Seymour Joseph Guy

At the Opera by Seymour Joseph Guy (1887)
At the Opera by Seymour Joseph Guy (1887)

I was looking at the website of a person who had commented on one of my blogs and I was fascinated by a painting he had posted.  I had to find out more about it and the artist who had painted it.  The title of the work is At the Opera and the creator of the work was the nineteenth century English-born,  American genre painter, Seymour Joseph Guy.  Genre paintings are works, which depict one or more persons going about their every day life.  They could be scenes in the kitchen, at the market or in a tavern and they are nearly always realistic depictions, lacking any sense of idealisation.  They are “warts and all” depictions of life.  Seymour Joseph Guy’s later works, which were often quite small “cabinet pieces”, concentrated mainly on depictions of children.  His works were meticulous in detail.

 Seymour Joseph Guy was born in 1824 in England, in the south London borough of Greenwich.   His father was Frederick Bennett Guy who owned an inn as well as a number of commercial properties.   His mother was Jane Delver Wilson.  Seymour had an elder brother, Frederick Bennett Guy Jnr. and a younger brother, Charles Henry.  When Seymour was five years old, his mother died and he and his brothers were brought up by their father.  Four years later their father died and the executors of their late father’s will were John Locke who was the owner of the inn called the Spanish Galleon and a local cheese merchant and friend of Seymour’s father, John Hughes.   It is the thought that the three orphaned boys came under the legal guardianship of one of these gentlemen.  Seymour’s schooling was at a local school in Surrey and it was during these early informative years that he took an interest in art and he liked to spend time drawing dogs and horses.   He enjoyed drawing so much that, when he was thirteen years old, he made it known that he would like to become an artist, or maybe a civil engineer.  This choice of career did not go down well with his guardian who actively discouraged the teenager, going as far as stopping his pocket money so he couldn’t buy any pencils and sketchbooks and that he believed would force his charge to abandon his artistic plans.  Seymour was not to be put off and despite his lack of pocket money; he managed to earn enough to buy his own drawing materials by becoming a part time sign-painter.

Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1863)
Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1863)

Seymour Guy continued with his ambition to become a painter and in his late teenage years received some artistic tuition from Thomas Butterworth.  Butterworth, who had served as a seaman in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars period, lived in Greenwich and was a marine painter.  His guardian decided that a good career for Seymour, and in line with his artistic ambitions, would be to become an engraver.  However the cost of an apprenticeship to learn the engraving trade was prohibitive and this proposed profession had to be abandoned and instead his guardian arranged for Seymour to begin a seven-year apprenticeship at an oil and colour firm which oversaw the making of pigments, preparing binders, as well as combining the two skills in order to make paint either by hand-grinding them or using a steam driven machine.   This was a valuable experience for Seymour as he learnt the intricacies and expertise of mixing various pigments which he would himself use in the future for his own paintings.

In 1845 Seymour’s legal guardian died. It was also a time, when having reached the age of twenty-one, the brothers’ late father’s estate was split between them.  In Seymour’s case this also coincided with the end of his seven-year apprenticeship at the colour factory.    Seymour Guy was twenty-one years of age and now had sufficient money to pursue his dream of becoming a professional painter.  A friend offered to sponsor him to enable his entrance to the Royal Academy but instead he decided to work on his own and so he obtained a copying permit and took his easel and brushes to the British Museum where he copied some of the works of art.  Understanding that working alone was not the answer to learning about art he also enrolled at the studio of the portrait and historical painter, Ambrosini Jerome, who had received a number of commissions from the English royal family.  Seymour Guy was to work with Jerome for the next four years.

The Crossing Sweeper by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1860's)
The Crossing Sweeper by Seymour Joseph Guy (c.1860’s)

In 1852, aged twenty-eight, Seymour married Anna Maria Barber, who was the daughter of William Barber, an engraver.  The couple went on to have nine children, many of whom were used by Seymour as models for his genre paintings.  Two years later in 1854, Seymour moved his family from London to New York and settled in Brooklyn.  Here he set up his studio in Brooklyn Heights, played a leading role in the art life of the city and founded the Sketch Club and it was during these early times in Brooklyn that he met and became a close friend of another genre painter, John George Brown.  Brown who was also English-born had left his home in Durham and immigrated to America in 1853.  This close bond of friendship probably stemmed from them both being English born, and both genre painters who liked to concentrate on small-scale works which gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their intricate minute workmanship.   In those early days in Brooklyn Seymour Guy also completed a number of portraits of leading local figures.

