admired for their grandeur.

The popularity of his paintings in France and England grew unabated, so much so,  that by the late eighteenth century there were hardly any of his paintings left in his native Netherlands.   From fame in Europe came fame in America with art dealers clambering to get hold of his works.

It was around 1640 that Dutch painters began to be fascinated with the depiction of extraordinary light and weather conditions but such paintings were deemed to be one of the most complicated challenges faced by artists.

The challenge was to be able to accurately depict the various colours of the moonlight reflections.  It was interesting to read about the debate from the Italian Renaissance period, known as the paragone, in which one form of art, whether it be architecture, sculpture, painting or poetry, is championed to be the superior in comparison to the others.  Bearing in mind today’s featured work, it is interesting to see what Philips Angel, the Dutch Golden Age painter, and a contemporary of Cuyp, wrote in his published a defence of the art of painting:

“..unlike sculpture, painting can depict a rainbow, rain, thunder, lightning, clouds, vapour, light, reflections….. the rising of the sun, early morning, the decline of the sun, evening, the moon illuminating the night, with her attendant companions, the stars, reflections in the water…”

The painting, Dordrecht Harbor by Night is a beautiful study of moonlight over water.  The Dutch painter and esteemed biographer of 17th century Dutch artists, Arnold Houbraken, who lived in Dordrecht at the time of Cuyp was able to have firsthand knowledge of the artist’s work.  Of Cuyp, he wrote:

“.. [Cuyp] paid much attention to the time of day in which he portrayed his subjects, so that one can distinguish in his paintings the misty early mornings from the bright afternoons from the saffron-colored evening time…… I have also seen various moonlight scenes by him which were very realistic and arranged in such a way that the moon was beautifully reflected in the water….”

Aelbert Cuyp’s ability to depict a moonlight scene is exactly what we see in this painting.  Look how the moonlight shimmers on the still waters of the inland waterway.  Look at the colours the artist has used in his depiction of the clouds and sky.  It is an extremely atmospheric and haunting work with its sailboats at a dock across the harbour from Dordrecht’s Rietdijkspoort.  It is believed to be one of the few moonlight scenes painted by Cuyp.  There is an utter stillness to the painting.  Maybe just a whispered conversation of the men standing on the pier awaiting a morning ferry would be heard over the sound of the lapping water which caresses the pier structure and the wooden hulls of the sailing boats.   Above we have dark billowing clouds which try and mask the moonlight which is being cast onto the still water.  The moonlight refuses to be diffused by the threatening clouds and floods across the scene reflecting on the sails of the boats and the old stone windmill.   It would seem that bad weather is on its way or has just passed.

To look at this painting is almost theraputic.  Its calmness has a calming effect on the viewer.  Look at it, relax and enjoy.

Lady and Gentleman on Horseback by Aelbert Cuyp

Lady and Gentleman on Horseback by Aelbert Cuyp (c.1655)

Over time I suppose one gets to like different artists and different paintings and one’s favourites constantly change.  For me however,  I have always loved the work of Aelbert Cuyp and along with Pieter Bruegel the Elder, I would have him constantly in my top five favourite artists.  I love his landscapes (see March 12th) and his riverscapes (see Feb 8th) but for My Daily Art Display today I have chosen one of his portraits, entitled Lady and Gentleman on Horseback which he painted around 1655.

Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp was born in Dordrecht in 1620. His father was Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, a successful portrait painter in the city and his mother was Aertken Cornelisdr van Cooten.  Aelbert was unquestionably raised up in an artistic environment with his grandfather Gerrit Cuyp being an eminent glass painter and his uncle’s step brother Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp was a well known painter of religious, peasants and tavern scenes.  It was his father who gave Aelbert his earliest artistic tuition.  Although Dordrecht was not known for being an important artistic centre, it was a wealthy city and proud of being the oldest city and principal city of Holland and of great mercantile importance.     Aelbert used to assist his father in his studio by supplying landscape backgrounds for portrait commissions.  It is uncertain whether Cuyp had ever been an apprentice of a landscape painter, but he soon abandoned his father’s style and subject matter and turned almost exclusively to landscapes and riverscapes.  He would only occasionally paint portraits in his mature period.

