Over the last few days I have featured the set of four paintings by the Flemish artist Joachim Beuckelaer entitled The Four Elements. On the first day the painting was subtitled “Water” and yesterday the subtitle of the painting was “Earth”. Today I am featuring the third painting of the set with the subtitle “Air” which was painted in 1570.
In the “Water” painting we were shown a fish market and the connection with the Element of Water was that of the habitat of the food. The same went for the “Earth” painting when we saw the fruits and vegetables of the earth. Today with the subject “Air” we are treated to the sight of the “food” which occupies the air above ground, namely birds, fowl and rabbits. We are also treated to the sight of products which come indirectly from the land such as eggs and cheeses. We are at a poultry market and there is an abundance of food on offer. During Beuckelaer’s lifetime he painted numerous “market scenes” and at that time the art market was flooded with such a genre. Unfortunately for the artist once the art market became saturated with such paintings their value declined and the real value of Beuckelaer’s work did not become apparent until after his death.
In the painting we see the rosy-cheeked stall holder sitting alongside the produce. It is a well-stocked market stall with a variety of dead fowl and small birds. We can also see inside a green wicker cage some live hens. The man at the stall, wearing the leather jerkin, has hold of a hen by its feet having just taken it out of the cage to show it to a would-be purchaser. To the left we observe a well dressed woman. She too is holding a hen in her right hand whilst her left hand rests atop a copper flagon which may contain milk or wine.
In the central background we see a road leading to the sea with a small cargo boat just setting sail with the crewman starting to hoist the sails. On the quay we can just make out some barrels which have been off-loaded from the craft.
So where is the Biblical story, which the artist is known to have incorporated into each of the four paintings? In this painting it is not as obvious. If however you concentrate on this road leading to the sea you will spot on the left hand side just behind some baskets of produce a man and a woman. She has her hand on his arm greeting him. He is leaning backwards against her, almost slumped. This was the Biblical addition of the painting by Beuckelaer, symbolising the Prodigal Son returning home. To me it seems as if he is inebriated and has just about made back home!
Once again we have before us a very colourful painting, full of activity. I get great pleasure looking around the painting at the various charactyers and their expressions and try and work out what is happening and what the artist had in his mind as he put paintbrush to canvas.
To get a much better view of this painting I suggest you try the National Gallery Website (below) and then you can zoom in on aspects of the painting. The website is:
Today I am featuring the second of a set of four paintings entitled The Four Elements. This painting completed by Joachim Buckelaer in 1569 is entitled The Four Elements: Earth. In this painting we are again standing in front of a market stall. This time the scene is set in the countryside, outside a large thatched-roof farmhouse, and before us we can see laid out an abundance of fruit and vegetables, symbolising “Earth” as this is where the produce has come from. It was common practice in Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 16th and 17th century to symbolise the Elements by reference to the natural world. Although I have not attempted to count them, I believe there are sixteen different varieties of fruit and vegetables on display in the painting. The painter has used some “artistic licence” when he painted the various fruit and vegetables as not all would be available at the same time of year and of course there was no such thing as refrigeration in the seventeenth century. It is truly a depiction of a “land of plenty” where there is no place for hunger.
The spectrum of colours used by the artist has enhanced the painting. The fruit is painted with such realism. They look so succulent and they lay there tilted slightly towards us to give us an even better view of everything and tempt us to try some of the produce. You almost want to move forward and pick a grape or sample a mulberry. All seems so mouth-watering which is a testament to the artist’s great ability to paint still-life subjects.
It is difficult to decide who are the buyers and who are the sellers in the painting. Before us, we have the two young females in their colourful attire. The lady in the red jacket with her sleeves rolled up has rosy cheeks which has probably come from working outside so much. The lady with the lace cap and yellow sleeved dress would seem to be dressed slightly better than the others and may hold the position of head cook in a wealthy household who has come down to choose the best produce for the ingredients needed for the meals she is about to prepare. I love the way the way Beuckelaer depicts the vegetables tumbling from her hands. It makes you almost want to rush forward and catch the errant cabbage before it hits the ground. To the right of the main figures we see a young man and woman by a well and one wonders if they are the stall holders who use the water from the well to wash the fruit before putting it on display. The man stares out at us with his elbow on the edge of the well as he takes a rest.
