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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.