Aelbert, despite branching off on his own as a painter, continued to assist his father right up to the time of his father’s death in 1652.  It is thought that the landscape works of Jan van Goyen, which were known to Cuyp, may have been instrumental in his artistic style as were the works of the Utrecht painter Jan Both.  Cuyp also followed the example of Jan van Goyen in the way he travelled throughout Holland sketching and gaining inspiration for future works.

In 1658, aged thirty eight, he married Cornelia Bosman, a wealthy widow of Johan van de Corput, a naval officer and member of an important Dordrecht family.  Cornelia had three children from her previous marriage.  Following his marriage, Cuyp appears to have painted less frequently, and stopped painting altogether years before his death due to his civic and religious responsibilities he had assumed after his marriage.  He was very wealthy and there were no financial pressures on him to produce paintings for sale.    He was listed in the register of the dead on 7 November 1691, and buried in the Augustinian Church at Dordrecht.

Today’s work of art, Lady and Gentleman on Horseback, highlights the popularity of the Dutch patrician pastime of hunting in the second half of the seventeenth century and many similar paintings exist.  This is a large oil on canvas work measuring 123cms x 172cms and depicts a man and a woman, probably husband and wife, on horseback setting off for the hunt.   There have been many names put forward as to the identity of the sitters, the most popular being that the man is Adriaen Stevensz Snouck and the lady his wife, Erkenraad Berk.  The lady’s father, Matthijs, was an important patron of Aelbert Cuyp, which may account for the prominence in the painting of his daughter in her gorgeous blue dress, who we see sitting resplendently on the back of a white horse with its brilliant red and gold saddlecloth.   The couple had just married and it could well be that Cuyp was commissioned to paint this to commemorate the happy event.

The landscape in the background is filled with light, typical of the popular Italianate style of the time.  We see a building in the background which is more than likely a fanciful evocation of an ancient fortified chateau which Cuyp may have seen on his travels.   The two hunters have their dogs with them.  There are two types of dog on this hunt, the turfters which were used to track and follow the scent of deer and greyhounds, which we see in the middle-ground of the painting, being controlled by an attendant and which run after the deer and bring them to bay.

X-Ray Image of painting

When this painting was x-rayed there were some interesting differences to the finished article.  The man originally wore a hat and his hair was much shorter and was seen lying on his shoulders.  His attire was different.  He had originally been painted in a military tunic and cape which were adorned with braids and buttons that in all likelihood were golden in colour.  It was also thought that the overall colour of the man’s clothing was a brilliant red rather than drab brown we see in today’s painting.   If we look at the woman we see that originally she wore a hat which was of a different shape to the one she is wearing now and originally the hat had feathers at the back of it.  Her dress was more loosely fitting and cascaded down the right flank of her horse.  Such changes to the painting must mean that the patrons were dissatisfied with the original composition and the fact that there was more going on in the original painting probably was viewed as being too distracting from the formal character of the double portrait and thus had to be revised.

A Stormy Landscape by Meindert Hobbema

A Stormy Landscape by Hobbema (1663-5)

Meindert Hobbema was thought to have been born in 1638 in Amsterdam but there are varied opinions on this fact.  The name “Hobbema” was his own invention as his father’s name was Lubbert Meyndert.  He was the great landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age.   The Dutch Golden age was that period in Dutch history which spanned the 17th century, at the time of, and following the Eighty Years War, which encompassed the struggle for Dutch independence. The newly formed Dutch Republic became the most prosperous nation in Europe, and led European trade, science, and art. The northern Netherlandish provinces that formed part of the new state had customarily been less significant as artistic centres in comparison with the Flemish cities in the south.  The war caused tremendous disruption and resulted in the break with the old monarchist and Catholic cultural traditions.  As a result, Dutch art needed to reinvent itself entirely, a task in which it was very largely successful and this re-birth was known as the Dutch Golden Age.

We know that Hobbema was active as an artist in Amsterdam and that he was a pupil of the great landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael.  Some of Hobbema’s work showed a distinct similarity to his master’s work and as Ruisdael’s paintings were in great demand, a number of Hobbema’s works were passed off as being works of his master.  Strangely enough, in years to come when Hobbema’s flair as an artist and his artistic gift was established, the reverse would happen.