Once again the artist has included a scene from the bible into the painting. Look to the left background and you can see in the distance, a small arched bridge, on which Mary and Joseph are crossing. Joseph leads the way on foot guiding the mule on which sits Mary with the infant Jesus and is a portrayal of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt to avoid the clutches of King Herod.
I love this painting and I love how Beuckelaer has painted the produce. It is so life-like. The colours he has used enhance the painting and make it look so real.
Over the next four days I want to show you a set of four paintings by the Flemish painter Joachim Beuckelaer. His favoured painting genres were still lifes and market and kitchen scenes. Beuckelaer was born in Antwerp in 1533 and was the nephew of Pieter Aertsen the Dutch historical painter whom he trained under. By his late twenties Beucklaer was a master painter in his own right although a number of his paintings were based on themes used by Aertsen, the general opinion was that the standard of the former pupil’s work was greater than that of his master. Both Aersten and Beuckelaer were renowned for their paintings depicting scenes from inside a kitchen and of scenes at the market both of which always included many still-life depictions of food. As is the case of my featured paintings over the following days, Beuckelaer would also include a relevant biblical subject within the painting of domestic life and maybe it was intention to compare the stress of physical life on this earth and spiritual life. It is interesting to note that the religious subject in each painting is consigned to the background of each work of art.
The set of paintings I am featuring over the next few days is entitled The Four Elements, which Beuckelaer painted between 1569 and 1570 and they take as their theme the four classical elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire. It is thought that the set of paintings were destined for an Italian patron.
Today I am featuring The Four Elements: Water, which was completed by Beuckelaer in 1569. Here in front of us is a scene at a fish market. The artist has depicted twelve different identifiable varieties of fish. Some art historians believe that the twelve represent the twelve disciples. It is thought that he was the first painter to depict the market fish stalls at Antwerp. Before us we gaze at the stall holders and we start to feel a little uncomfortable with the way they stare out at us. The older lady to the left has a resigned expression on her face as if it is “just another day selling fish”. She is not smiling. She looks tired as she holds out the tray of fish for us to examine. The man to the right, who maybe her son, rests his right hand on a trestle table as he proudly shows us the underbelly of a large fish. It is interesting to look at the left background and see how Beuckelaer has used steep perspective in the way he depicts the bustling street going off into the distance.
However what is more fascinating and in some ways more bizarre is what we see though the central arch in the background. This is not part of the landscape to the rear of the fish market but is in fact a scene from the bible. It is the time when Christ appeared to the disciples. This was the third sighting of Christ since the Resurrection and the scene is based on the Gospel by Luke 5: 1-11, in which we are told that Jesus told the despondent fishermen, including Simon Peter, who were washing their nets after a fruitless days fishing, to “put out to the deep water and once again let down their nets”. Peter questioned the merit of this advice but did so and they caught innumerable fish and this has been referred to as the Miracle of the Fishermen.
This is a picture, which has a wonderful array of colours , fascinating characters and along with the other three works makes for a beautiful set of paintings.
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.
Peter Lely, a Dutch Baroque painter, was born in Soest, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, in 1618. He was actually born with the name Pieter van der Faes. His mother Abigael van Vliet came from a wealthy Utrecht family and his father Johan van der Faes was a captain in the forces of Baron Walraven van Gent, which served the Elector of Brandenburg and which was stationed in Soest. Pieter became known as “Lely” which is the Dutch word for lily as on the facade of his father’s house in The Hague was a heraldic lily. From an early age Peter studied painting under the tutelage of Pieter de Greber and at the age of nineteen became a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem where he had gone to live and work.
At the age of twenty-three Lely left the Netherlands for England and arrived in London around 1642. He originally focused his works of art on landscapes and history painting but he turned to portraiture as there was a great demand for this painting genre and he soon built up a reputation as a great portraitist. His commissions came from the likes of Charles I and later Cromwell but the height of artistic career came during the reign of Charles II when he became the king’s official painter and painted many of the royal courtiers and their mistresses in a style, which art historians termed a “Baroque swagger”. In 1661 the king awarded him a stipend of two hundred pounds a year. He dominated the portraiture scene from the mid seventeenth century until his death. Eight years later in 1689 he was knighted but sadly a year later he died at the age of 71. It was said that he was found slumped before his easel with his palette still in his hand having been working on a portrait of the Duchess of Somerset.