In 1861, the two friends, Seymour Guy and John Brown, decided to move their studios from Brooklyn to the more fashionable Manhattan.  Seymour Guy had his studio on Broadway whilst John Brown moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building. Two years later Guy decided to leave his Broadway studio and move into the Tenth Street Studio Building.  The Tenth Street Building, which was on 51 West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, was constructed in 1857 and was the first modern facility designed exclusively to the needs of artists.  Soon it became the hub of the New York art world and would remain so for the rest of the nineteenth century.  It was to be the home for many famous American artists including Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierstadt.

Summer Issue by Seymour Joseph Guy (1861)
Summer Issue by Seymour Joseph Guy (1861)

The genre work of John Brown with its depiction of young children in rural settings influenced Seymour Guy for around about 1861 he too started to produce similar depictions. Around this time, the two artists made a number of ferry trips across the East River,  to escape the manic setting of the big city, to the tranquil setting of Fort Lee in New Jersey.  The two artists liked the peace and quiet so much that they decided to quit Manhattan and move home to the New Jersey countryside.  Brown went in 1864 and Seymour Guy followed with his family two years later.  Seymour Guy and his family lived the quiet existence in the country for seven years until in 1873 when they moved back to Manhattan where they remained for the rest of their life.

Seymour Joseph Guy died in 1910, aged 86, by which time his art was out of vogue and he was almost completely forgotten as an artist.   During that first decade of the twentieth century Guy’s health had begun to fail and his role as an artist seemed simply to have acted as an elder statesman to younger artists who sought out his vast knowledge about the art and the craft of painting. One of the most complimentary eulogies to him following his death appeared in the Century Association’s annual journal, which stated:

“…He is remembered with deep affection by artists who came to him as to an older man of recognized position. He was most genial, cordial, and ready to place himself and the methods of his art at their disposal, rejoicing in their companionship and keeping himself young through participation in their pursuits. For twenty-two years he was of the rare artistic fellowship of The Century, though of late years, through the infirmities of age, seldom here…”

The Contest for the Bouquet.  The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room  by Seymour Joseph Guy (1866)
The Contest for the Bouquet. The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room by Seymour Joseph Guy (1866)

In 1866 Seymour Guy completed a painting entitled The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room, which is a combination of a group portrait and a genre work.  It is a conversation piece sometimes referred to as a narrative painting.  Seymour had received the commission from the head of the family, Robert Gordon, a British-born financier and an avid collector of American art, who was also a founding trustee of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The commission was for the portrait of Gordon’s wife, Frances, and four of their children.  In this charming family portrayal we see the three older children of Robert Gordon playfully fighting to gain hold of a small floral corsage.  The elder boy, who is by far the tallest, holds the flowers aloft out of the reach of his sister whilst his brother stands on a chair to help him reach the “prize”.   To the right we can see the youngest child sitting on her mother’s lap, clinging to her, in order to avoid her three siblings.  The setting is the family dining room and appears to be around breakfast time as the three older children are already dressed in their school clothes.

The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Joseph Guy
The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Joseph Guy

The final two paintings I am featuring were set in the same room.  The painting The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Guy was completed around 1870 and in it we see a young girl reading the story of Goldilocks to two young boys, probably her brothers.  The storyteller is very animated and for the two young listeners it has probably turned the story telling into a somewhat nightmarish tale.  Look at their faces.  They are wide-eyed, unsure whether they want to hear more.  Maybe the frightening shadow of the girl’s head on the curtain above their bed has added to their trepidation.  On the chair next to the bed is the girl’s doll which lies in a drawer and this is thought to allude to the fact that the storyteller has finished with children’s toys and is transitioning between childhood and womanhood.

