The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1546)

Throughout time, mankind has always looked for ways to extend the longevity of life.  In modern times we have organ transplants, anti-aging creams and plastic surgery to either extend our life or if we accept the futility of that premise, then at least try and make oneself look younger.  We can now bathe in spas whose magical water quality are supposed to combat this disease or that disease and many who have bathed in these waters leave feeling cleansed and believe implicitly that the waters do heal them of their ailments and have rejuvenated them.  In past times there was always talk about the mythical Fountain of Youth in which the waters could reverse the ageing process.  Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world at the time, was thought to have been searching for a river that healed the ravages of age. Move forward to the 12th century and we hear of a puzzling letter sent to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I which started to circulate around Europe. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. This letter was supposedly written by a king known as Prester John and talked about his kingdom which had rivers filled with gold and was the home of the Fountain of Youth.  Two centuries later, in 1513, it was recorded that the explorer, Ponce de León, was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida.   And so it goes on, this fascination with the mystical Fountain of Youth.

Artists have often recorded pictorially their take on this magical fountain and today I am going to take a look at one which was completed just over thirty years after Ponce de León’s voyage of discovery.  The painting, Der Jungbrunnen (The Fountain of Youth) is by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder which he completed in 1546.  It is about the human desire for immortality and eternal youth.  The old women in the painting crave to cast aside their worn outer shell, which is pale and wrinkled, and exchange their haggard looks by replacing their outer-self with a more acceptable younger version.

The examination

I like the mini-scene in the centre ground to the left of the pool where we see a man bent forward closely examining a naked woman.  What is that all about?  Is he an official or maybe a doctor who is examining how haggard the woman is to see if she fits the criteria for rejuvenation?  If this is the case, then for once to gain one’s admission to the pool old age and infirmity is requisite bargaining tool!

The Fountain

In many ways this simplistic depiction of the Fountain of Youth is quite amusing.  At the centre of the painting we observe a large square-shaped grey and white pool, at one end of which is the fountain.   The fountain gushes out water it has drawn from the spring below.  On the fountain there are statues of Venus and Cupid which, in some ways, is confirmation that this is more of a Fountain of Love and that maybe it is the power of love which is the rejuvenating factor.   The pool is populated by naked women.  Steps around the four sides of the pool lead down to the healing waters.  To the left of the painting we see elderly women, who have made the long and tiring journey, arriving in carts, on litters, in wheelbarrows or in one case piggy-backed on a man who can just about cope with her weight.  All want to bathe in the rejuvenating water.

Wheeled to the magical waters

The old women then alight from their transport, take off their clothes, examined and are helped into the square-shaped pool, the water of which is being topped up from the Fountain of Youth.   Once partly immersed in the magical waters the naked women begin to splash themselves with the water and frolic about, the cares of the world seemingly lifted from their shoulders.  Now that the women have regained their youthful looks they look at one another amazed by the change that has taken place.  They caress themselves or caress one another, hardly believing what they are seeing and feeling.  They comb their long flowing golden hair.  Their mood is one of triumph.  The power of the waters has worked.

In and out of the robing tent

If we now look to the right hand side of the pool we see that after having been immersed and had been revived by the recuperative powers of the waters, they step out of the pool, rejuvenated and once again young.  From the pool side, these gregarious young virgins are then directed towards a large tent in order to dress and after a short while they emerge as beautiful young ladies wearing the most exquisite clothes.  For them, the world has changed and they go off to dance or dine or find themselves a handsome young man whom they can take off to the seclusion of the bushes to……..

Although this undoubtedly is a humorous painting, I wonder whether Cranach intended to also moralize with his depiction.  On the left Cranach depicts the old women being brought to the waters by ordinary working-class types of people but note how, once rejuvenated and sumptuously dressed, the young women go off with the upper class nobility.  What happened to the poor men who almost carried their women to the pool?  Have they now been abandoned?  Another question the painting raises is why are there no men in the pool being rejuvenated?  Should we believe that in the 16th century it was only the women who sought rejuvenation?  Has nothing changed in the last five centuries?   Is the female current desire for rejuvenation by creams, potions and the surgeon’s knife any different to Cranach’s women immersing themselves in the Fountain of Youth?

One of the things I like about this painting is the number of mini-scenes taking place within the work.  Every time I look at the work, I notice something I had not seen before.  I saw this work of art when I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin some time back, the same museum which houses the Netherländish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, another marvelous painting which is awash with mini scenes.

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 !

Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina

Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina (c.1476)

I think I have mentioned before how I choose an artist or a painting for future blogs.  It is usually following an art exhibition or a visit to a gallery or, as is the case today, the artist is mentioned in passing in a previous blog.   When I was putting together the biography of my last featured artist, Vittore Carpaccio, I mentioned that in his early days he was influenced by the Sicilian artist, Antonello da Messina.  I had never heard of this artist before and curiosity got the better of me and I began to research his life and look at some of his paintings.  His portraiture is some of the best I have ever come across so I thought I would share my “find” with you.

It is thought that Antonello di Giovanni degli Antonii, better known as, Antonello da Messina, was born in Messina, Sicily, around 1430 and is now considered as the most famous artist to have come from this island.  He was one of four children and his father was a local stonemason.  His early life is somewhat sketchy and often contradictory.  A little light can be shed on Antonello’s training from a letter, dated 1524,  in which Pietro Summonte, the Italian Renaissance humanist living in Naples, and who took great pains in collecting and preserving his correspondence on artistic matters with the Venetian nobleman, Marcantonio Michiel.  In it is mentioned that Antonello was the pupil of Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, an artist who had received instruction in the methods of Netherlandish painting whilst serving at the court of King René I of Naples.  This fact alone may go some way to explain the influence of Flemish paintings in Colantonio’s and later, Antonello’s work.  However not all art historian agree about the Flemish style, influence and technique of Colantonio’s works and that, in turn, Antonello was influenced by his Master, Colantonio.   The art historian J.Wright in his 1980 book, Antonello da Messina: The Origins of his Style and Technique, believes that the characteristic of Colantonio’s work is almost entirely French rather than Netherlandish.