Sir Peter Lily as well as being an artist was also an art collector which during his lifetime was valued at over ten thousand pounds. His collection was immense having started it once he had arrived in England. After he died is collection was sold. Amongst the prized collection were works by Veronese, Titian, Giorgione, Reni, Rubens and Frans Hals, just to mention but a few.
My Daily Art Display for today is one of his mythology paintings which were usually set in Arcadian landscapes. It is a very erotic painting and is probably his most famous non-portrait work. It is entitled Nymphs by a Fountain which he completed around 1650, the year after King Charles I was executed I saw this painting when I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. It is set in late evening time and in it we see a group of female figures in various states of undress grouped together at the foot of a fountain with its sculpture of a dolphin and putti. It is a woodland setting, bathed in warm evening sunlight, surrounded by long shadows. But who are these semi-clad females? Nobody seems able to pin the scene down to a mythological episode. So why are they lying by the fountain? Are they supposed to be asleep? Too many unanswered questions but maybe there is very little point in seeking answers. Maybe this is not a painting that needs interpretation. Maybe we shouldn’t look for hidden symbolism and just take it on face value. It could well be that, as far as the artist was concerned, it was just an excuse to paint female nudity.
The figures in the painting have not been romanticised. The females have dishevelled hair as they are seen lying on discarded silk dresses and white linen shifts Lely has painted the females, not as perfect body forms, but with, what one would term, “slight imperfections”. The nymph in the lower left of the painting has a somewhat plump stomach. The one at the front with her back to us has dirty feet whilst the breasts of the nymph lying on her back to the left of the fountain have flattened with their own eight. This is no portrayal of sculptured beauties with skins of marble. These are not idealised beauties and yet there is sensuousness about the way they are depicted. Is this merely an erotic painting which has no hidden meaning and is thus, just for the voyeur who enjoys looking at, and is aroused by, this genre of art?
The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand by Albrecht Dürer (1508)
This picture fascinated me. It is a very disturbing work of art. It was full of everything going on and one could spend ages looking at all the details of the scene. I love this type of painting. I love discovering new things every time I gaze at it. I am starting to think that maybe instead of looking at Old Masters I should concentrate on “Where’s Waldo” pictures – only kidding !
The painting in My Daily Art Display is entitled The Martyrdom of Ten Thousand by Albrecht Dürer, which he painted in 1508 and it can now be found in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. This was an altarpiece commissioned by the Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise for the chamber of relics in his Wittenberg castle chapel. Frederick is said to have owned relics from the actual massacre and kept them in this chapel. He displayed them annually until Martin Luther prohibited the practice.
The scene is based on a story from Jacobus de Voragine’s collection of stories about the saints entitled Legenda aurea or Golden Legend. The legend in question is the massacre of ten thousand men by the Persian King Saporat. According to the legend the Roman Emperors Hadrian and Antonius marched at the head of a large army on a campaign to Asia Minor to suppress the revolt of the Gadarenes and the people of the Euphrates region. However the battle didn’t go well and all fled except nine thousand soldiers. These had been converted to Christianity after angels appeared to them, promising victory. Buoyed up with that knowledge the nine thousand soldiers attacked and completely routed the enemy. When the two emperors heard of this great victory they sent for the men, telling them to come home and join in the sacrafices of thanksgiving to the gods. The men refused to return and worship “false gods”. The emperors enraged by their disobedience asked the five kings, rulers of this area, to help in bringing back the “converts”. The kings gathered up a huge army and the converts were trapped on Mount Arafat. Their safe passage home was guaranteed providing they denied their faith. However they refused and were stoned but according to the legend the stones just rebounded against their persecutors. At seeing this miracle another thousand soldiers deserted the attacking hordes and joined the nine thousand converts. It was at this point the emperors ordered every one of the ten thousand men to be crucified.
So let us now look at this fascinating painting in which Durer has depicted the killing of these ten thousand converts. If you look carefully at the centre of the picture you will see two men dressed in black. On the right we have Dürer himself holding a stick attached to which is a note which reads:
This work was done in the year 1508 by Albrecht Dürer, German
Next to him stands his friend Konrad Celtis, the German Renaissance humanist and scholar who actually died before the painting was completed. Maybe his inclusion was Dürer’s memorial tribute to his friend. It always fascinates me to see how many artists paint themselves into their own pictures, often part of crowd scenes. It is a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock who always appeared for a few seconds in his own films.