Making a Train by Seymour Joseph Guy (1867)
Making a Train by Seymour Joseph Guy (1867)

My final selected work by Seymour Guy was completed in 1867 and is entitled Making a Train.  There is an innocence about this painting although I am sure its content, the semi-nudity of a female child, would be criticised as being too salacious if it had been exhibited now.  In the same attic room as the setting for the previous work we see a young girl standing by her bed with a dress which has been lowered so that it drags along the ground like the train of a ball gown.  She looks over her shoulder to see the finished effect.   The painting is lit up by the light from an oil lamp which sits on a book on a wooden chair, to the right of the picture.  Once again Guy is depicting this young girl as moving from childhood to womanhood.  In the cabinet to the left of the picture we see a doll which has been put away.  This is the end of the era of playing with toys.  Now the interest is in fine clothing.  Her small breasts are both an evocation of her child-like innocence but also the start of her journey towards being a young woman.  In an era when realist painters liked to portray children as often sickly, dirty and poor street urchins many would have found favour with this work which depicts the young, clean, and healthy girl enjoying dressing-up.  It is thought that Seymour Guy’s daughter Anna modelled for this work.

For a further and much more detailed look at the life of Seymour Joseph Guy have a look at the website below, from which I got most of my information:


Gabriel Metsu. Part 2 – his later life and paintings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucifixion painting on back wall
Crucifixion painting on back wall

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

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

Gabriel Metsu. Part 1 – Early life and The Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen

Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen (1664)

I do my best to feature paintings by artists that people may not have come across before and I try not to feature the same artist too many times but sometimes I cannot help but revisit works by my favourite artists and today is no exception.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen which he completed in 1664.  I have showcased work by this artist three times before.  On February 16th 2011 we looked at a work entitled In Luxury, Look Out.  On April 27th 2011, I featured his painting The Effects of Intemperance and finally on August 26th 2011, I gave you The Life of Man so if you like today’s work why not go and have a look at some other of Jan Steen’s paintings.

Before us we have a simple scene of a couple celebrating the birth of their child, or do we?  In fact there is more to this painting than a simple celebration of the birth of a baby.  Look closely at the painting and see what is odd about the Steen’s depiction of the event and see if you can work out what is happening in the scene.  I will give you a hint.  Look at the man who stands behind the baby and the baby’s father.  Before I reveal the secret about the painting let me first tell you a little about the artist, Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in the Dutch town of Leiden in 1626.  He, like his artistic contemporary, Rembrandt, attended the local Latin School of Leiden. And a year later in 1646 he enrolled at the University of Leiden.  His professional artistic training started the following year and came from the German-born, Dutch Golden Age painter, Nicolaes Knupfer.  It is thought that he also could have studied with Adriaen van Ostade and it was this artist’s low-life genre work which was to influence Jan Steen’s early works.  At the age of twenty-two Steen along with his artist friend Gabriel Metsu and a number of local painters founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke of Leiden.

In 1648, Jan Steen moved to The Hague and worked as an assistant at the workshop of the celebrated landscape painter, Jan van Goyen.  Van Goyen was, like Jan Steen, born in Leiden.  He had moved from Leiden to The Hague in 1631 where he set up his workshop.  Steen was not only employed by van Goyen but was also taken in by van Goyen’s family and lived with him, his wife Annetie and their daughters.     Jan Steen became very friendly with Margriet, one of van Goyen’s daughters and they married in 1649 and the couple went on to have eight children.  Steen’s association with his father-in-law lasted until 1654.

In 1654 he and his family moved to Delft where he ran a brewery which his father had rented for him.  It was called De Roscam (The Curry Comb) but although Steen had a great artistic talent his business acumen was sadly lacking and the brewery failed.  In 1657 he went to live in Warmond,  a town close to Leiden and it was here that he met and became friends with the artist, Frans van Mieris.  Frans van Mieris was a painter of genre scenes which depicted the habits and actions of the wealthier classes.  It was this type of art by van Mieris and the works of Te Borch that weaned Steen off his low-life genre paintings and influenced him to paint more elegant genre scenes.  Jan Steen left Haarlem in 1660 and moved back to Haarlem where he stayed for the next ten years.  In 1669, near the end of this stay his wife died and the following year his father passed away.  After his father’s death in 1670 Jan returned once again to Leiden where he remained for the rest of his life.  He remarried that year and his second wife, Maria van Egmont,  gave Jan two children.

For the Dutch people, the year 1672 became known as the rampjaar(disaster year) as this was the year that saw the start of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo Dutch War, which culminated in the defeat of the Dutch States Army and large swathes of the Republic was conquered by the invading troops.   Because of these wars the art market collapsed and Steen needed another source of income so in 1673 he opened a tavern. His work in the tavern meant that his artistic output diminished in his later years.