Hobbema married Eelije Vinck in 1668 who had been his serving maid.  One of the witnesses at the ceremony was Jacob Ruisdael.  The couple went on to have four children.   It was about this time that Hobbema started to work for the Customs & Excise in Amsterdam supervising the weighing and measuring of imported wine.  This was his full time job and from then on his artistic endeavours were reserved for his spare time.  The output of his paintings from then on decreased and was somewhat erratic.   In 1704 Eeltije died, and was buried in the pauper section of the Leiden cemetery at Amsterdam. Hobbema himself survived till December 1709, and he too was buried in a pauper’s grave in Amsterdam. It was a depressing fact of life that both van Ruisdael and Hobbema, looked upon as the two greatest Dutch landscape painters of the era, both died in poverty.  Like the two great Dutch painters Hals and Rembrandt some fifty years earlier, despite the demand for their works and the sale of their paintings, they too died penniless.   This sad fact has to be put down to either they let their paintings go too cheaply or simply their financial mismanagement which was brought on by them living a life they could not afford and as a result it was to prove to be their undoing.   

The Cottages and the passing walkers

Hobbema was a master painter when it came to painting woods and hedges, or mills and pools. This talent was derived from his life in the countryside, where day after day he might study the branching and foliage of trees, cottages and mills, under every variety of light, in every shade of transparency, during the various seasons.    His paintings had a characteristic rich texture to them.  Today’s featured painting entitled A Stormy Landscape, which he completed in 1665, is a prime example of his extraordinary talent as a landscape painter.  In it we can see his love of creating woodland scenes with various shaped trees which in turn gave him the opportunity to show off his talent in depicting illuminated clearings and patches of light randomly placed amongst the shaded areas caused by the massive trees and dense foliage.

The Fisherman

In the foreground we have a fisherman with his line cast in the rippling waters of the river.  In total there are nine figures dotted around the rural scene, all quite small but put there by the artist for a specific reason, that of directing our eyes through the landscape.  There is no urgency in the movement of the water which adds to the tranquillity of the scene. To the man’s right we have a family strolling through the woods.  Across the river stand two cottages nestling under the cover of the large trees.  More people out for a stroll can be seen on that side of the river.   The heavy clouds shown to the left of the painting warn us of a storm approaching but this appears to be of little concern to our fisherman or the walkers.

This is a beautifully crafted work of art and one of Meindert Hobbema’s masterpieces. It has a soothing quality to it.  It is the type of picture you should look at when you feel stressed as its calm depiction of a country scene counteracts the stress of city life.  It has a calming effect and in some ways standing in front of it offers you a chance to relax.   Life alas can be hectic and I believe this painting offers one the perfect foil to our sometime chaotic existence.

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (c.1665)

I have featured many paintings, mainly by Dutch or Flemish artists, which try and have an embedded moral message in their works of art.  Often it is about the dangers of drinking too much, which is a subject painters from our present time may find very topical.   My Daily Art Display today features one such 17th century painting entitled The Effects of Intemperance by the Dutch painter Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden a town in the Netherlands and was a contemporary of the great Rembrandt van Rijn.  He received his artistic education from the German painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Niclaes Knupfer who gained a reputation for his historical and figurative scenes of Utrecht.  At the age of twenty-two Steen joined the Saint Lukes Guild of Painters in Leiden.  Steen then moved to The Hague where he lodged in the household of the prolific landscape painter Jan van Goyen.  Soon after, he married Margriet, the daughter of van Goyen.  Jan and his father-in-law worked together closely for the next five years.  Then he moved and went to live in Warmond and later Haarlem.  His wife died in 1669 and his father-in-law passed away a year later.  Steen returned to Leiden re-married and had two children and remained there until his death in 1679 at the age of  53.
So back to today’s featured painting which is a pictorial moral tale of the dangers of insobriety.  The painting illustrates well the Dutch proverb “De Wijn is een spotter” translated means: Wine is a mocker, in other words wine (or drinking it in excess) will make a fool of you.  Although we see the children misbehaving the onus of guilt is placed squarely on the shoulders of the adults.