If you look in the foreground on the right-hand side you can see one of the kings of Euphrates who had been called in by the two Roman emperors to suppress the “rebellion”. He is resplendent in his blue cloak and white turban which makes him stand out from the others. Art historians believe that Dürer’s portrayal of the oriental potentate was a reference to the threat of a Turkish invasion into Europe, since fifty years earlier, Constantinople had been captured and people were concerned that the marauding armies may move further westward.
There is a savagery to this painting as we see the converts being systematically killed, some by crucifixion whilst others are being thrown off high cliffs. In the foreground to the left, we can see one blindfolded man about to be decapitated. On the ground we see a decapitated head. In the centre foreground we see a man with his foot on the chest of a convert about to drive a stake through his heart. It is all very grizzly.
To the right of the middle-ground we see a line of men, some naked, tied together in a line being marched up the mountain where they would eventually be thrown off the cliffs to their death. To the left of the line we see a man with a heavy boulder held above his head about to hurl it downwards on to the skull of a hapless convert.
It is a veritable bloodbath of a picture and the details may make you feel uncomfortable but the detail and the colours make this one of my favourite paintings.
My Daily Art Display today features not one but two paintings. Both are by the same artist Guido Cagnacci and both have the same theme, namely, the death of Cleopatra.
Guido Cagnacci was an Italian painter of the late Baroque period belonging to the Bolognese School which rivalled Florence and Rome as centres of painting. He was born in 1601 in Santarcangelo di Romagna, a town in the province of Rimini where he spent the early part of his life. Later, he spent time in Rome where he met fellow artists Simon Vouet, Guernico and was a pupil of Guido Reni. It is also believed that during this time he may also have studied under an ageing Ludovicio Carracci. He moved back east to Venice in 1650 and started to paint very sensual scenes with seductive, half-naked girls as his subject. These erotic paintings were very popular and much sought after by collectors at the time and his popularity spread . In 1658 he journeyed to Vienna where he gained the patronage of Emperor Leopold I and that was his ticket to fame and riches. His later paintings featured semi-naked women as Lucretia, Cleopatra and even Mary Magdalene.
The painting above entitled The Death of Cleopatra was completed by him in 1660 and now hangs in the Brera Gallery in Milan. This painting is charged with sensuality and we see Cleopatra slumped in an upright chair, naked down to the waist. She has been bitten by the asp which we see trapped between the arm of the chair and her right arm. Her eyes are almost closed as she drifts towards unconciousness. Her head has fallen back against the red leather of the chair. The curls of her golden hair reach down to her shoulder. Even at the point of death she retains her beauty. Her facial expression is one of tranquility and not one contorted with pain. In her final moments she loses none of her radiance.
Death of Cleopatra by Cagnacci (1658)
The second painting by Cagnacci which I am featuring entitled The Death of Cleopatra was painted two years before the first one I featured. It was completed around 1658 and now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.
In this painting we see Cleopatra, not alone, but with six of her handmaidens. Look at the contrast between Cleopatra and her handmaidens. See how Cagnacci has shown the realism of the weeping servants. The faces of some are contorted with anguish whilst others just dissolve into tears for the plight of their mistress. The handmaiden in the left foreground points towards the snake, said to be an asp, and like the woman next to her holds up her other hand to shield herself from any attack from the creature. But look at Cleopatra. Cagnacci has once again painted her half slumped in the chair this time with her head fallen to one side. Once again we see the small snake trapped between the arm of the chair and her arm. Maybe the squeezing of the snake’s body has caused it to strike. Again as was the case in the first painting, Cleopatra seems at peace with the world and once again there are no facial expressions which would lead us to believe that her death had been in any way painful.
It is that very last point about the peaceful look on Cleopatra’s face that brings me to an interesting point of view made by the German historian and author of a best-seller entitled Cleopatra, Christoph Schäfer, who has researched the death of Cleopatra caused by the snake. He has looked back at historical texts and one report, written about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death, stated that Cleopatra died a quiet and peaceful death, and this is exactly how Cagnacci has portrayed the victim in both his paintings, which does not correlate with death by asp bite – a long, painful and disfiguring way to go.