So where did Antonello pick up this Netherlandish influence?  It appears debateable whether Antonello ever travelled to the Netherlands but it is known that René I’s time as ruler of Naples came to an abrupt end in late 1442 and the new ruler King Alphonse V of Aragon (King Alfonso I of Naples) came to power and his art collection contained works by the Netherlandish painters, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, which as Colantonio’s assistant, Antonello could well have been familiar with these works whilst working on royal commissions.   Around this time, Antonello completed many religious works, one of which was his painting entitled St Jerome in his Study, and many believe that this work was influenced by Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of St Jerome (1442).  His later Annunciation of Syracuse  in 1474 is thought to have been influenced by the extraordinary Lomellini Triptych by Jan van Eyck.

A gonfalone

In 1457 at the age of twenty-seven whilst in Messina, Antonello married Joan Cumminella and it could well be that his first son, Jacobello, had already been born.  In that same year, it is known that Antonello moved to Reggio Calabria,   on mainland Italy.  It was whilst here that he received a commission to produce a gonfalone for the confraternity of S Michele dei Gerbini in Reggio Calabria.  Gonfalones were a type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed, or with several streamers, and suspended from a crossbar.   In that same year Antonello married.  His wife was Giovanna Cumminella.  Soon after this,  he and his family as well as his brother and sister-in-law moved north and settled in Amantea, a town on the west Calabrian coast.  However three years later in 1460, he returns to Sicily after his father sends a brigantine to transport them all back from Amantea to Messina.  The following year he set up a workshop in Messina and took on his younger brother, Giordano di Giovanni as an apprentice.

In the period from 1465 and 1475, Antonello completed many portraits.  The surviving portraits are all of men.  His portraiture at this time was different in style to the Italian portraiture for he had a great grasp on the structure of a face, not just the bone structure, but the overlying facial muscles and sinews.  With this knowledge he could depict how the movement and portrayal of facial muscles around the eyes and mouth could alter facial expressions.  His portraits were nearly all in three-quarter views and bust length showing head and shoulders but not the arms.  The sitters faced the light which generally fell from left to right illuminating the edge of the right cheek and modelling the nearside (left side) of the face with chiaroscuro, the term for the technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation.  His sitters, like in many Netherlandish portraiture, are dressed unostentatiously in contemporary dress and wear no emblems or jewellery which would detract us from the simplicity of the portrait.  This drabness of clothing, often dark red or black, does not attract our attention and allows us to look directly and steadily into the eyes of the sitter.

Portrait of a Man (known as The Condottiere )

However, it was Antonello’s stay in Venice, from 1475 to 1476, which marked the definitive turning point in his artistic career and in fifteenth-century Italian art history. The encounter between Antonello’s art and the Venetian figurative environment, represented primarily by Giovanni Bellini, created the conditions necessary for his absolute masterpieces, such as Portrait of a Man known as The Condottiere and the Trivulzio Portrait of a Man.   In Venice, Antonello and his works of art were highly acclaimed and he received many commissions.  It is known that Antonello was still in Venice in the March of 1476 completing the S Cassiano Altarpiece commissioned by the church of San Cassiano in Venice.  From Venice there is speculation that he travelled to Milan to carry out a commission for Gian Sforza, Duke of Milan, but whether he did visit Milan it is known that by the end of 1476 he was back in his Sicilian home in Messina.  In his workshop he now had his son, Jacobello d’Antonio and his nephews Antonio and Pietro de Silba as his assistants.

In February 1479 Antonello made his will, and died shortly afterwards at the young age of forty-nine.  He had pre-deceased both of his parents as he made provision for them in the document.   Antonello was an extraordinary painter, one of the greatest of his time.  In his last years his son collaborated with him with Antonello planning the work and Jacobello executing the painting.  On one, Jacobello paid a fitting tribute to his father and signed the painting:

“…the son of Antonello, a painter of no human kind…”

For my featured painting today I give you Virgin Annunciate which Antonello completed whilst in Venice around 1476 and is now housed in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo.  It is probably his most famous work.  The painting is a hauntingly beautiful image of an adolescent Mary at the time the angel Gabriel came to her to tell her that she would bear God’s son.  Look closely at her beauty as depicted in this bust length portrait by Antonello.  She sits before us dressed in a simple blue mantle.  She clasps her blue mantle closed and holds it modestly in front of her chest.  The background is plain and does not distract us from staring at the young woman.   She sits at a reading desk.  Before her, on the desk, is a book of devotions which she has been reading.  We have disturbed her.  She looks up at us.   The angel Gabriel as is the case in most Annunciation scenes, is not present.  It is simply implied.  Her right hand is raised in a blessing gesture to Gabriel but as he is not in the painting, it is as if she is greeting us, the viewer.  It is just her and us.

The face of young beauty

Would you say this is a religious painting?  That seems a silly question to ask as we know the story of the Annunciation is a religious story but although the subject is religious in nature, Antonello has deliberately selected a young, beautiful and humble Sicilian girl for the model of the Blessed Virgin. So was it in Antonello’s mind to simply paint a portrait of a devout young girl.  I suppose the answer lies in who commissioned the work and what they asked the artist to depict.  Whether it is a simple portrait or a religious painting, I challenge you to find another work depicting such an exquisite looking young.