Jan Steen died on New Year’s Day 1679 in Leiden

And so let us go back to the featured painting.  Have you worked out the “sub-plot” depicted in this painting yet?  Steen is best known for his humorous genre scenes, warm hearted and animated works in which he treats life as a vast comedy of manners and this work of his is no different.  We are looking at a lying-in room.  Whenever the lady of the house was about to give birth, one of the rooms was set aside for this purpose. The lying-in room was used for the actual delivery, and later to receive visitors.  The birth of a child was, as it is now, a cause for celebration.  It is greeted with both happiness and pride and in the 17th century in the case of the birth of a son, it became even more of a celebration for economic reasons as a son would often carry on his father’s business and would inherit the family possessions.

In this painting Steen has depicted a group of revellers celebrating the birth of a child.  One can imagine the elated atmosphere within the room with all its merriment and drinking.  The majority of people in the room are women as men, including the father, were considered inappropriate interlopers in this female sanctuary.  The mother is in the left background of the painting lying in her bed being fed some broth.  Another woman sits at the end of the bed drinking to excess.     The others present will probably be female relatives, maidservants and the midwife.  Normally one would expect, as in most works of art depicting such an event, that the mother of the newborn baby would be the main focus of attention.  However Steen has made the proud father the main focus of this painting.  However he is not the only man in the painting.  Look at the figure behind the baby.  We see another man as he is about to creep out of the room.  Actually it is a self-portrait of the artist himself.  It was not simply to break tradition to see the two men in the painting but Steen wanted to convey a little information about what has happened and to the nature of the husband and wife’s relationship.

Sign of the cuckold

Look more carefully and you will see something which was not visible until the painting was cleaned in 1983.  The man leaving the room has made a cheeky two-fingered gesture above the baby’s head.     This gesture can be seen by all those in the room except the proud father.   From the young man’s gesture, Steen has made us aware that the ‘father’ has been made a cuckold. The gesture illustrates the tradition of “cuckold’s horns, and that the horns, visible to all but the man himself, will grow on the head of a man whose wife has been unfaithful. The proud father stands right of centre having been presented with his child.  His pride on the birth of his child is plain to see.  He is totally unaware of the ridicule and stands before us, puffed up, beaming with pride as he shows off his child.  Nobody seems shocked by this audacious gesture which tells us that everyone in the room appears to know what the man does not: that the child is not his..  There are other sexually symbolic inclusions in Steen’s painting to suggest not just sexual impropriety but implying the husband was impotent, such as the bed warming pan, which lays prominently on the floor in the foreground.  The warming pan reminds us of the adage, the only warmth in the marriage bed is the warming pan.   In the right foreground we see broken egg shells scattered on the floor and again this is a reminder that the phrase, cracking eggs into a pan, was a contemporary euphemism for sexual intercourse.

The demand for money

Steen has been very unkind with his depiction of the father in this portrait.  We see him wearing an apron and carrying keys like a housekeeper would do, thus implying a lowering of his status in the household.   We also see the old midwife at his shoulder demanding money for her services and to the right of the man, sat on a stool, is a maid with her hand out, seemingly demanding payment for making the celebratory broth.  Steen’s final degrading of the man is his depiction of the limp and ineffectual sausage hanging by the fireplace which does not need me to explain the connotation of such an inclusion!!

There is a moralistic point to the painting.   It is a warning tale of what happens when an older man marries a much younger woman.   In a way Steen has no qualms about depicting the man as a cuckold.  Maybe the modern saying of there’s no fool like an old fool has its roots way back in time.

A Merry Company at Table by Hendrick Pot

A Merry Company at Table by Hendrick Pot (c.1630)

Two paintings today; one by the artist and one of the artist himself.  One of the pleasures I get from my blog is that besides discovering new artists and their paintings, I acquire an insight with regards the history and traditions of various countries , most of which I had little previous knowledge.  Maybe I should have concentrated more during my history lessons at school.   Recently I have featured Flemish artists and I looked briefly at Dutch and Flemish history during the time of Spanish occupation and rule.  Today, I am looking at a painting by the Dutch painter Hendrick Pot and exploring the world of the schutterij.  Don’t you know what the shutterij is or are?   Neither did I until I researched a painting by Pot but before I reveal the answer let me give you a brief biography of the artist himself.