Schäfer’s other findings have also destroyed our long-held beliefs re the 2000 year-old legend of the Queens death, for he also highlights the fact that the story of Cleopatra, which we are used to, is highly unlikely. His examination of ancient texts in Alexandria revealed that Egyptians knew a lot about poisons, and one papyrus reported that Cleopatra tested these poisons on herself. He also states that Cleopatra died in the middle of an Egyptian summer, so temperatures would most likely have been too high for an asp to stay still enough to bite. Of course in our two paintings Cagnacci has shown the snake trapped under her arm and unable to wriggle free! Having discussed his thoughts with a toxicologist, Schäfer concluded that the most likely method of death was a drug combination of opium, wolfsbane and hemlock, which was known at that time to induce a painless death.
I will end here and let you decide how Cleopatra died, but do not let the different theories detract from these two beautiful paintings
My Daily Art Display starts with a question. Hands up if you have heard of Théopile Thoré sometimes known as Théopile Thoré-Burger. Not too many raised hands. Second question – hands up if you have heard of Joannes Vermeer. Hands are shooting up all over the place! Did you know that but for the French journalist and art critic Théopile Thoré nobody may ever have discovered the artistry of our beloved painter from Delft?
Joannes Vermeer was a rather quiet man who enjoyed painting. He did not push his work. He did not need to sell his paintings to survive. He just wanted to discover new painting techniques and liked to concentrate on how light and shadow could be best represented in paintings. So here we have a man who didn’t paint profusely and during his time was not well known. Dutch and Flemish art dealers obviously wanted to get their hands on works of art that they could sell at a profit and thus they were always seeking works of popular artists. To them, the important thing was to know which artists were popular at the time and thus which paintings would make them the most money for them. The only way they could find this out was by looking at sales registers and seeing which paintings were fetching the greatest amounts. So, as Vermeer was not so well known at the time, art dealers who had bought his paintings were known to have erased his signature from the work and substitute it with the name of a more popular artist of the same painting genre and so the name of Vermeer as an artist faded. That was until Étienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré came onto the scene, almost two centuries after the death of Vermeer.
Joseph-Théophile Thoré was a French art critic and political journalist who founded the newspaper, La Vraie République, which was later banned by the government as being subversive. Thoré eventually had to leave France and went into exile to Brussels where he stayed for ten years until he was granted amnesty in 1859. Whilst he was in Brussels he became interested in the work of the Dutch artists such as Frans Hals, Fabritius but especially in the works of Vermeer and was mystified at the lack of Vermeer paintings. He had seen, and was extremely impressed with Vermeer’s painting View of Delft, which he saw when he visited the Mauritshuis of The Hague and he could not understand why such a great artist was completely unknown at this time. Thoré researched into Vermeer and his paintings and over time proved that many paintings which had been attributed to other Dutch artists were in fact works by Vermeer.
The painting featured in My Daily Art Display today is The Art of Painting, sometimes known as Painter in His Studio and was painted by Vermeer in 1667. Until 1860 it was thought to be a painting by the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch but thanks to the work of Thoré it was eventually attributed to Vermeer. This painting is alleged to be the artist’s favourite. He would never sell it even when times got hard. It was only later, after his death that his widow, Catharina, bequeathed it to her mother to avoid it being taken by creditors.
In this painting we see the Master at his best with an exquisite style of painting in the way he shows the various effects on the people and the objects of the light which streams through the window. In the painting we see just two figures, the artist, who some art historians would have us believe is Vermeer himself. However others disagree and point to the fact that a year after his death his widow referred to the painting as de Schilderkonst (the Art of Painting) rather than referring to it as “My Husband the Artist”. The other person in the painting is the artist’s subject, a girl dressed as the Muse of History, Clio. She is wearing a laurel wreath, holds a trumpet and carries a book by Thucydides, the Greek historian. We know it is her because of Cesar Ripa’s 16th century book entitled Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi , which was a highly influential book about Egyptian, Greek and Roman emblems and had been translated into Dutch in 1644.
