Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. Part 1: 17th century gems.

In my last blog I looked at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and talked about its founder Calouste Gulbenkian. In my next couple of blogs, I want to talk about my favourite paintings I saw in the Founders Collection of the museum. I have to admit when I entered the building and followed the path you had to take it was all about ancient pieces of porcelain, furniture and jewellery – all good, but not what I was interested in, and I was starting to wonder if there were any paintings but I finally came across the rooms where they hung.

View from the Coast of Norway or A Stormy Sea Near the Coast by Jacob van Ruisdael

My first painting I want you to see is one by Jacob van Ruisdael. I have always loved the works by this seventeenth century Dutch painter especially his rural landscape paintings. The one on show at this gallery was a seascape entitled View from the Coast of Norway or sometimes referred to as  A Stormy Sea Near the Coast, which he completed around 1660. It was a painting that Gulbenkian acquired in 1914. I had not realised that Ruisdael had actually completed forty to fifty seascapes. Once again he has adhered to his successful formula of having two-thirds of the work occupied by the threatening sky and by doing so, he has added a palpable melodramatic energy to the work. In the mid-ground we see boats struggling against the force of nature as they are pounded by ferocious seas and bent over by gale-force winds. Oddly shaped rocks, which have been eroded by past storms, lie in wait and we cannot help but wonder about the fate of the boats. Ruisdael’s inclusion of the rocks further adds to the atmospheric ferocity of the depiction.

Dutch Landscape by Jan van der Heyden

Another painting by a seventeenth century Dutch artist which I liked was simply entitled Dutch Landscape, a work by Jan van der Heyden. Van der Heyden, the third of eight children, was born on March 5th 1637 in Gorinchem, a city and municipality in the western Netherlands. His father was by turns an oil mill owner, a grain merchant and a broker. The family moved to Amsterdam in 1646 and van der Heyden’s father acquired local citizenship. Jan van der Heyden himself would never acquire Amsterdam citizenship. Initially his painting genre was still-lifes but later this changed and he became known for his townscapes featuring groups of buildings. . Van der Heyden, although a talented artist, was better known in his own day as an inventor and engineer. One of his most famous accomplishments was that he designed and implemented a complex system of lighting for the streets of Amsterdam, which was utilised from 1669 until 1840 and which was also adopted by other Dutch cities and even used abroad.

Van Heyden would travel extensively in Flanders and Holland as well as the Rhineland towns of Germany close to the Dutch border constantly looking for inspiration for his cityscapes.  In his early seventeenth century work, Dutch Landscape, we see depicted the Dutch town of Zuylen which lies on the banks of the River Vecht, close to the city of Utrecht. One can see in this work, like many of his other cityscapes, that his main interest is not one of nature but on architecture and his painstakingly accurate way in which he depicts the facades of buildings, especially when we look at the Gothic church on the left of the painting. There is nothing flash about this depiction. It is not ablaze with colour. It is a simple yet sober interpretation of everyday life. It is thought that another artist executed the figures in the painting.

Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals

Among Gulbenkian’s seventeenth century paintings on show at the Founder’s Collection there were a number of portraits. I particularly liked Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals. It is an oil on canvas depiction of Sara Andriesdr (daughter of Andries) Hessix who was married to Michael Jansz. Van Middelhoven, a pastor from the city of Voorschoten, near Leiden, and another of Frans Hals’ sitters.

Michiel Jansz van Middelhoven, aged 64 in 1626, by Hals (confiscated during WWII and whereabouts unknown)

Both portraits formed a pair which were completed around 1626 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the couples wedding which took place on 1586. Unfortunately, the portrait of the pastor was confiscated by the Germans during World War II and has never been recovered. Frans Hals methodology regarding the portrait of the woman would be repeated in many of his works.

It is an accurate resemblance of the sixty-year-old woman. She has a serious expression on her face. There has been no attempt by the artist to “beautify” the lady. The way we see her, turned in three-quarters and against a plain dark background, is in the finest Dutch tradition of portraiture.

Portrait of an Old Man by Rembrandt (1645)

Another portrait which caught my eye was one by the Dutch Master, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. It was his 1645 painting entitled Portrait of an Old Man. The portrait which was once owned by Catherine the Great came into the possession of Gulbenkian in 1930. Nobody knows for certain the identity of the sitter although many theories abound. The man is dressed in expensive clothes but this does not necessarily indicate his wealth, occupation or social status as they could well be props belonging to the artist’s studio and simply used as a decorative effect. Rembrandt is known for his penchant for portraits of people in their old age and has appeared as an old man in a number of his self-portraits. It is a beautifully crafted work. Look at the skin texture of the man’s hands as he holds on to his walking cane. It is both a complex and emotional depiction. Rembrandt has concentrated on a palette of browns with the odd flash of gold and the painting is enhanced by the artist’s use of chiaroscuro. The light homes in on the man’s hands and face and in some way elicits a feeling of tragedy – the tragedy of ageing.

Portrait of a Man by Anthony van Dyck (1621)

My final look at the seventeenth century paintings I saw in the Founders Collection in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian was another portrait painting, this time one by Anton van Dyck. The title given to this 1621 work was simply, Portrait of a Man and so like the previous painting we are unaware of the identity of the sitter. But maybe we do, as when it was purchased for Gulbenkian in 1923 at Christies, it had the title Portrait of Anton Triest.