Hendrick Gerritsz Pot was born in Haarlem around 1585.  His early artistic training was with Karl van Mander.  We probably know Karl van Mander not so much as an artist but for his writings.  He has often been termed the Dutch Vasari for his book entitled Schilderboek, published in 1604, which to this day, remains the main source for information on Northern European painters of the 1400s and 1500s and contains valuable original material about his Italian contemporaries.  He had arrived in Haarlem in 1583 and set up an informal academy with the Dutch engraver and painter, Hendrick Goltzius.  At this Academy, van Mander taught and developed the Haarlem Mannerist style.   Other artists who were trained by van Mander at his studio included Frans Hals.
In 1620 he was commissioned to do two paintings relating to William I of Orange, often referred to as William the Silent, who was one of the key leaders of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule.  He was assassinated in 1584.  One of the paintings, entitled the Glorification of Willem I, was acquired by the city of Haarlem whilst the other entitled the Deathbed of Willem I was housed in the town hall of Delft.   In1630 Pot became Dean of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.   He travelled to the court of Charles I in London in 1632 where he was employed as the court portraitist and during his one year sojourn at the court completed portraits of Charles I and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria.

In 1633 he returned he returned to Holland.  Many of Pot’s lucrative commissions were to paint group portraits of the local militias, known as schutterij.  So now you know – schutterij is the Dutch term for militia.  They were a voluntary city guard whose prime objective was to protect their town or city from attack and also to act in case of a fire breaking out within the town.   They were simply a defensive military support system for the local civic authority. The officers of the schutterij came from wealthy backgrounds and were appointed by the city magistrates. The captain of each group was normally a very wealthy inhabitant of the district, and the group’s ensign was a wealthy young bachelor and he could be recognised in the group portraits as the man wearing exceptionally fine clothes.   There was a special kudos to being a member of the schutterij as it often led to one being appointed to an important position within the town council.

At the time when the leaders of an individual schutterij stepped down or passed away and their replacements were sworn in, a local artist was commissioned to paint a new group portrait of the members. These group portraits were known as schuttersstukken and they often had the setting of a banquet which was held to welcome in the new leaders.     The artist commissioned to carry out the painting had a complex job on his hands.  This is not as it would be now when a photographer would get the group to stand as one and after a few minor adjustments shoot the film.  In the case of schuttersstukken the artist would paint each member separately so that each individual portrait within the group was as accurate as possible.  As a member of this militia, if one wanted to be included in the group portrait, one had to pay for the privilege and how much you paid the artist and your rank within the militia, would depend on where he positioned you within the group!  As I said before it was a very lucrative commission and there was a lot of competition for the right to carry out the group portrait.  Probably one of the most famous of the schuttersstukken was Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.   One thing that would help an aspiring artist to gain the painting commission was if he was a member of a schutterij.   Hendrick Pot was a lieutenant in a schutterij and that was the advantage he had over many of the other applicants.

The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company by Frans Hals

This leads me to my second painting of the day which is entitled The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company which Frans Hals painted around 1639 and included in the work is none other than Hendrick Pot with his militia sash who is seated at a table on the far right of the gathering, reading a book.

In 1648 Pot moved from Haarlem and went to live in Amsterdam.  In his later years he concentrated on small single figure portraiture.  He died in Amsterdam in 1657, aged 72.

My main featured painting is one Hendrick Pot completed around1630 and is entitled A Merry Company at a Table.   It is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.   It is a genre piece.  The definition of a genre piece is a work of art  which affords a pictorial representation, painted  in any of the various media and one that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Some of the genre pieces are realistic, some imagined, whilst others are romanticized by the artist. This type of painting was particularly popular in seventeenth century Netherlands, but the term “genre” was not applied at the time;  instead, paintings were divided into more specific categories, such as ‘merry company’ scenes (conversatie), ‘little fire’ scenes (brandje) or ‘bordello scenes’ (bordeeltje).   My featured painting today falls into the latter category, a bordeeltje.  So why do we believe what we are looking at is a bordello?  Although the painting is not littered by scantily dressed females and lusting men the artist has given us some subtle hints as to what we are looking at.  On the floor there is a discarded rapier, lute and in the foreground, a dog.  These symbolise the disarming power of love and carnal desire.  Look to the left of the painting and in the doorway one sees an old woman carefully watching her girls as they enchant and flirt with the soldiers.  The men and women seated around the table make music together which is a common euphemism for making love and they play cards and smoke which were looked upon as the two great vices of the time.