The main character of the painting is a woman who we see sitting slumped on the steps of her house sleeping off the effects of having drunk too much alcohol.  The overturned flagon of wine lies on the floor and despite the noise and antics of the children she doesn’t wake.   She is being portrayed as the neglectful mother.  She is totally unaware of what is happening around her.  However, she is no peasant.  Look at her clothes.  These are not ragged and threadbare.  The fur-trimmed jacket, in fact, looks both expensive and stylish.  Maybe the moral of the tale is that an excess of alcohol can affect rich and poor alike.  Her comatose state is going to cause a disaster as we see that her lit pipe is just about to slide from her fingers on to her dress.  The hem of her dress rests perilously close to the rim of the small clay brazier by her side which she has been using to keep her pipe alight and soon her clothes will surely catch fire.  It should also be remembered that at this time in the Netherlands most houses were of wood construction and fire had become a great hazard of life for those living in these dwellings.

The child behind her is stealthily filching the purse from the pocket of her dress, watching her carefully in case she stirs.  Again we are reminded of the Dutch proverb which states “opportunity makes the thief”.  This painting, in some ways,  mirrors Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs but on a smaller scale.    Look at the girl kneeling in front of the comatose woman. Maybe it is her eldest daughter.  She is offering the parrot a drink of wine from a glass.  The girl looks unsteady and her face is flushed.   Maybe she too has imbibed to excess.  Are we being reminded that the sins of the mother will be passed on to the child?

Next to the mother we see a boy clutching a bunch of roses.  He is throwing them to the pig which is busy snuffling around the legs of the woman in search of food.  We know of the biblical proverb “ Nether caste ye youre pearles before swine”  meaning that it is a worthless gesture of offering items of quality to those who aren’t cultured enough to appreciate them.  However the Dutch proverb doesn’t talk about pearls but instead – rose buds.  So what we are seeing in the painting is the rose-strewn pig, which simply symbolises how people waste what they have.

To the right of the mother we see three small children feeding a meat pie to the cat.  Again, this is highlighting the folly of waste.  It is interesting to note what is hanging above the drunken woman’s head.  It is a basket, in which there is a pair of crutches and a birch.  This is to be a reminder of what happens if you throw money away and mismanage your finances.  The crutch is a reminder of life as a beggar and the birch is a salutary warning of what happens if you are hauled to court because of bad debts.  Look back at My Daily Art Display of February 16th and Jan Steen’s painting entitled In Luxury, Look Out,  in which  the artist had depicted a similar scenario and the same moral tale that is being depicted by the artist in today’s painting.  In it we can see the same basket hanging above the miscreant.

Take a look at the background on the right hand side of the painting.  Here we see a man, maybe the husband of the drunken woman, sitting in the garden on a bench with a buxom young serving wench on his knee.  He is oblivious to what is going on around him and prefers to carouse with the young girl.

The Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, wrote about Jan Steen, recording that the household of Steen himself was both “riotous and disorganised” and that Steen, not being able to bring in enough money from his paintings ran an inn but Houbraken cynically pointed out that Steen’s best customer was himself!  However maybe the facts do not bear out the biographer’s assertions for Steen completed over 1400 pictures in a span of 30 years,  so could he possibly have had time to waste by drinking in his inn?  In yesterdays offering I spoke about artists liking to incorporate their own image into their paintings and Steen was no different.  He would even add his wife’s image into some of his bawdy pub scenes and she, rather than being flattered by her inclusion, would claim that her husband was always showing her as a “horny tart, a matchmaker or a drunken whore”!  It could be that she was the model for the drunken woman in today’s painting.

The chaos which reigns in this painting is similar to the themes in many of his household scenes and “a Steen household” is a Dutch phrase which means a household which is a badly managed and in total chaos.

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1660)

When I come to think about the painting I am going to use for My Daily Art Display I like to try and find one by an artist I haven’t featured before.  I also like to showcase an artist I had not heard of previously so that when I research his or her life it is a learning curve for me.  Today, however My Daily Art Display is a three-fold repeat which limits what I can say, without being accused of repeating myself.

 Firstly I have offered you a painting by Jan van Ruisdael before (January 9th) but I will not apologise for that as he is an amazing painter and has completed many superb works of art.   Secondly, the painting today is a Vanitas-type painting, a type of painting, which I talked about when I offered you the Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Heda on February 11th, and lastly this painting resembles in many ways the painting by Arnold Böcklin which I gave you on January 5th.  Having said all that, I have to tell you that when I was looking through some art books for my next presentation I was immediately taken aback by the strength of this painting and the aura that emanates from it.