He is mentioned in documents as being the Burgomaster of Ghent and is also referred to as Nicolas, but this theory is contested by many art historians. His social status has been set due to the absence of a sword which would suggest that the sitter in question is a member of the bourgeoisie.  The man sits on a leather chair with Spanish style nail-work which was often used by van Dyck in his early works.

In the next blog I will showcase some of my favourite 18th century paintings which can be discovered in the Founder’s Collection at Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.

The Five Children of Charles I by Sir Anthony van Dyck

The Five Children of Charles I by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1637)

Antoon van Dyck, or as we better know him, Anthony van Dyck, was born in Antwerp in 1599.   He came from a wealthy Flemish family, his father being an affluent silk merchant, and whether it was because of his prosperous upbringing or his inherent artistic talent, even at a young age it was recorded that he was, besides being very gifted, an extremely precocious boy.  He studied art under Hendrick van Balen, the Flemish Baroque painter, who also tutored up and coming artists such as Frans Snyders and Jan and Peter Bruegel the Younger.  He started producing quality works of art at the age of fifteen and three years later was accepted into the Guild of St Luke, the Antwerp painter’s guild as a free master.   At the age of eighteen he became chief assistant to the great Rubens whom he stayed with for three years during which time he continued the output of his own paintings and slowly but surely enhanced his own reputation.  Rubens said on a number of occasions that van Dyck was the most talented artist he had ever trained.

In 1620 he was invited to England to work for the then monarch King James I of England (King James VI of Scotland), who had been told that the young van Dyck was in the employment of the master, Peter Paul Rubens, and that the young man’s talent and works were exceptional and were almost on par with the great master himself.  During his stay in London, van Dyck came across works of Titian which were part of the art collection of the Earl of Arundel, one of the king’s courtiers.  Van Dyck remained in London for six months before returning home.  At the end of 1621 he moved to Italy and stayed there for six years studying the works of the Italian masters whilst visiting many of the Italian art capitals such as Rome and Genoa. It was whilst in Italy that van Dyck developed and perfected his skill as a portraitist.

In 1627 van Dyck once again returned to his birthplace, Antwerp but was only to stay there for one year before accepting an invitation to return to London by the new English monarch, Charles I, who had acceded to the throne two years earlier.   King Charles was one of the greatest art collectors of all the English monarchs amassing an unbelievable collection of works of the great masters, some of which had been purchased and brought to England by his agents with the help of van Dyck,  who also sent the monarch some of his own paintings.  Charles loved art and would invite the artists such as Gentileschi and Rubens to his court where he would commission new works.

In 1632 van Dyck returned to London where he joined the royal court, received a house as well as a country retreat, a monetary retainer and was knighted.  He soon became the favourite painter of King Charles and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria and over the years carried out numerous portraits of the couple and their family and it is around this time, actually 1637, that van Dyck completed today’s featured painting.

My Daily Art Display today is Sir Anthony van Dycks’ painting entitled The Five Eldest Children of Charles I.    When one looks at a painting of a male sitter one often describes it as a handsome and debonair portrayal of a man and if the sitter is a female, one often terms it as a beautiful and attractive portrayal of the lady.  However, the portraits of children and animals can often be termed differently and one of the favourite descriptions is “cute”, and this certainly sums up today’s portrayal of the monarch’s children and their large pet dog.

Queen Henrietta Maria, a catholic, was the youngest daughter of King Henry IV of France and she gave birth to nine children, two of which were stillborn.  At the time of van Dyck’s painting the royal couple had five children, Charles, Mary, James, Elizabeth and Anne.  Today’s painting is hailed as one of the greatest group portraits of all time.  The children are portrayed as children and not as was often the norm, tiny adults.   We have in the centre with his arm resting on the family pet mastiff, Charles who would become King Charles II.   Van Dyck has surprisingly afforded him an unusual air of authority for one so young.  He looks out at us with a thoughtful countenance.  The very large dog sitting calmly by his side adds even more gravitas to the young boy, the future King Charles II.

To his right we see two children standing side on to us.  Their look is somewhat shy and demure as they gaze out at us. The taller of the two on the far left is the six year old Mary, Princess Royal, whilst although looking like her little sister, is in fact her younger brother James who would later become King James II of England.

Elizabeth and Anne

On the opposite side of the painting we see a young girl cradling a baby, with the small spaniel at her feet.  This is the two year old Princess Elizabeth and the baby, who had been born that year, is Princess Anne.   The round, somewhat chubby rosy cheeks of the pair, contrasts well with their linen white caps and the string of pearls around Elizabeth’s neck.  Tragically neither Elizabeth nor Anne lived long.   Elizabeth, after the fall from power of her father during the two Civil Wars, spent her last eight years held as a prisoner of Parliament.  She died of tuberculosis aged 14, a year after her father’s execution.  Her mother always maintained that she had died of a broken heart caused by the untimely death of her father.    Baby Anne died aged 3, and like her sister, the cause of death was tuberculosis.

Above the seated girl we have an exquisite still life behind which we see a far-off landscape which was often a trademark of van Dyck’s portraits.    There is a tranquil elegance about this painting.  The children seem contented, even happy and thus it is sad to realise that twelve years on from the completion of this family portrait, their happy family life would be shattered with the premature death of Elizabeth and the execution for treason of their father, Charles I.

So what do you think of the painting?   The nineteenth-century Scottish portrait painter Sir David Wilkie was in no doubt with regards its quality describing it thus:

 “……the simplicity of inexperience shows them in most engaging contrast with the power of their rank and station, and like the infantas of Velasquez, unite all the demure stateliness of the court, with the perfect artlessness of childhood….”