There are other fascinating things about this painting. We see a heavy curtain pulled to one side like a theatre curtain being drawn allowing us to see the actors on stage. The addition of the drawn heavy and ornate curtain was a way in which Vermeer was able to achieve perspective. You can see that the drawn curtain partially covers both the trumpet and map and some of the objects on the table. Does he want us to come forward and draw the curtain further aside so we can see more? The curtain is almost real to our eyes and maybe Vermeer learnt this trick when he read the tale of the famous contest of Greek antiquity held between two renowned painters Parrhasius and Zeuxis to see who was the finest. This story was cited by Plinius the Elder from a Greek source in his Naturalishistoria, which he wrote in 77 AD. Zeuxis had produced a still life, so convincing that birds flew down from the sky to peck at the painted grapes. Parrhasius then asked Zeuxis to pull aside the curtain from his painting. When it was discovered that the curtain was a painted one and not a real one, Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat, for while his work had managed to fool the eyes of birds, Parrhasius had deceived the eyes of a human being!
An empty chair stands below the curtain. Maybe we are being invited to sit down and watch the artist at work. On the back wall is a map of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands which was published in 1636. Although we have come to accept that north is always at the top of our present day maps, in those days West was at the top of their maps, south was to the left hand-side and north was to the right-hand side. Look and see how the artist has depicted the map with a heavy vertical crease down the middle and by doing this is highlighting the division between the Protestant Netherlands to the north (right-hand side) and the Habsburg-controlled Flemish Catholic provinces in the south (left-hand side).
Now take a look at the chandelier which is high up at the centre of the painting It in some ways reminds us of the one shown in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. We can see surmounted upon it the double headed eagle which was a symbol of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty of Austria, who had once ruled Holland. Vermeer was believed to have been a Catholic and some art historians believe that he painted the chandelier without candles as a statement that in Protestant Holland, Catholicism had been suppressed (snuffed out like a candle). Vermeer paints this chandelier majestically showing in detail the light and shade of the various arms depending on how the light from the window strikes them. Chandeliers like this one are seen in many paintings and cynics say that they are only there so that artists can demonstrate their painting prowess at being able to show them with various shades of light.
One interesting note with regards its provenance. In 1940 the painting was bought by Adolf Hitler for his personal collection for 1.65 million Reichsmark. Fortunately in 1945 it was rescued from the depths of a salt mine where it had been hidden. Today it can be seen in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna where it has hung since 1946.
It has been a long and interesting tale of a painting which I was fortunate enough to see when I visited Vienna late last year. The Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna is definitely a place you should add to your “must visit” list.
When I was travelling around Italy last week the one thing I noticed, which was different from here in Great Britain, was the fact that most of the churches were open to visitors even if some, especially in tourist areas, had admission fees. In my country most of the churches are locked up unless a service is in progress for fear of vandalism or theft. The one exception to this open-policy was Milan cathedral which for some reason would not let individuals inside, just admitting pre-booked guided parties. I have no idea the reason behind this and my lack of ability to speak Italian put me off questioning the very large armed policemen, who stood guard at the door.
The other difference between the churches I visited in Italy and the ones in my country was that the Italian churches seemed to all have frescoes and paintings adorning their walls whereas the churches I have visited here, although often architecturally attractive and have beautiful stained glass windows, one rarely comes across works of art. Maybe that again is to do with possible vandalism and theft. During my short vacation I visited Verona and after the obligatory visit to “Juliet’s balcony” I decided to visit a couple of the churches and I am so glad that I did.
I visited the church of Santa Anastasia and it was here I came across a wonderful fresco above the entrance to the Pellegrini Chapel which is just to the right of the main altar and which according to the guide book was done by an artist called Pisanello. I decided that when I returned home I would find out a little more about the artist and his fresco and feature it in My Daily Art Display. So here is what I found out.
Antonio di Puccio Pisano is thought to have been born in Pisa around 1395 and was to become one of the great fresco painters of the early Italian Renaissance and the Quattrocento, which was the collective name given to the cultural and artistic events of 15th century Italy and includes the artistic styles of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. He was educated in Verona and it has been documented that he worked in Pisa, Venice, Florence and Verona. Pisanello’s subjects include Arthurian legends and other courtly stories. They reflect the chivalric ideals of his noble patrons. The decorative nature of his work comes from the work of early 15th century artists such as Gentile da Fabriano, a leading exponent of the International Gothic genre. Pisanello and Gentille collaborated on the frescoes of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice and they both worked at the court of the Gonzaga princes in Mantua. Pisanello returned to Verona around 1436 and started work on the Pelligrini Chapel in the church of Santa Anastasia, which is the work of art I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today.