My Daily Art Display today is The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael which he completed around 1660 and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister in Dresden with a larger version in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  This is a Vanitas genre painting, which is a type of painting that depicts an object or collection of objects symbolizing the brevity of life and the transience of all earthly pleasures and achievements.  In other words it is a painting which reminds us that we are not immortal and notwithstanding how rich or powerful we are –  we will all die sooner or later.

There is a definite melancholic and depressing feeling about this painting.  There is also that sense of foreboding which was present in Arthur Böcklin Island of the Dead which I gave you on January 5th.  The ruins, the graves and the dark skies set the mood of the painting.  Ruisdael had this uncanny talent to be able create such feelings in how and what he depicts.   This is a painting of the Portugeuse-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel River close to Amsterdam, however to be absolutely accurate, I must tell you that only some of the elements in the painting actually exist such as the three large tombs shown in the mid-ground, but that’s about it !  

The backdrop to the cemetery bears no similarity to the place at Ouderkerk.  There are no ruins overlooking the actual cemetery.  The ruins Ruisdael painted were the remains of the Egmond Castle which is situated near Alkmaar some thirty miles away.   There is no river running through the cemetery but Ruysdael just used it to portray the fact that the water like time rushes away from us.  The landscape, the river and the “added-in” ruins were just figments of Ruysdael’s imagination but one has to admit they do lend themselves well to the atmosphere he wanted to project.   

The three large tombs in the middle ground, which immediately catch one’s eye, the dead beech tree in the right foreground and the broken tree trunk overhanging the fast flowing river all indicate allegorically the fast approach of death.  However, Ruisdael does offer us a glimmer of hope in the way we can see a shaft of light penetrating the black clouds.  We can also see a rainbow and if we look carefully there are signs of flourishing growth amongst the dead trees, so he is telling us there may be a better life still to come after death.   Art historians have interpreted this painting simply as a reminder that man lives in a transient world and that despite being beset by sinful temptations there is always hope for salvation and deliverance.

Dam Square in Amsterdam by Jacob van Ruisdael

Dam Square Amsterdam by Jacob van Ruisdael (1670)

Today, Jacob van Ruisdael is my featured artist in My Daily Art Display.   He was born in Haarlem in 1628 and was brought up in an artistic household.  His father, Isaak van Ruysdael and his uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael were both landscape painters.  Little is known about Jacob’s early artistic training but it is thought that his father probably taught him with guidance from his uncle.  At the age of twenty he was admitted as a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem.  The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists especially in the Low Countries.   They were named in honor of the Evangelist Luke, who was the patron saint of artists.

Unfortunately during his lifetime Jacob van Ruisdael’s artistic talent was not appreciated and by all accounts he led a poverty-stricken existence.  At the age of fifty three the Haarlem council was petitioned for his admission into the town’s almshouse.  He died in Amsterdam a year later in 1682 and his body was brought back to be buried in Haarlem

Jacob van Ruisdael travelled considerably during his lifetime but seldom went outside his own country.   He was a prolific painter with over seven hundred paintings and a hundred drawings attributed to him.  His great love was to paint countryside scenes showing fields of corn and windmills as well as woodland scenes.  He was also a renowned painter of trees and their foliage.    Another favourite subject of his was seascapes and the neighbouring dune lands.  He also liked to paint waterfalls based on the work of Allart van Everdingen, the Dutch painter, who had travelled extensively in Scandinavia.

Today’s painting, The Dam Square in Amsterdam, completed in 1670 is neither a landscape nor a seascape.  The subject is Dam Square in Amsterdam, a place which he was very familiar with as he lived on the south side of the square at this time.   The square was dominated by the old Amsterdam municipal weighbridge and one can see several bales of goods under the canopy waiting to be weighed.   On the right of the building one can see the Damark with its sailing boats and the tower of Oude Kerk.  In the foreground of the painting there are a large number of figures.  It is not thought that Ruisdael actually painted these as he was not an established figure specialist.  Experts believe they may have been painted by the Rotterdam artist Gerard van Battem.  The pale light from the left of the painting casting long shadows across the square suggests that it is daybreak.

 His artistic works although not fully appreciated during his lifetime have since his death been highly praised and he is now often considered the greatest Dutch landscape painter of all time.