Look to the extreme right of the painting.  Look at the cavalier with his back to the chimney breast, who stares out at us.  He gives us a knowing look as if to say “you know what is going on here, don’t you?”  The background solely consist of a drab muted coloured wall broken up only by the presence of a mirror.  Why do you think Pot added a mirror to this scene?  Could he be asking us to look into it, see our own reflection and examine our own behaviour, before we audaciously condemn the women and the men we see before us in the brothel?

I have always liked these Dutch and Flemish genre pieces.  There is often a moralistic tale being told.  The scene is often up for interpretation and we look carefully for any signs of symbolism.  I enjoy looking closely at the individuals and try to guess what is going on in their minds.  Fortunately there are so many of them in our art galleries and museums and I am never disappointed by what I see.

Enjoy !

Winter Scene by Isack van Ostade

Winter Scene by Isack von Ostade (c.1646)

Over the next two blogs I am going to take a look at two Flemish artists who besides being highly talented were brothers.   They were the van Ostade brothers.  Today I am going to feature Isack, who was the lesser known of the two, maybe because he only lived to the age of twenty-eight.

Isack van Ostade was born in Haarlem in 1621.  He was a Dutch landscape and genre painter.  Genre paintings were ones depicting scenes of daily life and were particularly popular in 17th century Holland.  Isack and his brother Adriaen, who was eleven years older, were the sons of Jan Hendricx Ostade, a weaver from the town of Ostade, close to the city of Eindhoven.  Despite being born in Haarlem both he and his brother took the name “van Ostade” as their family name.  Isack studied painting under the guidance of his elder brother until he was almost twenty-one years of age at which time he independently set up his artistic business.  He started off painting subjects similar to his brother and his work was always viewed as not as accomplished as the works of Adriaen van Ostade.  Realising this, Isack decided to stop painting the genre scenes and concentrate more on landscape work in the fashion of Salomon van Ruysdael, the Dutch Golden Age landscape artist.

In his earlier paintings the figures were the key feature but in his later works his landscape becomes increasingly significant.  His change to landscape painting paid off and this coupled with his skill at figure painting ensured the popularity of his winter scenes in which we would see groups of animated people in wintery landscape settings.  These winter scenes like my featured painting today, Winter Scene, were his speciality.  He painted this picture around 1645 and it now hangs in the National Gallery in London.  It is quite similar to the painting, Winter Landscape with Wooden Bridge which another Dutch painter, Philips Wouwerman completed fifteen years later.

The painting we see before us is beautifully picturesque and we view the scene from low down which allows us to see the old rickety wooden bridge outlined against a silvery grey winter sky with its dark snow bearing cloud approaching the area.  The scene is populated by peasants.  Some, like the youngsters, are enjoying themselves sledging and skating on the frozen river whilst others, the adults, are hard at work as we see the man encouraging his old white horse to drag the laden cart up the riverbank and we watch old man as he slowly climbs the steps of the bridge, his back straining under his load of firewood.   

Sadly fewer than three dozen winter landscapes of Isack van Ostade are known today.  He died in 1649 at the early age of twenty-eight.  He had few, if any, pupils yet his influence on the succeeding generation of Haarlem painters was great and the likes of Philips Wouwerman  owed a lot to this young man.

The Anaemic Lady by Samuel van Hoogstraten

The Anaemic Lady by Samuel van Hoogstraten (c.1667)

As promised a while back, today I am going feature another painting by the Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten and at the same time have a look at his life story.

Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was born in Dordrecht, Holland in 1627.  He was the eldest of seven children.  His parents were Dirck van Hoogstraten, a silversmith and painter, and Maeiken de Conink.   He came from an artisan background.  His grandfather Hans was registered as a member of the Antwerp St Luke’s Guild, an association for painters and many of his mother’s ancestors were gold and silversmiths by trade.  The line of work the van Hoogstratens were in was a highly paid and one of the most prestigious of occupations.  In the late 16th century, the van Hoogstratens and the de Coninks moved from Antwerp to Dordrecht for a combination of religious, political and economic reasons.   Samuel’s grandparents and those of his wife-to-be were Mennonites, who had lived in Antwerp and because of their religious beliefs had had to escape persecution by the catholic Spanish rulers of the Spanish Netherlands

At the age of three, Samuel and his family moved to The Hague and his father Dirck enrolled in the local painters’ guild.  In 1640, Samuel’s maternal grandfather died and left his mother a sizeable inheritance as well as his house and business.  The family sold their house in The Hague, at a considerable profit, and returned to Dordrecht where they moved into the grandfather’s much larger house.  This was probably not before time as by then the family group had grown and now consisted of Samuel’s parents and seven children.  The family continued with the family’s silversmiths business.  Sadly, within a year of the move, Samuel’s father also died, leaving his mother to bring up the family single-handedly and at the same time persevere with the family business.     

From the age of seven Samuel van Hoogstraten had showed an interest in art and was taught the basics of drawing and the technique of engraving by his father.  In 1678 he wrote what is now considered as one of the most impressive painting treatises to be published in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century entitled Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (Introduction to the Academy of Painting) and in it he talked about his early love of art and his decision to become a painter despite some opposition from his uncle, his guardian.  He wrote:

“…I remember very well how when my father died my guardian advised me with gentle counsel to give up the art of painting and with pleasant words recommend another profession which seemed to him more secure.  And though I was not yet fourteen years old, I felt as if he wanted to take away my happiness and condemn me to slavery…”

Samuel achieved his wish to study to become a painter, for shortly after his father’s death, he moved to Amsterdam and entered the school of Rembrandt.   When he had completed his apprenticeship at Rembrandt’s studio, Samuel van Hoogstraten became an official Master and Painter.   It is only in some of his earlier works that the influence of his teacher can be seen.  In his later years during the 1660’s and early 1670’s he concentrated on genre paintings of domestic households as is the case with today’s featured work of art.  He was a man of many talents.  As well as being an accomplished artist, he was an expert in etchings and engravings, a gifted poet and writer and in 1656 when he was almost thirty years of age he married, went to live in Dordt, a suburb of Dordrecht, and became director of the local mint.  Samuel van Hoogstraten died in Dordrecht in 1678 aged 51.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled The Anaemic Lady which Samuel van Hoogstraten completed around 1667 and can now be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  The setting is a room in a house.  It appears to be a wealthy household judging by the sumptuous furnishings, gilt leather wall hangings and the paintings on the wall.  Before us is a pale faced woman, head slightly tilted to one side, reclining passively,  if somewhat lethargically in her chair, with her hands clasped before her.   It is a mysterious scene and we immediately wonder what is happening in the painting.  Although the woman has a sickly pallor we are not sure what ails her but there are clues.  Behind her we see two men.  One is a doctor holding up a flask of the woman’s urine to the light in order to determine whether she is in fact pregnant.   The other man, perhaps her husband, perhaps her lover, looks on with great apprehension at the bottle and maybe he fears the result of the examination. So what is the story behind this scene?  There are a couple of helpful hints in the painting.  Look at the naked figures, part of the design of the tablecloth and then look at the painting above the door which depicts an image of Venus, the goddess of love.  More importantly, look on the floor by the woman’s feet.  We see a cat.  Why would the artist add a cat to the painting?  Was it just a sign of domesticity and the family pet?   We should however remember that the cat was a medieval symbol of lust and in this painting its presence may represent illicit love.   This is not simply a cat stretched out on the floor but one which has trapped a mouse between its paws and maybe we should interpret that as reflecting the fact that maybe the man and the woman have, like the mouse, been caught and trapped by one moment of passion?

Does that sound a little farfetched?  Well here is a further twist to the story of the painting.  What you are looking at now is the painting after its restoration in 1989.  During the restoration work an overpainting was discovered.  Prior to the restoration work there was neither the mouse between the cat’s paws nor a second man in the painting.  The work just depicted a doctor treating a woman who was ill and the family pet lay lovingly at her feet.  There was now no hint of pregnancy, or entrapment.    It was thought that some time during the 19th century both the mouse and the man were painted out.  The reason for this overpainting is believed to be because it was not considered genteel or proper to refer to an unwelcome pregnancy or hint at its consequences.   

I will let you decide whether this is simply a scene of domesticity and whether the cat and mouse is just a load of nonsense, but if so, why overpaint the mouse and the second man?