The fresco is entitled St George and the Princess of Trebizond and was completed in 1438. It is based on what was a favourite subject of the period, Saint George, the Princess and the Dragon. The fresco is in the crown and spandrels of the arch at the entrance to the chapel. Sadly the fresco in the left-side spandrel has deteriorated badly. It shows a barely discernible scene of the dragon’s lair where the creature had devoured its prey and all that was left were the bones of the victims which are surrounded by hideous animals which are scavenging the remains.
In the right spandrel we see the heroic St George with his curly golden hair, who has just dismounted from his horse after his gallant rescue of the princess. The rescued damsel stands side on to us. There is regality about her stance. Her head is held high and just take a look at the splendour of her dress with its long train. Both the Princess and her rescuer are dressed in the finest clothes of the day. Unfortunately the gold and silver used in the fresco has fallen away over time but one can only imagine how spectacular the fresco would have been when Pisanello had completed it.
It is interesting to note the way he has painted the two horses one of which we see from behind, the other seen head-on. There is a perspectival foreshortening of the animals and this painting technique was starting to become popular with artists at this time. The background is dominated by an enchanting city with its Gothic towers and ornate stonework. In the left-hand background we see two hanged men swinging on the gallows. Maybe they were thieves or traitors. In the foreground we have a ram, what looks like a golden-coloured boar and a dog.
Whilst I was looking around the church I came across a girl on some scaffolding meticulously carrying out restoration work on another of the church’s frescos and it brought to mind the age-old argument as to whether frescoes should be restored or should they be left to slowly decay and thus one sees the original and not a “touched-up” offering.
My featured artist today is the Venetian portraitist Rosalba Carriera. I have chosen her because I saw her painting whilst in Venice and I was greatly moved by it. As I told you yesterday, when I discover a “new” artist I become intrigued and curious to know more about them and so now that I am back home I have delved through my books and have come up with a somewhat sad tale which I will now tell you.
Rosalba Carriera was born in Venice in 1675 and was one of three sisters, one of whom, Angela, was later to marry the great Venetian painter Giovanni Pellegrini. Rosalba studied art under Giuseppe Diamantini, the notable Baroque painter and printmaker, during which time she would copy oil paintings. Her own first successes came in 1700 with her tempera portrait miniatures which she painted on ivory. In 1705 she was made accademico di merito by the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. This was a great honour and was reserved for non-Roman artists. Her work was so good that soon her fame spread throughout Europe.
Here is another question for you. What do you think the connection was between Rosalba and snuff?
By the 18th century, snuff had become the tobacco product of choice among the elite, prominent users included Napoleon, King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte and even Pope Benedict XIII. The taking of snuff helped to distinguish the elite members of society from the common populace, which generally smoked its tobacco. As snuff-taking became popular in Europe so did Rosalba’s commissions. Why? Rosalba Carriera was able to paint miniature portraits, often on ivory, which formed the lids of the snuff boxes. Her talent for these delicately painted snuff-boxes was in great demand. From that, she progressed to portrait painting but again on a small scale, usually about 30cms x 50 cms. In 1706 she was invited to the court in Dusseldorf to carry out various commissions and following on from that she was besieged by the nobility of Europe who flocked to her studio in Venice for her to paint their portraits or portraits of somebody from their family.
And so to My Daily Art Display painting simply entitled, Self-portrait which she completed around 1746 when she was aged 71. This was unlike many of her portraits she did of women of the nobility. Those portraits were of good-looking women, dressed in sumptuous clothes. Here we have before us a pale faced elderly woman. She is not smiling and it appears that happiness has passed her by. She looks tired, drained by her long and arduous life. I wonder if , in general, we are lulled into believing that somebody who has the ability to paint beautiful things must be happy. But maybe that is at the crux of her sadness, as it is at about this time that she began to lose her sight and she must have realised that her ability to produce such beautiful works as she had once done, was rapidly coming to an end. Can you imagine what she must have been thinking at this time in her life? Can you imagine her torment when she realised her days of painting were coming to an end?
Sadly, she became totally blind five years after completing this self portrait and this sent her spiralling into a deep depression and she died six years later in 1757, aged 82.